Rebecca Moore Lecture Response
This week’s reading included Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore, who is the sister of Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, both dedicated members of the Temple who died at Jonestown on November 18, I 978. Besides providing a brief overview of Temple history, events, and the leader Jim Jones, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple had the overall aim of “humanizing” the members of Peoples Temple. After the horrific tragedy at Jonestown was reported back to the United States, Moore claims that American media sensationalized and denigrated both Peoples Temple and the members themselves. In her book, Moore wants to show the more personal pieces of Peoples Temple, , in particular, she wants to demonstrate to readers what drove members to join the Temple in the first place. As Moore explains, people were not always directly drawn to Jim Jones, but were specifically intrigued by the concepts of social justice, good works, and a close-knit community. Moore does not call Peoples Temple a cult. In her opinion, the word “cult” has a negative connotation and is commonly used by traditional religions that disagree with more progressive or radical religion types. While I believe that Moore does a fairly good job at remaining neutral and objective throughout her book, I still think that she has a slightly sympathetic tone towards Jim Jones and the Temple, which is most likely due to the fact that two of her sisters were important members who died at Jonestown. Her view on the Concerned Relatives as trying to destroy the Temple was much different from Tim Reiterman’s more positive view of them in his book Raven. Her opinion definitely opened me up to new perspectives regarding the Temple, and also made me question my previous criticizing beliefs about the organization and its members.
Overall, I think that Rebecca Moore’s lecture was coherent and helped to specifically challenge previously held beliefs about Peoples Temple and its members. Moore mainly focused on how Peoples Temple was not just another crazy “‘cult” and its members were not simple brainwashed cultists following a mentally insane leader. Instead , Moore discussed how Peoples Temple was a political movement that emerged out of the matrix of black power that was prevalent in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, when the Temple existed. Moore touched upon how the presence of black power groups such as the Black Panthers, with leaders such as Huey Newton preaching militant, revolutionary actions, particularly influenced the philosophy of Peoples Temple and the beliefs of its members. Moore emphasized the impact that Newton’s idea of revolutionary suicide had on Peoples Temple. Although misinterpreted by Jim Jones, the idea of dying for a cause would remain one of the most important focal points in Temple belief and rhetoric.
While Moore admitted that it was Jones who most strongly advocated the plan for mass suicide, she also stated that the majority of members did in fact believe that they were in a life or death struggle for equality. According to Moore, almost all Temple members had a willingness to die. They strongly believed in the concepts of social justice and liberty, and were willing to die in order to attain such hopes and make the world a better place. Additionally, Moore claimed that Temple members participated in their own victimization, that the tragedy at Jonestown was not solely Jim Jones’ fault. Moore stated (she actually gained the concept from another writer/scholar I believe) that the interactions between the leader Jim Jones and hi s audience were mutually destructive. The audience corrupted Jim Jones, and Jim Jones corrupted himself, to the point where Jones was so involved with his “visions” and the idea of himself as a god, and his people were so involved wit h his preaching and beliefs, that both were almost certainly doomed for failure. While I agree with this idea only to an extent, I do comprehend Moore’s claim that people were so set on the idea of self sacrifice for a greater cause that they were willing to kill themselves, and even their children, in order to attain such ideals. Moore’s lecture not only gave me more interesting information about Peoples Temple and its members, but in particular it helped me gain new insights into the actual truth behind Peoples Temple. While I still grasp to the claims presented in Reiterman’s Raven, Moore’s book and her lecture made me further question “facts” and general beliefs regarding Peoples Temple and its members. I think that Moore has encouraged me to investigate Peoples Temple even further, and I look forward to what new opinions and understandings I will gain from future texts we read.
The Life and Death of Peoples Temple Reading Response
I thought that Stanley Nelson’s film documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple was very interesting, and definitely helped to show a more “a live” side of Peoples Temple that cannot be garnered simply from readings.
Nelson’s documentary discussed the progression of Peoples Temple, what initially attracted people to the Temple ( interracial, sense of a vibrant, helpful community making a difference, charismatic and healing Jim Jones) and how the deterioration of Jones eventually led to the people’s doomed fate. I particularly liked the film footage of the people singing and dancing and the interviews with past members because it made the Temple more real and dynamic for me, and I was able to put names to faces based on my readings.
