Down the rabbit hole and into the vortex

I turned five a month after Jonestown. I vaguely remember newsreel footage from the community before it died, pictures of people with hot looking faces in some sort of meeting hall, palm trees, youngsters dancing. I knew they had taken their own lives with a poisonous fruit drink, but I didn’t give much thought to it. I thought it was somewhere in Africa, and anything can happen in Africa when you’re almost five.

Twenty-eight years later Stanley Nelson’s film Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple was shown on TV in Denmark, where I live. Suddenly vague memories were connected to facts, facts that I, and probably many others, had forgotten or had never known: that many, many people of all ages died that day and that their “mass suicide” weren’t as clear cut as portrayed by the media and our collective memory. The most important realisation for me, however, was that the members of Peoples Temple were people. Some of them were even my age. Together they had accomplished quite a feat in building Jonestown, even if things went terribly wrong along the way.

I had so many questions and a deep desire to understand. I knew I had to know more, to get closer to the story of People Temple and Jonestown. So I turned to the internet. It didn’t yield much. Many of the sites didn’t tell me more than I already knew or had already rejected as superficial and/or sensationalistic treatment of the subject. When I came across this site, I was relieved to find out that I was not the only one who wanted to go beyond the regurgitated press reports.

I quickly found out that the more answers I seemed to find, the more questions arose in their wake. I also needed to discuss my thoughts with people who knew a bit more about Peoples Temple than my friends or family. I accidentally came across the link to the now-defunct Peoples Temple Discussion Forum, which at the time was devoted to tape Q875 (aka “the day after-tape”). It turned out to be exactly what I had been looking for.

I was the first non-American member to join the forum. So far the only problem with that has been the time difference of approximately nine hours, which means that the forum is most active when I should be asleep. Thankfully more Europeans have joined, so on good days the forum is buzzing with activity both day and night. My posts in the forum range from basic, factual questions to more tentative, searching questions where I can bounce my thoughts against its walls, so to speak. Mostly I chip in with whatever springs to mind and share what I have learned so far.

My favourite part of the forum is the Ask a former Peoples Temple member section. I think it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to tap into the knowledge base that is the survivor community and to hear their unique perspectives on the questions we discuss.

Being a European on an essentially American forum has made me wonder if we see things differently because of our different backgrounds. I can’t really answer that with any certainty, but I know that I am not as familiar with American contemporary history as the Americans on the forum are. In addition, Peoples Temple and Jonestown is not something I grew up with. It is not part of any collective Danish memory and not something the media makes reference to. I have never even heard a Kool-Aid joke. I believe this gives me a slightly different framework for interpreting and understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple.

This is probably both and advantage and a disadvantage. It’s an advantage because I don’t instinctively see Peoples Temple through the filters of the social conditions in American society at the time: the American society in the cold war, the American perspective on organized religion, the American way of belonging to a church and so on. Instead, my initial connection to Peoples Temple was very much a human-to-human relation. I wanted to understand not so much the organisation in the wider perspective of the American society, but rather at the level of the people who made up the organisation, the micro cosmos of Peoples Temple, the inner life of the community.

This “naked” view of Peoples Temple is also a disadvantage, though, because one probably cannot come to a proper understanding of Peoples Temple without taking into account the external factors which contributed to or even made the organisation possible. Perhaps the difference between an American and a European perspective is that of starting point: we work our way through the saga of Peoples Temple from different directions, but hopefully we both end up with a comprehensive and balanced understanding. And to achieve that, we both have to be aware of our starting points and our own possible embedded positions – be they emotional or as a part of the society which created Peoples Temple – and strive to go beyond that.

Stanley Nelson’s film turned out to be my rabbit hole, and I must say that everything looks quite different on the other side. What may have started out as black and white has gone past shades of grey. I now see many colours in the many answers and just as many questions. I am now caught in what is sometimes referred to as “the vortex” of Peoples Temple.

I have become co-administrator of the forum and I gain new insights almost daily. I am thankful for that.

(Rikke Wettendorff lives in Denmark. She is also the author of Truly Learning from Jonestown in this edition of the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here.)