Matthew Liguori

The Jonestown narrative means something different to everyone, but nobody can deny that the story is powerful. My approach to the Jonestown narrative shifted and developed the more I learned about the subject. Initially, the practical thing to do is to approach the narrative through the lens of the typical media portrayal of the incident. From this perspective, you learn a very shallow story about a group of paranoid cultists who committed mass suicide in South America. However, after learning more about the story, it becomes a tragic tale of good intentions gone terribly awry.

Once you get into the story of Jonestown, there are always some individuals that stand out more than others. Just as characters in a novel are more interesting if we can relate to them, so too do the victims of the Jonestown narrative become more interesting the more we know about them. Suddenly, people who were faceless statistics of the tragedy become real humans, with aspirations and goals. The question that haunts anyone researching the tragedy for too long is simple, but trying – would I have fit in Peoples Temple? When we find a figure who reminds us of ourselves, it’s suddenly very easy to understand the story of Peoples Temple.

Even after having read a lot on the story of Jonestown, and feeling content with my knowledge base, there is still more to learn. Upon actually meeting one of the “characters” of the Jonestown story in person, the whole thing gets turned on its head. Suddenly, we can no longer justify caricaturing these cultists. Once meeting someone as a person, they get startlingly real.

As an actual person, with both flaws and positive aspects. They are no more a fictional character than members of your own family. Stephan Jones, in particular, is strikingly similar to some of my extended family. It’s bizarre to meet someone with such a fascinating and tragic life story who still bears so many similarities to a loved one.

When preparing my response for the assignment, I initially did not know where I wanted to go. Having not spent much time performing in my past, I didn’t have a “go-to” style of presenting my response. Whatever I did, I felt that I owed it to Peoples Temple to be genuine, and actually representative of how their story made me feel. Additionally, I knew that I did not want to merely re-present facts that I had previously learned. If the audience did not already know the story of Peoples Temple, that was acceptable to me. Once I had all this information, it was fairly obvious to me that I would present my thoughts in poetry form. Something I have always admired about poetry i s that, when performed, the exact facts and words of the poem can fade away and create an emotional impact without the listener knowing the absolutes of what they were hearing.

Deciding early in the process that I would perform poetry that I wrote, I had plenty of time to write it. I went through some frustratingly juvenile early drafts, without really being able to create the impact or sound that I wanted. The process is slow, and largely grew around singular lines that I developed that I strongly wanted to use. I was surprised by how difficult I found it to write a poem about Maria Katsaris, and somehow during the process the poem changed to being about her father. With significantly less information available about her father, it was easier to encapsulate him in one work. Furthermore, Maria’s unrepentant attitude throughout most of the history of Peoples Temple made her a difficult figure to write about.

She was difficult to see as a victim, because she was such a key figure in the success of the Temple and in particular the success of Jim Jones. I would also like to mention the small part of the performance I undertook that was not my own writing, but rather the quotes from Jim Jones. Early in the process of creating the presentation, Eli asked me to take the role of Jim Jones for his paired sermon presentation. As the result of this, and due to the relatively short duration of my own portion of the presentation I also accepted the role of reading further quotes from Jim Jones. Surprisingly, or perhaps because we started out learning so much about him, there were not many quotes from Jim Jones, and some of the few we had were eventually cut for time. That said, there was still time I spent practicing reading lines from Jim Jones, a generally strange way to spend time. The things that the man said, and preached in his sermons, are wildly different from what I could imagine saying.

Reflecting on my particular contribution to the presentation, I feel more than satisfied with the poems I performed. It is extremely important to me to maintain a standard of quality in anything I am going to be publicly presenting, and I feel like I at least reached the minimum of that standard. My poem on Steven Katsaris could have used more work on becoming more acoustically entertaining, as well as to help even the tone and pacing of the poem out, but I had difficulty finding the necessary changes to make. Steven Katsaris’ plight, in retrospect, was hopeless, but as with many other members of the Concerned Relatives, he seemed always just on the verge of finally making a breakthrough. It was difficult to try to emulate that sort of hopelessness, which is an emotion so intense that at my age I’ve had no comparison.

