Between the TV Screen and the Tragedy:
A Memoir of Jonestown Research

by Robert P. Helms

The famous tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana has been treated in many ways since 1978. News reporters have examined the story, as have feature film directors, conspiracy theorists, fiction writers, and various scholars. While everyone has gotten something wrong (sometimes the general idea), there are anonymous go-betweens in the picture, and it is on their behalf that I write this essay. I base my statements on my experience and my own analyses.

I was 21 years old when Jim Jones picked up his microphone for the last time. I was among the millions who read the story in newspapers and regarded the affair as another piece of weird religion. I lived on Long Island and had only the usual kind of experience with churches. I was raised a Catholic, I had been proselytized by Baptists and converted briefly, but I seem to be a born atheist. For the following 26 years, I didn’t think of Jonestown any more than the average person.

In 2003, when I was living and working in France, a TV production company in Paris offered me a job to inform them on various American subjects. I was delighted to find that I could find the desired information, and deliver results, a million times faster than could any 21-year-old French intern. I had been handed a job in a large city where many highly skilled and talented people fail miserably. Even so, I’d have turned it down if I was able. I had arrived in the country only a few months earlier with a good many friends but only 100 bucks. All I wanted was to write my book (and all writers want only this), but the emptiness of my stomach liked this job offer, so I accepted.

I was assigned to several TV segments and to documentary films as a staff researcher (and upon which one’s name does not appear). After I was with the company for about six months, they asked me to research a film about the March 1977 plane crash at Tenerife in the Canary Islands in which 582 people died. This is when I shined like a star. I found a dozen survivors, then some of the crew. The filmmakers were very pleased, and I had my little niche in Paris.

Researching an historical film is not something that anyone can do. In the Tenerife film, I was calling people whose lives had been changed forever by an aviation accident. In most cases, they had been either working or relaxing one minute, then fleeing from a torn-apart jumbo jet the next. In only a few cases, the person I was calling on the phone and inviting to be interviewed had lost a family member in the crash. I asked one lady at around 3 a.m. Paris time: “How did your husband lose his life?” and she began with, “I don’t know.”

I usually preceded these contacts with polished email letters. The variables were that some people had the time to be interviewed, some had the desire to be interviewed, and many were not to be found in the first place. I found this work interesting and challenging. The famous photographs of the wreck, by survivor David Wiley, were bought by a major magazine, and if you look on the internet this is what you’ll see first. Mr. Wiley got a few thousand dollars, and he understood how badly he was ripped off only after it was a done deal. I never was able to locate David, but that’s his fault for having such a common name. Strangers he was with in an aircraft told me all about him instead.

I had the job of talking with, then understanding, and finally persuading people to be in my little French film. Often I was asked to talk about how cool it is to live in that famous place, Paris. I told them that I lived in a nearby suburb, commuted in and out each day, and was as poor as a church mouse.

In early summer 2004, I received a brief email from my employers, which told me that I should make a preliminary research on the last few days of the Peoples Temple. This email already had the mental wheels spinning: This means hundreds of dead, but it also means religion, suicide, murder, permanent sorrow, and answers that will be forever missing. My stomach told me that I had never been to this place before. My firm had made a film on cults several years earlier, and the names of those Jonestowners they’d interviewed – including Stephan Jones, Mike and Debbie Touchette, Grace Stoen, Jerry Parks, and Tim Reiterman – were given to me.

If only there had been no earlier film by my company, the project almost certainly would have turned into a grand success. However, if there had been no earlier film, I might have delivered all these good people into a film that treated them without due care – perhaps even a raw piece of cheap TV.

Let’s have a look at the top and the bottom of Jonestownology as we proceed. There are two kinds of writers: there are those who are in the same league with Tim Reiterman and Leigh Fondakowski, and then there’s everybody else (including my employers in France). The writers and filmmakers who are no Fondakowskis include literally anyone who is part of a project in which profits come before the careful treatment of the subject, or who is not ready to go jobless for standing on principle. The worst and most notorious case that comes to mind is the TV film Guyana Tragedy starring Powers Booth. The makers of that film deliberately deceived the viewers in the pursuit of cash, and anyone familiar with the historical facts must be disgusted by it. Fortunately, my employers have never gone to such an extreme, and in fact they are no less respectable than the average production company supplying material for prime time viewers. When I first saw their earlier film on cults, the segment on Jonestown seemed straight up and I did not see it as a problem. Later, after knowing the facts and the characters, I watched it again and spotted several errors of fact in the English translation and a tendency to dwell on images of the dead and on sex, but these issues did not indicate a lower standard than the usual TV product.

