Jonestown: Community

02-jtrSo it comes down to this – standing in line, listening to the drone from the loudspeakers: that slurred, meandering voice you’ve followed so often through the long hot nights… Is it true? That all is lost? That men will parachute in to torture the babies? That death is not a fearful thing? “We win when we go down.” “Let’s make it a beautiful day.” Then up to the guards at the vat. The little cup of Flavor Aid – purple, grape – and we all lie down to wait.

How could it happen? 909 people – black, white, grandmothers, babes in arms – voluntarily committing “revolutionary suicide?” At Jonestown in Guyana, thirty-three years ago today, the assembled members of Peoples Temple preceded their leader, Jim Jones, into death. It was the largest number of Americans to die outside a natural disaster until this grim record was surpassed on 9/11.

Jonestown was officially an agricultural project of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple. Jones had chosen Guyana because it offered remoteness, cheap land, and a socialist, majority black government sympathetic to his ideals. For the Temple was not a traditionally Christian group: it admired Christ for his message of universal acceptance and simple, communal living, but it also celebrated Castro and Stalin. It was “anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist” – and, following Jones’ lead, increasingly paranoid.

Jim Jones was born into a dirt-poor white Depression family – a strange child, obsessed with death. He held funerals for animals and fantasized about being a brave Soviet soldier, holding the Germans back from Stalingrad. He joined the Pentecostalist church because it was the most despised in the community. He brought back a black friend to visit his house and his father, a KKK member, threw them out. From the beginning, two forces seemed to be working within him: a violent rejection of unfairness and an urgent desire for unconditional love. He never had a real program; he left almost no writings. He wanted a world of happy equals, filling his own void with adoration.

And he found them: his preternatural desire to connect, what he called his “sensitivity,” brought in the widest variety of people – from drug dealers to district attorneys – who became devoted to Jim Jones. Starting from the position of a traditional Methodist pastor, then as a faith healer, then as an overt communist, he attracted, not mindless cult fodder, but ordinary people who felt they had some gift to offer that the world had ignored: “there is the largest group of people I have ever seen who are concerned about the world and are fighting for truth and justice.”  Peoples Temple offered relief from the diseases of individualism: from greed, mistrust, competition, self-doubt. It had its financial and sexual irregularities and its bullying loyalists, but for most, it was a chance to give, each according to his abilities; and receive, each according to his need.

Jones’ own need, though, was stronger and darker than his followers knew; his craving for love made him brood over any defections. His intense but uninformed hatred of injustice made him see plots where in truth there were only obstructions or clashes of personality – and his money allowed him to hire advisors who pandered to his paranoia: the Temple’s lawyers were all prominent conspiracy theorists. Church members had given up to Jones the responsibilities of dealing with the outside world. They were not to know that, to him, the world was a place of pain – and they themselves were not real people but imaginary friends, to be brought into and out of existence at will.

Letters and photographs from Jonestown during its last year reveal a heartbreaking dichotomy. So much was being accomplished – functioning schools, a successful hospital, improving agriculture. The group pictures show something even now too rare among Americans: people of different races totally, physically at ease with each other – arms around shoulders; bright, open smiles. It seems one of the few experiments in communal living  that was actually successful.  Yet at the focus of this community sat a man whose resentment and despair were dragging the whole hopeful enterprise to its doom. The days were filled with building; the nights with long sermons about the relentless approach of enemy forces – the CIA, the defectors; the vague possibility of exodus to the Soviet Union; and the dignity of suicide. One trigger – the visit and panicked shooting of Congressman Leo Ryan – brought it down to this: standing in line for the fatal cup.

Most of us, by the nature of averages, are not especially gifted or capable – yet we yearn to achieve purpose in life, to become necessary to something or someone. We dream of striving in unison for a higher cause, finding and offering acceptance and respect. Growing food, building houses, teaching children, nursing the sick, guarding the community: these are noble desires – but they are also naive, because they consciously ignore how our little world (this garden, this classroom) will fit into the larger, less comfortable one. Let us, of course, lend willing hearts and hands to the task; but we allow another be the head at our peril.

(This article was originally posted at and is reprinted with permission. Michael Kaplan describes the purpose of the Bozo Sapiens blog is to publish “an essay every day on an event of that date illustrating how unexpected, often disastrous results can arise, as at Jonestown, from the best of intentions.”)