Heidi Schuerger

Response: Rebecca Moore

A Dream Deferred: The Promise and Pathos of Peoples Temple

As I read Moore’s book, I was impressed with the even treatment of the material. Aside from the introduction, one might not realize the intimate relationship the author has with some of the participants in the Jonestown narrative. Each chapter may be considered outside of the full text, a succinct story bundled with recommendations for further reading. I was glad that I had read this book before starting Reiterman’s Raven.

I must confess that I was surprised by the context set for the lecture. I was not prepared to hear Peoples Temple characterized as an African American institution. Nor was I expecting the lecture to focus on the Temple as a political movement. The comparison/contrast between Peoples Temple and the Black Panther Party was of particular interest. I appreciated the coverage of Huey Newton’s reactionary and revolutionary suicide, in contrast with Jim Jones’ condemnation of individual/selfish suicide and his interpretation and actualization of revolutionary suicide. I am tempted to further explore these definitions of suicide in the context of Durkheim’s definitions of egoistic, anomie, and altruistic suicide.

I was also intrigued by the concept of “audience corruption.” Reading further on this topic, I can see how this plays out to an extreme conclusion in Jonestown. This explains the notion that the participants in Jonestown were both victims and perpetrators.

Response: Stanley Nelson Jr.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

This documentary features interviews with survivors on Jonestown, former Peoples Temple members, relatives of members, and childhood friends of Jim Jones. It was interesting to hear first person accounts and reflections on Peoples Temple and Jonestown. I am compelled to review the treatment of the characters in the texts we have been reading. Until now, I have not had much compassion for individuals like Tim Carter. During the interview in the film I was stricken by his emotion when speaking about his wife and child.

I have avoided exploring the audio and video on the Jonestown website, waiting for a time when I am best able to reflect deeply and draw on other resources to temper my reactions. Watching this documentary provided me with a better sense of the raw materials that are available. The use of archival audio and still photography will be an excellent technique to explore for our collaborative response.

I was disappointed that there wasn’t more about the period before California. I believe that there are circumstances leading up to that move that set the stage for what eventually occurred.

I was pleased to find a full transcript of the documentary on the PBS website. This will facilitate the synthesis of information for the collaborative response.

Response Stanley Nelson Jr.

Documenting Jonestown

Stanley Nelson began the lecture with a brief introduction to the documentary and a summary of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, leading up to the fateful day, November 18, 1978. We then viewed the closing segment of the film, featuring excerpts from the “death tape” as archival images portray the final moments. Nelson offered a few remarks regarding the making of the film. Although they did contemplate filming new footage in Guyana, they felt that the variety, quality, and volume of archival material was fascinating and there was no need to stage any scenes. The documentary was done without narration. The soundtrack was comprised of interview responses and archival audio. Nelson described the process of selecting interviewees.

Their approach was low-key, applying no pressure on survivors, former members, relatives. One woman would not participate for the sake of her children, who had never been told about their mother’s involvement with Peoples Temple. They did approach Stephan Jones, but he refused to participate. The selection of interviewees and content to include in the film initially excluded two types of story lines: events that would be too difficult to include and to maintain a cohesive story (the enlightenment/power of Jim Jones was characterized as too strange) and sexual perversion.

Stanley Nelson became interested in Jonestown when his wife introduced the topic. She had been listening to the radio and had heard interviews of Peoples Temple members. She was compelled to discuss Jonestown because the interviewees had a very different perspective from mainstream media when the mass suicide was reported. Nelson started his research on the topic using a single text, from which he drafted a half-page proposal. Nelson referred to the idea as “sexy, exciting. . . different” and pitched it to the producers of the PBS series, American Experience. The producers funded development of the idea. The production process was completed in about a year. Of that time, 36-40 weeks were devoted to editing. Nelson deliberately budgets heavily on editing, claiming that it pays off, adding layers. An “assembly” of the documentary was about three hours long, the first cut about two hours long. It is essential that you get your rough cut as close to the final cut length as soon as possible. When the documentary was first presented to the producers it did not include the storyline of sexual perversion… but when the storyline was presented separately to the producers, they wanted it added in. Nelson says that the most surprising discovery during the production process was not the sexual perversion, but the fact that the producers wanted it in, “to give the idea that there was crazy stuff going on in Peoples Temple. ”

I was struck by the commercial perspective that came out in the concluding remarks. “There was sex, drugs, and rock & roll. ” The film was edited “to build up to a kind of horror story at the end.”