I started my research by watching most of the original camera galleys of interviews of Jonestowners from my company’s earlier film on cults. It was from these galleys that I learned more of the fine tactics used by filmmakers to spice up a story. One thing I spotted was in the interview of Grace Stoen. In it, she gave a full-length interview, from which only a few short segments were finally used. But when she was asked, “What about the sex?” Grace held up her hands and replied that she didn’t want to talk about it. Months later when I briefly met her at the playhouse in Berkeley and told her who I worked for, she said frankly that she wasn’t pleased with the earlier film, and that “all they wanted to talk about was sex.” Here was a moment of sudden clarity: the interviewers must have known that she didn’t want to discuss that subject, since producers always have the same conversations before the camera rolls, but they asked her the question anyway, when she was on camera. Another thing I realized when she was standing in front of me was that she’s a perfect lady. This is important because her name had been mentioned very crudely by Jim Jones during the endless hours I’d been listening to his sermons and meetings on audiotapes provided by the Jonestown Institute. One thing I can assess all by myself by listening to those tapes is that Jones was talking like a regular pig. Thus Stoen was and is a lady, Jones was a pig, and so any questions about sex popped on her after all these years by surprise are inappropriate, besides being irrelevant. But sex sells TV footage.

Just as I distinguish myself and other researchers from the heads of the TV industry and the product they demand from contractors, I must point out that my sometime-employers are not at the top of the industry. The company I worked for is one among the thousands of production firms that create material for major broadcasters. The actual people I worked for treated me with decency and even generosity, within the context of the temporary employment arrangement they had offered to me. Besides the employment question, I always found both management and co-workers to be lively and intelligent, carrying the basic love of the world that marks the French as a wonderful and passionate people. Any issue I raise about TV speaks not to them as people, but to the TV industry they work in.

When I began, I had only the scarcest information in my head regarding Jonestown. I knew the book industry, and before I ever lifted the phone receiver, it was easy to see that Tim Reiterman’s book Raven is the definitive book on Jim Jones’ movement and the resistance it received. I also recalled John Judge, whose lecture I had arranged in Philadelphia in the early 1990’s.

I found the Alternative Considerations to Peoples Temple and Jonestown website, which has surpassed any other single source of information on PT and Jonestown. Both Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee gave advice in the first calls, but warned me of the size of the subject I was looking into. Fielding suggested I read and research some more, in advance of making any further contacts with PT survivors. I ordered books off the web, interspersing my reading with the old camera galleys from my employers’ first film.

My initial calls made me look good. I quickly located Tim Stoen, who surprised me by being the first District Attorney ever to take my call. “It’s all pain for me,” he said, “and so I rarely discuss the subject. Nothing personal. I wish you well.”

It was only a momentary setback. I located the surviving news crew members who accompanied Leo Ryan to Guyana and spoke to most of them by telephone. I spoke to Leo Ryan’s daughters and to Jim Schollaert, Ryan’s aide who stayed in Georgetown during the fact-finding mission. I called John Judge in the first week or so of research, and he was available for a possible interview. These results seemed very promising to me. I looked forward to flying all over the United States and perhaps to Guyana to interview people for the film. Traveling for the plane crash film made my poverty seem like an illusion and my life a rather stylish affair. I kept the filmmakers up to date on my research.

And then the summer of 2004 arrived. Like countless other Parisian firms, mine all but shut down until September, and I was unemployed until the Jonestown film project got its funding lined up. This could mean early fall or – as I was told – it could be later. As it turned out, I waited until early February of 2005 before I went back on payroll, and by then my life certainly was not stylish, my poverty no illusion. I had a bright orange card for the food pantry “Restaurant of the Heart,” which handed me a few bags of free groceries each week. I didn’t need to tell any lies to get that card.

When the film got the green light, I began contacting Jonestowners again, and reading more and more texts. When I spoke to people whose lives were affected by the Jonestown Affair, I felt that my best device was to be honest with people and try to remain neutral and open-minded. I explained the company I worked for as best I was able and always sent a copy of the earlier film to any of them who asked. None of the contacts I made were gullible or immature people, so I could never have fooled them anyway. Often they knew the media far better than I ever will, and the only way I could really keep them interested was to share bits of information I had found and demonstrate that I was really learning the story.

