Kate Van Ness

Uncovering Jonestown this semester was a huge learning experience for me. From our first reading of Raven, I was intrigued by Stephan Jones’ relationship with his father. I am most intrigued by things that I don’t understand, and because of the strong, positive relationship with my own father, nothing could have been further from me than Stephan and Jim Jones’ relationship. I can’t understand what it’s like to have to share my dad with an entire congregation or to grow up feeling like an outsider, fighting some of the very ideas I was raised with. But in our study of Jonestown, I attempted to understand it the best I could. We learn by experience, but we can also learn through the shared experiences of others. I felt that the more I could understand Stephan and his father and the experience and interaction they shared, the more I could learn from them.

One experience in particular that I was drawn to was Stephan’s suicide attempt. While in Reiterman’s book the suicide attempts seemed like a typical attempt to escape pain in life, by reading Stephan’s own reflections on the matter in “Like Father, Like Son,” I heard his own voice: “If you want to be important in your world, make it up. Dad’s life was nearly one fabrication after another, and I was following in hi s footsteps… It was torture, but it was attention.” In almost all the readings and lectures, we heard or read about the productions and lies Jim Jones used in an attempt to make his life bigger than reality. He staged faith healings and healings, feigned strokes and illnesses, and faked personal attacks. Did Stephan crave the attention that his father craved? Regardless of his motives, the severity of Stephan’s suicide attempt was very real. He did take enough drugs to put himself at risk of dying. At one point Stephan mentions leaving suicide notes during his attempts. There, my performance was born. I wanted my project response to express what some of the thoughts running through Stephan’s mind might have been when he was writing those suicide notes. Did he believe in his father? In Peoples Temple? What might have contributed to his frustration and pain, enough to the point of considering ending his life?

After reading about Stephan’s suicide attempts, I couldn’t help but begin to compare Stephan’s situation to Jim Jones’ own assisted suicide and the suicide he forced on others on the last day of Jonestown. Even as I began to draft a poem that would become Stephan’s words, I realized I recognized some of the feelings I was expressing as those that Jim Jones expressed in his frequent talk of revolutionary suicide. In writing Stephan’s words, I tried to convey a feeling of helpless defeat, that the pain of feeling like an outsider in a world that was very wrong was too much to bear, and that suicide was the only choice left. In Raven, Reiterman shows us the internal changes Stephan was going through during his adolescence. At a younger age, “Stephan loved his dad,” and “his father was truly a great man, he thought” (120). But as he witnessed the emotional pain Jim Jones put his mother through, “his initial confusion turned to certainty that blame lay with his father… He wondered whether he himself was crazy, out of step with the world” (125). I absorbed these words, but couldn’t imagine the hurt and confusion Stephan must have been going through. But I wanted to try, and I wanted our audience to make the attempt as well.

I continued to read as much as I could on Stephan, so I could make an honest attempt at portraying him through my poem. I learned that his father sent him to a psychiatrist after one of his later suicide attempts. He was sent to Guyana soon after that, where Stephan found that he enjoyed spending time with his crew, the physical labor, and the pride and enthusiasm that came with it, making him happier than he’d ever been. I decided I wanted this to be a piece of his poem, because I got the impression that while Stephan was stuck in the storm of Peoples Temple, he found refuge in building Jonestown from the ground up and spending time away from his father. I imagine it helped him keep a grip on life despite the mounting pressure from the church and its leader.

Turning to Stephan’s father, what did Jim Jones tell his congregation on the day of the mass deaths? “I’m tired of it all… we have no other road… no more pain now.” I thought it would be brilliant for our audience to hear Jim Jones words and then hear Stephan’s poem and draw surprising similarities between the two. So I decided to construct a poem with a collage of audio clips from the death tape Jim Jones recorded. The idea was that Stephan felt some of the same things Jim Jones was saying: “I’m gonna lay down my burden,” and “we don’t like the way the world is.” Stephan didn’t like a lot of things that were going on in the congregation, and it was exhausting to feel like an outsider in the middle of it all. However, in rewriting and editing parts of my poem for Stephan, I realized their suicides weren’t nearly as similar as I thought them to be. Some of the words sounded the same, but the meanings were completely different. Jim Jones was giving up on the world, convincing his congregation that there was nothing left for them in a place so wrought with evil. But Stephan was giving up on Peoples Temple. It was all he knew, so it must have felt like he was at a dead end. In reality, there was a life for him outside of the Temple, he just never discovered it until the Temple was gone.

