As a defector/survivor of Peoples Temple, a bit of whose testimony is used in Stanley Nelson’s film about what led up to the tragedy of November 18, 1978, I want to recommend Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. It recapitulates in 90 minutes what nothing else in an audiovisual medium has captured, and brought the experience back to life for me in all its bittersweet, insufferable promise.
However, I do want to offer a few corrections/provisos. Jim Jones may have sold monkeys back in Indiana door-to-door, but once he arrived in Ukiah, he found two jobs, one as a full-time sixth-grade teacher — requiring a 50-mile commute over a range of mountains — and the other as an adult-school instructor of US history and government. His wife worked full-time for the state as an inspector of hospitals and nursing home facilities. Neither of them took a penny from the church for many years, not until the process of communalization, a painfully slow one, was well under way.
As to “CIA-related theories,” which the filmmaker dismisses, it’s not a matter of conjecture that the CIA was actively collecting intelligence about Peoples Temple and Jonestown. It’s a matter of demonstrable fact to which I, for one, can testify, if necessary, in court. What is debatable is the degree of the involvement of the CIA and other US intelligence agencies in covert operations that might have played a criminal role in helping to bring about the final solution at Jonestown.
Then, of course, there are related questions about the mirror role of the KGB actively vetting Jones and our militants for a proposed exodus to the Soviet Union, which would have provided quite a propaganda coup for the other side in the cold war. It’s perhaps not the role of a documentary such as this, prepared for the family audience of PBS, to confront the power of the corporate state. But the raw emotional immediacy of Nelson’s film, nonetheless, invites viewers to question the received wisdom for themselves. For this alone I’m amazed and grateful.
(This article is adapted from its original publication as a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian [Volume 40, Issue 31, May 3 – May 9, 2006], and is reprinted with the permission of the writer. Garrett Lambrev is a former member of Peoples Temple. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report is here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)