Time: Jonestown Reconsidered 35 Years Later

Time is a peculiar phenomenon. If some contemporary physicists can be believed, time, or, more precisely, the passage of time may in fact be an illusion and all that we experience – indeed, all that has ever happened – occurs simultaneously.

What then are we to do with the overwhelming perception that grounds our human experience, the sense that time is in motion, that it is a phenomenon through which we travel, with memory as our only tether to what has happened before? The complicated questions of memory are confounded when what is remembered is more rooted in imagination than experience.

My experience of the 1978 events in Jonestown was akin to that of most people. Sitting at home, engaged in who knows what, I, like millions of others around the world, first heard the news about the deaths in Jonestown from a television report. The distinction between my experience and that of most was that I had left Guyana only six months earlier and, having lived there for four years prior, I had firsthand knowledge of the country and remembered how remote and isolated Jonestown had been. I think I also had a particular awareness of how strange it was that nearly one thousand Americans were living in the dense relatively uninhabited Guyanese interior.

As a teenager, I found the events unfolding on the television were incomprehensible. They remain elusive and mired in the political and social vectors of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; the puzzle of Jim Jones; the subjectivities of the individuals involved; the tragic loss of life; the helplessness of the children involved; and the absolute unknowability of the particulars – the why at the center, not only of this horror, but of all of the injustice, brutality, and loss at the heart of the human experience.

As I have noted in previous editions of the jonestown report, my way of confronting this conundrum has been through art. As a poet, I use the creative process to provide me with a way to access understanding. I remain convinced, however, that no absolute answers to the puzzle – the vexation, if you will – of the Jonestown events exist, yet I remain convinced and determined to ensure, in as much as I am capable, the permanence of this story in collective memory.

To that end, as a scholar I have designed a lecture series in remembrance of the 35th anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy. The series will be held in the spring of 2013 at Bucknell University, where I direct the Griot Institute of Africana Studies. Through the series, I hope to reflect upon the nuances and meanings of the Jonestown experience by considering the event through multiple disciplinary facets and various perspectives.

In planning for the series, I have had the great fortune of communicating with several Jonestown survivors. In my interactions with these individuals, I have experienced their grace, forgiveness, and willingness to share. I hope to bring these generous souls as well as other experts and artists to the attention of young people who were not yet born in 1978. I also hope that students will gain an appreciation of the significance of this story and come to an awareness that the history of Peoples Temple and its members is not of interest as a consequence of the group’s distinctiveness from the rest of us but as a result of their fundamental humanity – their vulnerability, their aspirations, and their mistakes.

One of the aims of my poetry collection was to honor respectfully the experiences of time, of memory, of loss, and renewal that I imagined has been the experience of Jonestown survivors.

Vestigial Life
For all of the survivors . . .

the stern-faced sepulcher
furrows its grim shutters
to protect the magenta-shrouded
confessional, abode for knees
the exact shade of plums

Perhaps the knobby kneel
is complete,
throbbing dying down
at last
to indistinct and distant

The supplicant rises
from stones worn rusty
and concave from
the weight of years

the bloodrush
needles the flesh
threaded reddish-purple

Whether time is an illusion, a phenomenon catalyzed by the limitations of human perceptual boundaries, what fundamentally characterizes our experience of life is the shared venture and the commonalities of despair, joy, endeavor, and loss. Even if memory is an illusion, it yet remains a singular canvas in our experience upon which we outline and create meaning. We must not allow the imperative of the present to prevent our inquiry into the past. Arguably, memory is what sustains our human continuity, contains the repository of our interactions, and maintains the classroom within which humanity recites the essential lessons fundamental to our survival.


Recollection veins in rivulets,
its trace malleable,
fleeting as a flood plain –
an impressed hand upon the land,
with tawny tips dipped
and dissolving

in the sea.

(Carmen Gillespie was a Professor of English and the Director of the Griot Institute of Africana Studies at Bucknell University until her death on August 30, 2019. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)