While researching as much as I could on Stephan Jones, I came across an interview with Stephan many years after the mass deaths, and once again I was caught by his line, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Initially, I pounced on the audio clip. I was going to have it played after the collage of death tape clips and before my poem. In the end, I decided I didn’t want to emphasize the Jones’ similarities so much anymore. It was enough that they were discussing the same topic of suicide. Instead, I hoped the audience might hear some of the differences in their pleas. In piecing together the clips for Jim Jones’ audio poem, I had no choice but to listen to his voice again and again. In his voice I heard a sense of urgency. He was desperate to make a statement in the most dramatic way possible. In Stephan’s words, both those I read and those I wrote, I found a cry for help. I heard someone desperate to understand right and wrong, to understand his father. I heard someone desperate to find his place in the world.

Though I didn’t use the interview clip, there was something I did gain from finding the interview with Stephan online. As I was going to be impersonating Stephan for my poem, I was glad I could witness the calm, relaxed aura Stephan portrayed so that I could attempt to portray the same attitude in my own performance. I like to think I did accomplish this and with Professor Gainer’s encouragement to engage with audience, I attempted to speak as if I were sharing a story to a close friend. After hearing Stephan talk with us last week, I learned this was exactly how it felt when he spoke. Close, connected, and personal. As a class we heard a lot of people reflect on their past connections with Peoples Temple. I heard anger, bitterness, resentment, blame, and hurt, but from Stephan, I heard acceptance and learning.

The final product turned out wonderfully. Seeing as my perspective on my work changed throughout its creation, it’s hard to say what the audience learned from my performance. I hope they learned that despite the similar sounding pleas, Stephan and his father wanted very different things, and they fought for very different reasons. At the very least, it created a question of comparison and contrast between father and son, and as long as my performance got people thinking about the Jonestown narrative from a new angle, I am content. Poetry and performance are art forms open to interpretation. It’s perfectly okay, wonderful even, if someone learned something that I didn’t intend or found something I didn’t put in consciously.

A piece of my performance I am still debating is a line I took out from the very end of my poem: “How can I ever be proud of my father? I don’t need to be proud of him. I just need to love and forgive him.” It’s a question Stephan was once asked, and he actually recalled his response when he spoke with us last week. It didn’t completely flow with the end of the piece, but I do wish I could have somehow incorporated this quote. I really wanted the audience to understand Stephan, and these words completely emulate the dynamic changes he went through in healing and moving forward with his life and away from Peoples Temple.

It is amazing that, despite us all being given the same prompt, our performances reflected many different sides of the same story. Each narrative brought a new thought, new perspective to the table, even ones that revolved around the same people. Julia Scheeres mentioned it in her lecture – there is a lot of information out there. Being exposed to a variety of lectures and readings means there are a wide range of opinions, perspectives, and thoughts floating around to be interpreted and molded into a narrative. It was incredible to get the chance to hear some of the accounts we read about first hand, and equally incredible to hear my peers’ responses to the side of the story that resonated with them the most. I think we did a great job bringing our ideas together and working collectively in order to produce a unified collection of performances that reflected our intensive study of Jonestown and People Temple, while still remaining true to our personal response.

I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for the experience I’ve had learning, growing, connecting, and reflecting through our study of Jonestown. At the start, Jonestown meant nothing more to me than a distant town driven to suicide. In a way, I feel that I’ve honored and respected the victims of Jonestown by unearthing their story and sharing it with others. People would like to think the Temple was crazy, that they could never meet the same kind of ending. But there is truth in Tim Carter’s statement, “There’s a little of Peoples Temple in all of us.” We all have a vision of what we want the world to look like. Who wouldn’t want to join a community that has the same vision and whose mission is to promote and see that vision to reality? The members of Peoples Temple were just as human as the rest of us. Those that understand this are those that can learn from human weakness and become stronger. I think we are all a little stronger thanks to Peoples Temple.