In addition to demonstrating the more humane aspect of Peoples Temple, the documentary touched upon the enigmatic and disturbing psyche of Jim Jones. It was mentioned how Jones slaughtered animals as a young child, had strange sexual relations within the Temple, and administered frightening “loyalty tests,” suicide drills, and beatings. The film emphasized the important effect that drugs had on increasing Jones’ paranoia, and how his constant voice through the loudspeakers in Jonestown played a significant role in shielding the people from reality. As one former Temple member from the film remarked , Jonestown had t he potential to be something great, but Jim Jones ultimately led it down the wrong path.
Overall, I thought that the film was effective and compelling, although due to the fact that it was a condensed film , it left out certain details a bout the deeper psychology surrounding Peoples Temple. Nevertheless, I think that the documentary did a good job at showing both the positive and negative sides of Peoples Temple, and especially the “story” and progression of the Temple, its initial attraction, growth, and ultimate downfall. Also, the film footage d e finitely added a fascinating appeal and personality to Peoples Temple that one cannot experience through readings only.
Stanley Nelson Lecture: Reading Response
The documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple traces the progression and inner story of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones: what initially attracted people to the Temple, the positive and negative aspects of the Temple, and most importantly, the role that Jim Jones played in the organization’s downfall. While the entire film touched on certain vital details about the Temple – its good works and social action, and also more sensitive aspects such as sexual perversions and beatings – for tonight’s lecture Nelson only showed the ending of the film, which is perhaps the most dramatic and horrifying part, for it documents the members’ deaths.
Indeed, Nelson called the ending of the film the “horror story.” Nevertheless, one of Nelson’s main hopes in producing the film was trying to get outsiders to “understand” Peoples Temple and Jonestown, to understand how so many people could have committed such a heinous act against their loved ones and themselves. As Nelson admitted during the lecture, though, he realized that it would be impossible for people to ever fully “understand” Peoples Temple and Jonestown. There were so many other factors involved in the deterioration of Jonestown and its people – mind control, Jones’ paranoia, lack of sleep, as Nelson mentioned – that outsiders could never fully grasp the commitment that people felt towards the Temple and towards Jones, a commitment so strong that they were willing to die for it.
Despite the fact that Nelson might not be able to get all people to “understand” Peoples Temple and the massacre at Jonestown, I think that he did an adequate job at showing a more dynamic and alive side or Peoples Temple in the documentary that one cannot attain through news media or books. Nelson mentioned how the sensationalist media. which dubbed Temple members as crazy cultists following a madman, had shaped his original opinion about Jonestown. It was Nelson’s wife who actually opened him up to another side of Peoples Temple and inspired him to make the film. After listening to former Temple members speak on the radio. Nelson’s wife became intrigued by the “other” aspect of the Temple – the humanitarian, social action-orientated, loving community aspect of the Temple – and she thought that the Temple’s people deserved a story. In making the film , Nelson interviewed survivors but was careful not to pressure them to be filmed because he knew that the story was a sensitive subject. While he desperately tried to get Stephan Jones to talk, he refused. Other details regarding the making of the film that Nelson discussed include the fact that the film had no narration, and all of the footage was real , for it was acquired from the news media that were present at Jonestown. Nelson believed that these two details added to the “realness” and personable aspect of the film, and I definitely agree. As Ne son explained, the fact that there are no recreated images or scenes makes the documentary that much more organic and tangible, as a real , current event involving living, animate human beings. Overall, I thought that both the documentary and Nelson’s lecture were effective, and in particular they really helped me to see the “alive” side of Peoples Temple, a side that I believe is mostly overlooked by outsiders.
Leigh Fondakowski Reading Response
Leigh Fondakowski’s lecture mainly focused on the making of her play The People’s Temple , as well as her recently published book Stories from Jonestown. Fondakowski was the Head Writer for the highly successful play The Laramie Project, which retells the story of the murder of Wyoming gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. During her lecture, Fondakowski discussed what originally drew her to retelling a story like that of Jonestown. Much like the emotional story about Matthew Shepard, Fondakowski had a desire to reinterpret the story of Jonestown in such a way so that outsiders could see it as more humane, as more than just a “crazy cult” phenomenon. Indeed, Fondakowski wanted to “make art” from the stories that she gained from the Temple survivors, and in this way she hoped to transform history and alter people’s negative perceptions about this tragic event.