I was not able to gather much new input from members of Concerned Relatives, but aside from published and archival sources, I was able to learn a great deal from the Parks family who left Jonestown on the last day with Ryan, and a member of whom –¬†Patty Parks – was the only Temple member killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip. I also spoke with Charles Krause, a Washington Post reporter who was wounded in the attack. I spoke with survivors Tim Carter, Mike Touchette, Laura Kohl, and many others, so I believe I gained a balanced knowledge of my subject.

Having attended two lectures by John Judge long before researching the PT, I made a point of checking out the conspiracies as I went along. The verdict is that most conspiracy theorists wish their names were Jim Jones, but none of them has one-millionth of the skills or energy that Jones possessed. Mark Lane and others consistently repeat pitches that Jones himself made to his followers in order for them to fear outsiders, which have been proven false long ago. They also use the race card to sidestep issues and to vilify Jones’ legitimate critics. Lane’s book The Strongest Poison is almost as sickening to me as some of the tapes of Jim Jones at the microphone. Like many other conspiracy theorists, Judge is simply a self-absorbed performance artist whose theories are ridiculous.

In the course of my research, I spotted the news that Fondakowski’s play The People’s Temple was opening in Berkeley. I kept reminding my employers that we’d be dumbbells to miss that event. To my great surprise, I was dispatched to the U.S. to see the play with a few days’ notice and no emotional warning. I attended the performance of April 16, when the mezzanine was populated with quite a few Temple survivors, and I was pleased to meet many people whose voices I’d already been hearing for countless hours. This was what I was not ready for. I made a poor presentation of the movie project, but I am proud of myself for a personal stand I took that evening.

I met a certain fellow who had been in Jonestown during its final months and who had witnessed Jones’ deterioration, which of course will sell even more TV footage than sex. He was in poor emotional health and virtually destitute so as to be a vulnerable person, in this writer’s opinion. I was authorized to offer this man up to one thousand dollars in exchange for his testimony, and while many other former Jonestown residents routinely chuckle at such offers, I knew immediately that his answer would be “Yes.” I removed his contact information from my written reports to the company and said I would not be a part of seeking him out.

The reader should understand that a TV producer, like anyone, must have a stable life and adequate resources in order to make a good presentation and follow through on promises. This producer had neither. But another reason why I’m this poor in the pocket is that I’ve taken a lot of stands like that over the years. During my research on the Temple, it’s been my impression that, had I somehow found myself in Jones’ congregation back in the day, I would not have lasted in it for long, something I have in common with Jones’ various opponents. By the same token, for all I know, I might have become one of the more devious of his enforcers.

In my opinion, the fatal flaw in Peoples Temple was its hierarchy, holding Reverend Jones as the singular representative of God or even as God himself. All the smaller problems of the entire story derive from that pastor/sheep relationship. However, I am lately struck by the never-ending revelations of the Catholic priest scandal, and I instinctively compare it to the Peoples Temple story. The pope is to the Roman Catholicism exactly what Jones was to his church in terms of authority, the top-down power structure, and the code of secrecy, obedience, and loyalty. The major difference between the two is the different extents of their power. The Catholic Church has been caught red-handed doing many thousands of times as many serious crimes than Jim Jones ever dreamed of, and yet no federal grand jury has been convened to look into the conspiracy to smuggle repeated child rapists across state lines to avoid prosecution, and no member of the government has traveled to gather facts on that conspiracy, as Leo Ryan did to Jonestown in 1978. The Catholic Church has avoided the closure of its organization and the imprisonment of its high officials by the same means as Jim Jones used to protect himself. It maintains countless close ties with the government itself, and most politicians cannot attack it directly because they can’t see where the fight will end, and they know they’ll probably lose. Peoples Temple was a minority religion whose membership was a known quantity and whose resources were finite, and so when too many complaints about the group came up, a government committee took action. On the other hand, no such thing will ever happen to the Roman Catholic Church because it holds an enormous level of power all over the world. The priest scandal demonstrates that with enough slime, one can get away with anything, but more to the point, they could not have escaped punishment without that pyramid of a command structure. There were countless people in both denominations who facilitated crimes by faithfully obeying leaders in spite of their own decency and common sense.

The final outcome of all this Jonestown research I did remains uncertain, but one pattern is very clear. Because of many of the key figures in the Jonestown story refuse to be interviewed when they suspect a project of being hasty or sensational, and because this website has drastically raised the standards of Jonestownology, plays like Fondakowski’s are now possible, and cheap treatments of the subject are now a lot harder to sell to broadcasters. This is a part of this profoundly moving tale that brings me a sigh of relief.

(Robert Helms lives in Philadelphia.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on November 2nd, 2018.
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