Writing a poem on the tragedy of the last day in Jonestown proved to be just as difficult to accomplish, due to its sheer scale. The reaction the story provokes is visceral and potent when first heard, and it inspired all of our research into the subject. I kept trying to write a poem that could somehow match the scale of the tragedy, but again, I have no point of comparison within my own life. Writing an impersonal, historical poem had no appeal to me, so I struggled to figure out how I could match the scale of such a momentous tragedy with just my personal experience. In failing to do so, I resolved to compare the scale of the tragedy to other, terrible human events, and it led me to realize that, in the grand scheme of thing, not that many people died in Jonestown. And so I began writing my poem on the tragedy on the subject of our own fascination with the tragedy, rather than the events themselves.

Once I had decided on this theme, the poem became a lot easier for me to write. In ‘78, with such a massive population in the world, the death of over 900 individuals may make a huge impact on us as a society, but is not that high of a number. This is such a strange disconnect to try to make, approaching the subject both as an individual and as a supposedly unbiased observer. I was faced with the task of trying to figure out why mass death and tragedy were so fascinating to us as a culture, and why they resonate so much more intensely than natural death. Certainly, there were a large number of child deaths in Jonestown, but not more than naturally died on that day alone. What is it about the events at Jonestown that merit looking over, again and again? Do they deserve the amount of attention we give to them? This was the theme I approached my poem with.

After having spent a large amount of time during a semester researching the horrible events at Jonestown, I was largely desensitized to them. It was not until I met Tim Carter (in a bathroom , no less) that the terror of the events came back to me. I remembered my initial reaction to learning about the “mass suicide” at Jonestown. I had learned about it from a comic book, comparing Jonestown to school shootings while discussing problems with humanity. There was a sickening feeling in my stomach listening to the death tape the first time. Viewing images taken just a few days before the mass death was shocking to me. That was the reason, I recalled, that I chose to take a course about Jonestown. I wanted to figure out exactly what could drive a group of people to such a grisly end.

Over the course of the class, I definitely feel that I learned everything I needed to about the Jonestown narrative. I am infinitely glad that I learned the truth about Peoples Temple. Understanding that what happened on the final day in Jonestown is not considered suicide by many of those educated on the subject cheered me up, in a way. The thought that such a large group of people could all commit suicide, and take their children with them, painted humanity in a very grim light. Getting the full story on just how much stress and pressure the inhabitants on Jonestown were under,  changed my perspective on the mass death.

Even given all that I have learned about the story of Jonestown, I feel unsatisfied on one account. I still don’t feel that I know with any confidence what it was actually like to live in Jonestown. Some stories paint it to be a prison-camp hellhole, where there was not enough food for everyone and forced labor was common. However, Tim Carter had very positive things to say about Jonestown. He was proud of the work they did, and he enjoyed their difficult but simple life out in the jungle. So are stories about the insane all-night white nights and Jones’ wild paranoia exaggerations? Things like the box that non-supporters would get placed in as punishment were debunked by Carter, but did he know the whole story? At this point, it is impossible to confidently know what things were like in Jonestown.

The other point on which I feel I may never be satisfied is the Concerned Relatives. To Tim Carter, they seemed to be an antagonist force, working to undermine Jonestown for selfish or misguided values. In some stories, they are noble parents, desperately trying to reconnect with children who have been stolen from them. The problem with this approach is that the individuals who were in Peoples Temple largely seemed to enjoy it there. From this perspective, the Concerned Relatives are little more than parents overreaching their bounds, and violating the privacy of those they are trying to access. If there is one thing to be learned from the Jonestown narrative, its that every story has at least two sides to consider.

All in all, I feel that learning the story of Jonestown, and making a serious effort to understand all the individuals involved, has improved my ability to empathize with others, as well as to interpret world events. The way that Peoples Temple was so misunderstood by the media, and made to seem completely different than they truly were, was certainly not a one-time occurrence. Viewing world events through a critical eye, and reserving judgment for after you have collected facts – these are the skills crucial to understand the actions of others, no matter how insane they may at first appear.

Raven

Raven, as an introduction to the Jonestown tragedy, serves perfectly to establish two facts in the mind of the reader. Firstly, it shows us that the vast majority of the Temple were kind, reasonable people, not the mindless cultists we frequently see. The other aspect of Raven is less positive: it focuses heavily on Jim Jones. Much of the thoughts concerning the Jonestown tragedy revolve around Jim Jones, and this sort of celebrity status he has been awarded is disconcerting. The responsibility of other members of Peoples Temple in relation to the tragedy may be a bit de-emphasized due to this Jones-centrism. Otherwise, Raven is to be commended for its reliance on facts and hard information.