Fondakowski admitted that during the process of creating the Jonestown play, she wondered whether it was even truly possible to reverse outsiders’ opinions of Temple members as crazed cultists following a deranged leader. Nevertheless, Fondakowski did everything in her power to produce a live performance of the Jonestown event that capitalized on the “alive” side of the Temple members, as well the importance of the event in America’s history. Fondakowski interviewed various survivors and Temple family members, including Stephan Jones, Tim Carter, and Rebecca Moore, in order to get the full picture of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Fondakowski also tried to remain a “blank slate, ” in that she did not undertake much preliminary research that could have potentially biased her opinion about Jonestown and its people. The finished play, as Fondakowski described it, was meant to be more of an experience for the audience. Fondakowski wanted people to identity and “go along with” the action of the play. Formed from the actual words of the people. Fondakowski defined the play as more of a conversation than a theater piece. In addition, the performance included music and the enlarged photos of Temple members, which deepened the emotional aspect and overall intimacy of the show for the viewers.
One of the biggest challenges for Fondakowski in producing her play The People’s Temple, as well as her book Stories from Jonestown was that the story of Jonestown and Peoples Temple was full of contradictions. While some members called the Jonestown tragedy outright murder, as Tim Carter did, others such as Dick Tropp (who died at Jonestown) held a more conciliatory view. The point that stuck out the most to me during Fondakowski’s lecture was her statement that as a writer and a playwright, it was not her place to say what was true and what was not true, instead it was the peoples’ truth. Fondakowski’s book Stories from Jonestown contains forty-seven protagonists all related in some way to the Jonestown tragedy – former members, parents or relatives of members, relatives of those injured or killed at the airstrip – and all of them have their own truth, their own individual story and understanding of the Jonestown tragedy. Readers learn that Leo Ryan was at one time an English teacher and avid environmentalist who fought against seal pup hunting; Annie Moore was whimsical and talented in guitar. In addition to these perhaps trivial details about the people involved with Jonestown , the book also offers varying opinions, varying truths, about the entire even t. Thus Fondakowski’s lecture was effective because in describing her goal of uncovering the “truth” of Jonestown through her play and book, she discovered that the real truth was in the people themselves, in all of the different. individual stories of each and every person involved in the tragedy.
Jordan Vilchez Lecture Response
Jordan Vilchez’ lecture was compelling not only because she experienced the Temple first-hand, but because through her discussion she demonstrated her deep emotional connection to the organization, and how this connection still affects her today. Although her lecture was at times disjointed, it was nonetheless moving, and in my opinion her present emotions made the talk that even more genuine and impactful. Vilchez gave a brief summary of how she first joined the Temple in the summer of 1969 when she was twelve years old. A family friend had invited her mother, sisters, and nephews to a Temple meeting in Redwood Valley, California where Jones’ message of integration and equality for all people greatly appealed to her mother. From then on, the Temple became a huge part of Vilchez’ life, and while she enjoyed her time in the organization, she also mentioned that ‘‘the appearance of joy” overshadowed the questionable aspects of the Temple, and of Jim Jones himself.
Vilchez was adamant in pointing out that the Temple was a trap, for it took up the majority of members’ time and made it almost impossible for them to leave. Vilchez detailed many of the negative aspects of the Temple – the stringent work schedules (little sleep), cruel punishments (verbal and physical punishments, such as boxing, public chastisement during meetings, etc.) – and perhaps the worst of all was the sense of fear that became “branded into [her] core” as a result of Jones’ teachings. Vilchez realized many years later that growing up in the Temple had affected her deeply. She had a sense of gloom always, an overwhelming feeling that anything could happen at any moment. Vilchez explained that when she was in the Temple her personal value existed only for the cause – she felt as if her hopes, dreams, her individuality – did not matter. She was made to feel selfish, and had a diminished and undeveloped sense of self, a personal sense of worthlessness. While Vilchez still agrees that some of the ideals and beliefs of the Temple were valuable, such as equality and integration, they came at a steep price, and were ironically oppressive to the members.
While Vilchez still feels “handicapped” by the lack of skills that most learn as teenagers, through her involvement in the Temple she gained skills and insights that she may have otherwise not learned. One of them is her ability to view complex, difficult situations as processes that can be overcome. While Vilchez may still be working to formulate a normal and healthy life for herself, she now views herself as a stronger being capable of overcoming challenging circumstances. In addition, the Temple taught her compassion for others, a gift that has been especially helpful in her own healing process. Vilchez finished her talk by reading anecdotes from two of her Temple friends, as well as her poem “Human Journey.” Overall, I found Vilchez’ talk to be extremely effective and heartrending, because I could tell (as could the rest of the audience) that she was speaking from her heart, and it was at times very difficult for her to do so. I appreciated her bravery and her deep emotional truth in speaking to us. and her genuine perspective really made the Temple come alive for me.
