Murder vs. Suicide: Individuals and the Collective

As I have worked through the different renditions of The People’s Temple (see story here), I always find myself confronting the same question that so many others before me have considered. To me, the question of murder v. suicide is important because it speaks to the higher question of individual agency, individual mind, personal history and destiny within the context of the story. How can we separate the individuals from the collective? How can we know with any degree of certainty what was in their hearts and minds in the last days, the last hours or minutes?

We can never truly know. We have only the survivors who can give us clues, those who witnessed the events and who are still piecing it together after all these years. Even more powerful to me, from an artistic perspective, is how the survivors who weren’t there have lived with this question. They have only what they’ve heard, and what their hearts tell them may or may not have happened. They have to live with the question, and they have to find peace on their terms and in their own hearts.

When I think of this question, I hearken back to the voices I’ve captured on tape in preparation for The People’s Temple and memories they evoke. I recall Stephan Jones, going through photographs, showing me one of the children in Jonestown, reflecting on the last day:

I remember us all sitting, watching the children of Jonestown walk up that main path and seeing every color imaginable in the rainbow, you know, walking up that path. The silence that came over us, the appreciation that welled up in us, ‘Yeah, this is why I’m here.’ So regardless of what got people there – see, once you’re in, it’s about way more than loyalty to Jim Jones. You know the depth of it, how people could come in and not be able to find their way out. I can’t get inside people’s heads, you know, so I’ll never know how many people actually lined up and took the poison. But even the ones who did, I don’t believe took it because Jim Jones said to. I don’t know how much we talked about this, but you know it started with the guys on the [basketball] team. Whether or not people liked me, they knew they could count on me to stir things up, maybe throw a wrench in the works, you know, count on me and a couple of the guys on the team, to stand up to Dad. And we weren’t there. Not only that, I believe everyone was told we were out killing people, you know, so there’s that. There’s the guys who went to the airstrip. They were lost, you know, so do you run out on them? Do you run out on the guys who did the killing? Then, who’s the first to die? The children. Not only have you just lost your reason for living, your reason for being there for many of the people, but do you run out on them? Do you see them die and then find a way to survive yourself? Yeah, so it’s complex.

And Nell Smart, fighting back tears:

I still think about it. Yeah. I think about which ones may have taken it willingly. I know that my daughter [Tinetra] was really a very… she probably did, my oldest daughter, she probably took it very willingly because I think she had found in her life that she truly believed in. Whether the other three [Alfred, Scott and Teri] did or not, I’m not sure. I’m sure my mother [Kay Nelson] must have really agonized over it, wondering, or thinking, ‘Nell is gonna hate me, you know, because I couldn’t protect her children.’ When I think about that, I cry because my mother was a very strong woman, and without her I would not have been the person I am today. And I went through periods where, you know, I thought, ‘How could she do this?’ And I think that I know this woman suffered. I know that she suffered, knowing that I was gonna blame her, and I did for a moment but not anymore – she was my strength and I probably would not have gotten over it had it not been for her teachings. Oh man, I’m sorry, it’s… it’s… it’s a little hard to talk about that. You know, my uncle [Jim McElvane], I’m sure that he took it willingly, you know, but my mother and the three younger ones, she was a matriarch so I’m sure that they were crowding around her and I’m sure that they were saying, ‘Grandma Kay, do we have to do this, what can we do?’ I can see it in my mind’s eye, I can almost visualize how it went. And she didn’t know what to do to protect them, you know, and she was worrying what I was going to say. So that’s the one thing whenever I think about it, you know. I hurt for her because I know she hurt for me.

And Claire Janaro, speaking through a mixture of anguish, tears and rage:

When I heard the tapes of Jim M. [McElvane] urging people to come up and kill themselves, that finished me off because I loved Jim M., I respected him, he was the head of security, he was a very spiritual person, he was a wonderful person. If he had gotten up there and said anything else, every single black person in that Temple would have jumped to listen to him. Instead, he’s begging the people to come up and lay down – to take the poison. And that finished me off. I couldn’t get it. I couldn’t get anything clear in my head… why all these people took the goddamn poison. He had just been down a couple days before me. And a couple days before that Phyllis had gone down and her kids were down there. And it was beyond me. I couldn’t imagine that that’s what was done. You know, I learned that they were circled with armament and that they were threatened, but still, of all those people, couldn’t somebody jump up and, you know, kill Jim Jones or take over or say ‘stop!?’ There were fighters there – why would everyone acquiesce to this? I couldn’t understand why these very strong men and the women who had had small children and everything were so overwhelmed. I can’t believe they were all drugged. I know they drugged some people, but how do you drug a whole body to be passive like that? It was beyond my – it was just beyond. And it’s still beyond me and I really don’t get it. I don’t get that part. I don’t get how the end happened. I don’t understand the spell that they were under.

The assumptions and characterizations aside, these are the stories that still touch my heart. I hope that the play can help illuminate the epic quality of this unanswerable question. At least, by engaging with questions like this, there is hope for the story of the people: who they were and what their legacy is and still may become through the course of history.

(Leigh Fondakowski is the writer and director of The People’s Temple. She can be contacted through this website.)