Murder or Suicide: Coercion or Choice

After November 18, it was months before I could find the words to talk – to myself or others – about what I felt about Peoples Temple. Six months later, when I did finally let some of my pain and thoughts come out, the first thing I said was that for the children it was murder. Perhaps adults chose to die, chose suicide, but for the children there was no choice. They were forced into it – and that was murder. It was as horrible then as it is now to remember. Distance and time will never take it away; but since this last year, it doesn’t absorb as much of my energy as it once did.

We all agree, it was murder – not suicide – for the children, but that leaves a larger question: was it suicide for anyone? And since suicide implies the choice to live or die – as opposed to homicide, which implies coercion, with no choice – that leads to another question: did people have choices?

Some members chose to walk away from it all. Some folk discussed alternatives, as recorded on the final tape. Others didn’t question, either out of trust or maybe resignation. Compliance was expected.

As events unfolded at Port Kaituma, it is clear now a choice had already been made, a choice made that all should die, more an act for one to avoid facing consequences than anything noble. But the choice was not made by the members. It was one man’s choice to end it all, and those who died were in fact murdered, coerced to die. In no way was it “death by choice.”

For me as a survivor, a feeling of betrayal and guilt made me bury my feelings about the 900+ deaths. How had I allowed myself to be duped into trusting? Should I have believed in what we had built? Was this where these values led? The ideals and truths I had come to believe in? Was I misled by beliefs that had helped me understand social problems and guided me in helping others? by belief in a rainbow community of people? by my trust and efforts to build a better world? Had these beliefs and ideals betrayed me and led to such a horror?

Back then I just ran away from it all, to hide from the pain. Now after all these years, I see the betrayal was by one person – not by beliefs or ideals – a betrayal by someone who taught me, but who had lost faith in the very ideals we all had come to share. As survivors, we still share these ties. And when we are together, I am reminded these ideals are still deep inside us. The feeling of community that comes up for me always confirms this, and I wouldn’t have known it until seeing others again after all these years. Since opening up what I had buried for so long, I understand now what I did not then.

The passage of time, seeing the play and connecting with other survivors, have let me affirm that the principles we believed in were real and good and still are.

I miss what we had. I can never forgive all the murder. But now I know that what we tried to do and build was something worthwhile.

(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)

(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)