A Thousand Lives

A Thousand Lives was, in short, a successful presentation of the lives of just a few members of Peoples Temple. By focusing in on a few, not particularly significant members of the Temple, we get to see what it was like for just another member of the church. A Thousand Lives may be a bit of an exaggerative title, since the book only really covers five. However, these five were a fairly strong representation of the church as a whole, and we can therefore extrapolate their experiences to the rest. Personally, I found myself more interested in the story of Stanley Clayton and Tommy Bogue, and reading through the book mostly interested in their stories.

Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple

Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple was my least favorite of our readings for the semester. Having read it late, it felt largely like a retreading of themes that we had already covered. As a huge part of the Alternative Considerations of Peoples Temple website, Rebecca Moore is an authority on Jonestown. However, her information is the same as what we have read in many other sources. We learn that the people of Jonestown were not crazy cultists, but individuals trying to help the world in a positive way.

Jonestown: A Vexation

Carmen Gillespie’s Jonestown: A Vexation was strikingly different from any of the other pieces of reading we examined this semester. This is because it was a reaction, rather than a summary or biography. Our other readings were all summaries or novelizations of facts related to Peoples Temple. Jonestown: A Vexation was instead a deeply personal look at one person’s interaction with the Jonestown story. It was an interesting look at how the events at Jonestown affect everyone differently. On an academic level, it was interesting to read a collection of poetry that was both deeply personal and rooted in an event I had a solid knowledge base of.

Rebecca Moore

Rebecca Moore had an interesting perspective on Peoples Temple due to her sisters’ involvement with it. This led her to go far out of her way to be extra understanding about the situation of all of Peoples Temple members. And at the core of the matter, there lies an uncomfortable truth. Many of the works of Peoples Temple were positive, and the overall goal of the church was to bring about admirable and positive goals. In fact, if Jim Jones’ paranoia hadn’t caught up with him, Peoples Temple may have been remembered to this day as a slightly kooky humanitarian group.

The audience questions were quite illuminating and thought-provoking. I particularly found questions from the least informed audience members the most useful, because they had made fewer assumptions. Something that stuck in my mind was the question concerning what catalyzed the mass suicide in Jonestown. It is a difficult question to work around, because it feels too much like blaming someone for the tragedy. But it is a necessary one to ask, when analyzing the situation. Leo Ryan, the Concerned Relatives, and the news media can definitely be pointed to as the “cause” of the mass suicide. But blaming them for the problem is obviously not the right way to go.

Moore’s close connection to Peoples Temple, particularly to such a high ranking female member, was chilling. It is difficult to imagine someone so close in our family drifting so far off the path of normalcy. However, who hasn’t had a friend who has gone away and come back quite different? We simply continue to treat them as our friend and simply accept that people change. Who is to say they have not had a massive shift in character to the point that we barely know them anymore? We feel that we already know the person, or the core of them at least, and anything else is just life experience.

Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson’s talk about his preparation of his documentary on the subject of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple was interesting, but somewhat academic. He spoke at length on the process of making the documentary, and the challenges in speaking to the Jonestown survivors. His story was most informative about how former members of Peoples Temple have adapted to life after the Jonestown massacre. Nelson’s attempt to show the more human aspect of Peoples Temple was uniquely attractive to many former members, who disliked the way the media had treated them in the past.

From listening to Tim Carter, who interviewed for Stanley’s documentary, we do know that Nelson has taken some artistic license with his telling of the Jonestown story. This leaves us with quite a prickly quandary. Is it worth changing the story of the tragedy of Peoples Temple to make it more accessible? Or does changing the story take away the credibility? Sometimes the benefit of spreading an interesting story outweighs the potential problems of changing the story.

Nelson’s documentary, The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, attempts to bring the story of Peoples Temple into a much more humanistic perspective. Rather than focus on the tragedy that occurred in Jonestown, the documentary tells a very different story. It is a story of good intentions gone awry and well-meaning people caught up in something bigger than themselves. Overall, the documentary is a somewhat dramatized, but overall the story seems to mesh well with everything we learned from other accounts. Nelson’s attempt to display the people of the Temple rather than just focusing on Jim Jones was refreshing.

