Documenting Jonestown: A Journey
Over the course of the semester, we in the Jonestown class have immersed ourselves in the story of Peoples Temple. We have examined its many facets, including its members, its message, and its demise. Our study of Jonestown involved readings, films, class discussions, and independent research, and was enriched by speakers that were connected in various ways with Peoples Temple. The research culminated in a class response project in which each of us presented on an aspect of the Jonestown tragedy that was significant to us. My understanding of Jonestown and Peoples Temple evolved continuously throughout the semester. At first, I had only heard about Jonestown in association with phrases about “drinking the Kool-Aid. ” By the end of the semester, however, I now have a much more informed perspective and can see all the members of Peoples Temple as the humans with which I can identify. I came into the class with an outsider’s perspective on the Jonestown tragedy, but am leaving with an understanding that is much more empathetic.
Students carne into the Jonestown class with varying degrees of knowledge about the tragedy. To help us understand the facts, we first read Tim Reiterman’s Raven, which extensively documented Peoples Temple and the life of Jim Jones. With this foundation, our knowledge grew as we read Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, Wilson Harris’ Jonestown, Rebecca Moore’s Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Carmen Gillespie’s Jonestown: A Vexation, and Leigh Fondakowski’s Stories From Jonestown. Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, added another dimension to our understanding. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the class, however, was the speaker series. We heard from authors, directors, and survivors, including Rebecca Moore, Stanley Nelson, Leigh Fondakowski, Jordan Vilchez, Tim Carter, Julia Scheeres, and Stephan Jones. As we became more knowledgeable about Peoples Temple, we each identified with and responded to aspects of the Jonestown story that were significant to us. Throughout the course of the semester, we worked with Professor Robert Gainer and Debra Sarlin to develop our individual scripts. Professor Gainer encouraged each of us to think deeply and write simply about who or what spoke to us with regards to Jonestown and Peoples Temple, while Sarlin assisted with the formidable task of organizing the audiovisual aspects of our presentation into a PowerPoint. After many revisions and rehearsals, the Bucknell Jonestown class presented its work in a presentation entitled “Jonestown Reconsidered” on April 10th. I think I speak for the whole class in saying that it was an extremely rewarding experience to share our heartfelt sentiments and personal connections with the audience.
The “Jonestown Reconsidered” presentations were not simply factual reports on what we learned about Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Rather, the performance was a mixture of creative and informative, as well as poetic and audiovisual reflections. This framework allowed students to best express what features of the narrative stood out to them personally because they could present using the medium with which they were most comfortable. For example, some students presented in more abstract ways using poetry of various forms, such as slam poems or list poems. Some students’ presentations were very creative, including a twist on one of Jones’ sermons and a parody on a scripture reading that incorporated Temple doctrines. Others chose to present in more plain, but no less sincere, ways by simply offering their thoughts and sentiments. Students were able to share personal connections to the tragedy through their presentations. One student wrote a poem that highlighted and questioned Maria Katsaris’ relationship with her father in light of the student’s close relationship with her own father; stark sentiments were shared about one student’s personal connection to cult-like groups of the sixties and seventies and the impact that they had on her family. The different forms of presentations not only made the production interesting, but also spoke to the nature of the Jonestown tragedy. I hope that it helped the audience to understand that the Jonestown narrative is not one-dimensional; there are endless layers to investigate when trying to develop an understanding of Peoples Temple. If one hopes to gain a more comprehensive understanding, it is necessary to be open-minded and empathetic of the people, the stories, and the history that made Peoples Temple what it was. Developing this presentation has made it apparent to me that one cannot possibly hope to make sense of everything that happened in Jonestown, but seeking to take in as many views as possible can at least help one to make peace with that which cannot be understood.
