Doing Justice to Jonestown

NOVEMBER 1978: More than 900 Americans die in what was apparently a “mass suicide” by members of a “cult” commune called Jonestown, in Guyana, South America. I entered the story of Jonestown then as so many people did, through an aerial photograph of faceless bodies lying on the ground. In the course of making a documentary film called “After Jonestown” – featuring survivors and relatives of those who died – I was often asked, What can we learn from Jonestown? But for me, the first question to ask is, What can we learn about Jonestown?

“What most people don’t understand is why folks joined Peoples Temple,” one survivor says. Some joined for fellowship, others needed help getting off drugs, still others believed in the Temple’s message of racial equality. Peoples Temple, in both word and deed, promised hope to the dilapidated Fillmore district of San Francisco, where it was headquartered. Even as 1000 members of the Temple migrated to the Promised Land of Jonestown, it was in pursuit of a vision, a utopia, a shared community where people would work together to support one another in their basic and higher needs. Although the rhetoric and reality of Peoples Temple were often at odds – in Guyana as it was in the U.S. – that does not diminish the strength, the power or the validity of the vision.

After the deaths in Jonestown, President Carter made only a brief statement saying principally that the tragedy “was in no way typical of America… It did not happen in our own country.” This sentiment was shared by millions of Americans, who saw the murders-suicides as the senseless act of a distant and incomprehensible “other,” all brainwashed by a charismatic madman. But the pathology of one man doesn’t explain the people’s commitment to each other and themselves, just as it doesn’t explain the decision to kill each other and themselves. Their actions are part and parcel of our own very American culture.

The people of Peoples Temple sought to build a caring community, for elsewhere they saw a society fractured by racism, the Vietnam war, the decimation of their neighborhoods. Their exodus to Guyana drew on such traditions as those of Marcus Garvey and Black Nationalism. The physical and emotional abuse they participated or at least acquiesced in was an exaggeration of the violence that did, and still does, plague American society. The fatigue and the fervor the people of Jonestown felt, their contradictions and hatreds – all of it can be seen in other forms in the United States today.

This is not to say that all America was responsible for these deaths, for it was not us who actually took or gave the poison. However, the conditions that gave rise to the life and death of Jonestown are also ours. Even the most elemental and oft-cited lessons of Jonestown – “it could happen again,” “don’t follow blindly,” “you can’t get something for nothing” – cannot touch us, as long as we see ourselves as entirely removed from the people who are supposedly giving us those lessons.

What lessons we draw from Jonestown further depends on what we think happened there. Was it a revolutionary act of protest? Was it a social movement that got lost? Was it, as popular mythology holds, the case of a frenzied leader deluding his robotic followers into an orgy of mass suicide? The story has come to be perceived as such because it serves cultural functions. It reinforces our sanity over and against their depravity; it perversely entertains us; it allows us to substitute a cheap fascination for a serious grappling.

A more uncomfortable but important question emerges. What does our fascination with the story say about us?

To memorialize Jonestown is not simply to recollect the awful images it produced, but to recognize our connection to its people, their needs, their passions, their weaknesses, even their fate. Through such a reckoning, we might grant the people of Jonestown some of the justice, in death, that they sought, but couldn’t find, in life.

(Paul VanDeCarr is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this edition include Jonestown docudrama yields no easy answers and (Un)Covering Jonestown, 25 Years Later. His article about his film is at “After Jonestown” Production Closes. Paul can be reached through this website.)