Something about my trip to the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland last year on November 18 nagged at me, until I finally figured it out. It reminded me of my trip to Washington DC sometime in the mid-90’s when I saw the AIDS quilt. Like everyone, I knew very well that hundreds of thousands of people in America had died of AIDS, but I couldn’t experience it in any real, tangible way other than numbers in my head or on a sheet of paper. But standing on the steps of the Capitol and looking out towards the Washington Monument, practically as far as you could see, at this massive piece of fabric, finally brought me closer to something real. And then going down, walking among the quilt, able to read the names, actually touch it… One quilt piece was covered with a dozen pairs of tiny shoes. It was something very much alive at that moment. Tactile. Three-dimensional. Unavoidable.
For me, Jonestown has always been something like that since its final day in 1978 when I was five. Always able to read about it, and later, to be able to listen to tapes and to dig deeper. I knew that Peoples Temple was vastly complex, that it wasn’t just a bunch of religious nuts or rubes who had been taken in by the “evil” Jim Jones. I knew that it wasn’t just a single event that happened on November 18, that it branched backwards from there to include entire lives of thousands of people. I knew, too, that there wasn’t a singular, simple way to feel about November 18 and Peoples Temple, that with all of the binding ties and commonalities shared by survivors and family members, the feelings spanned a vast range.
I knew these things in theory, but getting down to Oakland finally made it all a little more real to me. Able to shake hands with survivors, family members, and friends, to talk, to simply watch them smile, or cry, or just to sit or stand there meditatively, thinking and remembering.
I went down there feeling a little bit directionless. I had thought for years about doing a documentary project, focused vaguely on presenting the “real” story of Peoples Temple. The Stanley Nelson film released in 2005 seemed to have (almost) accomplished that purpose. I still felt drawn, though, as if I should “do something.” In my role of documentarian, it has always been this way. An internal muse tell me, “Start recording now,” and rather than question it or try to deconstruct the meaning of it, I just start recording. Record first, ask questions later. The explanation will become apparent at a later time.
I almost didn’t go. I didn’t have any money, didn’t think I could spare the time, and all those other excuses. When I first began studying Peoples Temple, I lived on the east coast, and the idea of coming to Oakland for the annual memorial service was a significant ordeal. But I had just moved to Oregon. Here I was, so close, and it was, after all, the 30th anniversary. So I bought a train ticket to Oakland.
I brought my video camera and a small audio setup, with the vague idea of being able to conduct interviews. I had no idea what the vibe would be like. Would the ceremony be formal, stuffy? Full of tears and heartbreak? Full of laughter, a celebration of life? Would the people there be receptive to chatting, to questions? Would they be quiet, reflective, guarded? I wasn’t even sure what role I wanted to take on. There is a fairly definitive line, for me, between being a documentarian and being an observer/spectator; pulling out the camera or recording device firmly places you in the role of documentarian. I decided that I would just have to get there, look around, and wing it.
On the train from my home in Oregon to Oakland, I read a book by Sue Coe, an artist and animal rights activist. I believe very much in synchronicity, so it made perfect sense when I read: “As social beings, we desire a shared reality. I require witnesses. Reality has to be shared for it to be understood.”
I suppose this summarized my goal, once I got there: to be a witness.
* * * * *
I went to Oakland feeling like an outsider, in the company of two other outsiders. None of us had relatives or friends who’d died, none of us had been to the cemetery before, none of us were from California (one had come all the way from Denmark!).
I have to mention up front that, throughout the day, I felt a frequent “push-pull” feeling, experiencing conflicting ideas, hypocrisies of my own making. This was something that came and went almost all day. Sometimes these dichotomies were brought to light because of things happening around me, but more often than not they related to my own prejudices and experiences.
A first push-pull paradox: The media blitz at the gate. As we came into the cemetery grounds, we saw a line of trucks with their giant antennae jutting into the air, photographers and cameramen. It kind of disgusted me. Not only was it intrusive, as any media would be during a solemn memorial service, but it brought to mind the historically significant rivalry between the media and Peoples Temple. But the paradox was that I was waving around a video camera of my own. Obviously I knew that my intentions were “pure,” but why would it necessarily appear that way to anyone else?
At the same time I felt almost childlike, uninformed. In my mind I had billed myself as a kind of an “indy journalist,” and have even called myself a “Peoples Temple scholar” in the past, but talking to other people, I realized in many ways how little I actually knew about the history of Peoples Temple, how little I’d read, relatively. Even though I felt I had fully passed through the looking glass, I had really only scratched the surface.
And petty, stupid thoughts and observations. I met a prominent journalist, one of the people who had been wounded at the Port Kaituma airstrip and later wrote a definitive book on the subject, and I’m thinking “Boy, he is really tall.” I met a Jonestown survivor, one of the very few people who were actually in Jonestown on November 18, 1978 who made it out alive, and couldn’t help but to notice that he had horrible teeth.
Then moving on, building up, an insane barrage of stream-of-consciousness. This Jonestown survivor with the bad teeth: Peoples Temple was his family. This was a guy who pretty much came off the streets from a life of crime, when he joined Peoples Temple. Where did he go after November 18? Who took care of him after that? Who did he befriend and love, who befriended him and loved him? How had he dealt with all of this for the last 30 years? This was a hard-hitting revelation to me, to imagine the sense of confusion, of loss. And what about the other Temple members who weren’t actually in Jonestown on that day? And the ones who had already left the Temple? And their friends and family back “home”? And the friends of those friends and family?
This suddenly gave me a deep sense of unbelonging. There was no way that I would ever be able to really understand, to grasp all this, and especially to actually make judgments of any sort. What was I really doing here? Was I just an outsider, a tourist?
