I began researching Peoples Temple as a means to score an “A” on a high school project. What I ended up with was a Pandora box of questions, ambiguities, and challenges.
From moment one of receiving my AP English and AP History project, I was ready to research intensively. I grabbed as many books as the local libraries in my hometown in Arizona had on Peoples Temple – which was three – and then branched into books such as Odd Gods and Killer Cults. When I went to the internet, I realized how many different websites that were out there about Peoples Temples, and how dehumanizing most of them were. I remember seeing the terribly disgusting section of a website called Cults R Us. The website told a grass blade of the history of Peoples Temple, but was more involved with the death toll. 900+ is what it displayed; how kind of them of them to relegate 18 other individuals to a plus sign. When I came across the Alternative Considerations to Peoples Temple and Jonestown website, I knew I had found a resource which would actually help me to understand the people of Peoples Temple. I also found how much research was needed in order to even partially comprehend the events at Jonestown.
If there is one thing I learned about researching Peoples Temple, it is the difficult task to sift through stories. My advice for anyone who attempts to research Peoples Temple – or anything at all – is to consider the fact that perception is deception. Everyone’s perception is different, but none the less valid, none the less important. Deborah Layton’s perception of November 18, 1978, as written in Seductive Poison, is different than Laura Johnston’s perception which is different than Tim Carter’s which in turn is different than Jim Jones Jr’s. Are you catching my drift? Many people have come up to me and said, “You have heard these stories about these people, so what do you believe?” “Well,” I quickly answer, “I believe all of them.” That’s not because I am naïve, nor is it because I was never there so I don’t understand. Rather, it is my appreciation of the fact that everyone is right in one sense or another.
I also have considered the question about the relevance of November 18th, 1978 today. Despite terrorism on the home front and abroad, another Jonestown could occur tomorrow, due to the fact that New Age groups are not taken seriously. Research does not occur, psychologists are not brought in when governmental agencies are forced into confrontation with these groups.
The research I did speaks for itself in “Forgotten Souls” (here). The paper also includes my heart and soul. Like most writers, hours and hours went into edits, reediting of my paper, just to make the deadline for my teacher. I was relieved because I had completed one part of the project. The next part was the fun part, making different mini-projects to present to my class of 60 and several other teachers, administrations, and adults. I also thought this would finally be the easy part. Guess again!
Despite being hospitalized by a construction accident while making a model of Jonestown, all of my projects went pretty smoothly. I cut out 918 pieces of paper, wrote 913 names, and glued 918 little pieces of paper, all on a poster board to depict a “wall” for the people who died on November 18, 1978. I wrote down every single name on the paper for a reason; I wanted a connection with the people who died because otherwise, what is the point? I also created a scrapbook of pictures from the website and from Denice Stephenson. Thank goodness for Costco one hour photo! I even made a visual timeline so visitors to the project wouldn’t have to listen to every single fact I knew (They just had to listen to every other fact I knew). I was ready for my presentation, ready to enlighten them on a world they had no clue about.
On the day of my presentation, I was nervous because I knew people wouldn’t understand. I tried to explain Peoples Temple to my girly best friends, and they believed I was in a “cult.” I think they still do. They say it jokingly and I laugh only because it annoys me. When I set up my presentation, two librarians talked to me for about 45 minutes about my project, because they remembered the Newsweek front page of the Jonestown pavilion. It was best conversation I had that day.
At the start of the presentation, I had moderate success considering (a) it was mandatory that students attend ten presentations, and (b) I was next-door to a sushi presentation. Some from my girly best friend group didn’t attend. I was and still am secretly hurt because this is important to me and these were my best friends, and they didn’t care. Essentially, some people understood and if I had more time with them – more time than ten minutes – each person might have understood a little bit (but maybe not). I think I frightened some students about the infamous “death tape” and some of the other tapes I have heard. Some individuals even wished I would have brought the tapes with me as a medium for others to hear. I didn’t for that reason. I know people would listen to the “death tape” to hear people die, when in fact mostly what you hear is crying babies and Jim Jones.
Each of my teachers saw my presentation, but I am a little unsure what they thought of it. I remain “the overachiever” and that is what they say. My teachers saw my index finger in a brace, and they saw how much I loved doing my work. Some of my classmates attempted to find flaws in my wall by pointing to a blank piece of paper and saying, “Oh you missed one!” I replied confidently with an earnest, “No, that is an unknown soul.”
At the end of the day, I felt relieved I had completed my Junior year project, but angry that no one truly understood me or Peoples Temple. I still feel frustrated. When I received my paper, I felt my “A” was given under protest. I say “under protest” because my teacher who graded my paper knew I poured my heart into my paper (I went as far as to ask for special permission to supercede the page limit), but at the end of the day, the teacher disagreed with the viewpoint. I proved that they were forgotten souls, the teacher admitted, but some of the comments, let’s say, were “biased.” One such comment was, “Isn’t that a characteristic of a cult?” Well, if you want it to be. My point was to prove that I didn’t want to show characteristics of a cult, I wanted to show the people in Peoples Temple.
My reflection ends here, but my work does not. I long to hear more stories, but currently do not have the time. I am now a Senior in high school, preparing to attend the University of Arizona. I do talk about Peoples Temple, but only to my mother, grandmother, boyfriend, and my friends in Peoples Temple community. These were the individuals who never judged, never shrugged when I first began researching Peoples Temple.
Peoples Temple is now very close to my heart, which may sound odd considering my age. When I was interviewing Bryan Kravitz, Tim Carter, Jim Jones Jr., Laura Johnston Kohl, and Fielding McGehee, I always said “I’m only a seventeen-year-old high school student. I can’t change the world.” Well, I am eighteen now. Maybe I can make a difference.
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(Laura Woods may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)