The Questions For The Ages

As the editors of the jonestown report planned the publication of the final edition, we posed a question for the previous contributors to the report to consider:

Of the scores of questions that remain about Peoples Temple and its members and the events of November 1978, is there one that you really wish you had the answer to? It could be one looking for information that has yet to be uncovered; it could be one which has no answer. In short, what are the challenges for the next generation of academics and philosophers to consider?

Most of the responses we received were short, and appear below. We did receive two longer pieces, one by New Religious Movements scholar Catherine Wessinger and one from jonestown report co-editor Rikke Wettendorff.

How did Jim Jones start off with a great mission – being a great person with a great church – and yet turn out the way he did in the end? Was it money, power, drugs, lack of accountability, or some combination? Or – on the other hand – was this Jones’ plan from the beginning, for everything to end up the way it did?

Former Temple member Fayzo (Tommy Washington)

How did Jim Jones’ affiliation with the Disciples of Christ denomination enable him to get away with what he did?

Former Temple member Bernie Blanton

How many people were drugged early on the last day, and when was the decision made to do it? Leslie Wilson reports that children were given specific food in Jonestown on the morning, perhaps to keep them quiet. This suggests larger questions: when did the Jonestown leadership know what was going to happen that day? What was the sequence of events between the leadership’s decision to die and the actual deaths?

Former Temple member Tim Carter

• What causes the emergence of music groups named after Peoples Temple/Jonestown and why do they – and others – want to incorporate pieces of Jonestown audio, especially from the death tape, into their recordings?

• Why are the remembrances of those who survived not considered valid? What would add “scholarly” validity?

• Do the scholars who write of Peoples Temple bring any real understanding, or do only survivors of the experience have true understanding?

• How can survivors who still don’t feel any (or much) closure find it and come to peace?

Former Temple member Don Beck

I have three broad questions, each of them connected in a different way to understanding the genesis of the murders and mass suicide.

1. What were the inspirations, connections, and relationships between participants in the Concerned Relatives and individuals associated with the broader anti-cult movement? Whether or not there were direct connections, what did the Concerned Relatives take in the way of inspiration and/or strategy from the broader movement?

2. What were the relationships of various government agencies to the Concerned Relatives, to People Temple, and to each other? Obviously, a good deal is known about a variety of such relationships, but just as evidently, there is a good deal that is not known.

3. What were the successive phases and timings (in the end, by day, hour, and minute) of decisions among which participants in Peoples Temple concerning holding the collective suicide?

I realize something already is known about each of these questions, but I think each of them bears deeper investigation and analysis. At the same time, for each question, there are limits to what can possibly be known that fall short of what actually happened.

John R. Hall

We know that seven people died in Jonestown due to natural causes before November 18, 1978, and were likely buried somewhere there. Were their deaths commemorated in any special way by Jonestown residents? Was there in fact a plot of land designated as a cemetery in Jonestown? And what happened to those remains after November 18? Were they exhumed and repatriated along with those from the tragedy, or are they still there in what would likely be unmarked graves?

Kristian Klippenstein

What was Jim Jones thinking that last day as he gave the order to mix the poison? How long had it been planned, and by who? Why did he think it would be better to have everyone die?

Bonnie Yates

How much of what Jim Jones said in the final six months of Jonestown’s existence – whether in the news about what was going on in the United States, or in his reports about relations with the Guyanese government – did anyone actually believe, especially those in the Jonestown leadership?

Fielding M. McGehee III

Jim McElvane arrived in Jonestown just days before 18 November and therefore must have been outside the narrative of persecution and isolation that had been created in Jonestown. Moreover he must also have known that the scenario Jim Jones painted of life in the States was exaggerated. If he indeed had a fuller picture of the situation than the rank and file, why did he advocate so strongly for dying on that final day?

Rikke Wettendorff

Why would my aunt leave her family – a brother, sister, nieces and nephews – the people whom she claimed to love for a group that she barely knew. The question is not just about Peoples Temple, because there have been several of my relatives who’ve rejected immediate family for the pull of others, drugs, religion, etc. They, like my Aunt Lexie, rejected her family’s values and refused to attend family gatherings. Some came back – and the challenge then is to forgive and to welcome them back into the family circle – but Aunt Lexie died far away, so we will never know the answer to the very simple question, “Why?”

Dorothy Brooks

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on November 24th, 2013.
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