Jim Jones: audio collage/poem

“I’m tired of it all.”

“Please, can we hasten? Can we hasten with that medication? You don’t know what you’ve done.”

“It’s just too late, it’s too late.”

‘‘We have no other road.”

‘‘We can’t go back, they won’t leave us alone, they’re now going back to tell more lies… And there’s no way, no way we can survive.

‘‘Death, is a million times more preferable to 10 more days in this life. If you knew what was ahead of you, if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”

‘‘I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell, that’s what I’m tired of.”

“Now we have some choice.”

“It’s just not worth living like this. Not worth living like this.”

“That’s not living to me. That’s not freedom, that’s not the kind of freedom I sought.”

“No more, no more, no more.”

“I’m gonna lay down my burden.”

“We don’t like the way the world is.”

“Take our life from us.”

“We’ve had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it; let’s be done with the agony of it.”

“No more pain now. No more pain.”

“Step over quietly.”

“It’s not to be feared, it’s a friend. It’s a friend.”

Stephan Jones: A Note

When I was 12, I walked up behind my mom while Dad was giving a sermon and asked, “Mom, how many is an overdose of Quaaludes?” Apparently it was just a couple. I was terrified; I went straight to my brother Tim Tupper and said, “Tim, you better go tell Mom I just look an overdose of Quaaludes.”

Too many Quaaludes to count,

I didn’t want to intrude, I wanted out

I felt so excluded, it was always about

His rules,

Which didn’t apply to him, Which was fine with them.

I thought he was mine, but they still called him father, And called themselves scholars,

Yet weaker,

Smaller.

As if his white collar gave him magical power. So they gladly gave up every dollar,

They offered their children, To fill his Eden,

But it was done in the name of freedom. And that made it ok.

And that made it ok?

Please, just lay me down to stay, Before my edges fray,

And my father I shame, Who starts to claim,

My insanity,

And sends me to a shrink to be tamed, And my mother gets framed,

And the congregation gels raped, And before I get shipped,

Away.

To the Promise Land,

Where the physical demands, Will push me to stand,

Proud.

Until Dad’s hands, get too aggressive,

His movement turns from progressive to oppression,

One act of revolution,

One pact to drink the cyanide, Transparent track to the other side, Fact, it wasn’t suicide,

Let me I will confide,

I didn’t want anyone to die.

So still haunts me to wonder, “Dad, why?’”

Kate VanNess

Rebecca Moore: 2/6/13

Rebecca Moore has sisters and a nephew who died in Jonestown in 1978. Her lecture tonight aimed to humanize the victims of Jonestown while attempting to understand and interpret the story of Jonestown. She focused mainly on the political involvement of Peoples Temple to do this. Peoples Temple was involved in protests, petitions, rallies, and social programs to fight poverty, inequality, and capitalism. Their newspaper, Peoples Forum, highlighted their political involvement. While not as radical as the Black Panther Party, Moore did draw relations between the two. The Black Panthers challenged police authority in a stance for African Americans, and in a way served as a model to Peoples Temple. Peoples Temple borrowed Black Power rhetoric and tried to live it. They saw themselves as part of the black liberation movement and borrowed the phrase “revolutionary suicide” from Huey Newton. While Newton took the phrase to mean dying in battle, to Peoples Temple it meant literal suicide to promote a cause that is part of the bigger picture. Peoples Temple wanted an alternative society in which they could escape the evils of racism and capitalism, and if they couldn’t have that in Guyana, they would use suicide to prove their point.

