I was eight years old at the time of the Jonestown deaths. I remember watching the news and seeing the images of the masses of bodies lying next to each other – and some on top of each other – with their arms draped around their friends and families. I did not fully understand the concepts of suicide and death, but I remember the reactions of shock and horror that the Jonestown story and images elicited from the adults around me. I remember feeling scared, and the fact that some of them had their arms around each other somehow made it more eerie and sad. As a child I could not fully grasp what it all meant, but I did understand it was something terrible and heartbreaking.
As I got older and learned more about Jonestown, my reaction was not really very dramatic. Initially, if I thought about it at all, I chalked it off as being a bunch of brainwashed weirdos. To me, Jim Jones was one of those strange gurus, and his followers were just gullible people who, as the saying goes, you can sell the Brooklyn Bridge to. That is until I started looking at the whole Jonestown affair in depth.
I saw the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.It made me view things in a completely different light. Peoples Temple was not just a group of blind followers, it was an organization that provided food, shelter, and help for needy people, as well as for abandoned and abused animals. When I heard former members of Peoples Temple speak for the first time, I could see their humanity and intelligence and their desire to do good. They were not simply gullible weirdos.
Jim Jones surprised me as well. He didn’t turn out to be the odd guru that I initially thought him to be. I truly believe that deep down he had a good heart and did want to help people in need. But ultimately he was a mentally sick man obsessed with his own paranoias and insecurities. And I believe that these paranoias coupled with the absolute loyalty and obedience of his followers was a dangerous combination.
The thing that I cannot grasp, no matter how much I learn about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, is why the members gave him absolute obedience and loyalty, why they never questioned him, even though it was apparent that his mental faculties were failing. Maybe it was because they believed that he really did have the power to heal illnesses and raise the dead. But some members knew the healings were phony and actually participated in them and helped him stage them. Also, some members did not even come from religious backgrounds and were unlikely to fall for such ploys. So what was it that made intelligent people follow someone so blindly even to their deaths? I suppose that will never be answered.
Part of my quest to learn more about Peoples Temple led me to order some Jonestown tapes. I wanted to hear what it was truly like in Jonestown on a daily basis and hear them in their most ordinary, mundane circumstances. Upon reading the transcripts available at this website, I tried to chose tapes where the conversations were quite ordinary, and even silly and fun. There are tapes with lots of laughter and people joking around, and things even seem normal. But even the happy circumstances are tempered with people talking about their willingness to die in an act of revolutionary suicide. It is also disturbing to hear Jim Jones himself calling out individual followers and berating and humiliating them, and to hear others join in the attack on the unfortunate individual who has to admit all of his/her faults and shortcomings.
Perhaps I will never fully understand why people gave up their basic human rights to think and act for themselves to a single individual even to the point of dying. It is certainly not the first time in history people have done such things, but it does not make it any less shocking. I still remember the images of death that I saw on the news as a child and although I am an adult, the events of Jonestown still seem as unclear now as they did back then.