Jessica Gunther

Written Project Response

As a child I was told stories. There was always a clear beginning, middle and end. There was always a lesson to be learned, a moral to be instilled. There was always good versus bad. The story might be full of colors but never, never did the story leave room for gray. As I grew older, the stories changed form. They started to come in nice, little, sixty-minute packages called episodes. It didn’t matter if the story revolved around something so horrific as, let’s say, murder, the crime would be solved within the neat little time frame. And even in the news, there always seems to be a story.

When I registered for classes this past fall, I was immediately grabbed by the title of this course; Jonestown: Stories of a Cult. I had long been interested in cults. One in particular that I had spent many hours researching online was Charles Manson’s following. Calling themselves “the family”, Manson and his adulators embodied all the qualities I associated with the very idea of a cult. Seemingly brainwashed, mindless people were at the beck and order of one, extraordinarily insane man. There was intimidation, fear, blood and worst of all, murder. Everything I had heard about Jonestown included all of these things. But the scope of Jonestown seemed impossibly large. How could hundreds of people be willing to follow Jim Jones to Guyana? I assumed they were brainwashed zombies, and a part of me, I really am ashamed to admit, didn’t see them as humans.

I wanted to know more about the 900 something nutcases that killed themselves. I wanted to learn about the evil cult of Peoples Temple. I wanted to know that they were twisted, sick, hopeless people, that Jim Jones was evil in every sense of the word. What I actually learned throughout this course was something entirely different.

Through the readings and especially the lectures, I have been able to see the humanity in Peoples Temple. I now understand how the Temple was able to flourish in a counterculture 1960’s America. It seems that no one joined the Temple with bad intentions. By all accounts, Jim Jones created an environment that was warm and welcoming. Many were attracted to its interracial congregation and sense of community. The idea that people wanted to join the Temple no longer seems as outlandish to me as it once did. Jones’ followers were just people, with hopes, fears, aspirations, whose circumstances in life lead them to the Temple.

It is unfortunate that the negative aspects of Jim Jones and his organization far outweighed its good qualities. Prior to this class, I never even considered that Peoples Temple had positive characteristics. Tim Carter spoke about how he was initially attracted by the positive message and work of the Temple; however, he eventually came to realize that the evil that existed within the organization discounted all the good deeds. Jim Jones would take in the homeless and drug addicts. He would turn lives around, but does any of it matter when he eventually ended the very lives he changed?

Through studying Peoples Temple, I realized that the events of November 18th, 1978 were only a part of the narrative. I have been able to look into the unique stories of countless individuals. Each person that perished in Jonestown or survived has experiences that are all different and equally important. Together, their stories weave a complex web of both human hope and tragedy.

I was extremely intrigued by the roles of the Stoens and Leo Ryan in the overall tale of Jonestown. Both fascinate me for different reasons. Reading about the custody battle over young John Victor Stoen frustrated me endlessly. I found it unbelievable that no amount of court proceedings could return John to his parents, Grace and Tim. In Raven, Tim Reiterman details how Jim Jones worked to turn John against his mother after she had defected. I found this to be absolutely heart breaking and was inspired to write a poem about the broken love between a mother and her son. After searching on the Jonestown Institute website, I found the two documents: the first was signed by both Grace and Tim, declaring that Jim Jones was the biological father of John Victor Stoen, the second was signed by only Tim a short time after Grace defected from the Temple. I read that throughout the course of the custody battle, 91 congressman wrote letters on behalf of Grace Stoen, but still the United States Government put no real effort forth to retrieve the child. All I could think about was the relationship between a mother and child, how strong the bond is between the two.

Leo Ryan interested me as person because he is known by almost everyone for the way that he died. I knew there had to be more to learn about the only United States Congressman assassinated in history. I was very curious as to how and why he became so deeply involved in the narrative of Jonestown. One obvious reason was his friendship with Sammy Houston, but I wanted to know what kind of personal qualities Leo Ryan possessed that lead to his persistence regarding Peoples Temple. What I found through my research of Leo Ryan was the portrait of an altruistic and courageous man. People that had been close to him described him as someone who would stop at nothing to uncover the truth. At one point in his life, Ryan actually used a pseudonym to be arrested and imprisoned for several days so that he could investigate California state prison conditions first hand. Actions such as these foreshadowed his trip to Guyana.

