In the nearly 30 years since the tragedy of Jonestown, I have been fully engaged in a serious attempt to understand what happened in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. I have done my best to identify what were the lessons to be learned, not only for myself personally, but also (hopefully) the lessons that may be universal in nature and application. I have done my best to face the extent of my responsibility in that tragedy, such as it is. In truth, there is no one left alive who was directly connected with that tragedy that does not bear some responsibility, who does not carry some burden and weight for its manifestation, to whatever degree that may be.
It has not been an easy journey. In the thirtieth year after this tragedy, my perceptions and viewpoints are still changing, are still being refined and articulated. I am fully aware that this essay may be nothing more than a snapshot of my understanding as it exists on this day, nearly thirty years later.
I am still discovering the questions to ask, let alone being successful in finding all the answers. Every time I think I have a manageable framework from which to consider my questions, I discover some new information that completely reframes the questions themselves.
In the process of helping playwrights, authors, film makers, and reporters to create these new artistic endeavors, many former Peoples Temple members opened up to tell their personal stories for the first time. The stories are poignant, healing, and – far too often – deeply disturbing. Through these stories I have gained much new insight and information. The more I have learned, the more I realize how little I truly know.
Some of the new information has come from reading the FOIA files made available through McGehee and Moore vs. FBI. I have spent several months in 2008 perusing nearly 40,000 pages of this material. These documents represent the largest collection of primary source documents that exists in the public arena, though the FBI admits in the documents released that they recovered “hundreds of thousands of pages” of material from Jonestown (Ergo, there are still tens of thousands of pages still classified).
Among the things I’ve discovered that have forced me to re-frame my perceptions:
* A “white paper” of sorts written to Jim Jones around May of 1978 discussing what would be done with those in Jonestown who did not want to die, and how they would be taken care of.
*A memo from the Temple’s doctor asking for Jim Jones’ permission to test cyanide on Jonestown’s pigs, as a pig’s metabolism was the closest to a human’s that he could test on in Jonestown. This memo was also written around May of 1978.
*That all pharmaceuticals recovered in Jonestown were consistent with a population of nine hundred people, with one notable exception: the amount of psychotropic drugs recovered far exceeded what a normal population of nine hundred would require.
As I read these files, old wounds were opened, and new indignation welled up inside of me as more of the story – my story, and the story of all survivors – was revealed.
* * *
The issue I have struggled with most is the question of “murder vs. suicide.” My personal experience in Jonestown on that horrible day told me that we were being murdered. That is what it felt like. I readily admit there are survivors whom I both respect and admire who disagree with me, advocating a position of mass suicide. So be it. I am not able to reach that conclusion, based on what I saw, heard, and – more importantly – have continued to learn since the carnage began.
The truth is that the words “mass suicide” and “mass murder” both lack depth and veracity.
Whether one asserts mass suicide or mass murder, one thing that cannot be argued is that what occurred in Jonestown was – at the least – a tragedy of enormous proportion, the carnage obscene and absolute. It left the hundreds of survivors with their lives totally disintegrated and, in an appalling number of cases, their entire families dead. Moreover, Jonestown left thousands of others not directly involved in Peoples Temple in agony and despair with the loss of loved ones. No matter what any one individual may have believed or asserted with regards to the cause of the deaths themselves, the inescapable effect was pain.
* * *
Until the recent past, the story itself eroded into a distant and unpleasant aberrant memory in the public’s collective consciousness. Why do I assert that? In 1980 the Associated Press voted Jonestown tragedy as one of the ten biggest stories of the century. In the year 2000, Jonestown didn’t make a single list of top one hundred stories for the century. So what if nine hundred plus “whacko cultists” committed “suicide?” The story faded into the recesses of those who were alive at the time, too uncomfortable to look at.
However, for whatever reasons, that seems to have changed. There has been more dialogue around Peoples Temple in the past three years than there had been in the previous 27. Award-winning stage plays, television documentaries, two movies, and numerous other projects have been presented to the American public. The thirtieth memorial will bring a slew of new documentaries, articles, republication of books, and publication of new interpretations.
