On and off for the past few years, I have transcribed a number of Peoples Temple tapes recovered by the FBI in Jonestown. I have listened to sermons from Indiana and Ukiah, Philadelphia bus tours and San Francisco healing services. I have transcribed town hall meetings in Jonestown and harangues by Jim Jones. I have listened to people being humiliated and beaten. And I have heard more laughter than I would have ever guessed.
The tapes are an invaluable primary source record of the workings of Peoples Temple. They need to be transcribed and maintained on the internet so that future researchers can use them to continue to unwrap the mysteries that surround the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown.
Because of the sound quality of some of the tapes, numerous voices speaking simultaneously, and other factors that obscure the voices on the recordings, different transcribers can hear different things. Usually these mistakes are not worth writing about as they don’t often change the underlining meaning of the person speaking. This is true, even in the “death tape” made on the last day of Jonestown. At one point, for example, Jim McElvane tells Christine Miller that Jim Jones extended her life to that day. Most transcripts – including others on this website – quote Christine as replying, “I well know that.” I think the transcripts are wrong – I think she says instead, “I’ll handle that” – but this minor discrepancy would not warrant an attempt to correct the record.
However another quote from Christine is a much different matter. Not only is the quote usually transcribed incorrectly, the result is the exact opposite of what Christine Miller said. During the final preparation for the White Night, Jim Jones asks the audience for any dissenting opinions. Christine Miller is famous for standing and arguing against death. She says that too few defectors left for everyone to die. They have come too far to destroy everything they had worked so hard to create and maintain, she says. It wasn’t enough to just give it all up. She speaks for the future of the children and her right to determine her own future, and contends that everyone else had a right to determine theirs.
Christine had been a member of Peoples Temple long enough to deftly navigate the political waters of polite dissension. She knew that some would counter that she was just afraid to die. So she prefaces one of her statements with the line, “It’s not that I am afraid to die.”
Well, that is what I hear her say anyway. Other transcribers have recorded, “I said I am not ready to die.”
Being willing to die, but not wanting to die. This is much more than just a subtle difference. It’s an important strength of her argument. Christine is saying that she was not afraid to die, that her opposition was not rooted in a fear of personally dying, but rather a desire to live. A desire to see the community and the children live. She would participate in revolutionary suicide, she says, but not over this issue.
It seems to me that such a discrepancy is worth pointing out an offering as an alternative transcription. As more and more technical improvements with audio and digital technology are developed, someday the tape might become clearer in the future. The least we can do is record that there is some discrepancy in the record, that there is some question as to what Christine said.
In the meantime, I thought it was important to put on record that Christine Miller made a valiant effort to stand up and stop the White Night, that – contrary to what other transcribers hear – I hear her arguing not for her life but for the lives of the others in the community. She fearlessly faced hostile residents as she held the floor trying to convince the community not to go through with the White Night. I feel obligated to attempt to rectify the record and let people know: Christine Miller told me she wasn’t afraid to die.
What does Christine Miller say to you? Order the tape through this website and listen for yourself. Better yet, join the transcribing team, as we continue to document the historical record of Peoples Temple and Jonestown.
(Michael Bellefountaine was a frequent contributor to the jonestown report before his death in May 2007. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here.)