In search of truth

For the past few years I have been researching a book that provides a gay and lesbian perspective on Peoples Temple. During that time I have met a number of wonderful, intelligent, articulate, and committed people, and the stories they tell are so vivid, you would think they were describing events that happened yesterday instead of 26 years ago. And all of them are believable.

But what happens when their stories don’t jibe? When they are not in sync. When, at times, they even directly contradict each other. Who do you believe? What do you do if you find both versions to be believable, logical. and completely contradictory?

This is the position most people researching Peoples Temple will find themselves in. When I first encountered this paradox, I felt torn. I felt that I should figure out the truth and let the chips fall where they may. The problem was, it just wasn’t that easy.

On the surface the differences seem irreconcilable. Either Peoples Temple was a progressive church or it was a cult. The discipline was necessary, the discipline was excessive. Either the headquarters on Geary Street was a hub of community-based activity, providing food and shelter to hundreds if not thousands of people in the Bay Area, or it was an urban socialist fortress. Either Jonestown was paradise or it was a concentration camp. Was the food adequate in Jonestown or not? Were the conditions in Jonestown humane or not? Were the seniors abused or not? Could you refuse advances from Jim Jones or not?

How can a researcher come along 25 years later and make sense of all of this without alienating one side or the other (or both)? Because there is no middle road, and both sides can’t be right. Or can they?

The first person to contact me was one of the members who left Jonestown with Leo Ryan’s party on November 18th and who was shot on the airstrip. His story is incredible, and the heartfelt, passionate way he tells it is compelling. He joined the Temple with his wife when he was nineteen. She fell into an irreversible coma during childbirth. Eventually he and his son went to Jonestown, and even though he survived, his son didn’t. This man talks about a number of beatings. He witnessed many and was the recipient of a few. He recounts horrible humiliations and cruel acts of violence. And the story gets worse as he describes Jonestown. The terrible conditions ranged from cramped quarters – where sixteen people slept in an area originally meant for four – to times when the community would run out of necessities like laundry detergent. The diet consisted of rice. The brutality, isolation, lack of freedom or independent thought, the armed guards, the isolation, the fact that his passport was taken from him so that he was not able to leave. These were all horrifying personal experiences.

After interviewing this man for hours and hours, I began to write my story.

Then I attended one of the memorial services held every year at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland where hundreds of the Jonestown dead are buried in a mass grave. The service was emotional and moving. As people came to give their testimonies, the recurring message of every speaker seemed to be one of good churchgoing people duped by a madman to live in hell before being murdered. Every speaker but one. With a strong unwavering voice, she took the microphone and simply said that she loved living in Jonestown. And many of the residents loved living in Jonestown. That they understood they were building a new society and that would require sacrifice, sacrifices they were willing to make. Challenges they were willing to take on collectively. There was a spirit to Jonestown, a spirit that was life in itself. She had never felt community – ever, before or since – like she did in Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

Now what in the world was that? Was she describing the same place as the man who’d been shot at the airstrip? I had heard about the true believers, people who defended Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown. But I had never personally met one. I was strangely awed at her courage to stand up to what was an obviously hostile crowd and very simply state her beliefs. No argument, no drama. Just the facts.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Which version is factual? What was the real Jonestown like?

As it was, after all, a memorial service, I did not approach the woman. Instead I asked around and let people know I was interested in talking with her. Soon – as these things work – more and more people came forward, and I was privileged to talk to a number of people. People who left the church before November 18, people who left on November 18, people in the gay community who attended and befriended the Temple, and people who were in the Temple on November 18, but were not in Jonestown. It is truly an incredible group of people with unique perspectives on the events that led up to the demise of Jonestown.

Now I realize that, despite first appearances, the different stories are not all that contradictory.

One former Jonestown resident writes a moving piece about the community. She addresses the issue of food conditions in the community by acknowledging an inadequacy in the diet when compared to that of most Americans, but that it was one of the many sacrifices they had to make – that they were prepared to make – for the overall success of the project. She knew that a majority of the world goes to bed hungry every night, and the rationing in Jonestown made her feel in solidarity with her brothers and sisters in the third world.

In other words, neither side is denying that there were problems with the food, and whether the food was nutritious enough to sustain the long-term health of the community may never be resolved.

The same could be said for the discipline. It was severe, but a number of the exit interviews that the FBI conducted of members returning from Guyana to the United States clearly state that the community stopped beating people in the last few months because it was ineffective. One survivor’s memoirs compare the Jonestown discipline to that in the army or in prison. and this is in defense of the community. Clearly he is not denying the discipline was severe, but he can rationalize it by his life experiences. Again, the sides are more in agreement than one would first think.

The difference in accounts depends upon the perspective of the speaker, the circumstances of their presence in Jonestown, their relationship with Jim Jones and other members, and their journey in the intervening 26 years.

Even through we can verify and justify any number of the arguments, it is true that some people’s accounts of events differ and often times can be directly contradictory. That seems to be how human nature and history work. Instead of using one to negate the other, we have to record the difference. Many times an historian can reconstruct what has happened through the various accounts, understanding that they all differ.

They differ. That’s all there is to it. One is not right or wrong. Even if two views contradict each other, they both may be very true. What was an isolated socialist prison camp to one person could very well be a paradise to another. They are both valid, and they are both true, and they are both real. It cannot be the role of the researcher to take sides, but rather report that both sides exist, are expressing themselves and are worth hearing.

We need to focus every effort to record all of the feelings, stories and remembrances of the Jonestown community – even when they seem to disagree – before they are lost to time.

(Michael Bellefountaine was a frequent contributor to the jonestown report before his death in May 2007. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here.)