Why is this important?
I believe there are important lessons that can be learned from the tragedy in Jonestown, lessons that strike to the core of humankind’s search for living fulfilled and prosperous lives, to the psycho-social dynamics of group identity and inclusion, and to the search for spiritual truth.
I do not say this blindly or imperiously. The reason that over one thousand Americans – embracing all socio-economic groups – chose to leave the United States and live communally in an agrarian cooperative was their discontent with the status quo. We were teachers, nurses, nurses’ aides, law officers, lawyers, laborers, professors, probation officers, carpenters, plumbers, artists, electricians, business people, caregivers, bus drivers, secretaries, counselors, students, and parents. To simply dismiss the entire population of Peoples Temple members as “mindless sheep” is fatuous. The very core of the dynamic that was Peoples Temple is that we were common folk, that we were the faces of America.
No matter Jones’ charisma, what visitors and dignitaries and politicians were most impressed with, and moved by, were the people. That is not simply my opinion, that is a fact.
What made the people in the Temple different that – not better than – the average person was our commitment to the belief that – together – we could make a difference in eliminating the polymorphous and odious specters of elitism: racism, sexism, and ageism. We took that belief and committed our lives to working toward that goal. In short, we did our best to “walk the talk,” not simply “talk the walk,” as was far too often the case in the social and cultural milieu of the Vietnam war/civil rights generation.
So, where did it go wrong? How did I not see more clearly? I can only speak for myself, although I strongly suspect that my realizations and insights may have much in common with many other Temple survivors.
At the root of much of what I tolerated – the bizarre, forced “suicide” rituals, the beyond-the-pale discipline, the manipulations and machinations – was the belief that “The ends justify the means.” This was a fundamental principle in Peoples Temple.
Our end was a society free from elitism. I didn’t expect to create an utopian “heaven on earth” in the jungle of Guyana. I did expect to build a community that allowed my children – and my children’s children – to grow up in a more peaceful, humane, and caring society that eventually might become an “Utopia.” If I didn’t agree with some of what I saw, heard, and felt, so what? Didn’t the ends justify the means?
Of course, the belief that “the ends justify means” is both fallacious and dangerous: fallacious, because if the means aren’t consistent with the principles of the end, then what is achieved in the end is a lie; and dangerous, because the tenet itself offers built-in justification for any outrageous or amoral behavior. Rationalizations and justifications allowed me to accept behaviors that should have rightfully been viewed as blatant and conspicuous red flags for re-examination of the process in which I was immersed.
But members of Peoples Temple are not the only people who turned a blind eye to manifest inconsistency and incongruousness. How many millions have been tortured and slaughtered in the name of “God”? History, both ancient and contemporary, is rife with examples of the basic tenets of belief being selectively ignored in pursuit of some “greater good.”
Too, the dynamic of a “group mind” is also found in contemporary American society. When the U.S. PATRIOT Act was first passed, any dissent was quickly labeled as treasonous and – by definition – unpatriotic. This bullying exactly mirrored the Temple’s techniques for keeping people “in line.”
People wonder how those in the Temple could have been so blind, so ignorant, so brainwashed as to surrender their freedom in the face of such contradiction and incongruity. They correctly point out that it is impossible to preach freedom yet live in a closed society. They admonish that Temple members should have known they were being duped, and should have been more aware as their liberty was being taken away. Yet many are blind to the striking and disturbing contemporary political correlation to this exact phenomenon by many Americans.
In 2007 habeas corpus act was suspended by the American government. It was eliminated in the name of freedom, democracy, and national security. Barely was there a murmur from American society. This acquiescence to what is patently hypocritical is no different than the acquiescence to “group think” that existed in Peoples Temple.