After already having a first impression of Jonestown from Raven, it was nice to hear another perspective. She emphasized how Peoples Temple was an opportunity to contribute to society. After listening to her speak, I came a step closer to understanding Peoples Temple. The process was gradual. Moore’s sisters didn’t join Peoples Temple to commit suicide. What started for many as an opportunity to get involved gradually turned to small compromises of morals to the point where the end would justify any means necessary, even death. It’s easy to think, “how could it get that far?” or to think that we would be capable of backing out before it got to the point of mass suicide. But for every defector, there were many more loyalists, and who is to say that after committing years of devotion to Peoples Temple, we wouldn’t be wrapped up in the same mindset?

Moore’s book leaves readers to interpret the Jonestown narrative on their own. It supplies the bones of the story and leaves the rest pretty open. The background information is a much less dramatic retelling than that which Reiterman painted. It outlines the context in which Peoples Temple was developing. That is, it delves into the historical movements, social and political, and discussion of religion, cults and Black religion specifically. In a way, the book was similar to her lecture in that it also revealed the humanity of Peoples Temple members, but yet gave readers the resources to make our own conclusions regarding the Jonestown narrative.

Stanley Nelson: 2/20/13

Last night at the Campus Theatre was the screening of Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown documentary. Despite the majority of the information being previously known from our readings, I still found the retelling engaging. It did a great job of telling the story of Peoples Temple members and helping us understand how easy it was to get involved in such an engaging, involved community that Peoples Temple portrayed. The rich firsthand accounts detailed just how embedded into their lives the Temple became, the sacrifices and extent to which they went for the Temple. Members that started to see problems disregarded them at first, and by the time the severity of the situation was realized, they were too far in to get out. And of course, to other members, Jonestown was the happiest place on Earth for them. I liked the way Nelson put together his narrative, and it was great to get the chance to hear about the process of putting it together in his lecture tonight.

Stanley Nelson described how, for a long time, hi s impression of Jonestown was similar to others and came mostly from the media. A cult of 900 sociopaths committed suicide. Nelson became interested in documenting the incident when his wife heard a new perspective from the radio. This new story was light and loving, not the horror story he had come to know. Once he started talking to a couple of Temple members, it opened a network of survivors that he contacted. I was impressed that he respected those that did not want to be a part of the film and resisted the historian’s urge to persuade participation. He took what he had and aimed, not to exploit, but to help his audience understand the best they could the why Peoples Temple members did what they did. He acknowledged that no one can fully understand it, but he wanted to bring us as close as he could with his documentary.

It was interesting to hear how, as Nelson developed his documentary, a lot of thought went into what he needed to add or take out or avoid to keep the focus of the fi lm narrowed and consistent. For example, he originally wanted Stephan Jones to be part of the documentary but he refused. In retrospect, Nelson was glad that Stephan didn’t end up in the film because his story revolves around his unique relationship with his father and may have detracted from the narrative told in the final product. There were so many decisions that went into how to tell the story: the lack of narration, what information to provide the viewers upfront, whether or not to include the sexual issues within the Temple because of his PBS watchers. He decided not to include escape stories because he thought it would take away from the climax at the end of the film. While we all saw the documentary at the Campus Theatre, the opportunity to learn how the story developed into a documentary – the story of the story – will be beneficial as we develop our own narratives.

Leigh Fondakowski: 2/27/13

Tonight’s lecturer, Leigh Fondakowski, discussed how she turned a three-year collection of interviews into the theatre production The People’s Temple and also the newly published book, Stories of Jonestown. Before delving into any project is the question of whether she, as a play writer, has a role in the retelling of the story of Jonestown. Her first impressions of the story, was that its main focus was death, and she described how she was hesitant to take on the project. “Why would anyone want to study death?” She later found, the Jonestown narrative wasn’t about death. It started over politics, from the black movement, an aspect that she, like many others hadn’t seen. Next was the question of whether the harsh narrative of sociopath cultists could ever be undone and rewritten with a more understanding and humanizing one.

Leigh did take on the task, one of much more effort than when she was constructing the Laramie Project. She couldn’t just walk around town asking for interviews. Networking, getting interviews, collecting information, it was all a much slower process. This is consistent with many of our previous speakers’ expression of the interview process.