The lectures given throughout this course have inspired me beyond the scope of Jonestown. I had previously never imagined life after Jonestown for those who had survived Peoples Temple. However, I was able to hear from three former members: Jordan Vilchez, Tim Carter and Stephan Jones. Though these three offer only a small sample of survivors, each brought with them a range of experiences, viewpoints and ideas. I cannot stress how much these speakers have shaped my overall view of Peoples Temple. Ms. Vilchez joined with her sister when she was only 12 years old. Tim Carter joined because he wanted to work towards world peace. Stephan Jones was born into Peoples Temple. Whatever the reason, I came to realize that members of Jim Jones following were individuals and not a brainwashed mob.

With this realization, I no longer consider Peoples Temple to be a cult in the sense that I used to. The dictionary defines a cult as “a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.” In this sense, I believe the Temple to be a cult, but this is because my very understanding of the word cult has evolved. I had previously considered cults to be evil, sadistic and comprised of brainwashed loonies. Rebecca Moore first began unraveling this misconception of mine when she spoke about the idea of brainwashing. A brainwashed person is considered to have no individual thoughts or to be mindless. However, she noted that you can never prove or disprove that an individual is brainwashed. Further, Rebecca pointed out that letters and accounts from Jonestown do not support the idea that its residents were mindless followers of Jim Jones. Even recordings from Jonestown suggest dissent among the people. Tim Carter said himself that he despised Jim Jones for his last two years as a Temple member, but did not want to leave the community and friendships that he had grown to love so much.

Throughout this course, I was forced to think critically about what it means to tell a story and what it means to “know” a story. I thought that I knew the story of Jonestown. I thought it was as open and shut as the books I had been reading when I was younger.

The truths I have come to accept during my study of Jonestown and Peoples Temple are truths that I will carry with me from here forward. I used to think that the world was so much more black and white than gray. I now know there is more gray in this world than anything else. Peoples Temple was not a deranged cult with a satanic leader. Its members were not people born without a soul. Its goals were not purely evil. The story of Peoples Temple involves every part of humanity you could think of. I must accept that there are complexities to every situation, every individual, every news story. There is no sixty minute time slot, no beginning, middle and end.

Jessica Gunther

Lecture Series and Reading Response

Professor Carmen Gillespie

Rebecca Moore – Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Rebecca Moore’s novel Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple provided a refreshing viewpoint of Jim Jones and his followers. Compared to Tim Reiterman’s Raven, Moore approaches Peoples Temple from a more grounded perspective. This is obviously due to the fact that she had two sisters who perished in Jonestown. Moore and her family hold such a unique lens into the ordeal largely because they were not part of the Concerned Relatives and did not openly condemn the Temple.

As an outsider to the situation, it is very easy for me to disregard those involved in Jonestown and the Temple as crazy, detached and brainwashed. The thinking is that none of this could have ever happened to me, or anyone I know. Rebecca Moore has effectively diffused that idea from my mind. Being able to hear her speak about her experience drew me away from the picture painted by the media and towards a more rational approach the Temple. Moore, in both her lecture and book, did an excellent job of putting the beliefs and goals of Peoples Temple in proper context. We view the Temple as shockingly radical, but often fail to see that radicalism was a part of the culture at that time. Groups like the Black Panthers promoted violence to fight violence.

For me, the most interesting point raised by Moore during the lecture was the notion of being brainwashed. She was absolutely right when she said that it is something that can neither be proved nor dispelled. Moore affirms that members of Peoples Temple truly thought they were making a difference, that the cause was righteous, that their voices were going to be heard. The concept of brainwashing is challenged when Moore speaks of even some of the Temple’s greatest loyalists expressing doubts. And those very doubts show that each individual member could think for him or herself. Thus, this idea that Jim Jones was able to govern the minds of his followers doesn’t hold up in the eyes of Rebecca Moore. Her lecture and book were both very effective to me because she refuses to see the events leading up to November 18, 1978 as one-dimensional. Rather, Moore draws you back so that you can examine the many facets of Jim Jones and his people. Most importantly we cannot detract the humanity of those who died.

“Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” – Tuesday February 19

The documentary yesterday evening really added a new dimension to my understanding of Jonestown. The film was interesting from the very beginning. I had never before seen such vivid footage of Jim Jones’ sermons. I now see why he has so often been described as charismatic. Even though I watched the excerpts of his sermon through a biased lens, his confidence is indisputable.

Particularly, I admired how Nelson was able to add an element of humor to the film, despite its very dark subject matter. The interviews with former Temple members give humanity to those who died in Jonestown. As the viewer, you see that followers of Jones were ordinary people with fear, hopes and humor.

I think the documentary helped clarify many misconceptions I had about Congressman Leo Ryan’s visit. There was a description of how “all hell broke loose” after members of Jonestown expressed their desire to leave. I understood this as a pivotal moment in the fate of Peoples Temple. Jones clearly couldn’t keep up his facade any longer.

Stanley Nelson – February 20

Since most of the supplemental information in this course is books, it was interesting to hear the point of view of a filmmaker. Stanley Nelson seemed like a very pleasant and laid back guy. He replayed the last ten minutes of his film The Life and Death of Peoples Temple that was, for me, the most effective part of the documentary. There is such an eerie calm in Jim Jones’ voice on the final tape of November 18. This tape plays while pictures of smiling Jonestown inhabitants flicker across the screen, creating a contrast between life and death.

Nelson even told us how he became interested in the story of Jonestown. His wife had heard former Temple members on the radio, confessing their time in the Temple as the best time of their life. I think these former members represent so much of the Jonestown narrative – a struggle between righteous goals and selfish goals, progress and regression, good and bad. They represent the fact that there is so much more to the story than what happened on November 18.

Originally, Stanley Nelson and his crew had planned to go down to Guyana and shoot recreation footage. However, when he saw all the actual footage that already existed, he realized that there was no need to recreate something that was so well documented. Jonestown is especially more fascinating because of Jones’ desire to document its entirety. Much of the documentary is clips from Peoples Temples early days or clips from reporters who accompanied Leo Ryan into Jonestown. Nelson said that he encountered many former Temple members while creating The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Some still insisted that Jim Jones had magical powers or was an enlightened being. Nelson did not include such interviews because it didn’t seem right in the context of what happened. Nelson did not try to coax people to be in his documentary, with the exception of Stephan Jones who refused. Nelson often receives accolades for the lack of narration in the film. I think the fact that there is no narration is effective, especially since the story of Jonestown is one that almost needs to tell itself.

Leigh Fondakowski – February 27th

I respect Leigh Fondakowski because of her willingness to see the “other side” of story. The Laramie Project, a play she wrote about homosexuality, clearly demonstrates Leigh’s desire to uncover the truth. In regards to Peoples Temple and Stories from Jonestown, she really wanted to re-tell a story that many think they already know. I appreciate her value of the spoken word. Talking to individuals who actually lived Peoples Temple is truly the most accurate view of Jonestown that we can attain.

The book Leigh wrote was inspired by all the interviews she had compiled when writing her play The People’s Temple. I was impressed with the amount of intimate conversations she had with those involved in the Temple. I don’t know if I would be able to spend so much time focusing on interviews alone.

Leigh spoke about her goals in writing the play The People’s Temple. She wanted to show the contradictions in the Jonestown narrative, but also allow them to exist without ridicule. I agree strongly that Peoples Temple provides us with countless contradictions. To me, it seems as though every survivor, every defector, every journalist, every author has a different story to tell and a different angle to convey.

Jordan Vilchez – March 6th

Hearing from Jordan Vilchez was most interesting because she was a Temple member from age twelve. She spoke about how being a member from such a young age has really shaped the rest of her life as well as who she has become as a human being. In the Temple, she was taught to abandon her own strengths, goals and desires. Enjoying individual qualities was seen as selfish and a threat to the overall cause.

