Was It Murder Or Was It Suicide?

A question that comes up in almost every setting – with survivors, friends, media, interviews, etc. – is, “Were the deaths in Guyana murder or suicide?”

Today, I was sitting in silence at my Quaker meeting, preparing to write my thoughts on this topic. In unprogrammed Quaker (Society of Friends) meetings, there is silence unless you are moved to speak. Some call that source “God,” some call it by other names. I generally feel that I sometimes want to say something or share some thought with the group. I was sitting there “seasoning” (my favorite Quaker term, meaning “cud chewing” in bovine terms) my piece.

So, I was moved to write this introduction.

Jim Jones certainly took lives. But he also gave life. When I joined the Temple, I was cycling down into the abyss. In the year or two before joining, I had flunked out of my third year of college, had a brief marriage until my husband bedded my best girlfriend, lived with several Black Panthers, had a man shot in my living room, had been hospitalized with a STD, dated a married man whose wife was a drug-addicted nurse, moved on to a cocaine-addicted attorney who wanted to include his own best friend – another cocaine-addicted attorney – to our relationship, and endured other less dramatic but equally near-fatal experiences. And then I walked into the Redwood Valley Peoples Temple. What would have happened if I had not gone there at that time? Who knows?

I am not the only one who found life in PT. Here in the US, many former drug addicts, prostitutes, disabled and disillusioned people were given their lives back. Many young people found a vision that made their lives meaningful. If not each one, maybe it was their children or their siblings. Many of the people in Guyana and many of the survivors were given their lives back.

Even looking at the survivors, you can find misfits and unusual folks. Most of us don’t want to fit into the mold of those around us in this society. We want a better world and we don’t give up easily – because we have seen and been part of a better world.

Does that make a difference in the discussion of “Was it murder or suicide?” Nothing makes a difference, and nothing can change what happened. All we can hope for is that those researching the question have more understanding of the bigger picture. Is it an apologist’s point of view to widen the view of the outsider? I cannot defend the horrible waste. If I hadn’t survived, I would be mute. But I did, and that is the only way I can speak. And I know that some of us who survived (and some who died) had our lives prolonged because of PT.

I know that there was murder and suicide. Suicide – to me – is an adult concept. Adults – over 18 or 21, whichever ones considers to be majority age – can and do commit suicide. Infants, children and adolescents don’t. It is the responsibility of parents or a caring community to interrupt plans for suicide in youth. Both in Jonestown, and in Georgetown for Sharon Amos and her family, then, I do believe that most of the adults did commit suicide. They would rather die than go back to the lives they led in the United States – and Jim constantly let us all know that he was the anchor of the community in Jonestown. When Jim set the events of the final day in motion – the shooting at the airstrip and the deaths in Jonestown – he made sure that everyone knew that “they” would be coming after him, and everyone. No one was allowed to look past that, to see if there was any kind of future for the community. But most of those adults who died did not want to return. That’s why I say, adults did take their own lives.

I also know, they killed the children. They may have thought that the children should be spared living in the US, or spared living without them or without a PT to “protect” them. Whatever they thought, with Jim’s haranguing in their ears and the unfolding carnage before their eyes, they took the lives of the children.

Was it “revolutionary suicide”? I suppose if there were a small cadre of adults who believed in something so strongly that they killed themselves, that might be considered “revolutionary suicide.” Because of Jim’s lies, the isolated life in Jonestown, and the wonder of the new community, interpreting the deaths that way seems too much of a stretch for me, especially the deaths of the children.

What I know now, after 28 years, is that you have to be alive to make the world better. Otherwise you may be swept under the rug with the other dust. You must be not only alive, but alive and kicking because the world needs each of us to actively fight the plague of bigotry, war, economic blackmail, slavery, and all the other crimes against humanity going on a rampage these days.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)