Rebecca Moore’s lecture was effective in generating pathos for the members of Peoples Temple contradictory to the dehumanizing accounts of the mass suicide immediately following the tragedy in 1978. Moore explained that the label of “cult” has an implicit negative connotation, and fails to acknowledge that those who died in Guyana were not simply the product of a flawed psychology, but rather acting in reaction to sociological factors. Moore recognizes how it was the circumstances of the time period that ultimately led to the cataclysmic events of 1978, and examined the tragedy of Jonestown through a racial lens; she began her lecture by labeling Peoples Temple as an African American institution first.
Moore explained the historical context of the time by describing the “armed struggle” of the Black Panther party, civil protest movements throughout the U.S.A. in response to the loss of soldiers in Vietnam, and the rise of socialist governments throughout Latin America. The geopolitics of the time indicated the problems with the economic, political, cultural, and social institutions of the time period, which was why Peoples Temple was able to thrive as an antiracist and anti-capitalistic institution. Jim Jones also advocated for welfare programs, health care for the elderly, affirmative action, gay rights, and the removal of the death penalty. His progressive views and emphasis on the importance of equality humanizes the members of Peoples Temple, as it indicated that they were idealists with pure and admirable values who fell victim to a power hungry and emotionally unstable leader, rather than simply a group of brainwashed followers.
Moore also explained that in this time of turmoil the general sentiment was that it was right to resist oppression even at the cost of ones own life. People’s willingness to die as a means of making the world a better place was expressed universally, and was not seen as selfish when acting as a means in defiance to corrupt economic, political, and social systems. Death was noble if for a cause greater than oneself, and this widespread mentality was a major contributor to the events of Guyana, not simply a defective psychosis in the members of Peoples Temple. Although Peoples Temple has some of the characteristics many associate with cults, it also shares many characteristics of Black Religion in America. It is important to understand the Temple within the social and political movements of the 1960 and 70’s. Race, class, gender, and other pressing issues were poignant at this time. So these issues as well as others dominated Peoples Temple. Moore writes to help readers understand what Peoples Temple was really about instead of just the mass suicide.
Documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
I found Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple to be an essential contribution to my understanding of Jonestown. The use of both archival and new audio and visual documentation brought the events of 1978 to life, and humanized the members of Peoples Temple. I found myself relating to all of the people depicted, highlighting how truly psychologically stable they once were. I felt their simultaneous admiration and fear of Jim Jones, and found myself sympathizing and understanding their hopes and humor. Nelson did not judge the people of Jonestown; he simply presented the facts and allowed the understanding of the events to be generated by the viewer.
He used many factual and real clips and audio sound bites from Jonestown. The film itself was very helpful in understanding how Jonestown was formed into the oasis it was portrayed to be. The visual aspect of the whole story really helped me as a viewer to see what life was like in Guyana. The interviews were incredible. They really gave an intimate look at what the people that were involved in that final day went through. The interviews were able to provide the visual affect of the terror, and fear the reporters and members of the Temple were actually feeling at the time.
The film shed light on Jones’ childhood, which was interesting to see. I could only use my mental images from reading Raven and this helped me to see what his family and town looked like in pictures, as he was a young boy and leading into his young adult ages. It aided all the members of the class to really see for themselves how his life looked on screen and not just imagining it through the books.
I found Nelson’s commentary on his documentary to be a very powerful supplement in my understanding of the film. He admitted that his initial reaction to the tragedy of 1978 to be analogous to that of mainstream media – he regarded the members of Peoples Temple as “brainwashed psychopaths.” He then explained that as he and his wife gained a better understanding of the humanitarian, socially conscious, and community-minded mentality of the organization he developed sympathy for the members, and wanted to learn more about the social condition of Guyana.
I thought Nelson’s most poignant point was when he admitted that if he was there he would have “drank the Kool-Aid.” This confession highlights his truly sympathetic and understanding perspective on the members of Peoples Temple, and how important it is to him to educate people on the events from a sociological rather than psychological standpoint.
He got to know his subjects on an individualized level, and the time, effort, and dedication that he put in to making his documentary certainly paid off, because all who view it feel a personal connection to those portrayed in the film, especially after we have read all the material we have been provided with in class. His comments on the event itself and his documentary really help with the understanding of how the public felt about the tragedy.
