My introduction to the Jonestown story came in a psychology class during my senior year of high school. Jonestown came up in our study of evil , which sounds bad, but the point of the chapter was to recognize that good people are capable of committing evil acts. When we looked into the Jonestown story, we spoke about Jones being a charismatic leader who did a lot of good. Put simply, we were forced to recognize that the matter was not black and white. Jones was human. He was capable of good and bad; those things could coexist. We started the Jonestown course by reading Raven, and I was instantly surprised by how linear the book seemed. The takeaway message that I got was that Jones was evil from very early on, and I had trouble accepting that. The way I see it, if you choose to see Jones as just evil, there is no way to reconcile the fact that he did in fact do so many great things. The only way I could even begin to wrap my head around the idea of Jim Jones was to recognize that he was far more complicated than what the words good or evil alone reduce him to.
When I began writing my poems for the presentation, I had the most trouble trying to figure out where to begin. There are so many important characters in the story of Jonestown that I’m sure many poems could be written about any single one of them, so I decided instead that I wanted to make a larger commentary on the Jonestown experience as a whole. The root idea for my first poem came with the realization that the knee jerk reaction to the Jonestown story is to think that the people who followed Jim Jones were brainwashed. The fact is that most people don’t know a lot about Jonestown. What people know is the final act committed in Jonestown, so the assumption is that in order for people to have willingly committed suicide at Jonestown, something had to be wrong with them. Surely no normal, educated , responsible individual would ever follow someone as clearly crazy as Jim Jones. However, one of the first things that you learn once you delve further into the Jonestown story is that the people who followed Jones were perfectly functional.
When I started working on my poems, this idea really haunted me. I kept wondering why the instinctual reaction to the Jonestown story is to think that there was something wrong with the members of Peoples Temple. After sitting with it for some time, I came to the conclusion that our inclination to see these people as damaged has less to do with their final act and more to do with our desire to separate ourselves from the kinds of people that could follow a deranged leader even at the cost of our own lives. I came up with the title of the piece first, “Things We’d Like to Believe About Jim Jones.”
The first line – That he was half-human, half spider – came to me because I wanted to depict Jim Jones as something eerie but also like a man. Jim Jones is a complex character, so in my poem I wanted Jones’ physical qualities to literally represent that. I decided then that I could describe his followers in a similar fashion. What better way to describe how badly we need the members of Peoples Temple to be anomalies, so different than us, than to make those variations physical traits. I guess my thought process in doing this was that the Jonestown story is one that is hard to wrap one’s head around. It is tragic, but the story as a whole cannot merely be reduced to tragedy. It is much larger than that. The Jonestown story pushes the boundaries of what it means to be human.
My goal in this poem was to make the story more fathomable. For instance, it’s difficult to imagine a person like Sharon Amos. What can you make of a woman who is willing to slit the throats of her children because of Jim Jones? We don’t want to know that woman. We don’t want to imagine her voice or mannerisms. We don’t want to imagine her cradling those very children at an earlier point. These things make her too human, too comparable to ourselves, but what happens when suddenly Sharon has two heads? What happens when her heart is deformed? All of a sudden, Sharon is real to us in her surrealness. It becomes easier to accept her existence because she exists in a form so different from our own. Even more important than that though, it comforts us. In that way I hoped the poem would also cause discomfort in asking its readers/listeners to recognize that as we listen to the Jonestown story, we are inclined to be comforted by the thought that these people are nothing like us. Hence the last line – How badly we want to know that not a single one of those eight legs might have held something for us. It’s easier to hear the story of Peoples Temple if we know or think we know that we would never have fallen victim to such a tragedy.
Since my assignment was slightly modified, I decided to write a found poem. I wasn’t compiling research about Jonestown in any digital format, so I thought it would be great to compile writings from the Jonestown website and create a poem from that. This piece took me the longest because I had to go through the accounts on the website and pull lines that I thought were particularly moving. Ultimately, I didn’t end up using even half of the lines that I pulled because the work of putting them into a cohesive poem ended up being much more difficult than I had thought it would be. What I found challenging about this piece was that in looking for lines, there weren’t necessarily lines in the accounts that were rich in image. Most of the responses to the Jonestown story were very emotional and described how people felt about Jonestown not necessarily what it looked like. It was difficult to compose a poem based on that since usually my inclination is to use image to do the work and carry most of the emotional weight in the poem.
