With meticulous integrity and an unshakable compass that goes for the heart, Leigh Fondakowski’s book, Stories from Jonestown, mines the depths of reflection, conclusion, and attempted resolution of each survivor’s 30-year history following what she calls, “a tragic day in human history.” From the time I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.
It was for me literal survivor comfort food, thrilling in the many articulate expressions that resonated with my own perceptions, and providing new insight into perspectives I had not considered. It recalled the good, the empowerment, the personal transformation that seemed effortless at the time, eclipsed by the all-encompassing nature of Peoples Temple as it enfolded you.
Remembering anew the solidarity, the unity of purpose, and its collective expression in the periodic rituals we called “services,” it caused a twinge, and I agree with the interviewee who called it addictive. I‘ve thought before that, as sure as our species has five senses, there is an instinct in us to “put it all right” – to save the world, if you will – and in enabling, massaging, embellishing and galvanizing our identification with his agenda to the extent we acted as a group, Jim Jones knew of this instinct and how to engage it.
You don’t do that with lies. You do it with truth. Then you work the lies in very gradually, very carefully.
Leigh’s mirror also reflects the compromises, deceptions and coercions that accompanied assimilation and soft lockdown into the group identity of Peoples Temple. The joy of unity was a two-edged sword, however: as surely as our (still!) hunger for the tight-knit strike force of The Cause was stoked by this rarest of all intoxicants in a do-your-own-thing culture, it was also a surgeon’s blade, paring off and rooting out any temptation to disagree, act unilaterally, question leadership or even draw attention. In the day, we had a lot of rationalizations for that which I won’t expand on.
Parsing the lessons of Jonestown 34 years later, it seems to me that the only morality may consist of the courage to express disagreement when you feel it, with the consensus of whatever group you think you represent, or are represented by. And, that if someone can make you give up tobacco or drugs, they can talk you into believing anything. Just look around.
Leigh’s research was in many cases the icebreaker in eliciting the incredible responses she did from survivors as they began to surface in the 80s from the blanket of shame that attended the survivor’s guilt we felt. I believe that same shame caused many, if not most, whites who were not personally connected to Peoples Temple to distance themselves as a natural protective reaction and to objectify us as people who in the end must have deserved what we got.
Non-survivors interviewed by Leigh gave priceless insights, and disclosed burdens that in many ways matched those carried by the survivors themselves in the wake of Jonestown’s fall. There was guilt, as they searched their souls for any culpability and asked what they could have done differently. There were observations of the effects of the murder/suicides on communities and society.
The shame and the paralysis it caused are described by Rev. Arnold Townsend, a community activist in San Francisco and one of the non-survivors interviewed by Leigh. He characterized the effects of Jonestown as “tearing the heart” out of his community, in extinguishing the progressive African-American leadership that would be in place today. “It almost doesn’t matter whether anybody intended it or not,” Townsend says. “What happened couldn’t have served the reactionary forces in this country and in this state any better than if it was planned.”
For me, this was a nugget, and hopefully will snag other readers’ attention as it did mine. I’ve thought that, too, and have even written about it, and if I take issue with Rev. Townsend, it’s the use of the word “almost” in his statement. I think it would be hugely significant if “someone” (besides Jones himself) intended it.
Because then one must ask, who and why? That it is not now known is a given. Remember, the suicides were soon followed by the Moscone/Milk murders, which were followed by the wave of AK-47s and crack in the 80s. This resembles the pattern of psychological warfare called “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein in her book of the same name, as a tactic used to “wipe clean” the collective memory of a people to prepare them for political, social and economic manipulations, which they are then too numb to resist or recognize. Klein never mentions Jonestown, but focuses on a path of ruin through several South American countries in the 80s and then on Russia and former Soviet states, after the end of the cold war.
Townsend’s words were echoed with a chilling twist by John Hall, a UC Davis scholar also interviewed in the book, who described the mass murder/suicides of Jonestown as marking the end of 60s utopianism “for everybody—not just for them—but for everybody.” I disagree with Hall’s subsequent statement, though, that “We’ve really lost any interest in a utopian reconstruction of American society.” He may have impressive evidence to support that, but I have to wonder if he was being entirely forthcoming when he later called our inability to do so tragic, in light of the worsening of the problems of economic and social inequality that these sought to remedy. Substituting “left-wing” for “utopian,” his statement sounds like the conventional wisdom that the U.S. has “moved to the right” which has been so often repeated it may by now be inarguable. The tragedy is that the movement has been more of a forced march, a perception created, repeated and ingrained by controlled media and political forces, a two-party complicity to mask the steady shift from representation of the people to that of the super-citizens, the corporate elite, instead.
To quote Archie Ijames, one of the intellectual giants of the Temple – who was quoting Jim – “Things don’t just happen, they happen just.” He also said, “the first thought’s the highest.” A.J. added, “He used to say that a lot.”
Could it be that it was too inconsistent with the shift to a consumer society at endless war to allow attempts to “do” utopian reconstruction of American society—like bringing back The Commons? Are pesky problems of social and economic Balkanization far preferable to any solutions that might remind us that we are one people, able to work together to solve them? Is the continual crisis a deliberately-contrived environment, working for those who work it, to be capitalized on, while distracting, deluding and diverting the rest of us into loggerheads of partisan stasis where we serve as a passive audience to the carefully managed two-party stage show? That should be of universal and national concern.
We as a country are more insecure, miserable and mean-spirited than ever, more lawless and arrogant than ever. And shame is the forgotten emotion, or maybe it’s just archaic, gone the way of blessed are the poor and all men being created equal. All imperceptibly, gradually, over the last 30 years, to engulf us with a vengeance once this century dawned as an inevitable reality. Coincidence.
Was Jonestown just the kicker for the great right-wing takeover? Was Jim being used, hooked on something that fed neatly into his personality and need for absolute control over many, many others? As many as possible? Was he allowed to operate with complete impunity as long as it took to accomplish the predestined outcome? Or, did Jim know of that plan even then and feel he just had to get “our” – i.e., this nation’s – attention in advance? And miscalculate, not realizing that no one would much care for 40 years, at least no one who mattered?
That the conclusion was long planned was one of my first certainties after the shock of Jonestown. I remember the slip-up. It was long ago, back in Redwood Valley – three or four years before “Jonestown” – and there may have been something too rote about our crescendo of feeling in response to his oft-repeated finale: “and we’ll die together!!” He was silent a moment, then let loose a bitter outburst, at us, his audience. “You think it will all be glory and honor! You’ll be seen as the brainwashed followers of a mad preacher!” A rare moment of honesty, and a disconcerting thought, at least. Maybe someone else reading this remembers it. He never said it again.
His faithful recording secretary, the last true believer referred to in the book, remembers him bragging once, “no one will ever be able to figure me out.”
So the story continues, despite Leigh’s iconic ending. (The end.) Was this her humor, her optimism, or was she just being matter-of-fact? The work is illuminating, a great contribution to all of us who still struggle to understand. Thank you, Leigh.
(Kathy Barbour [Tropp] joined Peoples Temple in 1970 with her companion, Richard Tropp, and was living in the San Francisco Temple on November 18, 1978. Her other article in this edition is Coming to Terms with “Drinking the Kool-Aid”. Her earlier writings on this site can be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Of these three, only the last has been traced to the CIA, and the reporter responsible, Jim Webb, was quickly sidelined by his media organization, and shortly thereafter was found dead in what was pronounced “an apparent suicide.”