I grew in the verdant Ukiah Valley, the same place that Jim Jones and Peoples Temple were during the late 1960s and early 70s. Throughout my youth, whenever the conversation turned to these former neighbors, someone would change the subject, so I was unclear about what actually happened in my hometown area. The first exposure I had to the events came when my father-in-law loaned me a copy of Javers and Kilduff’sSuicide Cult. I quickly read the work and filed the information away. Mostly I would relate the image of Jim Jones selling monkeys door to door in the Midwest to demonstrate to people my mastery of esoteric historical data.
I majored in history in college, both at the University of California, Berkeley and Sonoma State University. At Sonoma State, I enrolled in a research seminar taught by Dr. Steve Estes on the Civil Rights Movement. Struggling to find a new angle on the movement, I searched through my books and memories for a meaningful topic. I suddenly remembered that Peoples Temple started in the Midwest with a civil rights agenda, and my research into the Temple began. I began to look at the early history of Jones and his congregants, and became obsessed with the topic, burrowing my way through the literature to find out the role of both civil rights ideology and the local story.
I found a wealth of information and sources, and began to see the history in a new way. I saw Jones and the Temple as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement, a regional struggle in the national upheaval of this turbulent era. I also found that people were willing to talk about their memories. I learned that my own father had received a letter from members of Peoples Temple while he was recovering from an automobile accident. It seemed odd that this nationally infamous group had lived among my fellow townspeople and family for years. I had driven countless times past the building Jones and his followers built without knowing the history of it.
Looking over the articles written immediately after the mass suicide in Guyana, I found illuminating and devastating material. I saw that people were genuinely afraid that Jones would seek revenge from beyond the grave with assassination squads. The local police granted requests for guards. Editorials poured out full of anguish and grief, and often guilt. The reticence surrounding Peoples Temple suddenly made perfect sense. But I found more than that. I found a community trying to deal with being connected to these monumental events and personalities.
Then I started to have nightmares about Jonestown. In one I injected a young child with poison and tried in vain to wake him up. I screamed and wept over the lifeless body of the child, then looked around at hundreds of others suffering and dying. I woke up in a cold sweat, disoriented and terrified. I told myself it was all a dream, but the horrendous vision stayed with me. My project became more and more difficult, but at the same time, more and more compelling. I personally think that it is time to critically analyze Jonestown, Jones and Peoples Temple to try and make sense of our own history. Ignoring or fleeing the past does not make it disappear.