Challenging the Inevitable Norm

I’m a lot of things, but to those directly touched by Jonestown I’m nothing but another television producer. It’s not as important as it sounds, and probably just as bad as it looks. In general I make hour long non-fiction programming for cable networks such as the Discovery Channel. Some people – some of you perhaps – call these documentaries. Others call them lies, re-imagined history, or opportunities to exploit the pain of others to entertain and sell soap.

I was born in 1975 in the East Coast to secular, angry New Yorkers, who set out to live the “good life” in the woods, off the grid to some degree, and fairly self sufficient. My mother cut my hair. I was raised on goat’s milk. To this day they still raise much of their own food. My upbringing did not condition me for a life of joining, being included, or participating on the terms of others. I was raised an only child, and to this day am wary of being in “the group”, of joining the “team”, and in general think the “collective voice” is to be avoided and feared.

I was hired to make a program about cult followers. And the format of the program literally asked me to put members of murderous cults on a Scale of Evil. The Jonestown tragedy of 1978 is an obvious story to tell, and cable television is all about being obvious and conventional. My preconceptions of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and – frankly – much of California is a script probably most of your could write. But I am, if nothing else, an excellent researcher, and began reading a variety of takes on how this piece of Group Think History has been rehashed, dramatized, and justified in American pop culture. This is how I came to this website.

I also viewed the recent PBS documentary by Stanley Nelson, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Aside from understanding that one cannot learn all there is to know about Peoples Temple in one film, I was not particularly taken with the documentary. As in any edited piece, the director had a dramatic and compelling narrative, and he took the parts spoken by others that work best in presenting that narrative. As a result, words, anecdotes, even feelings are taken out of context. But this was my rather harsh take: some Temple members read as classic cult members. A bit vacant in the eyes, dulled emotionally, it all left me questioning the pain, suffering and even euphoria that they must have felt 30 years ago. Other interviewees read like they had an agenda, like perhaps their story was only a piece of much more complicated puzzle. In short, I was having trouble relating to any of those members of this group. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see myself making this mistake. Following this madman. Getting swept up. I didn’t see myself in Guyana in 1978…

…until I saw Tim Carter’s interview.   For me, his voice, his story, his point of view, his energy (if you will) kicked in my empathy on a much more complicit level. This made sense to me.

I too think the government is wretched and failing its people. America could be wonderful. A life helping people who need it would be much more fulfilling, certainly more fulfilling than making Television, and absolutely vital after an experience like Viet Nam. The situation is sadly the same today as it was 30 years ago: the disenfranchised are hidden, their numbers are growing – and the middle class feels powerless to help. Everyone I know and love wants to help those in need, and has no idea how take the next step… And here comes Jim Jones with a vision, with the will and means, and with an enormous track record. An opportunity for anyone who wanted to participate in making the world a better place. This is the wagon I would climb on today, as Tim Carter and – I see it now – so many others did 30 years ago.

Until I began my research began I did not realize just how successful Peoples Temple was in accomplishing social change in a relatively grand scale. It worked on many levels (education, elderly care, minority empowerment, effective government policy, etc). At its best, it made socialism a viable process through which to make America a better place.

I know why Tim Carter joined Peoples Temple. It makes complete sense to me, at least on the surface, and I knew that if I was going to be forced to tell this story for some television program, I needed to give an individual voice to this story about a Group Disaster.

Thus began my relationship with Tim Carter. It took approximately two months for Tim to agree to the interview. Tim didn’t want it to be like every other account of Jonestown that he has seen on ABC, NBC, the History Channel, National Geographic, and the rest – but of course, neither did I. I had watched about a dozen of these programs, and it was a frightening exercise: at times these television shows are so identical it looks like they are stealing from each other… the same people are interviewed, telling the same stories, illustrated by the same photos, the same NBC footage of Congressman Ryan, the same story following the same rutted path. Some of the facts reported from show to show are actually wrong, the same mistakes endlessly repeated. My father calls this “revisionist” history. I call it the inevitable norm.

The only thing I could promise Tim was that what I would deliver to the client wouldn’t look like what anyone else had broadcast on the subject. And what eventually aired is far from perfect.   But it is most definitely not a repeat. It gave only one individual’s voice to a group experience. Tim’s perspective is his own. In the opinion of this writer, I think his candor, his generous spirit, and ability to share the most painful moment in his life for millions to see is an extraordinary act of bravery. As I look at my 14-month-old daughter napping in the other room, his loss is unimaginable to me. I’m not sure I would have survived the same circumstances. I know I would not have ability to share the story so that others can learn…

So the world tells us, or at least TV history tells us, that everyone drank the Kool-Aid. Jesus. Tim was there and he says that’s not the way it was at all. Believe what you want. The only thing I can say is I was convinced that next to nothing good could come out of making a television program about cult killers etc. But the truth is that the time I spent with Tim is easily the most important of my professional career, and had a tremendous effect on my personal life. Albeit unbearably sad at times, it was a fantastic experience learning how nuanced this piece of history is, how tragic, and how misrepresented. It made me think, for a moment at least, that perhaps I can help facilitate some good in all this misery.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to thank Tim enough for that.

(Remy Weber is a freelance filmmaker. He lives in New York.)