Tim Carter Lecture Response
Tim Carter’s lecture was, by far, one of the most interesting and moving lectures that I attended so far this semester. Part of this was due to the fact that Tim Carter was such a prominent member of the Temple, but his presentation was also extremely engaging and genuine. I was compelled the en tire time, and the discussion and questions afterwards lasted a very long time, due to everyone’s interest. Carter started off by telling the audience his deep involvement in the Temple, and how he had lost his wife, son, sister, nephew, and many others that he considered to be his family in the Jonestown tragedy.
He wants people to remember Jonestown by something more than the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” and above all he wants outsiders to view Temple members as people, not cultists. Carter first gave a brief summary of his family background, and how and why he initially joined the Temple. He grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in a blue collar, Pennsylvania mining town. His father was an alcoholic, his mother died when he was fifteen, and although he was raised to have compassion for others, his town was very white, and he had no black friends. After high school he joined the Marine Corps, and when he came back from his experience in combat in Vietnam, he realized that things were not what they appeared to be. Carter claimed that he felt lied to his entire life – to do things without question, to commit violence and die without question, all for other people’s money. He came to the conclusion upon leaving the military that war was the main problem in society, and he searched for a certain type of group to join that shared his beliefs about society.
Carter made a point to say that he did not “just fall into Peoples Temple,” he was looking for a specific type of organization, and the Temple’s message of equality (both blacks and whites) and peace especially resonated with him. Carter defined Peoples Temple not as a cult, but as an organization doing good deeds, caring for others, and making a difference in the world. He liked the feeling that he was making an impact in society, and he stated that the Temple was like family to him. The close-knit, familylike atmosphere of the Temple was one of the main reasons that Carter never left the Temple, even when he began to despise Jim Jones. Even though he admitted that Jonestown was not a utopia, he believed that it had the potential to be. According to Carter, the Temple was more about the people than their leader Jim Jones, and hence it was the people who had the ability to make Jonestown a truly great place. Carter, like many of the previous lecturers, also emphasized Jones’ insanity during his time at Jonestown, and validated that the tragedy at Jonestown was not suicide, but murder. As Carter pointed out, children and elderly citizens who cannot defend themselves do not commit suicide – they were forced into death. In addition, Carter mentioned how Jones had had suicide planned all along, as documents described suicide measures, and Jones had even been quoted saying: “When I go, I will take as many people with me as I can.”
Carter described Peoples Temple as “not all good , [and] not all bad.” Jones himself was brilliant and charismatic, both a great speaker and master manipulator, and seemed to have the capacity for enormous compassion as well as extreme evil. Carter’s hope is that people can learn the true story of Peoples Temple, as the media tends to fuel incorrect information about the organization and its members. While Carter had difficulty adjusting to normal life after the Jonestown tragedy, he survives by remembering that others have gone through similar pain and survived, and many have gone through worse pain and survived. If they can survive, then so can he. Carter’s belief in God, the love for his three children, and the “little miracles,” the little pieces of humanity that he witnesses – these aspects of life keep him going each day. I found Carter’s lecture to be touching not only because he detailed his deep involvement and experience with Peoples Temple up until the fateful tragedy, but because he also spoke of his path of redemption, his belief in life and hope, despite tragedy.
Julia Scheeres Reading Response
Julia Scheeres’ book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown tells the stories of five Peoples Temple members, all of whom went to Jonestown: Edith Roller, Tommy Bogue, Stanley Clayton, and Hyacinth Thrash and her sister Zipporah. Unlike other books written about Jonestown, I found this one to be more personalized due to the inclusion of the different individualized narratives. Although nonfiction, the book read like a novel, and I enjoyed learning about the different characters and their lives while also reading about the background of Peoples Temple and the events leading up to the tragedy at Jonestown. I specifically appreciated the different perspectives in the book, because it helped me to understand how Jones was able to capture so many followers with his message. While Edith Roller was well-educated, white, and joined the Temple to help others, Stanley Clayton was a troubled black teenager who joined the Temple because of Jones’ message of racial equality. Yet there was also Tommy Bogue, who hated Peoples Temple but was forced to be a member because of his family’s ties to the organization. Throughout the book, I was able to identify with certain members and even sympathize with them. One example is Edith Roller: “And then there was the food.”