As I immersed myself in the study of Jonestown, two people stood out to me in particular: Christine Miller and John Victor Stoen. Apart from the fact that they were both Temple members and victims of Jim Jones’ wickedness, they share little in common. Christine Miller was born on June 4, 1918 and joined Peoples Temple as an adult living in Los Angeles. Her reasons for joining were different than many because she did not rely on the Temple for financial support. Rather, her job as a county clerk provided her with the financial stability to be able to purchase her own home, car, and a few luxuries. Suffering through a difficult childhood and working very hard for everything she attained in life gave Miller a sense of resilience and independence that she maintained throughout her time as a member of Peoples Temple. In an environment where to hold onto individuality was a sin and to question Jim Jones was unthinkable, Miller stood out to me because she was not afraid to do either of these things. Even during the final White Night, Miller’s voice could be heard rising above the chaos to speak out in favor of life. For me, one of the most powerful pieces of Peoples Temple history was the death tape from the last day in Jonestown. For our combined presentation, Ben Barrett and I chose to use this tape supplemented with a brief introduction and picture of Christine Miller projected on the screen. As the tape played, we highlighted particularly profound segments by projecting selected quotes. The presentation was simple and straightforward, as I felt that Christine said it best when she declared, “As long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith. ” I also did a combined presentation with Jessica Gunther on John Victor Stoen. In my research, I continuously came across information about the custody battle over John Victor Stoen involving Grace and Tim Stoen against Jim Jones. More than the details of the custody battle, what stood out to me was the fact that many seemed to forget that there was an actual child behind the dispute. The custody battle seemed to manifest Jim Jones’ quest for power and ability to manipulate Temple members, and in doing so, dehumanized John. More than 300 children died in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. To me, these deaths are some of the most tragic because these children never had the choice to join the Temple or not, or the chance to grow up and achieve their full potential in life. My original idea was to present a eulogy for John Victor Stoen, the so-called “Son of Jonestown, ” which is a term borrowed from Jonestown Report contributor Bonnie Yates. After reviewing our scripts, Professor Gainer suggested that Jessica Gunther and I combine our scripts. Her presentation originally consisted of a poem, which was more abstract in nature than my eulogy. We decided to combine the two by interposing lines from the poem in the eulogy. I think that, in doing this, we were able to capture the essence of the custody battle. It involved a great deal of complicated facts and legal documents, as related in my part of the presentation, as well as raw emotion and tragedy associated with the separation of a mother from her son, as captured in Jessica Gunther’s poem. I hope that we achieved our goals of highlighting the life of John Victor Stoen and of giving a voice to all the often forgotten children of Jonestown.
Reflecting on my experiences in the Jonestown class and all the work that went into putting together the class presentation, I realize the significance of Jonestown for us even today, over thirty years after the tragedy. Taking into consideration my ignorance regarding Jonestown prior to taking the class and talking to friends outside of the class makes it clear that the topic is not well known among those in my generation. The majority of those I spoke with either had never heard of Jonestown or knew of Peoples Temple only in connection with phrases about “drinking the Kool-Aid. ” After studying the topic all semester, I feel strongly about the point that Peoples Temple members need to be viewed as the humans they were or are, and not as “crazy cultists.” They were victims of Jim Jones, murdered by him and all those who helped him to manipulate everyone around him and to achieve control of well-intentioned people. I came to this understanding through the class readings, discussions and research. Perhaps the most influential factor in correcting my misconceptions was hearing from all the speakers in the Jonestown lecture series. They helped me to make sense of the current events, personal stories, and hardships that drove people to Peoples Temple and to Jim Jones. They also helped me to understand the reasons as to why most people could not simply walk away from the Temple. Not only were they linked to the Temple financially, but family ties bound them to it as well. Whether they were an author, a relative of a Temple member, or a survivor, all the speakers seemed to have one common goal: to dispel the common notion that Temple members were “crazy cultists,” and, in doing so, to humanize the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. They reminded me that these people were humans and that even I could identify with some of the reasons as to why people joined the Temple. Stephan Jones’ talk stood out to me in particular. Pain, but also a sense of peace and wisdom , emanated from him as he spoke of the Temple. I was in awe at the universality of his message and of the fact that everything he learned from Jonestown was applicable to my own life. As Temple survivors have helped me to understand, Jonestown is still relevant today because there is a universal message of acceptance, forgiveness, and hope that comes from surviving and moving forward after such a tragedy.
Looking back on the semester, I am amazed by the perspective I now have on the Jonestown tragedy. More than just learning the facts, I have gained an understanding that is more complex than what I ever would have expected. Immersing myself in the study of Jonestown through readings, speakers, and discussions was a painful, yet rewarding experience. The culmination of our research in the “Jonestown Reconsidered” project made it clear that Jonestown is still relevant to us today, as students were able to connect so personally with the tragedy. The project was a perfect way to represent the complexity of Peoples Temple because it made the point that, though nearly everyone can connect to Peoples Temple members in some way, it is impossible to find answers to all of the questions that still surround the tragedy. Reaching the point of understanding Jonestown is not a destination at which one can arrive, but a constant journey of heartbreak, growth, and a look into what makes us all human.
Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple
Rebecca Moore’s talk highlighted her views on the tragedy of Jonestown as presented in her book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Dr. Moore’s very personal connection with the events gave her message depth and meaning. I think the fact that her two sisters died in Jonestown caused her to speak with a more sympathetic tone than Reiterman took on in Raven. It is interesting to compare and contrast these two views. As both Dr. Moore and her husband, Mr. McGehee, emphasized, there is a lot about Jonestown that we can’t understand. For me, Dr. Moore’s lecture emphasized the need to have an open mind when learning about Peoples Temple and its members. In both the book and on the website, Dr. Moore and Mr. McGehee are very effective in humanizing the members of Peoples Temple.
Through personal stories Dr. Moore’s talk helped me to better understand the inner workings of Peoples Temple. She explained how it was a very hierarchical organization; Jones would say “do it” and someone else would carry out his orders. This structure leads to many of the questions that remain unanswered from the tragedy that took place on November 18th. Did Jones order the shooting on the airstrip to use as a catalyst for a plan that was already set in place? Did he plan the attack on Congressman Ryan by Sly to cast an air of confusion and excitement at Jonestown? These are just some of the questions that will forever remain unanswered. She also talked about the hypocrisy that existed regarding homosexuality in the Temple. Jones accused and ridiculed people for being gay, while the Temple would openly support homosexuals and welcome them into the church. She provided insight on how parents carry out the unfathomable act of killing their children, then committing suicide themselves. For me, more than anything, her lecture made me realize that it is important to consider stories from all those involved, loyalists, defectors, family members, and the news media alike. In her lecture and in her book, Moore talked about different viewpoints that exist for analyzing the tragedy, from popular to scholarly to artistic viewpoints. It is important to consider all of these in order to avoid dehumanizing the victims.
Even more than in her lecture, Dr. Moore’s book explained in detail the importance of the historical context for Peoples Temple and how this allowed it to grow into the powerful institution that it came to be. Much of this power stemmed from the black power movement that was taking place in the 1960s. I was surprised when she said that Peoples Temple was first and foremost an African American Institution. In this context, however, it is easier to understand how Jim Jones was able to use radicals in the black power struggle, such as Huey Newton of the Black Panthers, as a springboard for his views. She spoke about the Temple newspaper and the propaganda that was both printed and continually broadcast to members. People had a real fear of being attacked by American institutions such as the IRS, CIA, US Postal Service, etc. These idealists truly believed that they were escaping to the “promised land, ” fighting the evil s of racism and capitalism as they fled to Guyana. An air of suspicion and distrust came from inside the Temple as well as outside. Dr. Moore’s book explained in detail the Stoen custody battle and its role in instilling fear in the Jonestown environment.
Dr. Moore effectively portrayed the environment of the 1960s as radical and revolutionary, often to the point of violence. Keeping this in mind, one can more easily understand how people were drawn to the Temple and to Jim Jones. Far from “crazy cultists, ” Dr. Moore helped me to understand how Peoples Temple members were drawn in and conditioned, step by step, to accepting Jones and what he stood for. As Dr. Moore explained, our minds seek to make sense out of historical events. In this tragedy, however, we must accept that there are some things that we cannot understand in order to avoid dehumanizing the victims of this terrible tragedy.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Film)
Tonight we heard from Stanley Nelson, director of the documentary we watched last night entitled Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Nelson has an impressive resume, including being the recipient of an Emmy award and the director of the popular film Freedom Writers. The film we watched last night began with the Peoples Temple origin in Indiana and followed the progression the whole way to Jonestown, Guyana. It was interspersed with interviews from survivors, family members, and reporters. The film contained an impressive amount of original footage, audio, and pictures from Peoples Temple. Among the most compelling images was video of a “healing” and tapes from Jonestown that included the constant propaganda that played over the loudspeakers in Jonestown.