Jordan spoke about the sense of gloom and unease she felt during her time in the Temple as well as after the tragedy in Guyana. Since she knew she did not like Jonestown from the moment she arrived, she was fortunate enough to have a position that allowed her to spend much time in Georgetown. It was for this reason that Jim Jones allowed her to travel to Georgetown on November 17th, 1978. Jordan believes that Jones permitted this because he was a heavy drug user at the time and wasn’t fully aware of what was happening.

After the massacre at Jonestown, Jordan had no sense of personal worth. She spoke about not knowing who she was or what strengths she had because she did not have a normal adolescence. Today, she works with people who are struggling with life decisions. Ms. Vilchez believes that she has a certain “insight into the complexities of life” due to her experiences. She is able to feel compassion that allows her to drop guilt, pain and shame. I thought the most beautiful statement she made was that “we are all a different reflection or angle of the human experience.”

Tim Carter – March 2 0th

Tim Carter was, for me, the most effective speaker in the Jonestown series. This was mostly because I felt a real connection with his story. He was a Vietnam veteran, who was soured by his experience in the military. Vowing to never support war, he began looking for a group or organization to be a part of that would allow him to work for a greater cause. What attracted Tim most to Peoples Temple was its interracial congregation. I really felt like I understood why he joined the Temple.

During his lecture, Tim asserted over and over again that Peoples Temple was not about Jim Jones and was not a cult. In fact, Tim said that he despised Jones for the last two years of the Temple’s existence. Tim firmly maintains that Peoples Temple was about the strong relationships it created. His wife, son and other family members were among the hundreds that perished on that November day. Having been one of four eyewitnesses to the massacre, he vehemently refutes the idea that the deaths were mass suicide. Instead, he affirms that only about 40 people committed suicide and that the rest were injected with poison.

Tim pointed out that many people reduce Jonestown to a single phrase: “drinking the kool aid.” The phrase is supposed to apply to anyone or any group that falls mindlessly for a phony cause. Tim cannot bear to hear his family summed up by this simple and misleading saying. I realized how insensitive “drinking the kool aid” really is. I found that, overall, Tim Carter was an excellent and effective speaker.

Julia Scheeres – April 3rd

I think that Julia Scheeres brings a special point of view to our study of Jonestown because her own personal upbringing parallels many themes of Peoples Temple.

Julia struggled with having an adopted African American brother at a time when such was socially unacceptable.

Interestingly, Scheeres became involved with the story of Jim Jones because she started writing a fiction work about a charismatic preacher who takes over a small rural Indiana town. When she began her research, she remembered that Jim Jones was from Indiana. She decided to write a book on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple based on all the documents that had been made available by the FBI. I found it interesting that Scheeres would not use the word “cult.” This seems to be a trend among many of the books we have read since Raven.

Stephan Jones – April 17th

What stuck me most about Stephan Jones was the sense of peace that he seemed to exude. I was shocked when he said that Jonestown was not “fresh” for him, that he did not live in Jonestown every day. This was such an inspiring statement to me, because it demonstrates that no matter what someone goes through in life, there is hope for the future. Stephan spoke about having to make sense of his life after the death at Jonestown. For a long period of time, he absolutely hated his father. Stephan would place all the blame on his father because it was easier than analyzing his own faults and shortcomings.

I saw Stephan Jones to be a beautiful example of redemption. He was able to admit to himself that he bore some of the weight of what happened in Jonestown. He described his growing compassion and his ability to understand the human mind. Stephan spoke of the faults that all humans have, that we all have bad ideas. He affirms that the Temple was “more against than it was for” anything and believes that the negatives far outweighed any good deeds.

Stephan, through the years, has learned to forgive his father. Though he reflected on some of the negative qualities that his father said, he also spoke of times when he was compassionate and kind. In one instance, Stephan watched his dad hug an elderly Africa American women and was completely genuine. Most of all, Stephan has been able to accept the fact that he, himself is in many ways like Jim Jones.

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on October 15th, 2013.
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