Leigh Fondakowski’s talk showed another way of thinking about the Jonestown tragedy. After Fondakowski and the Tectonic Theater Project did a project on the murder and hate crime against Matthew Shephard, she was encouraged to do another piece similar to that of the Laramie Project on Jonestown. In both projects, both Laramie and Jonestown she sought to correct how the media portrayed the incident. Fondakowski used both stories to show her own perspective of each event and how she changed from learning about both.
The main points of Fondakowski’s talk focused on how she conducted interviews and collected information for the Jonestown project. She spoke about how after interviewing different members of the Temple she had conflicting ideas about what happened on the last day in Guyana. Whether it was murder or suicide, she made it clear that she didn’t want to take a stance for either side in her book or play. She interviewed Stephan Jones many times. He told her that he is driven to help people understand his father better and leave some of the hate by the wayside. Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore were very helpful in aiding her research.
Stories From Jonestown:
Tells the story of Jonestown through their varied viewpoints to create a unique summary of what happened there. This reading focuses on more of the aftermath of the events surrounding Jonestown. Most of our other readings focus on the before or the during of the Temple fiasco, this seems to show a viewpoint from many different outlooks about the aftermath. The people interviewed were different than most of our books. In this story former Temple members, their families, lawyers, reporters are interviewed as usual but more about the events happening after the mass suicide.
Tim Carter’s lecture was by far the best in the series I thought. He didn’t have a long drawn out introduction listing his accolades and accomplishments. There was just a small background on him and he came up and spoke his mind. I enjoyed his sincerity and emotion that he showed throughout the entire lecture. He was one of the only people that came to lecture that I actually felt I could relate to. I received a completely new outlook on Jonestown and Jim Jones, and life for that matter after hearing what he had to say.
His main point that he stressed with the audience was that it would be doing Peoples Temple a disservice by marking all of its members off as “crazy Kool-Aid drinkers. ” He was very passionate about striving to stop the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. ” He also spoke about the media craze that took place after the mass death in 1978 and how he was used as a puppet for the media. The most gripping portion of his lecture was when he stressed the significance of family and how he treasures it now. He has a whole new family and said that it was a very tough obstacle for him to overcome to reproduce again after the tragic loss of his first son in Guyana. Being a Veteran he spoke and engaged another audience member who was also a Vietnam Veteran in what being at war was like.
I was smitten by his life story and outlook on life, and with his overall strength. It was a pleasure to have heard him speak. Listening to his lecture was helpful in understanding what it was like to be a young man in those days. What it was like for young blue-collar men and the options they had if they weren’t interested in college, which is something that I can easily relate to. He was a very powerful speaker to have speak to our class – and to me for that matter.
Julia Scheeres’ lecture was very informative. Her insight on what it was like to grow up in a very strict religious environment was very interesting. She grew up in a small town just like Jim Jones and was familiar with what it was like to have an outcast sibling. Her brother would be bullied in school and in town, which was very hard for her.
She and her brother were sent to a school that was very strictly religious. She, like members of the Temple, were humiliated publicly and manipulated as a mode of forcing them to submit to the people in positions of power. This experience made her feel connected with the members of Peoples Temple and wanted to help tell their story. She talked about how she felt many similarities with Tommy Bogue because of how impressionable he was and hadn’t chose to be there. She was compelling, making the members of the Temple seem less “zombie-like” because she was able to compare some of their situations to hers.
April 24, 2013
Jonestown: Stories of a Cult
Each student in our class was given a choice to pick from a list of any type of response you would like to do, from a compelling or inspiring character or event in the readings of Jonestown. At the beginning of the course many people in the class were confused as to how we would make this a “class presentation” if everyone had to pick one character or event. With weeks of deliberation the class and Professor Gainer came to a conclusion that we will just conduct a class presentation as a whole. The performance was to occur chronologically and could be presented in any way you wanted it to be. Many students chose poems, or stories, or in my case a narrative.
At first, I was unsure how I could relay the deep felt confusion and anger I felt that Bob and Sammy Houston were going through. It was hard for me to figure out a way to show the class how stressful their situation was. I began to research both father and son after reading all about their story in Raven. Tim Reiterman shows compassion for Sammy Houston because of their close friendship in his biography of Jim Jones. So I wanted to show how important the Houston father and son were to the investigation of Peoples Temple. After researching both Sammy, Bob’s father then Bob himself further, I was sure these were the two characters I wanted to cover.