I found Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, to be a very compelling account of the history of Peoples Temple. It added yet another dimension to my understanding of Jonestown. I feel that the film had a neutral perspective, including accounts from various survivors and family members. It did a good job of portraying various points of view; from journalists to survivors to family members, people of various races and degrees of Temple involvement were interviewed for the making of the documentary. I think the film had a certain advantage over books in telling the story of Jonestown; to not only read or hear about survivors’ accounts, but to actually be able to associate a face with a name and a story was very powerful for me. I feel like I have been reading so much about the various characters in the Jonestown without associating them with an actual person. Sometimes the story seems so complicated and tragic that it almost does not seem real. I think that seeing the actual people involved and watching the pain on their faces as they told their stories made the tragedy all the more real for me. Another aspect of the film that made it very effective was that it did not contain narration. I did not even realize this until Nelson pointed it out, but I think it speaks to his ability to effectively tell the story completely through original footage and interviews.
In his talk tonight, Documenting Jonestown, Nelson began with showing the last fifteen minutes of the documentary for those in the audience who had not seen it. He then talked about how he first got involved with Jonestown, explaining about how his wife came to him after hearing radio interviews from survivors. Both Nelson and his wife originally had the widely held view of the people of Jonestown as the “psychopaths” who “drank the Kool Aid.” After hearing interviews, however, he saw the humanity in the people involved and wanted to express this in his documentary. Though the documentary is far from portraying the members as crazy cultists, I found it interesting that Nelson was willing to admit that he could not full y understand what bound Temple members so closely to Jones. One point that I found particularly intriguing was when he admitted, “I wouldn’t have drank the Kool Aid, ” but then “I wasn’t there. ” Nelson went on to explain about the making of the documentary, including the timeline, budget, and how they found people to interview. I thought it respectable that they did not pressure anyone into being interviewed if they did not want to, aside from Stephan Jones, who refused an interview. He said that one of the most surprising aspects of the Temple to him was the sexual manipulation that took place inside the Temple. I felt as though his documentary did a very good job of combining not only this piece, but all the pieces that came together to form the complicated puzzle that was Peoples Temple.
Leigh Fondakowski Response
Stories From Jonestown
Leigh Fondakowski’s talk presented yet another perspective for understanding the story of Jonestown. It seems as though every speaker we hear from has a unique, personal reason for his or her interest. In a way, Fondakowski’s involvement began with her work on the Laramie Project, in which she brought attention to the anti-gay hate crime committed against Matthew Shepard. A former classmate of Rebecca Moore saw the project and encouraged Fondakowski to do something with Jonestown. Just as Fondakowski tried to “correct what the media got wrong” when portraying the small town of Laramie, she sought to change the common narrative of Jonestown that told the story of the “crazy kool aid drinkers.” She saw it not as a story about death, but as something more; she saw it as a challenge that caused her to question and reshape her own perspectives.
Aside from explaining how she became interested in Jonestown, the main points of Fondakowski’s talk focused on how she conducted interviews and collected information for the Jonestown play and, eventually, for her work of “creative nonfiction,” Stories From Jonestown. Her first interview was with Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee. Fondakowski spoke of their wry sense of humor and how they helped to steer her towards more information regarding the Temple and survivors. She also conducted many interviews with Stephan Jones and explained how he wanted to humanize his father so that people could better understand him. Her play and book depicted conflicting viewpoints of Jonestown. For example, Tim Carter described what took place in Jonestown as murder, while Dick Tropp described it as more closely resembling suicide. Whatever the story, Fondakowski said that she never questioned survivors and that she believed everything they told her. She said that whatever they told her was “their truth” and she did not wish to impose her own beliefs on their stories.
Stories From Jonestown , Fondakowski’s recently published work of “creative nonfiction, ” is a book comprised of various interviews with former Temple members, their families, reporters, lawyers, etc. It tells the story of Jonestown through their varied viewpoints to create a unique summary of what happened there. It is set apart from other works we have read not only because it consists of stories from so many people, but because it really seems to focus on life after Jonestown for these people, rather than looking back to what life was like there. I believe that this perspective is useful for gaining a more broad understanding of Jonestown and the impact that it continues to have on all those involved, even years after the tragedy.