The best image based line I found in the accounts was: Jonestown, a picture of a galvanized metal vat, surrounded by bloated bodies. I found this line so haunting that it was the first line that I decided was absolutely to be in my poem. Even now, I have trouble explaining how I came about creating this poem because unlike other work that I’ve done, this poem didn’t involve creating lines, but situating already existing lines in a way that made them meaningful together even though they did not stem from the same source.
I started with the line – I’m afraid most people want to forget what happened in Jonestown – because that struck me as a great line to move forward from. The line is so simple and it captures what is arguably the most usual reaction to not just Jonestown, but tragedy in general.
Sometimes in moving forward from tragedy, our inclination as humans is to move forward as if to forget about it even if we haven’t acknowledged that as part of our coping mechanism. That’s the reason why so many people spend years coping with tragedy. Perhaps even when we think we’ve dealt with tragedy by acknowledging its presence, we fail to learn what it means. In order to deal with tragedy we must know it beyond the realization of yes, this did happen. We have to be able to name the tragedy, see it, feel it again and again before we even begin the process of healing.
In that way I guess with this poem I sought to explore the tragedy through other people’s view of it. I don’t want to say anything more about this poem because some of the decisions I made in it, I can’t even explain, they just felt right. The last line especially – The music we created still seems very special – just felt like the hopeful ending that Jonestown deserved. I can’t explain many of the other decisions in this poem much further than that, at least not yet.
For my last poem, I decided that I wanted to focus on a particular person. I found Christine Miller to be an interesting character in the Jonestown story because she was the only person to stand up to Jones on the last day. Christine made it clear that she believed life to be more powerful than death on that day, so I thought I’d write a piece as a sort of tribute to her. I decided early on that I wanted the poem to take an unexpected turn at the end. I spent a lot of time thinking about Christine Miller on the basis of her final dissent and I thought, what would she say now? Just because she thought that life was better, would she have felt that Jonestown, as a movement, was a lost cause, that it did not serve its purpose? Based on that line of questioning, I decided that the poem would involve an encounter between a speaker and Christine. The encounter seems almost dream-like, and it is unclear whether or not Christine is dead, whether the Jonestown tragedy has already occurred. If nothing else, the speaker knows that Christine will die if she goes into Jonestown and warns her about it, as though she still stands the chance of living.
As I was writing the poem, I thought it’d be interesting to have the speaker have an epiphany in this scenario. This was a decision that I made in a later draft because I felt that it had a place in the poem. Christine would become a vivid character in the poem just by way of her gestures and in doing so, the speaker would suddenly recognize her as a real person. I came to this decision because as I was attempting to give life to Christine in this poem, I realized that there was a clear distinction in my mind between Christine in the Jonestown story and Christine as an actual person who once lived. It was interesting to recognize this in myself because as I read through the various accounts about Jones and Peoples Temple, I was always aware that the story was based on real life, but without really noticing, I was still able to emotionally separate what I was reading from real life.
Again, it is easier to deal with the tragedy at arm’s length. When I learned this about myself, I decided that my speaker needed to experience this as well to give the poem more weight and complexity. It is in the moment that the speaker finally recognizes that Christine is a real person, that he/she suddenly feels the pressing need to warn her that she must not enter Jonestown. Christine then does the unthinkable: she enters Jonestown anyway even though she acknowledges that she will not live. This poem was my way of complicating Christine as well. I’d like to think that Christine would still believe in the cause behind Peoples Temple, because that is where I am able to find solace in the Jonestown story. Even though this was a terrible tragedy, the people cannot be known only for tragedy. They did so much good and believed in their good deeds so earnestly, that they deserve to be recognized for that. I like to think that even thought Christine lost her life despite her better judgment, she would still say that everything that had led up to it was still of some greater value, that there are parts of the Jonestown movement, the good parts, that she would still take part in again.
The Jonestown story epitomizes the notion that life is not black and white. People – all people – can be many things. We can commit evil , we can hurt some people while vastly improving the lives of others. Humans are simply complex creatures and learning about Peoples Temple forces one to inspect what it means to be human at various degrees. If we are to truly take in all that was Peoples Temple, we have to reject the final act for some time. It is not enough to say that Jonestown ended in tragedy because so many things came before that. We have to make ourselves accountable for all of the steps that ultimately lead to tragedy and that is the only way we can begin to make sense of what happened at Jonestown, what could happen again and again. I think I learned a lot about myself in studying the Jonestown tragedy. Even just looking retrospectively at how I initially took in the Jonestown story showed me a lot about how I perceive tragedy as a general topic. Like the note found on the last day suggested, we have to read all there is to read on Jonestown to know all it was because Peoples Temple was truly greater than what happened in Guyana.