Too, Peoples Temple was filled with contradictions, ironies, and paradoxes. For example, despite the reality that Peoples Temple was a highly egalitarian society, that conscious aspiration included all but one person, Jim Jones himself. Whereas all Temple members were “accountable” to the collective, including Marceline Jones and the sons and daughters of Jim Jones, Jim Jones was not. His actions and instruction were minded almost without question, and when inconsistency of purpose was evident, I turned a blind eye because he was the leader.
* * *
Many have asked me since Jonestown what is the most important thing I have learned from that experience. Thankfully, that is one answer that is easily answered.
When I joined Peoples Temple, I was looking for a teacher, a guru, a spiritual “master” that could help lead me to attain spiritual fulfillment and actualization. I made the grievous error of seeking without only that which can be found within. “The kingdom of heaven is within,” reads the Christian scripture, but the truth is, this tenet exists in almost all religious traditions.
The first spiritual book I read after returning from Jonestown was The Impersonal Life by Joseph S. Benner. This book, along with Siddhartha and Autobiography of a Yogi, were signposts in my pre-Peoples Temple life. It was because of my interest in the book The Impersonal Life some six years earlier that I first learned of Jim Jones (though it must be said that the book itself had no relevance whatsoever inside the Temple – it was simply part of my path). After returning from Guyana, I discovered my Dad still had my old copy. I decided to just open the book and read whatever page I opened it to. And this is what I read:
You, in your desire to serve Me, may have found in some teacher or leader a personality whom you think…(contained) Me in his heart.
…Until finally, in sorrow and humiliation from the disillusionment which eventually and inevitably follows, you once more are thrown back upon yourself, upon the Teacher within, upon Me, your own True Self.
Yes, all the deception, all the discipline, all the taking of your ardor and devotion – not to speak of your money and services – to what you believed to be My Work…. feeding each of you with just enough subtle flattery and promises of spiritual advancement, together with clever sophistry under the guise of high and beautiful sounding spiritual teaching, to keep you bound to them so you would continue to support and honor and glorify them…..
The impact of these words was immediate, and profound. I had, in essence, broken the very first, and most important, of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord thy God, and thou shalt not have any gods before me.” To those who are not religious or spiritual in nature, this lesson is imponderable and most likely irrelevant. But to those who seek or who have ever sought answers to the deeper questions of life, the lesson should be luminously clear.
I can now look back on my six years in Peoples Temple and see much more my own myopia, as well as the myopia of others, both inside and “out” of Peoples Temple. (I wish it were as simple as my own ignorance, but that is not the case. Once again, I equivocate because I am still learning.) There were thousands who were enamored of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. Temple members had a parade of establishment politicians, dignitaries, and socially relevant individuals who confirmed through their support of Peoples Temple that what we were struggling to accomplish was being received with support, admiration, and appreciation. If I had only other Temple members to confirm my participation in the Temple, I may have chosen to leave before the tragic end. But the combination of my own feelings, the reflection of those feelings in other Peoples Temple members, and the support from the general public, combined for a heady, yet toxic, potion of influence and reinforcement.
* * *
One thing has become more and more evident to me over the past few years, and fully crystallized in the last few months: I am ready to put Jonestown behind me. As of this writing, I do not see myself participating in any more public forums or discussions of any kind, save for the ones that have already been filmed or written or that I have committed to.
I have no taste nor desire to expend any more energy on the heartbreak, contradictions, and frustrations that accompany this story. Thirty years is long enough. No matter how many questions are answered, more questions will be discovered. No matter how much I recoil at the glibness of the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” it will continue to be used. In fact, I found it used recently as a simile for exterminating insects.
Anger has been replaced by acceptance, blame and shame have been replaced by forgiveness, and the dark of Jonestown’s legacy has given over to the dawn of a new day. God bless you, Gloria, Malcolm, Terry, Chae-Ok, Kaywana, Lew, and Jocelyn. I miss you. I love you. And I am at peace knowing that nothing is lost in God.
(Jonestown survivor Tim Carter is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His previous stories may be found here.)