Former Peoples Temple Member
Jordan Vilchez’ talk tonight brought a completely new perspective to my view of the Jonestown tragedy. To have an actual survivor speak was very powerful. Until this point, we have been hearing about Peoples Temple from the perspective of outsiders. The closest we have come to an insider’s perspective was Rebecca Moore, who had sisters that were part of Peoples Temple. The fact that Ms. Vilchez could speak with the insight of someone who was on other side of the tragedy made her talk tonight very effective. I was unsure of what to expect when hearing an actual survivor’s story, but several things struck me when listening to Ms. Vilchez. First, I was struck by a sense of calmness and composure that seemed to emanate from her. I personally could not imagine losing two sisters and numerous other family members, let alone telling the story to a group of people. At times, however, Ms. Vilchez simply seemed lost for words. It is notable that, after so many years, she still seems to be struggling to understand and to make sense out of everything that she saw and experienced during her time in Jonestown and as part of Peoples Temple. More than anything, I was impressed by her resilience. Despite the fact that she clearly still struggles with everything she experienced and her tremendous loss, Ms. Vilchez has sought to make sense out of the tragedy and to draw some good from it. Her talk tonight effectively put her experience in perspective by explaining how she became involved in Peoples Temple beginning as a young girl. She then provided a unique perspective on life after Peoples Temple for those who grew up there, and explained what she is doing to make sense out of the tragedy.
The first portion of Ms. Vilchez’ talk explained how she became involved with Peoples Temple. Her story began in the summer of 1969 when she was just twelve years old. Her family attended a Temple meeting in Redwood Valley. She recalled her mother being impressed with the integrated nature of the church, as well as the progressive atmosphere. She noted how the church was more of a unique political statement rather than a religious institution. Her mother sent her to live as a part of the Temple with her older sister and her young children. Ms. Vilchez told how she became part of the Temple, attending school and making friends with other Temple members. She was placed on the Planning Commission at age 16, making her the youngest member. She recalled how the mood of the Temple shifted over time, going from “blue dresses to long black robes” and how “voices raised in song” turned to “angry fists. ” Eventually, she made the move to Guyana and recalled being very unhappy there. A common thread between her talk and other stories that I have heard about Peoples Temple was about how members became slowly isolated over time. Being separated from family members, prohibited from making friends with outside Temple Members, and exposed to constant propaganda from Jones led to a loss of self. A sense of gloom abounded in the community. Ms. Vilchez described it as a general sense of unease that was “branded into my core. ”
Though she avoided death in Jonestown due to the fact that she spent most of her time working at her job in the capital, Ms. Vilchez spoke often about how part of her was lost in Jonestown. She noted that the submissive atmosphere of Peoples Temple meant that she missed important points in development growing up that she still struggles with today. She recalled how, in the Temple, one’s own personal value exists only to the extent that it could serve the cause.
She noted that she did not exist for herself, none of her own hopes, dreams, or wishes mattered; they were not only unrealistic and futile, but selfish. Ms. Vilchez explained the complexity of the situation for her in that she still felt the ideals of the Temple, including racial and gender equality, and working class pride, were worthy, but the ways in which they were portrayed were submissive. To me, the most moving part of her talk was when she spoke of how being part of the Temple gave her the gift of compassion. She sees this compassion as “the ultimate pain reliever, ” and notes it has allowed her to cope with conflict and difficult issues. She can drop the guilt, blame, shame, anger, and everything else that prohibits her from growing into her full potential. She can have compassion for even those people that she does not agree with. Ms. Vilchez talked about how she came to the realization that we are all one in the same, “each reflecting a different angle about where we are on the human journey. ” I believe it is this realization that has allowed her to cope and make peace with the tragedy in her past.
Former Peoples Temple Member
Before Tim Carter’s talk, I had a great sense of anticipation. To me, his story involved the most intrigue, as well as tragedy, among the survivors. I remembered first reading about it in Raven and being a little confused about the mysterious box that he was asked to deliver to the capital before the tragedy on the last day in Jonestown. I also remember being horrified when reading about how he watched his wife and son die right before his eyes, while knowing he was absolutely powerless to help them. His pain, remorse, and anger were evident in Stanley Nelson’s documentary. During my studies of Jonestown, I had also heard a bit about the controversies and disputes that arose surrounding Carter after the Jonestown tragedy. Needless to say, I was very interested to hear Carter tell his own story in person.
