Unlike those who were directly involved with Peoples Temple or their loved ones and friends, my view of Jonestown and its impact on my life is that of an outsider. For many of the intervening years – like everyone else in America and the world at large – my thoughts and views were formed primarily by what I had been fed by the media. Oddly, I was more afraid and bewildered about what I thought was the Jonestown experience, the more I depended on the media for “information” about it. The older and more curious I got – and the closer I became to the community of people in Jonestown – the more my nightmares and misconceptions were abated.
Jonestown happened when I was 12 years old, an impressionable when I’d just begun to understand that not all was “right” with the world. On the heels of a near tragic personal event fourteen months earlier, I was willing to accept the idea of man’s unkindness to our fellow man.
Aside from the occasional blurb about Jonestown in the news and the 1980 television movie starring Powers Boothe, my knowledge of and curiosity about it was limited to the media’s version of what happened in South America. One thing that differentiated my family from those, say, of my friends was that one of my cousins had been drawn into a “church” seemingly of the same caliber as Peoples Temple as I believed it to be. Because I had listened to all the warnings about cult activity and how insidious it could be, I’d been sufficiently scared of those trying to recruit me. I was falsely proud of myself for not being drawn into a similar group. The other difference was the loose affiliation my mother had with Rep. Leo Ryan from her years of working on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. during that time.
I was re-introduced to Jonestown in high school, when I wrote a report on Jim Jones for a psychology course. As I went about gathering any available sort of information on my subject, I became engrossed in the reading material and my natural curiosity took over. The more I read, the more I needed to know about this character and mostly those who followed him.
My interest took hold of my imagination and my dreams. Often times I awoke having believed I’d been in Jonestown and seen the carnage first-hand. I’d be afraid and unable to go back to sleep. I just could not fathom what it must have been like to actually experience some of the things I’d read about. I was developing a genuine concern about the people who’d had to endure this sort of existence. Even though I didn’t get a noteworthy grade on my report for school, a seed had been planted in my heart and psyche about Peoples Temple that far outweighed what my teacher could give me. What had happened, of course, was that the carefully constructed “wall of confusion” about “Jonestown” was beginning to crumble, much like the image of the world Jim Jones had constructed for the people of Jonestown.
I was again confronted with the subject of Jonestown in my early 20’s, when I began training for the job which became my vocation. I came across a copy of The Assassination of Representative Leo Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana Tragedy, a 782-page report released in 1979 by the House Committee of Foreign Affairs. Ten years later, the copy in the House Library where I was the assistant librarian was rarely requested. I took it home and read it for myself.
With the same intensity as I had in high school, I immersed myself in all things Jonestown. Because I benefited from an exclusive accessibility in an unlimited capacity to the Library of Congress, I could – and did – order a veritable mountain of books, articles, and biographies dedicated to the subject. I began reading and unknown to me, my reeducation. Some of the points I had previously read were directly in conflict with my long-held beliefs about what had gone on in Guyana, adding to what was becoming a near obsession with me. Not only had my interest been piqued, the research I did raised more questions for me than it answered. What I thought I knew of the subject was not totally accurate, and the media’s image, so fixed in my brain, began to crack and break.
Gone was my notion that these people had blindly sealed their own dooms. I found that the misconceptions and outright lies about Jonestown, had the capacity to anger me. Whose benefit would such stories serve? What drives the media and whatever powers that be to wrap this story up, sensationalize it for public consumption, feed it to a waiting public, then chuck it into a landfill?
Research lead me to find this website. After I had explored it and started to feel more comfortable doing so, I made some connections via email to a few survivors and have made some lifelong friendships. In effort to not add more salt to the already gaping wounds, my original approach was rather timid as I tried to make myself known to those whom I’d studied for so many years. I found that all of the people were gracious in accepting not only my late condolences but aching to tell their own truths. As I suspected somewhere deep in my heart but couldn’t articulate, they were very much like myself. I’ve found some to be quirky, some to be funny, some to be bookish, some to be just as multi-faceted as myself. Not surprisingly, since I’ve made these connections, I have not had one nightmare. The de-mystification of the entire community of Peoples Temple has been both a panacea and blessing for me as those relationships have and continue to flourish.
I had come to understand with maturity and serious research that finding one definitive answer to the “why” of Jonestown was and remains an impossibility. Yes, the actual events initially will shake our foundations but this, as with all events involving human beings, deserved the proper cooling off period before it could be explained to some measure of satisfaction. Sadly, because few of its participants remain and the media’s rush to capitalize on and sensationalize this “event” there will never be any one satisfactory explanation for it all. Few things in life are ever that simple. Any organization with as many members involved with it as Peoples Temple has varying complexities. There were, for example, members who were more committed than others, with varying degrees of dedication to the cause, despite the efforts of Jim Jones to demand unquestioning allegiance. There were defections, and a myriad of reasons for those defections.
The immediate horror of Jonestown – and the media capitalization on the event rather than the people – did not lend any honor to the many souls lost that day. I hope that with the passage of time and in the fullness of our own patience, we can begin to understand. In my own life, that understanding has brought about the elimination of nightmares. As my grandmother told me simply but very poignantly when I was a child, “Things take time.”