My initial interest in Peoples Temple has somewhat mystic origins. I was five years old in 1978 when the Agricultural Project in Guyana came to an abrupt end. My family had a subscription to Newsweek, and I was apparently fascinated by the sensationalist images, particularly one featuring a dented tub of purple Flavor Aid in the foreground. My parents caught me looking at it and promptly confiscated it, but it was too late. The enigma had already invaded my soul, to forever haunt me. For the next several weeks, all of my crayon drawings and fingerpaintings were almost entirely purple. I still have a few of them.
Over the years, I became an avid amateur recordist, documenting everything that happened in my life with a handheld tape recorder. Every so often, I would check the card catalog at my local library for books about Jonestown, hoping to find something new, something interesting. I have to admit that, at first, I was looking for images, acting upon the macabre sense of human curiosity that incites us all to rubberneck when we drive by the scene of an accident. I never found very much. In particular, I recall watching the film Guyana Tragedy in Sociology class during my senior year of high school. This became the basis of my understanding of Jonestown, and it wasn’t really any different than the initial Newsweek article, or any other view of Jonestown that had been presented to the general public: that “Jonestown” was a group of brainwashed religious nuts, lead to an apocalyptic death by an insane, power-crazed leader.
This is the same whitewashed textbook response that always rings out in the presence of any “cult” activity. I accepted this as a teenager, but over time I wanted to know more. The advent of the World Wide Web provided additional avenues for research, but the avenues all seemed to send me in the same old direction to the same old information. I slowly realized what I really wanted: not just images or documents, but actual artifacts.
I don’t remember how I found the archive of Peoples Temple tape recordings at the Jonestown Institute. Finally, I thought, the real story. After all, if you really want to know the truth, why not go straight to the source: Jim Jones and the members of Peoples Temple, eternally preserved on more than 700 cassette tapes recovered from Jonestown, Guyana in November of 1978.
Up to this point, I had never known that they were not a “religious cult” at all, that in fact the leaders were hard-core socialists who rejected the teachings of the Bible. I had never heard anything positive about the inner workings of the community in Guyana. I had not known of the rich early history of Peoples Temple and the truly teeth-gritting intrigue of the later years. And I had never thought of Jim Jones and the people of Jonestown as normal everyday human beings, with many of the same dreams and same flaws as the rest of us. The tapes effectively cover the full history of Peoples Temple, including early sermons from the first churches in Indiana and California, phone conversations, Jonestown community meetings, radio communications between Jonestown and the U.S., Jim’s “daily news”, and White Nights, among them the now-infamous final gathering. My personal favorites are the Jonestown meetings.
Listening to the tapes, as a longtime practitioner of amateur recording, I immediately recognized the rawness, the both ugly and beautiful truth of these recordings, with all of their crude stops and starts, tape hiss, too-loud and too-quiet recording levels, the occasional overpowering bleed of transmissions from the nearby radio room. And then of course there were the distinctly human elements of the community – the awkward pauses in conversation, the highly emotional responses from the crowd, ranging from anger to excitement to joy – as well as the alternately brilliant and mean-tempered, stammering monologues from Jim Jones himself. Sure, there were the devilish doings in Jonestown that we’ve all heard about: sex, drugs, coercion, scandal, shady financial dealings. There was also great passion, devotion, love, fun, determination… and a wonderfully funky band.
Twenty-six years have passed since the last of these recordings were made. Yet, to listen to these recordings is to travel back in time and to experience these events once again, without any kind of media distortion, sensationalist propaganda, or even old fashioned human bias. No matter what your particular perception is, the tape recorder never lies, and the recordings stay the same no matter how many times you listen to them.
(Norman Scott is an artist, audio engineer, and inventor living in Queens, NY. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).