Carter began his talk by describing his childhood and explaining how experiences in his youth led him to join the Temple. He grew up in a Catholic family, although his mother, who passed away when Carter was only fifteen, was Jewish. His father was an alcoholic. He grew up with “a lot of compassion for the working class” and a sense of idealism that caused him to choose the Marines over college. He was sent to Vietnam, an experience that profoundly affected him for the rest of his wife. He said that he felt like he was watching television rather than real people. His inability to make sense of the violence turned into anger. Upon returning from the war, Carter became part of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies. When he found the Temple and Jim Jones, Carter said that he felt “at home” and appreciated how, in the Temple, there was “no color. ” He felt good about the work Temple members were doing in San Francisco and hoped to continue this work in Guyana. Unfortunately, upon moving to Jonestown, Carter realized that this was not to be. He said he hated the drug-addicted Jones the last two years and the only thing that kept him from leaving were the people, his friends and family. While he was proud of everything that they had built in Jonestown, it was extremely hard work. One thing that he stressed was his belief that those in Jonestown were murdered. He talked about having to go back to identify bodies and seeing people injected all over. Carter addressed some interesting issues in the discussion following his talk, including the paternity case of John Victor Stoen. I was surprised to hear him say that Grace Stoen told him that Jim Jones was the father of John. It emphasized the fact that, no matter how many speakers we hear or different perspectives we investigate, much of the tragedy of Jonestown will remain forever a mystery.
Carter’s talk was very effective because his emotions were so raw and apparent. When he struggled through talking about watching his wife and son die, one could hear a pin drop in the room. Hearing about Jonestown from yet another perspective gave me a new dimension in trying to make sense of the tragedy. To me, Carter’s was one of the most moving because of his story seems so unbelievably tragic. Though it was good to hear that he has tried to move on with his life, remarrying and having more children, it is clear that he is still haunted by experiences in Jonestown. His extremely powerful talk was very moving and helped me to empathize with Carter and all the other survivors and victims alike. When Carter spoke of the rainstorm that settled on Jonestown on the last day, he said he could “feel evil rise up, ” and it certainly was.
A Thousand Lives
Julia Scheeres gave a lecture that was both powerful and personal in which she described the story behind A Thousand Lives. In her talk, she outlined the background story behind her book and explained how her personal life is reflected in much of her writing. Though a reporter by trade, Scheeres wrote another book, Jesus Land, prior to writing A Thousand Lives. That book tells of what her childhood was like growing up in a small town in rural Indiana. She was deeply affected by the racism that existed there as she grew up with a younger brother who was African American. Facing a great deal of harassment, her brother rebelled and was sent away to boarding school in the Dominican Republic by their strict parents. Scheeres was eventually sent to the same school after having what her parents considered to be “inappropriate” relationships with her high school boyfriend. Scheeres believes that her experience at boarding school helped her to understand what life must have been like for the people of Jonestown. The school enforced strict punishments, such as confrontation therapies, isolation, and cutting off students from the outside world, much like Jones imposed on the residents of Jonestown. Witnessing these injustices at such a young age increased Scheeres’ longing for a perfect society and helped her to relate to the people of Jonestown.
A Thousand Lives originally began as a satire about a small Indiana town that gets taken over by a charismatic preacher. While working on it, however, Scheeres encountered information about Jonestown and decided to base her book on the tragedy. Some of this information included FBI papers, which she spent a year sorting through. A Thousand Lives is unique because it uses five people who were actually part of Jonestown to tell the story. Scheeres used her skills as a journalist to collect information and interview Hyacinth Thrash, Edith Roller, Stanley Clayton, and both Jim and Tommy Bogue. In the book , the story of Jonestown is told through the perspective of ordinary people who went to Jonestown not with the idea that they were joining a cult, but with good intentions and the belief that they were going to build a more perfect society. Hyacinth Thrash’s story is that of an older African American woman who earnestly believed in Jim Jones’ healing powers. Her belief that he healed her breast cancer is what drew Hyacinth and her sister, Zipporah, to Peoples Temple and eventually to Guyana. Edith Roller was a graduate of San Francisco State College with a keen sense of social justice. Her principles can be attributed to her father, a coal miner who worked to promote safer conditions in the mines. Stanley Clayton was a young black man from Oakland. He came from a broken home and was in trouble with the law. Angry with the world, Jones’ message of social justice and militant sense of equality drew in Clayton. Jones provided the homeless Clayton with food and shelter, an offer that was too good to pass up. The story of Jim and Tommy Bogue, father and son, may be among the most tragic. Jim and Edith Bogue came to Peoples Temple searching for a sense of closure after the death of their young son. While Jim saw through Jones’ facade, Edith was hooked and threatened to leave Jim if he did not support the Temple. Jim remained a part of Peoples Temple even when they sent him to Jonestown ahead of his family. They eventually joined him there, but Edith was cold to Jim and he could never get back all the time he missed away from his young son. Tommy Bogue i s special to Scheeres because he was a teenager when he was sent to Jonestown, just as she was when she was sent away to boarding school in the Dominican Republic. He had no choice in the matter and is representative of all the children who died in Jonestown.
