My first encounter with Peoples Temple was in college. A single photograph buried deep within the pages of my sociology textbook. The image was left virtually unexplained – just the infamous bird’s eye view of 909 bloated, dead bodies. The book provided no explanation or detail. Just the photo with a vague caption under some obscure section heading probably related to “cults”.
It was only until recently that I realized why I had not considered the image with more substantive curiosity: I had forgotten about it.
So has the whole of American cultural consciousness. It’s astounding to note that following the initial tragedy of November 18, 1978, close to 98% of the American public were familiar with a place called Jonestown, according to a Zogby poll. Today, nearly thirty years later, whenever you mention the “suicide cult,” all that comes to mind is “Kool-aid”. In retrospect, the historical stigma attached to Peoples Temple was predetermined once that infamous photograph – and others like it – hit the newsstands. Blasted over television. Hyperbolized in the news. Those visceral and notorious images of the Jonestown dead are now the legacy of all those people. What can be done to change that?
A year ago, I eagerly accepted the invitation of some friends to go see Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple in downtown New York. If nothing else, I thought as we headed down to Union Square, the movie might help me to understand the man many Temple members called “Father.” Maybe I’d learn the history of that haunting photograph too.
My heart was pierced from frame one. And here’s why: I immediately realized, as the film started rolling, that any one of those people could have been me. I am Peoples Temple. My friends are Peoples Temple. My family; my peers; these ticket holders too.
I left the theater that October night with swollen eyes. Not only was I introduced to the history behind that infamous textbook image, I had determined the course of the following nine months of my life. Peoples Temple would be my next subject.
My current screenplay “Nightswimming” is now in motion picture development. Set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, my research and study in preparation for this film took me deep into the heart of the bayou. I had to find an empathy with the suffering city in order to find truth in my work. After all, as the late Lee Strasberg said: “How can I paint unless I’m willing to confuse my own feelings with what I’m doing?” A drama set in the heart of New Orleans deserves that. My subsequent script would deserve that too.
I immediately discerned an unsophisticated approach would be to tackle the Temple per usual: Up close and personal with the mythology of Jonestown. A wealth of dreadful products have stemmed from this tactic, eluding any nuanced or serious inquiry. My ambition, I decided, was to find an alternative perspective, a voice of truth contrary to typical design. I quickly determined my subject to be the reporter who brought Peoples Temple to light.
This screenplay would not be “The Jim Jones Story”. The opposite idea, in fact. My intention would be to tackle the subject from someone on the outside looking in. I found this perspective in journalist Marshall Kilduff, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter whose courageous curiosity and genuine concern began to peel away at the onion. Working with Phil Tracy, Kilduff’s dogged investigative instincts and the cooperation ofNew West Magazine culminated in the publication of the lionized six-page article entitled “Inside Peoples Temple” (August 1, 1977).
I came to devote myself to the study of the Temple full time. Days, nights, weekends. With incomparable assistance from the Jonestown Institute and the California Historical Society, I entered a world as vast as the Atlantic Ocean.
I spent weeks peering through the volumes of the FBI report. I read every book I could find. I nearly camped out in the microfilm archives of the New York Public Library. And, after a long, concerted effort, I found the irreplaceable voices of former Temple members, Temple relatives and Bay Area reporters – Kilduff included – who have extended their stories to me. It has been my absolute privilege and honor to hear so many personal accounts.
At the start of my journey I couldn’t be sure as to what I would find. And to be honest, what I’ve found cannot be summarized in the 1,000 words I’ve been allotted here. But what I can tell you are two things I now know:
1.) To compartmentalize Peoples Temple into some kind of rhetorical absolute misses the historical significance of a 25-year machination the American public has all too quickly forgotten. It’s like grabbing at that body of water. Defining Peoples Temple is to grasp at the ocean: An immeasurable volume of enlightened progressivism, metamorphic leadership and hypocritical administration. For this, we cannot forget its relevance. We also cannot forget the good.
2.) But Peoples Temple was not a game. It was not some academic exercise. This sobering truth hits square between the eyes anyone who chooses to visit the archives of the CHS. It’s beyond overwhelming to take in the images of hundreds of beautiful children – most of who undeservedly perished before their time. Peoples Temple ultimately culminated in a kaleidoscope of bastardized ethics, contaminated moral values and dictatorial rule which sentenced 918 men, women and children to their deaths. And for that, we cannot apologize.
This knowledge is a monumental cross to bear in deciding to pursue Peoples Temple as a main player in a creative piece of work. I can only hope that in coming to understand these truths – along with so many others – the presently entitled “American Prophet” will add even the slightest impact into salvaging the mythologized legacy of Peoples Temple from the doldrums of superficial understanding, dangerously dismissive folklore and – like that obscure textbook photograph – rescued from the minds of the forgotten.
(Jeff Keilholtz is a writer and dramatic artist based out of New York City. His current film “Nightswimming” is slated to begin production in early 2008.)