Rebecca Moore Response
Rebecca Moore was connected to Peoples Temple through her sisters Annie Moore and Carolyn Layton. Moore wrote the book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. I was pleasantly surprised with Moore’s book because it was so different from Raven which we read first. Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of Raven. It was very interesting and did offer much more about Jones’ childhood than I had been exposed to before, so in terms of a detailed outline for knowing the story of Jonestown, it is a valuable book. However, Raven very clearly depicted its author’s negative feelings about Jones.
I preferred Moore’s book because as is offered in the title, I think it did a better job of humanizing Jones and the members of Peoples Temple. If nothing else, her book left room for me as a reader to reach my own conclusions about the Jonestown story. It didn’t demand that I view Jones as a demented person from birth, which was my experience with Raven.
I enjoyed Moore’s talk because she elaborated a little more on what I picked up on in the book. She made it clear that she feels that Peoples Temple was not a cult despite the fact that people tend to believe that its members were brainwashed. Moore presented more complexities behind the story. She talked about how Peoples Temple was a political movement as well and how that played a role in its development. Essentially she offered that at the very least Peoples Temple was a diverse group of people with complex goals, which I think is a better and more accurate representation than what some people tend to believe.
I had already seen this documentary once in high school. I was surprised to find that it was no less sad the second time around. It’s one thing to read about what happened at Jonestown, but it’s entirely another to see people talk about the family members that they lost and to hear them talk about Jim Jones. The most striking part of the documentary in my opinion was the part at the end where it shows the people who had spoken during the documentary and who exactly they lost in Jonestown. That was literally at the end of the documentary so it left me carrying that sense of loss with me.
Similarly to the portrayal of Jim Jones in Raven, the documentary seemed to represent Jim Jones as pretty unstable to begin with. That bothered me again the same way that it did when I encountered it in the book because I like to think of Jim Jones as being more complex than just an altogether crazy man who did crazy things that ultimately cost people their lives. Overall though I thought that the documentary was very well done and was true to the emotion behind the story of what happened at Jonestown.
Stanley Nelson Response
I was really disappointed with Stanley Nelson’s talk after watching his documentary. I had already seen it once before we watched it in this class, and was very moved by it both times. I hadn’t thought much on the actual film-making process before he came in to speak, but once he did, it made me make a real distinction between what was moving on behalf of the documentary and what was moving because of the actual Jonestown story. Hearing Nelson talk about making the documentary made it feel like a very technical process to me, and I didn’t really feel so much passion behind his efforts to create the documentary. To be fair, I can’t say based on his talk that he was not passionate, and on the contrary, I imagine to stick with a project of such magnitude, one would have to be passionate about it. I guess I was just disappointed because I expected that passion to come across so much more than it did.
I’m sure there were choices that he made to create the documentary that made it come across in the very emotionally charged way that it did, but again, his talk made me feel as though it was less the choices he made and more the story. I can’t decide if that’s a bad thing. I suppose in some ways a story like that of Jonestown has to be able to speak for itself. In fact, a tragedy of that magnitude does speak for itself and demands an emotional response regardless of how it is represented. I guess I consider a documentary a creative response and I expected more contemplative reasons why he created the documentary the way he did.
He did talk briefly about getting a project like this approved and funded which I thought was interesting. Thinking about that a little further though I came to an unfortunate realization. This man had had some prior success which made making this project happen easier for him. It made me think that there are probably tons of other stories that deserve telling in this format that might never get this attention because of lack of funds and other support that even Nelson might not have had without his former success.
Leigh Fondakowski Response
First off, I found this talk pretty inspiring as I start to consider ideas for our final project. At the same time this talk made me really nervous (in a good way) because it made me realize that in coming up with a response to the story of Peoples Temple, I have a responsibility to the lives of the people in that story. I think the reason why Fondakowski’s work was so well received is because all throughout she asked the right questions of herself. She constantly asked herself if the work had integrity, if it represented Jonestown in the way that it deserved to be represented. I hadn’t thought about this very much before her talk probably because usually my creative process involves my own life and I know how I want to be represented. In contrast, when you take on a creative project that is meant to represent something like the Jonestown story, you are also taking on the job of being the voice behind that story. You are what determines the way people are taking in that story and the people in it in that moment.
I was really moved by the way Fondakowski decided to incorporate death in a softer way by using the passport pictures of the people who died at Jonestown. I thought that a very tasteful way of displaying the tragedy while still requiring the same emotional investment on the part of an audience. I think it also paid tribute to the lost lives in a way that I hadn’t heard of before. That really struck me and made me understand why even survivors who from what I can tell, tend to be more critical of what is produced based on Jonestown, responded favorably to this.