Overall, both Scheeres’ book and lecture were very effective in presenting her viewpoint of the people of Jonestown. Telling the story of the tragedy from the perspective of individuals who actually experienced it was very powerful. As many of the other speakers have said, Scheeres wanted to humanize the members of Peoples Temple and to show that they were not “crazy cultists, ” but people who simply longed for a better life for their families. By presenting the stories of five diverse people from all different backgrounds, Scheeres was able to capture the many reasons behind why people joined the Temple. In doing so, she created a book that is relatable; it is likely that most readers will find something in common with at least one of the characters. If a reader can see a part of themselves in one of the Peoples Temple members, they are less likely to see them as cultists and more likely to see them as the people they were.
Stephan Jones, Son of Jim Jones; Jonestown Survivor
I have been looking forward to hearing Stephan Jones speak all semester. Before his talk, I was very unsure of what his message would be. I knew that he had a lot of anger towards his father immediately following Jonestown. I had heard that, in the time that passed since the tragedy, Stephan was able to let go of this anger and move on with his life. While I hoped that this was true for his sake, to me, his feelings of anger were completely understandable. I was eager to hear how he was able to move on with his life after experiencing such unimaginable tragedy. I have also heard that Stephan is very private and does not often agree to interviews or speaking events. Indeed, this was one of the first points he made in his talk. I found it admirable that he did not get caught up in seeking any fame after Jonestown; he turned down Oprah, but was willing to speak with us and other students. He did not really give a talk, but rather invited conversation and questions, making it clear that the events of Jonestown were probably fresher in our minds than his.
Though Stephan wanted to foster conversation rather than just having us listen to him speak, he began by reading “Going Home, ” a touching tribute that he wrote after attending a reunion with other Jonestown survivors. In it, he reflected on many aspects of his time spent in Peoples Temple. He said that although they meant well, the Temple was filled with contradictions. Stephan recalled the mentality that it was “us against the world” and that they were ruled, not led, by Jones. He recalled his own simultaneous feelings of loathing towards and desire to please Jim Jones. He closed the touching tribute by noting that the reunion was like “going home” for him and, repeating a saying he often says to his daughters, “I love you with all my heart forever, no matter what – and God loves you more. ” For Stephan Jones, this statement applies not only to his biological family, but to his Temple family and even his father, as well.
To me, one of the most remarkable things about Stephan Jones was the sense of peace that seemed to radiate from him as he spoke. Even if I did not know all that he went through as part of Peoples Temple, I still would have been moved by the wise words he shared with us. I know that he was initially angry and bitter after Jonestown, but he was able to overcome this because he wanted to make the most of the other Peoples Temples members’ losses. He also made note of the importance of other people in his life, such as family and friends, and his quest to understand his father as a part of his healing process. He talked about how he came to the realization that he didn’t have to be proud of his father, he just had to love and forgive him. I think part of this forgiveness came from an idea that Stephan has about his father not being conscious of his manipulation. He made a point that his mind and soul were separate, calling his brain “the monkey in my head.” The idea that humans have bad thoughts, but the key is to not act on them and let them go; he seeks to understand, not condemn, as a way of being more understanding. Personally, I was in awe of Stephan Jones’ talk because his message was so universal. If his doctrines of acceptance and forgiveness helped him to make peace with everything he has been through, certainty I can take even just a small piece of his advice to work towards improving some aspect of my own life.