Jonestown Film Recalls Both Good and Bad of Peoples Temple

Wow, what a film. What emotions it stirred.

The first time I watched Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, I was sitting with a number of other people, and felt the need to remove myself from my surroundings. Almost everyone in the group was a former Temple member, but still, I protected myself from my emotions by not really watching it. When I watched it alone, I did not have to be concerned about anyone seeing me at my most vulnerable.

The film opens with a random collection of clips of the life and the death of Peoples Temple. Then you see a picture of Jim Jones as a child. You think, what a beautiful little boy, he looks so normal. Could that be the same child who grew up to be the Jim Jones, who on November 18, 1978, ordered the deaths of so many other beautiful children for their own good? It is difficult to wrap one’s brain around something so horrific. He must have been insane. I must have been insane to have even been a part of that movement.

The film reminded me of the reasons for which I joined, as well as those for which I left. Certainly the last hours of Jonestown are not representative of anything – good or bad – that former members could associate with their experiences in Peoples Temple. There could have been so many different endings to Peoples Temple or no ending at all.

Do I think that Stanley Nelson’s film is a true depiction of what Peoples Temple was all about? Should there have been other things included or should some things have been left out? Probably, but it is not my film. However, I do not believe the film is judgmental. I feel it is the director’s honest effort to present the good and the bad of Peoples Temple, and in that, he succeeded.

There is only a small group of people who will understand that when I say, that a part of the film made me long to be back there in Peoples Temple. While a few of us have gotten together for the Fourth of July, it is not the same as being in a meeting surrounded by others who felt what you were feeling. I’m not talking about the “healings”; I’m talking about Jim telling us in so many words that our movement was the most important thing that we would be a part of in our lifetime.

I wish that I could again experience the warmth of that Peoples Temple family and see the look of joy on the faces of my children as they interacted with that great big family. Back then I knew that I was a part of something that was going to make a difference in this world, and I was so happy that my children were going to be a part of it. I knew then that my life had purpose, and that I had done the right thing for me and for my children. I was glad that my mother – whom I did not see eye to eye with when I was a teenager – was also a part of this.

I wanted the film to continue to show me the things that had made me feel so good. I wanted Jim to have been the leader I first encountered. I wanted so much for it all to have suddenly become what we all thought it was when we joined. I wanted all the bad things that had happened in the past to have been nothing more than a bad dream brought on by something I had either eaten or read. I wanted that place of Jonestown that I held in my heart as a place of refuge when I got tired of trying to make it in that crazy America of the 70’s to still be there. I wanted November 18, 1978, to have been an ordinary day in the life of Peoples Temple, the day after November 17, the day before November 19 and so many days after.

It is all inside my head, too much inside my head. I find myself wanting to scream “Let’s have a do over. Let’s not have anyone die. Let’s not have Jonestown and Peoples Temple be what people say to describe a cult.” But if you have a do-over, where do you start from?

How it hurts to have to remember that it is all gone. And how well the film brings back that hurt.

Prior to reviewing the film I had some misgivings about people I know seeing it. Now I want everyone that I have ever met to see it two or three times. I can think of no greater praise.

(Nell Smart is a former member of Peoples Temple. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report is here.)