I thought Fondakowski’s book was a nice change of pace for us in comparison to other things that we have been reading. I also think that just the way she went about writing it made the book feel more reliable to me than others that we have read, but I definitely preferred actually hearing her speak about her experience with the Jonestown story because I think a lot of her passion came across in a way that a book perhaps cannot capture.
Jordan Vilchez Response
Jordan Vilchez talked about her experience with Peoples Temple as a teenager. She lived because she was in Georgetown when the tragedy happened, but she did lose family in Guyana that day. I found it interesting that Vilchez was on the planning committee. Since she was on the committee she was able to say some things about how things worked within the Temple, but I found that none of it was different than what I had already read, so I was a little bit disappointed with that. Vilchez talked a little bit about her current life and that was a little bit more interesting. It was nice to see that even despite the mass loss that she experienced, she still has a pleasant view on life and her life’s work is geared towards improving the lives of others.
I will say that I was pretty disappointed with Vilchez’ talk as a whole and that might be because she was the first survivor to come for the series of talks, so I had higher expectations. She seemed pretty removed from the experience and I think part of that is because she was a teenager when everything happened. I didn’t feel like she had any emotional investment in what happened at Jonestown even though I’m sure she must have. I know that everyone deals with grief differently and it could be that she copes by being less emotional about it or even that she has been dealing with it for so long that she doesn’t get emotional talking about it in general.
I guess on a larger level my reaction to her says a lot about the expectations that an audience might have to survivors of the Jonestown experience. I wonder if others expected a more heartfelt reaction to the experience. I wonder too if having watched the documentary set me up to expect that she would have a more emotionally charged talk.
Tim Carter Response
Tim Carter’s talk was by far my favorite one so far. Unlike how I felt about Vilchez, he had a very emotionally charged talk. He still feels very strongly affected by what happened at Jonestown and it made me feel much more invested in the Jonestown story. He was very adamant about the fact that he believed and continues to believe that what happened the last day at Jonestown was murder, not suicide. That statement is huge. I don’t know whether I believe that it was a murder or a suicide, but I was really affected by hearing someone who was there state so certainly that it was murder.
Another thing Carter said that stayed with me was about the statement “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid”. I had heard of that saying before, and I did know that it was associated with the Jonestown story, but it was really troubling to see how a Jonestown survivor was affected by it. He said flat out that people should not use the saying “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” unless they are thinking of 300 dead chi ldren while doing. Statements like that in his talk had a huge impact on me.
Many of the other things that he said were things that we had all heard before. He talked about how people who were a part of Peoples Temple were educated and not just brainwashed followers. He said that there were clear signs that Jones was really in a different mental state by the time the final act happened, but all of those things were different coming from Carter. He was very open and honest, and I appreciated his talk as a whole.
Stephan Jones Response
At the start of the course, I was most excited for Stephan Jones’ talk for the most obvious reason: He’s Jim Jones’ son. I expected him to have the strongest reactions to Jonestown as a whole and that’s what I was expecting when he came here. I was surprised instead to find a man who is much more at peace with himself than I could imagine being if I had experienced what he has in his lifetime. I thought that his talk was very refreshing in that way. Though other Jonestown survivors talked about how they have coped, he was the first to make me feel truly hopeful.
The one take away message that I thought most moving about his talk was that yes, he has indeed dealt with his negative life experiences, but that did not come without a lot of work on his part. It was incredible to hear someone really emphasize that in order to deal with tragedy, you really have to actively cope with it. I found this particularly resonant when he gave the example about how we all have crazy thoughts. He said that there are things that cross our minds that we simply have to know to dismiss, and though I guess he didn’t make this direct connection, it made me think that the same is necessary in dealing with trauma. One must actively recognize our feelings about a traumatic experience and deal with them accordingly before the healing process can happen.
My favorite thing that Stephan said was something that I had been suspicious of since we’ve read and heard so many different accounts about Jonestown, and that was about his father’s intentions. Stephan said that he thinks in retrospect people give his father much more credit for some of his actions than he deserves and I had wondered about that before. The example Stephan gave was of his father forcing every man in the Temple to admit to homosexuality. According to some, Jones did that intentionally to assert more power, but in Stephan’s eyes, that was his father’s way of coping with his own bisexuality. I tend to agree with Stephan on that point and I hope that more people are exposed to that as a possibility.