Edith was mindful of eating healthy fare; her diet consisted of fresh produce, whole grains, and tofu. The first meal she was served as a communard consisted of macaroni salad, a hot dog, and pudding” (48). Edith also missed her “solitary evening strolls through Golden Gate Park” (49). Scheeres’ detailed yet fresh writing and her inclusion of certain characters’ internal thoughts humanized the members of Peoples Temple for me, and made the entire story of Jonestown more real.
Scheeres’ lecture was equally as engaging for me. She began her talk by first giving a brief background of her own life, and how it specifically set her up to create a book about Jonestown. Scheeres was actually working on a book about a small Indiana town overtaken by a preacher, when she realized that Jim Jones was from Indiana and decided to write a book about Jonestown instead.
Scheeres also had deeper reasons for choosing to write a book about Jonestown. As a teenager, Scheeres witnessed her adopted African American brother get terrorized and beaten up by racist students, and she admitted that Jones’ message of racial equality would have definitely appealed to her. Both she and her adopted brother were also sent to a reform school, where they had strict rules and strange punishments, very similar to the experience in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Scheeres therefore felt a sort of connection to the Jonestown story and its people, and she wan ted to write a narrative that detailed life in Jonestown from the perspective of ordinary people. Scheeres found five people – Edith Roller, Stanley Clayton, Tommy Bogue, and Hyacinth Thrash (and her sister Zipporah) – based on if they were alive and able to be interviewed in depth, or if they had died but had left behind many primary sources to be analyzed.
Scheeres’ overriding point in her book, as she emphasized during her lecture. was that the tragedy at Jonestown was not suicide, but mass murder. In addition, Scheeres’ book included the message that Temple members were not cultists following a deranged leader, but were very much normal people, as is demonstrated through their individual stories as well as the vibrant pictures in the book. Overall, I thought that Scheeres’ lecture was compelling and genuine, specifically because she could connect herself to Peoples Temple and the tragedy that took place at Jonestown. It was apparent through Scheeres’ lecture, as well as her book, that she is dedicated to humanizing the Temple members and fostering a sense of empathy among society. Scheeres’ lecture also gave me hope that it is possible for all people to formulate connections with others, to sympathize with outsiders instead of judge them, and above all, to seek to learn and understand others, for the development of a more compassionate society.
Stephan Jones Lecture Response
Stephan Jones’ discussion was much different from many of the previous lectures, and for this reason I enjoyed it even more. Before he began to speak, Stephan made it clear that he did not want to lecture us – he instead wanted an open conversation, an exchange of ideas, an overall, communal understanding. He started off by reading the audience one of his personal reflections about Jonestown, entitled “Going Home.” The piece talks about Peoples Temple, its good and its bad aspects (“Laughter was our favorite thing… Our laughter could be pathetic and mean, and quite often beautiful”). It also includes some of Stephan’s personal beliefs about Jonestown and life in general, which I found to be very meaningful. Stephan discusses how Peoples Temple members were more against than for anything – they “hated hatred and were bigoted against bigots. . . Everything and everyone – but [them] -was wrong, wrong, wrong.” At the same time, Stephan admitted that being in the Temple taught him a great deal about “soul and sacrifice. ”
At one point in his reflection he quotes the mystical poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing/ and rightdoing there is a field/ I’ll meet you there.” These lines struck me, and as Stephan described his own beliefs with regard to good and evil, I became even more intrigued. He spoke of an idea in which people can connect and understand each other, a belief that people and their emotions of pain, misery, and joy can be shared, not separated. Stephan believes that “making other people wrong does not work” – being condemning of others without trying to understand their perspective does not work. In many ways, his words correlated with the mission of this class, to seek understanding and compassion for a tragic event that is horribly misunderstood. Another point in Stephan’s discussion that impressed me is his idea that he is not his mind, that he is instead more of his soul. As he explained, all humans have harmful, even evil thoughts-all people are capable of evil, but humans also have the ability to control themselves, they have choice, and can decide to do good. I found Stephan’s beliefs to be particularly comforting, and I can see how they were an integral part of his healing process. One cannot be tormented by his thoughts, or else he will never heal. Stephan had to accept that it is okay if he is similar to his father, for he has the ability to choose good in his own life.
