My Road to Jonestown

Early in February of 2006, I was given the assignment to produce and write a show for the National Geographic Channel series, The Final Report. I had just finished a pilot for this series about the Branch Davidians and the federal government’s role in the deaths of the members of the religious group in Waco, Texas.

My new assignment was Jonestown, Jim Jones and his church called Peoples Temple. Generally, I was to look at what happened in Jonestown, and how and why it happened. I figured, too, I’d look at who was responsible for it.

Well, in actuality, I went into the project thinking I knew who was responsible for it – Jim Jones– although what I had learned during my work on the Waco show gave me an inkling that it might not be as simple as that. The other thing I thought was that Jonestown was a religious cult that strayed very tragically off its path, led by Jones, of course.

So, that was it: a fringe religious group gone bad. Little did I know… indeed, I knew little.

But I learned an awful lot, some of it fascinating, some of it appalling, and some of it downright awe-inspiring. Here, I will chart a bit of my journey to Jonestown, and how my thinking was turned around for the most part from what I learned and by the people I met. I will explore here some of the preconceptions I had and how those were changed as the project moved forward to its completion.

The first thing I learned that turned my head around (and cued me that I probably was going to have lots of these “turnaround” moments) was how small a role religion played in Jonestown. Not just on the last day, but throughout Jonestown’s – or the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project’s – short life. I was corrected that if anything, Jonestown was more political, more socialist, than religious.

I believed it was all about religion. Somehow, the media at the time made me believe that. Or, I allowed myself to believe it. Within the first few days of researching the events at Jonestown, I found this not to be true.

But if it wasn’t religion, what was it? It was the dream of a new world, in a big picture, or the dream of a new community, on a smaller, more personal, more manageable and doable scale. We all have this dream, do we not? No matter if you want world peace or world domination, you dream of a new world. So, for this dream, the people of Jonestown should be condemned, made wrong?

To be fair, I’ll admit that at the beginning of my research, I didn’t know (or remember) the name of the organization which Jones headed. Obviously, I learned it immediately: Peoples Temple. And almost immediately, I knew the approach I wanted to take in telling the story. Who were the people of Peoples Temple?

We knew (or so I thought) the story of Jim Jones and how he led his followers to their deaths. We wouldn’t ignore that story – it needed to be told. But it seemed that other documentaries didn’t really tell the story of the people, of who they were, or of why they joined.

A question formed and became a kind of mantra for me at the beginning stages of the project, the question we keep working to shape the show we want. And it wasn’t the question you might typically hear of, “How did Jim Jones get these people to kill themselves (if one assumes that it was suicides)?” It’s a legitimate question, but it wasn’t the burning question for me.

No, I wanted to look at the other side of the equation. The question I formed was, “Why did these people kill themselves?” I didn’t want to assume coercion from the beginning. I wanted to assume free will. I wanted to give the people of Jonestown credit and not dismiss them as freaks or robots or brainwashed (part of a preconception I had, but certainly this is a belief of a lot of people). I wanted to keep them human and wanted to figure out how they got to a point where they were willing to give up their lives for a cause.

I think it is easy, after the fact, for each of us to say that we would never succumb to such a leader, that we would never follow in lockstep behind someone who lies repeatedly to his followers and his supporters. (Yet, a majority of the people of the US believed the lies of the current administration and supported our country’s invasion of Iraq. Some still do.) But if you believe in a cause, and if a leader’s message is strong and clear and right, in your eyes, it is easier to commit than we might think. This was especially true during the era in which Peoples Temple grew and flourished. The tumultuous times in the US nurtured the growth of a lot of groups like Peoples Temple, groups teeming with idealism and with the mission of helping themselves and their fellow men and women. And Peoples Temple did good work in the community.

The former Temple members I spoke to and met – to a person – believed in the message that Jim Jones preached when they first joined the church. Jones’ message of equality and inclusion, of giving care and assistance, drew them in. They wanted to be a part of it. In fact, these people still believe that Jones’ message was good, no matter what they think of Jones himself. I was moved by the conviction of these people – how one said it felt like home, how another was moved by Jones’ practicing what he preached, how yet another was impressed by Jones’ own “rainbow” family and the diversity within the temple.

These people helped dispel another preconception of mine: that Jones was a crazy man, a charlatan, a conman, or all three. Jones may have become a crazy man, but he certainly didn’t start out that way. His ideas and his work were (indeed, are) to be admired. I would venture that should be true about Jonestown, too. The idea of Jonestown is an honorable one; the execution, on the other hand, was a bit less so.

I held a preconception about Jonestown, too. Somehow, in my mind, it was a mess of a place. Filled with ramshackle homes at best, with broken-down lean-tos, at worst. And then, I saw the Super 8 films of the construction of Jonestown. And I was in awe. We all were – editors, producers, and executives. We were extremely impressed with how such a small group of people carved a clearing out of the jungle and then, as if that wasn’t enough, built strong, sturdy shelter, sidewalks, pavilions. Yes, it wasn’t Park Avenue but it certainly wasn’t squalor either.

And I am not being Pollyanna about the conditions in Jonestown. There is plenty of evidence that conditions deteriorated as the population grew. But the initial construction of the compound is impressive indeed, and many of the journalists that I spoke with, interviewed or read all made a point to mention how impressed they were with at least this part of Jonestown.

Finally, I went into the project thinking that Jones was completely and solely responsible for the deaths of 912 of his followers. I still believe that he is ultimately responsible but not completely and solely responsible. Especially because of his continued and worsening drug use, he needed people around him to make decisions, to implement those decisions and, most importantly, to keep Jonestown running day-to-day. Those people were his inner circle of young, educated, white women who, on one hand, believed so deeply in Jones and the cause. On the other hand, though, they seemed to be exhausted from providing for the masses living in compound, and keeping Jonestown functioning. Jones did none of the management of resources, so someone else would have ordered the cyanide and the rest of the supplies for the deaths. Jones put forth the idea of revolutionary suicide, but someone else – the inner circle – implemented that idea. Clearly, they share responsibility for the deaths of the adults and the murder of the children.

I always go into a new project with a set of ideas that somehow got formed from the sketchy information about an event. I went into the production about Waco believing the government was completely responsible for the fire on the final day. I left the project knowing that the Davidians started the fire, after the government pushed them into a corner. Quite a different story than the one I began the show with.

The same is true of the story of Jonestown. As I briefly outlined here, I began this production believing that a bunch of kooks killed themselves at the urging of a single, crazy man. I finished the project understanding how Jim Jones’ ideas and works could be admired. I learned that the responsibility did lie with Jones alone. I found myself empathizing with the people of Peoples Temple – those who believed that what they were doing was right. They believed in their church, believed in their work, believed in what they were building in Jonestown. And they got that far believing, that they only had to take one more step to show the depths of their beliefs. On November 18, 1978, they took that step.

(H.D. Motyl was the producer of the recent National Geographic Channel documentary entitled The Final Report: Jonestown Tragedy. He can be reached at A second article by Mr. Motyl in this report appears here.)