Jonestown   Jim Jones: His Biography and Mystery of a Massacre by Sarah Schmidtbauer    

Written Fall 1998 for Honors 291 : New Religious Movements

The mystery and tragedy of Jonestown can never be forgotten. In this year, the twentieth anniversary of Jonestown, we especially remember the people and events of November 18, 1978. To help us retrace our steps through history, there have been countless newspaper, magazine, radio, and television reports discussing different aspects of what really happened at Jonestown. With almost every news story discovering new evidence or new theories as to what happened in the crucial moments of this tragedy, it is often difficult to separate the facts from the fiction. Personally, after viewing three different television reports and reading articles about Jonestown, I am still confused as to what exactly happened the night Jonestown came tumbling down, and am convinced there are still many people in search of these same answers.

I have chosen two different television broadcasts to more completely examine Jim Jones and his People’s Temple. Both of these broadcasts were aired on cable’s A & E channel. One was a “Biography This Week” episode (airing on November 21) and the other, entitled Jonestown: Mystery of a Massacre, was an “Investigative Reports” episode.

Both television reports discussed the life of Jim Jones, the leader of a religious movement known as the People’s Temple, or Jonestown. Jones began his public life as a Methodist minister and progressed to the position of “cult leader” by the mid-1960’s. Originally, Jones started People’s Temple to encourage social justice and racial equality in America. By 1978, Jones had left those values for the pursuit of fame and power, which resulted in a disastrous end for his followers. Jones and his People’s Temple did not go unnoticed. There were the Concerned Relatives, a group hoping to get their loved ones out of Jonestown, a congressman named Leo Ryan, and by this time, defectors from People’s Temple who brought the story of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple to the forefront of American society.

In November of 1978, Congressman Ryan and the Concerned Relatives journeyed to Guyana to see more closely just what was going on inside Jonestown. After visiting with Jones and his followers, Ryan and some others were murdered not far from Jonestown. Later that evening, November 18, 1978, Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide, thus committing a mass suicide that will never be forgotten.

The “Biography” episode primarily dealt with the life of Jim Jones, relating much information about his earlier life. The historical facts known of Jones were supplemented by interview clips of childhood friends and acquaintances, as well as scholars and pastors. The entire background on Jim Jones was well structured and presented in a manner that was easy to absorb, even if introduced to Jones for the first time. As the biography continued, a psychologist interjected tidbits of Jones’ psychological status and empowerment at various stages of his life.

The psychological analysis of Jones’ life was set up well from the beginning of his biography. The narrator told of his childhood in a loveless, cold, indifferent family who survived a bare existence at best. Then a childhood friend supported those claims with an explanation of the Jones’ house, conveying just how poor they really were. The narrator then spoke of Jim Jones as an excellent student with high intelligence that also was highly mischievous at times. Another friend commented on the evil smirk Jim Jones would display every time he acted especially mean, when bestowing pain on others. These accounts allowed the psychologist to declare Jim Jones as a seriously disturbed person all his life, because of both his upbringing and his genetic tendencies. It seemed that as soon as the psychologist labeled him as abnormal, this biography continuously propelled Jim Jones toward a dramatic end solely because of his psychological inadequacy. However, I do not believe Jones’ psychological state alone was enough for him to become the power-hungry, paranoid man he became. Other factors, such as mass media attention and criticism from family members and defectors of People’s Temple, appear just as important to Jim Jones’ agenda.

The biography of Jim Jones provided a thorough background for the “Investigative Reports” episode. This episode was presented mostly as a conspiracy theory from the beginning, with the aforementioned “new evidence, new theories” angle. This report was purely a conspiracist’s dream. The narrator began the story by presenting three different questions, apparently the only three questions anyone should have regarding Jonestown. The first question dealt with the mass suicide – mass murder question: Which one was it? The second question, was Jonestown really a mind control experiment, perhaps in conjunction with the CIA? Thirdly, just how, if at all, was the CIA involved in this tragedy?

Supplemented with interviews of defectors and survivors of Jonestown, the report attempted to answer all three questions. Yet, the random approach used by the narrator, and ultimately the producer, failed to definitively answer any of the questions. According to the narrator, Jonestown was originally considered a mass suicide. After extensive medical tests, it was determined an act of mass murder, yet people still refer to it as a mass suicide. I do not see the problem here. It seemed as if the reporters simply wanted to split hairs instead of focus on the actual fact: over 900 people died. The narrator never even mentioned the possibility that some of these people could have been murdered and others could have committed suicide. Why? Because it does not change the gruesome outcome that was Jonestown.

As to the questions of a mind control experiment, either with or without the aid of the CIA, nothing definitive was presented in the report. There were accounts of Jim Jones meeting with a CIA agent in Brazil once and receiving mail from another one a few times, but no evidence of any collaboration or “secret deal” between the two parties. The narrator also mentioned that a police officer Jones knew from his Methodist minister days in Indiana later became a “sometimes” agent with the CIA. That’s all that was said. Nowhere in the report did the narrator or anyone else mention whether Jones even kept up his friendship with this police officer. Jones probably had no idea the police officer was promoted.

One person in the report did pique my interest, and I wished more had mentioned of Richard Dwyer to pull together all the loose ends the narrator set up. Dwyer was an alleged CIA agent who accompanied Congressman Ryan and the Concerned Relatives to Jonestown. It was never mentioned why he was traveling with this group, but it was assumed he would protect the group in case of trouble, and if any Jonestown defectors were picked up, Dwyer could immediately question them about their life with Jim Jones. However, the strange part about Dwyer was he disappeared from the airstrip, and the group he was traveling with, just minutes before members of Jonestown murdered Ryan and others. An NBC cameraman even recorded Dwyer peeling off from the others.

During the last hour or so of Jonestown, Jones taped himself talking about what was happening. On the tape, he gives orders to have Dwyer taken down to another area of the camp, away from the entire killing. Yet Dwyer was not taken prisoner, so what was he doing back inside Jonestown? Still later, about three and half-hours after Jones himself was dead, a radio message was sent from Jonestown across a CIA emergency secret channel pronouncing a mass suicide had taken place. Dwyer may or may not have still been in the area when rescue teams arrived. The CIA has been very tight lipped regarding Dwyer’s presence and absence from the most important aspects of the Jonestown case. Until the CIA releases its files, I will never find out about the one question I wanted answered.

Despite it’s conspiracy theory tone, the “Investigative Reports” report appealed to many people simply because of its sensationalistic approach. Personally, I preferred the “Biography” report, as I like to be given only the facts so that I can decide what the important questions surrounding Jonestown are. I wonder if anyone will ever be able to find answers to all of their questions regarding this mysterious tragedy or if we will have to rely on the media’s three most important questions. I hope one day there will be as many pages of factual information as there are questions left unanswered regarding Jonestown.

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