The best way I could think of that would show how tragic yet crucial the death of Bob Houston was just to simply tell his story. I wasn’t sure that a poem or something along those lines would resonate with the people hearing our class presentation as well. So, when I began writing the script on Bob Houston, I knew I would have to make it clear that he was an outstanding man. He was very involved in the church, and worked many jobs to be a contributor to Peoples Temple. I wrote about how involved he was with the Temple band and with teaching music to the children in the Temple. I also wrote about his daughters and wife and their role in the Temple. I spoke about the fact that he and his second wife Joyce had some relationship problems that led to him wanting to defect from the church with her. While writing, Professor Gainer helped me make sure that the audience would hear that Bob was thinking about leaving the Temple to rekindle his relationship with his wife. Also, that he became very tired and run down from working so hard to juggle his jobs and his obligations to the Temple. I was trying to show the audience in my story that he wanted very badly to leave the Temple to be with his wife. This was apparent in the church and Jim Jones knew. I wrote in my script that once Jim Jones got wind of Bob’s possible departure from the Temple he was found dead along the train tracks where he worked at a train yard. This was a fact that I had to make for the audience to see how controlling and powerful Jim Jones was.
After his son’s death, Sammy Houston went to Tim Reiterman and demanded that someone in the media write a story about the mysterious death of his son, a Peoples Temple member. As I began to write the script on Sammy Houston I wanted to make sure that the people I would be reading to realized the sadness he felt that his son was dead and he couldn’t get to his two beautiful granddaughters because they were now in Guyana and still acting Temple members.
When I was finished with my first draft of my two scripts I sent them in to be analyzed by Professor Gainer. While he was looking over them, I contacted Fielding M. McGehee III, who is the chief historical researcher for the Peoples Temple database. I emailed Mr. McGehee in search of a San Francisco Examiner article that was published by Reiterman that covers the “wrongful death” of Bob Houston. I couldn’t seem to find a clear copy of the article anywhere in Bucknell’s files or on the Internet. He was very kind in assisting me with my request and sent me his copy from the case report via email. I used this article in my presentation. It was projected behind me as I read the scripts I had prepared. When Professor Gainer had returned my script with minimal critique it was just two weeks before our first rehearsal.
Our first rehearsal of the presentation was very cool. It was great to see what everyone had been working on for the entire semester. Also, it was cool to get up on stage and be able to read aloud and show others what you have compiled. Professor Gainer was helpful in teaching us all to have stage presence and speak clearly. The first rehearsal went well and we all felt very confident in the performance. We had scheduled one more rehearsal on Sunday of the next week then it was the big show on that Wednesday night. I was regretfully unable to be at the rehearsal on Sunday night because of football.
That Wednesday we had our performance. I was going over my script and rehearsing my lines before we went on stage. I must be honest, I usually don’t get nervous to perform for people. But, in this case I wanted desperately to make Professor Gainer, and Professor Gillespie proud because of all the hard work they had put into the class. The performance went well. I was happy with the way we all spoke on stage with authority like Professor Gainer had taught us. I was a little upset to see that there weren’t many people in the audience. I wanted to be able to show fellow students how interesting the presentation was and how our rendition of Jonestown was one of a kind.
My performance specifically went well in my opinion. I was happy to share with the people in attendance something they may not have known about Jonestown. I was proud to be up on stage in front of an audience presenting what interested me and what I had been working on all semester. The response from the audience was great. Mainly I was just focused on Professor Gillespie, I wanted her to somehow realize that even though she was the Professor of the course that this was somehow our gift to her. She had been going through a rough time throughout the course with the loss of her husband. Something that unfortunate and sad couldn’t have happened to a nicer and more interesting woman. So in some way, her unfortunate circumstance gave me some sort of inspiration to really put on a great show. It was clear that Jonestown is a very important event for her so I was proud to show her how much we as a class also cared. I know she felt the power that was generated in that room by our performance as a whole and some individual performances. It simply couldn’t be ignored and I’m happy that I was a part of something like that.
I was astonished at the course material and the lectures. It was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. It felt like a gift every time there was a lecture. It almost felt like the students of the Jonestown class were some sorts of celebrities, having all of these incredible people coming to talk to us. We couldn’t have been more lucky to have such powerful lectures and reading available to us. I told everyone that would listen all about this course and how interesting I thought it was. I would call my Mother after every lecture and talk her ear off about how interesting each person was. This course was simply a treat, just an enlightening, intellectual, cultural experience that I will never forget and will always look back on with pride and joy.