The first time I heard about Jonestown was after a long working day in February. I came home late and was looking for some simple entertainment on TV so that I wouldn’t have to think about the job all the time. I switched between dozens of channels, but when I heard a lady talking about drinking Kool Aid at a church on New Years Eve and that the pastor told her afterwards they had just taken poison. I was absolutely awake again. The “poisoning” turned out to be just a test, I learned a moment later, and the man who did it was Jim Jones, and he had his own church called Peoples Temple. I was watching Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The life and death of Peoples Temple, and I could not believe what I was seeing. Why did something that started off so promising – a church where white and black people came together – turn into a community where one leader does everything to control his people. At that time I did not even know anything about the murders.
The documentary continued with the church’s development in San Francisco, the establishment of Jonestown in Guyana and the movement to this settlement in the jungle. But when the movie showed the last days of Jonestown – Congressman Ryan’s visit and the horrible murder – I was absolutely shocked. The survivors’ memories put tears in my eyes. I was even a bit ashamed that I did not know about Jonestown before.
I thought it is my lack of education that I had never heard about all these incidents, but when I told my colleagues, they didn’t know about the massacre of Jonestown either. No one had seen Stanley Nelson’s documentary, no one knew who Jim Jones was, and no one knew that 30 years ago, more than 900 people died because of a poison they drank.
I was born in the 1980s in Europe, removed both in time and space from the events in Jonestown. I learned that Jonestown was almost a blank point in my generation’s historic knowledge. Still, I have no idea why this tragic incident is not known by most Germans in my generation. It is not because we do not care about Americans. I have often been reminded that the Germans and their culture are closer to the Americans than to some in Europe. They follow news and developments in the USA very closely and with great interest. I concluded that Jonestown is not known by my contemporaries because recent history (60s, 70s, 80s) outside of Europe is just not covered well in school. Even German history in the 60s and 70s is only slowly getting more in the focus of younger people (for example, the actions of the leftist terror group Rote Armee Fraktion, the Red Army Faction).
I work as a journalist for a monthly magazine that covers stories for readers aged 18 to 35 – my generation – and I always try to find the way that a story can connect to the age of our readers. My chief-editors found the story very interesting and gave me permission to start working on it. Our approach to catch our readers’ interest in Jonestown was to enlist the help both of a survivor who was our readers’ age 30 years ago, and someone from the Jones family who is now the age of our readers, and ask them to visit the ruins of Jonestown with me. We thought about Rob Jones – Jim Jones’ grandson, and now a second year basketball player at the University of San Diego. We also found Dawn Gardfrey, who survived the massacre and who agreed to travel with us. I was happy that the story seemed to be underway, but just when I was about to contact Rob Jones, my chief-editors told me that the story was too expensive. So I had to cancel everything.
That was a very sad situation because I am sure that the Jonestown story is almost unknown in Germany. The tragic incidents have to be told, especially to make younger people aware that something like that will never happen again. I hope I will get a second chance to tell this story to our readers.
(Johannes Scharnbeck, 25, writes for NEON magazine in Germany.)