It was the summer of 2003. I was a history major taking summer courses at the University of Oregon, and like the bad student I was, I spent a lot of time skipping class and wandering around campus. One of my favorite hiding places was the book labyrinth called the Knight Library. It was at the library that my interest in Peoples Temple re-emerged. Since I was a teenager, I had a very real interest in the story of Jim Jones and Jonestown. Like many, I had never bothered to dig deeper into the standard account passed down over the years. I’m talking of course about the “brainwashed crazies kill themselves at the command of their crazy cult leader” storyline that has dominated the world view since 1978.
At the library I came across a book on Peoples Temple, one I had not seen before. As I read it, I found myself asking questions that had no immediate answer. The historian in me began to take over, and I decided to be proactive about getting some answers. I stumbled upon this website during an internet search, and emailed Fielding McGehee with some questions. Those initial emails turned into phone conversations, and those phone conversations turned into real discussions. What resulted was my introduction to a new perspective on the history of Peoples Temple and the Jonestown tragedy.
In the three years since my quest for more information began, I have dedicated more time, energy, and effort to the pursuit of knowledge about PT than I ever have spent on even the biggest college related project. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the 2003-2004 school year except that my body was sometimes in class, but my mind was always on PT. I truly existed within a “Jonestown vortex” for a while. But the three years have gone by and I am still here, still struggling to grasp it all. My perspective has changed and now I see the human side of Peoples Temple. However, that hasn’t made the story of PT easier to comprehend. In fact it has made it all the harder. After spending a considerable amount of time studying and examining PT/Jonestown and myself, I have come to a place where I can make the connection, where I can face the reality of Jonestown, where I can embrace the human side of PT. In other words, I get it. And that’s where things get hard.
It is easy for most people to swallow the traditional story of PT/Jonestown because that way, they can more easily distance themselves from the humanity, the reality of it all. Most people cannot compute the very realness of 900+ deaths because they cannot relate to “those crazy cultists.” They see one side and they go with it because it’s simple to understand and they don’t have to think about it.
Well, I’ve thought about it… too much. There are some mornings and some nights where I lay awake for hours thinking, “My God…”, and I can’t shake the vision of those terrible aerial photographs of Jonestown. There are days when I wish I never knew anything about PT/JTown, when I want to quit all this and move on. I get angry, sad, frustrated, and I just want it all to go away.
Then the reality check happens. I understand that what I feel is nothing like what the surviving community feels. I’m just some dummy with a computer and too much free time. And if I’ve come to this place where it hurts to think about the reality of Jonestown, what of those people with the real connection to it all? It literally makes my head spin. Think about it … 900+ people … gone. People who loved and who were loved. People who ate together, slept together, worked together, cried together, rejoiced together. People who had admirable goals … to build a community free of sexism, racism, ageism. Yet they are gone away and tragically so. It is truly hurtful to think about.
I ask myself, “Do you really want to spend another three years digging, thinking, examining, and reflecting on this stuff?” I don’t know that I want to, but I’m sure I will. And I know I’ll have those days when I want to sign off this project for good. But in the end, if I didn’t feel this way, then I wouldn’t be a human being with a soul and a heart.
(Josef Dieckman has written extensively about both the so-called death tape (Q 042) and the “day after” tape (Q 875). His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)