Leigh Fondakowski

Leigh Fondakowski’s talk on Jonestown was different than most of the others. Leigh has no major personal connection to the Jonestown incident. She approached the tragedy from the perspective of a storyteller, someone who is looking to be able to bring a fresh take to a story that has slipped from the public eye. Her previous work on The Laramie Project brought with it a unique perspective as a chronicler of tragedies.

Just as the town that the Laramie Project depicted was misrepresented by the media in the time around the news story to make it more cohesive, so too has Peoples Temple been misrepresented by the media. Fondakowski’s attempt to rectify this problem came through her book and stage production. She wanted to present the people of the Peoples Temple story as more than just statistics, but as individuals.

Fondakowski’s approach to the Jonestown tragedy was successful because it focused not on the story as a whole, but rather on the humans who were victims of the tragedy. Everyone who reads about Jonestown has a picture of Jim Jones, but the rest of the members of the Temple sometimes fall by the wayside. The good they attempted to accomplish and their personal motivations help to shine light on how Jim Jones manage to win the respect of so many of the people around him.

Jordan Vilchez

I found Jordan Vilchez’ talk to be somewhat surprising. As someone who was so close to Peoples Temple, I expected her to harbor more anger or disappointment towards the organization, which claimed a large portion of her youth. She was surprisingly positive about the experience.

I suppose that as someone who spent a large part of their development as a member of Peoples Temple, she either has the choice to ignore those years and feel regret, or try to salvage what happiness she can from her memories prior to the tragedy.

Jordan Vilchez also seemed to be hesitant to speak on the subject of Jim Jones. What little she did say seemed to imply a sort of residual fear of the man. As someone who was young in the Temple, Jim Jones must have seemed less like an accessible leader and more like a demigod. His claims of divinity and superhuman powers would be far less ridiculous to someone young. To Jordan Vilchez, it seems that Jim Jones was not so much someone she knew but a figurehead, a sort of bogeyman at the head of the movement.

When compared with the other two survivors we spoke to, Jordan seemed by far the youngest. Despite this, she had a position of power within the planning commission. We unfortunately did not have a chance to hear much about what information she had on the inner workings of the Temple, but she no doubt has a wealth of interesting information. It’s strange how different her experiences within the Temple were from Tim Carter, and hearing from both of them gave great perspective.

Tim Carter

Tim Carter was a fascinating individual to hear speak. His experience with Peoples Temple ended extremely tragically, and his emotional response to the incident was still raw, even after all the time that has passed. Carter has been represented by the media in a lot of different ways. Closer to the incident, he was vilified by the media as an enforcer of Jones. Now that time has passed, it’s come to light that he had no such powerful position within the church.

The fact that Tim Carter still feels as strongly recalling his time in Peoples Temple is extremely powerful. His account of the trip he took through the woods with his fellow escapees was visceral. Carter’s story of enduring such a massive tragedy, and still maintaining hope is uplifting. Tim Carter is an intelligent, and seems to be a kind man. That is what makes his involvement in Peoples Temple such a bitter story. We like to perceive Temple members as cultists, but they are really people like anybody else.

Julia Scheeres

Julia Scheeres’ talk resonated with me more than any of the other secondhand accounts of Peoples Temple. She approached the subject matter much in the same way that we did as students. Because she had to come at the subject so far after the fact, many of her sources were

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Stephan Jones

Stephan Jones is a fascinating, and almost terrifying person to meet. His proximity to the Jonestown tragedy is absolute. He and Tim Carter are so close to the incident, that the fact they are still around somehow proves it to be far more real. Stephan Jones serves as a main character in many of the stories we read about Jonestown: to meet him in person is almost like meeting a fictional character.

Stephan’s ability to accept the tragedy as a part of his life is amazing When he says that the events at Jonestown are “more fresh for us” than they are for him , it’s a succinct way to explain to us how the incident impacts his life. It happened to him a long time ago, and he has accepted it and dealt with it. Stephan’s relationship with his father is also incredible. To everyone else, Jim Jones is a larger-than-life figure, a sort of historical celebrity. For his family, Jim Jones is much more and completely different.

Stephan Jones is a truly incredible individual. That he has crawled out from under such a huge tragedy, such a life-defining event, is impressive. Such trials would no doubt destroy some people, but Stephan moves past his struggle.

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on October 15th, 2013.
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