One of Leigh’s main goals of her play was to draw in the audience and help them identify with Temple members, enter the narrative, and go along with it. She used several techniques to achieve this. She used the same actor for Stephan and Jim Jones, so as you got close to Stephan, you got close to Jim Jones. She used the real words of the people the actors were playing to tum the piece into a real conversation. To represent the deaths on stage without making it the main event, she had the actors post images of the deceased on the files at the back of the stage while other actors gave monologues, which struck a chord for the audience, she found. There are so many things that go into a performance that need to be considered, that we as a class need to consider as we develop out own retellings.

A difficulty Leigh encountered, that we also must address, is the contradiction and ambiguity that touches many aspects of Jonestown. Many answers died with the Temple members. Whose account is true, whose is false? What is the “real” truth? To deal with this issue, Leigh tried to keep an open mind throughout the interviews. I respected the fact that she felt it wasn’t her place to determine whether these people’s stories were fact or fiction. If it was their story, it was their truth. Although we haven’t experienced the theatre piece she produced and I haven’t read the entirety of her newly-published book, I enjoyed teaming about the process that went into her works. Like I did from Stanley Nelson, I got some extra insight into the questions and decisions that go into the creative process and what I should personally think about as I develop my own narrative of Jonestown.

Jordan Vilchez: 3/6/13

The reality of Peoples Temple is that there were a variety of different experiences. My impression is that Jordan Vilchez has not forgiven the Temple for the negative experiences she encountered as a member. She joined when her mother did, who was encouraged by the political aspects. Jordan moved into Redwood Valley with her older sister and eventually into a commune. She explained that families were broken up so that allegiances didn’t remain between family members in order to create a sole allegiance to the Temple and to Jim Jones. As part of the planning commission, Jordan was more trusted and more involved than the rank-and-file members of the congregation, and she described her experiences gathering information for Jones as a Temple greeter and in security. When she moved to Guyana, she hated planting in the fields and secured a job in Georgetown. She often regrets the time she spent asking for donations in Guyana for “the cause” – something she had believed for so long to be pure. I believe there are a lot of things she regrets from the time she spent working with the Temple. Her tone and choice of words gave the impression that she was, in a way, betrayed by the Temple. That is, she was led to believe one thing for many years that she found not to be entirely true after the fact.

It was painful to hear Jordan express the feeling that she still hasn’t healed from her experiences with Peoples Temple. I completely agree with her view that we are, perhaps, most influenced by our adolescent years. It was during those years that she says she was stripped of her individuality which was selfish and useless to the “cause”, while her worth and value belonged to the Temple. Jordan told us she “missed out” on skills that other people learned as young adults. It’s not that Jordan doesn’t believe in the Temple’s ideals. She does. But the price of the methods implemented to learn those ideals was enormous and unforgiving. The circumstances were repressive and diminished her sense of self and self-worth.

What Jordan explained she did learn from the Temple, despite the price tag, insight into the complexities of life. She said that if we understand the “puppetry” in the Temple, we can understand the frailties of the human mind. She also learned compassion, to herself and others, which allows her to cope with some of her pain. I think both of these things are something we all gain from difficulties in life, and I’m glad that Jordan was willing to share with us despite the obvious guilt and hurt that dulled her words and softened her voice.

Tim Carter: 3/20/13

Tim Carter’s goal for tonight’s lecture was to encourage us to believe that the members of Peoples Temple were people, not cultists, something I’ve already come to realize thus far. Important to his path into the Temple was his involvement with the Marine Corps, spending three years in Vietnam, and the dramatic political change that he underwent while there. He went into the war with no real political consciousness and came home feeling that he was lied to his whole life. The anger drove him to find societal group that agreed with his personal values, and when he found Peoples Temple it became his home. Making a difference in the community, he felt more alive than he had ever been. The point here is that the ideals of Peoples Temple are attractive. People weren’t signing up to commit suicide, they were signing up to be a part of the community, to make the world a better place. The media never caught that part of the story, and Carter explained the frustration in listening the media cut and paste words into a story that was sensational but far from the entire truth.