Response: Leigh Fondakowski

Narrating Jonestown: Transforming History into Art

Stories from Jonestown are woven together from interviews and the author’s narrative of the interview process during the development of the play The People’s Temple. It is difficult to imagine speaking to so many individuals so intimately involved in the tragedy of Jonestown. I am compelled to read the play to learn more about how the script evolved from these stories. During the lecture, Leigh mentions that Rebecca Moore characterizes Jonestown as a vortex. This has certainly been my own experience. Each text and lecture sends my mind spinning in another direction. Any initial selection of characters and events may lose or gain context. One of the stories from Jonestown reveals that Becky’s sister Annie had written, “This is the only place I’ve seen true Christianity practiced.” This quote helps me turn my focus back to the Methodist Social Creed.

The stage design of The People’s Temple was inspired by the atmosphere while working in the California Historical Society archives. As Fondakowski describes the set I try to imagine it in my mind and am grateful for the few slides she presents at the end of her lecture. I later viewed a short documentary created by Spark for KQED public television. I am struck by how humble Fondakowski is about her incredible accomplishment.

I am most appreciative for the readings that occurred during the lecture.

Response: Jordan Vilchez

Women’s Lives in Peoples Temple

Jordan was a member of Peoples Temple when she was only 12 years old. By the time she was 16 she was a member of the Planning Commission. She and Maria Katsaris joined the PC at the same time. I cannot help but wonder if she was also intimate with Jones. It seemed impolite to ask. It is regrettable that women of the inner circle are often referred to as his concubines.

I was fascinated to hear her describe various control measures to weaken family bonds and strengthen allegiance to Jones.

• breaking up families

• Temple kids discouraged from having non-Temple friends

• dorm pecking order

• if you have a relationship, you are not dedicated enough

It was also interesting to hear her describe the telling of her story as being therapeutic. I sensed that she is still emerging from her past.

Toward the end Jordan made an odd comment about Carolyn Moore Layton, that “sometimes she would disappear. ” I can’t help but think that there are many tales untold.

Response: Julia Scheeres

Narrating Jonestown and Peoples Temple

Julia Scheeres seemed somewhat ill at ease during the lecture. I almost expected her to have prepared remarks or for the lecture to be delivered as a recited paper. Her introductory comments expanded upon the brief introduction to her book, A Thousand Lives. As she compared her experiences in reform school with Peoples Temple I began to speculate why the book has not been well received by Jonestown survivors (including their families and former members).

Peoples Temple and Jonestown were very different from the concept of a reform school. Even though participant experiences may be similar, the intentions of the individuals were vastly different. Some individuals may have been sent to Jonestown as a control tactic, and conspiracy theorists may claim that there were ulterior motives for Jonestown, the survivors of Jonestown had their own intentions and expectations.

I read the book on an airplane, before I had started Raven. It was perfect for the flight – a quick read. The characters Scheeres selected were ideal for her approach to the Jonestown narrative. As with Fondakowski’s book, we are introduced to characters that are easier to trust.

During the lecture, Julia Scheeres explained that she deliberately developed characters that were not part of the planning commission. I appreciated getting to know these equally essential members of Peoples Temple.

Response: Tim Carter

Remembering the People of Peoples Temple

I was on family leave the week of this lecture and was unable to attend. Although the recording was made available for viewing, I was unable to view the recording due to technical difficulties.

Response: Stephan Jones

Jonestown: Yesterday and Today

I was uncertain about meeting Stephan Jones in person. I wondered what my initial reaction would be. I must confess, that I read very few (in fact only one) of his writings prior to the evening in Hunt Formal.

“Ruth’s Teeth” is a wonderful story that reminds me of the outhouse scene in the film Slumdog Millionaire. These are the stories that need more telling: the simple times and carefree moments. In many ways, the “reflections” of survivors are extensions of the kind of talk one might hear at a wake, funny stories and tragic remembrances.

I am grateful that I had not previously read “Going Home. ” The rich quality of Stephan’s voice as he read his writing, emotion flowing in his words.

I cried.

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on October 15th, 2013.
Skip to main content