Overall, Stephan’s discussion was emotional and fascinating. I loved hearing about his personal experiences in the Temple as much as I loved learning about his current personal beliefs with regard to his healing and spiritual process. What I specifically enjoyed about Stephan’s talk was the sort of open-mindedness that it facilitated. Unlike some previous lecturers, Stephan was not trying to convince the audience of a certain view, and he did not come in prepared with an aggressive stance. Instead, he was calm and accessible, ready to hear more of our ideas than his own. It can even be argued that Stephan’s point was to not have one-sided perspectives, but to instead formulate connection and understanding with others and their personal emotions. I found this concept to be refreshing, not only in relation to Jonestown, but to today’s society as well. I feel as if, after listening to Stephan speak about his personal beliefs and healing process, that I have founded a connection with him and his experience. His words were moving and exceptionally true , and they made me look deeper into my own life and experiences. Out of all of the discussions this semester, Stephan’s had the greatest impact on me by far.
English 290: Jonestown: Stories of a Cult
Jonestown: A Vital Part of American History
Before coming into this class, I had limited knowledge about the tragedy of Jonestown that took place in Guyana on November 18, I 978. In my high school sociology class, we briefly touched upon the topic in our study of cults that also included Heaven’s Gate and Wicca. I remember being intrigued by Jim Jones and Jonestown, but only because of the shocking violence that surrounded the movement. My high school class never learned extensively about Peoples Temple or the leader Jim Jones, and what I acquired from my class’ short study about the event was what most of American society during the late 1970s had surmised: that Peoples Temple was a crazy cult led by a deranged leader, and all of the members committed suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid in some foreign country. After reading our first assigned book. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by the journalist Tim Reiterman, I came to understand that Peoples Temple and Jonestown is much more complex and misunderstood than I had previously been aware. Today the tragic event is remembered mostly by the popular but often misused phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” if it is even remembered at all. Sadly, many people in today’s society are not only unaware of the Jonestown tragedy itself, but also fail to recognize its importance in relation to their own lives. Peoples Temple and the tragedy of Jonestown was not a separate event that has nothing to do with mainstream society today. In fact, the event and its complexities shed light on certain aspects and insecurities inherent in American society today: the prevalence of a group mentality and the importance of community and a sense of belonging, the secrecy of the American government leaders versus rulers, and concepts of violence and compassion. Upon completing this course, I have learned that in order to truly grow and improve as a society, Americans must seek to analyze, understand, and remember events such as Jonestown, instead of disregarding them as separate or abnormal occurrences.
It was through many of the course readings, as well as the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” website, that I gained most of the information I used to help create my final response project. My final project focused on Maria Katsaris and her father Steve Katsaris, and the lost children of Jonestown. After reading about Maria Katsaris in Raven , I knew that I wanted to learn more about her tory. I was personally struck by the details about her relationship with her father, because I too share a close relationship with my own father. While I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to include Maria and Steve Katsaris’ narrative in my presentation, it was not until later in my research that I decided on including the lost children of Jonestown as part of my project as well. I had originally planned on doing a piece about Sharon Amos, because the account of how she killed her three children and then herself in Georgetown, Guyana, both intrigued and shocked me, and I wanted to learn more about her personal background and role in the Temple. However, after watching Stanley Nelson’s film Jonestown: The Life and Death of People Temple, an image of the young, innocent-looking children had an especially strong emotional effect on me.
Instead of writing about Sharon Amos. I chose instead to do a type of commemoration piece for the hundreds of children who lost their lives at Jonestown.
