The Limits of Language

When confronted with the question of whether the deaths in Jonestown should be classified as murders or suicides, most people feel comfortable joining the two words into a phrase that covers both options. But it doesn’t quite fit.

We are limited in expressing ourselves by the vocabulary we have. Indeed the words that comprise our vocabularies determine how we communicate our feelings and emotions. However some episodes might not be so easily described by the words we know. How accurately can one really describe sunsets, the smells of roses or rotten eggs?

On the surface, the question of whether the Jonestown deaths were murder or suicides is rather simple. Murder is when you kill someone; suicide is when you take your own life. We describe what we think we know about the more than 900 deaths in Jonestown by giving the tragedy the label that early press accounts reported – a mass suicide – or by providing the seemingly more nuanced phrase of murder/suicide. However neither of these phrases seems to describe what happened in Jonestown. Charges of coercion and brainwashing taint the claims of murder by defusing the responsibility of many of the adults and the people in the group’s leadership.

A criminal charge of murder is a bit more complicated then just a person killing another person. Murder charges are brought when there is a victim, a suspect, a motive and an opportunity. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, murder is the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought. The problem with saying Jim Jones is a murderer (often the only murderer) is that there is no evidence the Jones actually killed anyone. Indeed evidence suggests that he was murdered. This does not take responsibility away from Jones, but the charge of murder does not fit.

There are various degrees of murder that are determined by the intent and mental capacity of the accused. Murder could also be manslaughter, and criminal decisions are impacted by the mental state of the accused murderer. Insanity defenses and diminished capacity defenses would probably apply here. There is ample evidence from the footage of the press conferences held by the Concerned Relatives that they thought Jim Jones was insane. That would put him in a hospital, but not in a jail.

Another problem with the murder label is that a number of people helped Jim Jones perform his healings, and enforced his orders. They faked healings and spied on new people. Are these people who helped build Jones into the powerful leader that he became, also guilty of murder?

The situation of the children is also complicated by the murder label. Researchers and scholars generally agree that the children were murdered, as they had no say in the process. This is true. But the doses of poison which the children ingested were administered by their parents or their grandparents. If the children’s deaths are murders, does that make their parents murderers?

According to eyewitness reports, the two women who first took the potion, Ruletta Paul and Michelle Wagner, gave their infant children a dose of the poison before taking their own. Although Jonestown is viewed as exceptional, the two women’s story is not so different from two women in Poland during World War II who drowned their babies and themselves, along with hundreds of their community, so they would not be taken to the concentration camps. An eyewitness account reads: “On June 23, 1944 Chaja Kubrzanska, twenty-eight years old, and Basia Binsztajn, twenty-six years old, both holding newborn babes, when they saw what was going on, they ran down to the pond, in order to drown themselves with their children.”

These four women’s experiences are quite similar. The Jewish women were under immediate threat, but the Jonestown community thought it was as well. A congressman was dead, and it was quite conceivable that the Guyana Defense Force or the American Army was going to come into the community. The main difference between these women is rooted in language. In Hebrew there is an expression – Kiddush Hashem – which is used when people are martyred (either through murder or suicide) for their beliefs. Because both murder and suicide are severe violations of Jewish law, it would not be appropriate to burden these women with such labels. But the English language is deficient in this area, so we struggle with inadequate words and loosely-defined definitions.

Suicide, too, does not seem to describe the Jonestown tragedy. According to the same dictionary, “Suicide is the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.” Many question how someone of sound mind could commit suicide, as the two concepts seem to be contradictory. And it is clear given the number of children who died that it was neither voluntary nor intentional on their part.

One reason many reject the notion of suicide is that they believe Jonestown residents were all brainwashed to the point that they were mindless zombies by November 18th. Despite the stereotype, it seems that brainwashing was either not going on in Jonestown, or – if it was – it was not very effective. The strongest argument against a brainwashed community lies in the identities of the people who defected from Jonestown in 1978.

Both the Parks and Bogue families, who left with Congressman Ryan, had been with Jones since the beginning of Peoples Temple. They should not only have been the most brainwashed, they should have been brainwashers themselves. This is also true for Debbie Layton and Terri Buford. Both defected from Jonestown; yet both had been members of Jones’ inner circle. For the brainwashing theory to stand up, these women should have been the last people to leave.

To be sure there was abuse and violence in Peoples Temple, but that does not amount to brainwashing. More supportive evidence that there was not any sophisticated brainwashing going on in the community are the reports of violence and intimidation. If the group was all brainwashed, there would have been no need for these means of attempted control. “It was said that Jones was more of an arm twister than a mind bender.”

In other words, to absolve the responsibility for all of the adults in Jonestown by saying they were not in control of their actions because of brainwashing would be to rewrite the history of what happened on November 18th. We demean the members of the community and rob them of their decision-making process and power. We do this to suit our needs and our mores, and not as an honest attempt to explain what happened on that last day.

Another level of confusion is added by the fact that we are labeling – with our words and our perspectives – what happened on November 18. Historians should try to reconstruct what the Jonestown community said about the last day, how they perceived what was happening to them. Many people might not like how the Jonestown residents described their deaths as a statement against the political direction of the world, but if that’s how they viewed it, that’s how we should view it. For researchers to truly understand, they need to set aside their own judgments and interpretations, and think like the residents of Jonestown. Listen to the tapes, read the letters and journal entries. Listen without judgment or ridicule.

The community’s commitment to each other, their loyalty to Jones, their desire to stay together, their fear of imminent destruction are often ignored or downplayed as factors in November 18. Survivor Tim Carter has said in recent interviews about how he just wanted everything to slow down, so that he could catch his breath. This physical reaction likely occurred in other people as well. What did the adrenalin and anxiety do to the thought process? Did a mob mentality take hold where people just got caught up in what was going on around them?

There are other definitions that do apply to Jonestown. The first is tribe. “A tribe is a group of people sharing customs, language, and territory, such as the Apache people of North America. Anthropologists stress the importance of kinship in tribes. Usually a tribe has a leader, a religion teaching that all its people are descended from a common ancestor, and a common language and culture. A tribe is often small in size, is fairly limited in its contacts with other societies, and is correspondingly ethnocentric in its view of the world.” The Jonestown community was clearly forging a new tribal identity unique unto itself, growing their own food, making their own clothes, creating a new musical sound blending Caribbean, reggae and calypso sounds into their gospel music. They had a clear sense of who they were and maintained a tight community cohesion that was misunderstood, misinterpreted or ignored by outsiders.

Another word that applies to November 18th is genocide. No matter how it happened that day, the end result was genocide. Genocide is defined as under international law as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The number of government investigations into the Temple certainly qualifies as harassment, and the attempts to take John Stoen, Phyllis and Patricia Houston, and the Simon children were a clear warning to the Temple leadership that their children were not safe from being kidnapped and returned to the States. Outsiders underestimated their commitment to each other, and Jones’ desire to keep the community intact.

There are four accepted ways that a person can die: murder, suicide, natural causes and unexplained. We leave natural causes off the table. We can call the deaths in Jonestown neither murder nor suicide, and we cannot solve the problem by combining the two concepts into the term murder/suicide. I submit that the Jonestown tragedy is unexplained, or more accurately, unexplainable. We just don’t have the right words – the right vocabulary – that take into account what was going on in the minds of the Jonestown residents to describe what happened. Instead, historians and researcher would do well to delve into the Temples records, figure how the Temple described what they were doing, and report on that. Without judgment.

(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.)