It was a hot day and I was overdressed. I kept getting very thirsty, and going to a nearby refreshment tent to fill up a cup from a large thermos. Even this made me feel vaguely guilty. Imagine how thirsty they must have been in the early 70’s when they were clearing out the Guyanese jungle, for crying out loud! Or sitting in the pavilion for hours and hours during a White Night.
The memorial service itself wasn’t what I expected. I had envisioned some sort of “committee,” made up of various survivors or family members, putting together an uplifting homage to the lives and the legacy of the members of Peoples Temple. Led by a woman who lost more than 30 family members in Jonestown – and who has been back to this site every year for 30 years – the ceremony took place right in front of the area surrounding the marker for the mass grave, covered by a large tent. It was highly religious, almost evangelical, and varied between uplifting and – I regret to say – almost mean-spirited. There was a lot of venom spilled on Jim Jones that sometimes seemed over the top at times, and unnecessarily so. For example, the hymn “Lord, I Want to be a Christian in My Heart” morphed into “Lord, I Don’t Want to Be Like Jim Jones in My Heart.” Interestingly, most of the people inside the tent near the grave were from the pastor’s church in LA, while the Peoples Temple members mingled more casually around the grounds. It was almost as if there were two separate events going on: a religious memorial service going on inside the tent, and a quiet, informal reunion going on outside.
I’m not a religious person, so I recognized that I needed to be extra open-minded. And how could I ever hope to be able to identify with the grief and suffering of someone who lost more than 30 members of their family in one day. Still, it was hard for me to separate my own expectations from what I was actually experiencing. For the duration of the ceremony, I wandered around the grounds, occasionally walking up to people and talking to them. I had realized as soon as we arrived that trying to conduct interviews or anything so direct as that just wasn’t going to be appropriate, so I tended to stick to the role of “observer.” At the same time, I knew that I had to document whatever I could. And it was a beautiful place, a beautiful day.
With all of the demonization that Peoples Temple has endured ever since November 18, 1978, it’s almost easy to forget that every person in Jonestown had a story of their own and was different from everyone else there, in their own way. There was such a wide variety of people there, with vastly varying histories and experiences. Even their experiences in Jonestown and their subsequent outlook is a rich tapestry. There has never really been a definitive consensus on what life was like in Jonestown, because it depends on who you ask. So here, at the memorial service, everyone was taking it all in, in their own way. Some were intimately involved in the service, speaking or singing. Others reunited elsewhere on the grounds, embracing, talking quietly. Some were really laughing it up, recounting hilarious stories and old good times the way we all do at reunions. Others sat in the grass, solitary, quietly, and reflectively.
Everyone I talked to had something amazing to say. Everyone was generally polite, though some were more open than others, and a few even seemed distrustful. One survivor shared a detailed account of his flight from Jonestown on November 18. I was actually surprised how open he was, how willing to share such an intimate and traumatic experience with complete strangers. Another survivor seemed generally uninterested in talking with me, and a few times, whenever I asked him about Jonestown, he’d just say something like: “Just run for the hills and don’t look back, that’s what I say.” He eventually requested that I leave him alone altogether.
The memorial ended with an unveiling of a commemorative plaque, a large marker made of dark granite, with the names of the dead engraved in white. This would be the first of eight panels that will eventually list all of the 917 who died in Guyana, excluding Jim Jones. The various congregations of old friends that had previously been scattered throughout the grounds consolidated and gathered around. The unveiling was clearly a touching experience for everyone there. Many filed by to touch names on the stone and leave behind a red rose, which created a striking image. And over at the gravesite, now enveloped in solitude, a woman approached with a single, white flower, and knelt at the base of the stone.
* * * * *
After the memorial service, many people – the Temple survivors, family, and friends – left to attend a party hosted by a Temple survivor. Any general weirdness that lingered from the memorial service completely dissolved away once we had walked in. The hostess was kind and warm, the house filled with musical instruments, and there were cats everywhere! In a stark contrast to what had gone before, everyone was here to talk and eat.
There’s really no more simple way to describe it than that: talking and eating. And laughing, lots of laughing. The party spread throughout several rooms, with massive amounts of food in the kitchen, on one side of the house, and in a smaller kind of foyer on the other end. People came and went from room to room, conversations began and shifted, little social groups gathered and dispersed into one another, as things do at get-togethers. The foyer at the front of the house became my “home base,” and I found myself talking at length to two men. One was the husband of a survivor, who had met and married her several years after the final days of Jonestown. Another was a musician who had been college buddies with an inner circle member of the Peoples Temple leadership, and one of the last to die in Jonestown on November 18. Both of them a breed of outsiders, in their own way. We talked very little about Peoples Temple and more about our own lives, and what we thought of the world.
As I pondered things, I began to think about the reasons that had gotten me interested in Jonestown and Peoples Temple in the first place. It was really all about how the world had been subjected to a very narrow view of what Peoples Temple was all about; a view that focused primarily on November 18, 1978, on “drinking the Kool-Aid,” that allowed for only a one-dimensional look at all the people involved, invoking a pale image of some sort of clones, reciting predictable rhetoric in unison. But instead, there were doctors and high-school dropouts and lovers and haters and shitheads and saints, and wherever they had come from, there they were, down there in the jungles of Guyana.
Were these two men I was talking to, laying it down, saying real things, trying to get to the roots… were they really outsiders here? Was I really an outsider here? We came from so many times and places, me and these men and everyone else here… but there we were. It occurred to me that, yes, we all do belong here, because we are all human. Peoples Temple and all of the events surrounding it is an extraordinary story about the human condition.
I like to think that this is one of the most powerful legacies of Peoples Temple: that on earth, nobody is really an outsider.
(Norman Scott is an artist, audio engineer, and inventor living in Queens, NY. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).