More fuel for Carter’s resentment comes from learning so much after the fact. While they saved and skimped to build a town in the middle of the jungle, he later found out the Temple had tens of millions of dollars. The Siege wasn’t quite as authentic as he thought it to be. The drugs, the sensory deprivation box, the stories that he always believed to be false accusations turned out to be true, and that’s what made Tim Carter angry. Disappointment came in learning that experience isn’t always the truth.

The other frustrating question Carter asks himself is whether the good can outweigh the bad. The Temple took in children and poor, but the end was fatal. Can we really say any of the good they did for the community was worth the terrible ending, one that took away his wife and son? Despite his anger towards the Temple and the shame in some of the things he represented, the recognition that other people had gone through more kept him going. In finding reasons to be grateful, he moved forward. Tim Carter was part of Peoples Temple and his presence and his narrative grounded the character of the Temple. In understanding his story, we can understand a little better Peoples Temple as a whole, what drove its members, and what brought them to an end.

Julia Scheeres: 4/3/13

Author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, Julia Scheeres is a reporter who found a way to relate to the members of Peoples Temple. She attended a Christian school in the Dominican Republic where disobedience was punished with public chastising, teachers and students boxed, incoming information and mail was censored, and the school, being in another country, was isolated. The parallels to Jonestown are obvious, so Scheeres didn’t have trouble empathizing and understanding the people of Jonestown.

Once she took on the task of retelling the Jonestown narrative, she realized just how much information there was out there. In fact it took her a year to go through and sort all the information into a story. She knew she couldn’t represent everyone’s story; many people perished in Guyana. So she decided to share the narratives of the rank-and-file members whom she had enough information on to fully tell. Scheeres aimed to humanize the tragedy by showing us how the individuals ended up in Jonestown and showing their reaction to Jones’ dynamic changes. She firmly believes that whether the victims were blatantly injected or were pressured enough to feel that suicide was their only option, it was murder either way. The victims aren’t monsters. They are real, they are us. The ideas Scheeres shared emphasized that to us, and the strength with which she believed it helped us believe it too.

Her book shares the stories of five people: Hyacinth Thrash, Edith Roller, Stanley Clayton, Jim Bogue, and his son Tommy Bogue. With each individual she walks us through the path that each person took into Peoples Temple. For Thrash, it was the faith healings; for Roller, it was the sense of social justice. To Clayton, the Temple meant food and shelter and education. Jim Bogue followed his wife into the church and Tommy followed his father. Along with their stories, her book also reveals how serious Jones intentions were. She uncovered research from the Jonestown doctor into how to efficiently kill a town of a thousand people. She emphasizes the suicide drills. The story of the individuals reflects those of many: people signed up to devote their life to creating a life of equality and peace, and instead they were killed.

Stephan Jones: 4/17/13

Hearing Stephan Jones reflect on his experience with Peoples Temple was truly wonderful. His composed, relaxed attitude created a feeling of closeness in the room, which made the points he was making about the Temple and his experience all the more effective, because it felt like they were coming from a friend.

The Temple was Stephan’s home. He was raised to believe that everything and everyone outside the Temple was wrong. One lesson I came away from the lecture with was don’t be afraid to walk a different path. No one told Stephan when he was younger that it was okay to explore new ideas. The Temple way was the only way, and many people didn’t leave because they were so invested in the good that the Temple did, and I do believe there was good. Another important lesson I felt Stephan learned the hard way was to listen to your gut. Stephan talked about often feeling like what the Temple was doing wasn’t right. But everyone around him seemed not to feel it. And the peer pressure of the community was incredibly strong.

Stephan doesn’t live in the past anymore. It is unfathomable to me what it would be like to go through a tragedy so painful. It almost brought me to tears. I am grateful that Stephan was willing to share how he tried to move on afterward. Part of his healing meant recognizing where things went wrong and learning from them. Have a voice. When you feel something is wrong, find what is right. Part of his healing was out of necessity; people can’t live in pain their whole lives. And part of hi s healing was in starting a family. I find beauty in Stephan’s perspective on life, and yet I know that it came from the immense challenges he was forced to face. It was definitely something we can all learn from.

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on October 15th, 2013.
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