I was born 18 months after the Jonestown Massacre. I grew up using the phrase “drinking the KoolAid” but had no idea what that truly meant until a few months ago. My boyfriend and I were flipping channels on a Friday night when we stopped on some beautiful gospel singing. As it turned out, we had found the PBS American Experience documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple. I watched the rest of the documentary, at once mesmerized and horrified. Listening to the stories from the survivors, seeing the pictures of Jonestown, hearing Jim Jones’ voice – the reality of this tragedy hit me with full force.
I began researching Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and every detail I could find of what actually happened in Guyana. As I learned the facts of history, I craved the subjective memory of experience. I looked to memoirs published by members of the Temple and sought newspaper and magazine articles that included interviews with survivors and Concerned Relatives. Soon I had more questions than I could possibly have answers.
What was it about Jim Jones that made people follow him?
How did Temple members back in California feel when they learned of the tragedy?
How does a former member enter “secular” life after the tragedy?
How could this have happened?
These questions, along with my own reactions to the story of Peoples Temple, have inspired me to start work on a theatre piece. It will not be merely a theatre piece about the Temple, Jim Jones, or Jonestown. I feel compelled to examine the betrayal of hope.
Jim Jones promised amazing things to his followers – equality, an end to racism, prosperity, land of one’s own – promises many of us would love to believe. But the reality was that the Promised Land was a hard-soiled work camp with little of the foretold pleasures and niceties. Little sleep in hard conditions and long nights spent practicing for death does not sound like utopia. Despite – or perhaps because of – the betrayal of hope, they form lines one day in November 1978 to drink a bitter concoction. Where does that loyalty live in the human body? Or does it live in the spirit? And what are the rest of us supposed to do with the sadness and the enormity of the consequences?
The journey I look to examine is a believer’s journey. As Debby Layton says at the beginning of the PBS documentary, “no one joins a cult.” Some people just need something to believe.
(Meghann Williams lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)