I had had the idea of composing a poem for my Maria and Steve Katsaris presentation early on in my research, and I originally wrote the poem “The Broken Tree, ” which is in the voice of Maria, with the intention of it being the sole poem in my piece. It felt, though, that Maria’s father’s voice also needed to be heard. I wrote my second poem, “A Lost Voice, ” in the perspective of Steve Katsaris later on in my production process, and I believe that it serves as a necessary complement to my first poem, “The Broken Tree. ” I was not completely sure how I was going to present the Jonestown children’s narrative to the audience. I began by attaining lots of pictures, as well as video clips and quotes, which I thought helped to exemplify the profound sadness of the children’s deaths. It was not until later on in my production process, when I was looking at photos from the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting massacre. that I became inspired to write a poem as a form of commemoration for the children, which came to be titled “Do not forget. ” When I was first compiling my various sources, information, and creations, I had prepared to use a lot of media sources, such as music , videos, primary sources. etc. However. the more that I began to think about the nature of my presentation, the more I realized that extra media sources were unnecessary. Professor Bob Gainer and Deb Sarlin were especially helpful in guiding me to a more streamlined and effective presentation. I met with Professor Gainer, and he assisted me in reducing my poem introductions so that they were simpler and more impactful. Professor Gainer was particularly helpful in his vocal coaching, in that he reminded me to look up at the audience and emphasize final words so as to leave a lasting impression. Both Professor Gainer and Deb Sarlin, as well as many of the students, shared valuable insight s about altering my slide show presentations as well. My final presentations contained shorter slideshows with mostly picture and quotes, so that the audience could focus more on my words and their emotions, rather than the screen.
I was happy with how I performed my presentations, and even more impressed with how all of the individual presentations came together. Professor Gainer’s coaching definitely helped me, and while I may have looked down a few times, I think that I did a fairly good job at engaging the audience with my readings. I have read my poetry aloud before, so I was comfortable speaking in front of an audience. I have discovered based on previous experiences that I tend to be more relaxed reading my own written work in front of an audience than I am when I have to present a research project or some other type of “unoriginal” work in front of other people. I believe the reason behind this has to do with the emotional effect that writing, and especially poetry, has on an audience. Words have a way of impacting people deeply, of forming a sort of connect between author and audience. I think the fact that the audience for our performance was smaller also made it easier for me to perform, for it provided a calmer and more intimate atmosphere. I believe that the subjects of my presentations – the fractured relationship between father and daughter, and the deaths of hundreds of innocent children – also played a major role in creating an emotional, receptive type of environment, as did the rest of the presentations. The other students’ presentations brought in many more perspectives, voices, and modes of presentation as well, to help formulate an overall unique portrait of People Temple and Jonestown, one both more humanized and genuine than other representations. While some of the students’ presentations contained lots of interesting visual media sources, others were simpler and more personal , like mine. Some students presented their writing through poems, plays, and sermons, while others used their own word s as well as secondary sources t o create distinctive multimedia pieces. A s a whole , I thought that the overall presentation w as effective in that its main focus w as on the people of Jonestown . At the same time, the presentation s did not fail to include the uglier aspects of Peoples Temple and Jonestown . As students, I believe we succeeded in demonstrating the “true” image of Peoples Temple and Jonestown – one not sensationalized by the media, and yet one not seeking to cove r up or de-emphasize the less admirable aspects either. We s h owed what Peoples Temple and Jonestown was – a complex community with both good and bad characteristics, a n example of humanity, and a vital part of both American and human hi story.
It is easy for many people to cast off the Jonestown tragedy as something so appalling. and even detached from current American life. However, by learning in-depth about the event, I came to understand that despite its atrocity, the Jonestown tragedy shares many similarities and connections with American society today. First, Temple members were real , everyday people, many o f whom I was able to connect and sympathize with, even though I never met or k new them. Furthermore, Peoples Temple represents, although more blatantly, many of the deep needs and insecurities that humans possess. Are many people not influenced by peer pressure and dominant beliefs? I s America not ruled by charismatic, corrupt official s, who have secretive planning groups that the rank and file (i.e., all average Americans) lack access to? As “normal” humans, we join churches, clubs, sororities and fraternities that teach us to think and act collectively as opposed to making the best decisions for the vast majority. In looking at our society in these aspects, Peoples Temple and the tragedy at Jonestown no longer seems as foreign or incomprehensible. As Stephan Jones explained during his discussion, as humans we are all capable or good and evil , and thus we are all intimately connected in some way: “This belief that you and I are separate, that your pain is not my pain, that your misery is not my misery, that your joy and peace and bliss are not mine… it is a lie” (Stephan Jones, ‘“Going Home”). All humans, in one way or another, are linked to those who joined and experienced Peoples Temple and Jonestown.
Therefore, the tragedy that took place in Guyana on November 18, 1978 cannot be viewed as a “separate” event from American society. In order to fully cope and improve as humans, we must come to terms with our needs and insecurities, our capabilities of evil , and most of all our connection to all other human beings. We must connect as people and recognize, analyze, and understand our frailties, rather than deny their existence.