Rebecca Moore – Raven Reading
I realized after reading Raven that I would be going into the rest of the readings and presentations with a very Raven-centric view of the events in Jonestown. Everything in Raven made sense to me, it was the first thing I read, but it was also the most highly detailed and seemed to cover all of the angles. When reading the Moore book, the first time John Victor Stoen is mentioned, he is referred to as one of two children sired by Jim Jones to members of Peoples Temple. I assumed at this point that she did not want to reveal information that would make itself apparent later on.
When Rebecca Moore spoke it offered additional insight on how she felt about the custody of John Victor Stoen. She seemed to know something but not want to share it publicly, which I completely understand.
I felt the same way about the interpretation of the events that occurred when Jones was young. Unless Reiterman was using falsified accounts of Jones’ childhood, it seems pretty clear to me that Jones was not a good kid gone bad, unless the age he went bad was 6. The circumstances of his childhood are certainly unfortunate, but this does not hide the fact that he was so manipulative.
After hearing Rebecca Moore speak I wrote a mock sermon that may have been attractive to Temple members looking for a community driving for social change. The political value of the movement cannot be understated, as it often is when looking at the tragedy and pain inflicted upon members both before and after Guyana.
Stanley Nelson – Wilson Harris, Jonestown
Stanley Nelson’s documentary gave me my first look and listen to survivors. The most powerful part of this for me was listening to Tim Carter talk about losing his wife and son. This really humanized the people of Jonestown to me. The film captured the emotions of the survivors in a way that writing could not. The way that everything ended was even more upsetting because of this.
After seeing the film, it became even more impactful as Stanley Nelson explained the process he went through to make it. The story of Jonestown touched his wife simply through the discussion of it on the radio. The news coverage of the Peoples Temple event at the time that it happened did not do justice to the people at the time, so it is nice to know that in later years people are trying to improve the image of Peoples Temple.
The images that were contained in the film were difficult to process, but I appreciate that Stanley Nelson decided not to include any new footage from Guyana in the making of the movie. Using footage from the actual event shows a truer Jones than people might have known otherwise. I also like the choice of not having any narration, which I did not even notice until someone pointed it out to me specifically.
The Wilson Harris book was extremely strange to read after finishing Raven. It was such a different style of writing that it was almost distracting to get the story of Jonestown in this manner. The narrative style of this did not bring much to my understanding of Peoples Temple.
Leigh Fondakowski’s involvement with the Laramie Project made her contribution to the Jonestown story that much more impactful, and knowing about it helped me to evaluate her involvement in the Jonestown story. Talking to each person in that town to get their opinions would have been important in that sort of scenario, but Leigh did not have the option to talk to everyone involved with the events that transpired on that last day. She definitely made do with the materials she had. The opening and closing of the play as she described it seems very appropriate for our class. We are examining the record from the documents and sources we can to learn as much as we can about the story of Jonestown.
For both Jonestown and the Laramie Project, conducting personal interviews with people must have been extremely challenging. It is important to ask the right questions, but the right questions are often the most difficult to ask. Both of these are stories that ended in death, but the stories leading up to them are not stories of death. It seems that Leigh has done an excellent job capturing these stories and sharing them with the world.
This was another great example of a person completely outside the story of Peoples Temple discovering it and sharing it with the rest of the world. There are so many stories involved with Jonestown, it is likely that a person who comes across it will be moved by one of them.
Leigh Fondakowski’s book was a collection of stories. The two most powerful of these to me were the story of Stephan Jones and the story of Tim Carter. Stephan Jones held mostly an auxiliary role in Raven, but it’s clear that he played a very important role in Peoples Temple, and it obviously affected his life strongly. The same holds true for Tim Carter. His written story was just as impressive as his interview in Stanley Nelson’s documentary.
I had not encountered Jordan Vilchez in Raven, so I did not know her story as much as I knew the story of some of the other players in the Jonestown narrative. I wanted to remedy this, so I looked at some of her written materials on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website. I think one of the most important pieces that helped me to understand her attachment to the story is talking about her sister, whom she lost in the tragedy. It is hard to think that someone could have been in Jonestown for only ten days before being subjected to the poison on the last day.
It was apparent from what Jordan Vilchez talked about that speaking about Jonestown was a healing process for her. She wanted to share how she felt and encouraged other members of Jonestown to share their stories as well. One of the main points she made is that as time has passed, the reception of people to her being a member of Peoples Temple has become more positive. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to try and share part of the story at the time you most needed to share it and have it received poorly.
Tim Carter’s presentation completely blew my mind. There were so many assumptions that I had made about Jonestown based upon reading Raven that were completely untrue according to Tim Carter. I never questioned that Tim Stoen was the biological father of John Victor Stoen, despite it being questioned by some of the other writers. Until Tim Carter said it was Jim Jones’ son, I never questioned this. If he hadn’t said that he had heard it directly from Grace, I’m not sure if I would have been swayed.
Tim Carter’s story outside of this was also extraordinarily powerful. Having seen him in Stanley Nelson’s film and also having read his story in Leigh Fondakowski’s book made me really look forward to seeing him in person. He talked about how difficult life after the Temple was, and life after losing his son. I’ve never lost anyone closer to me than a pet, so I do not really know how this feels, but the pain in his voice and his face were incredibly apparent.
Tim Carter expressed his appreciation for all of the works of Stanley Nelson and Tim Reiterman, but he also expressed his dislike of some of the creative liberties that the authors and creators took to make their materials more marketable. The first time Tim Carter said “that never happened” I was quite shocked, especially because Reiterman’s book was so well researched.
Julia Scheeres – A Thousand Lives
A Thousand Lives was in many ways similar to the other works we have read. One of the most obvious differences to me was how she called out top member of Jones’ Planning Commission (PC) and their role in the eventual loss of so many Temple members. Jones definitely could not have accomplished all that he did on his own, so his ability to convince others to do as he wished is even more apparent in his closest followers than it is in the rank and file Temple members.
Hearing Julia Scheeres speak I was impressed with the level of research that she did. She managed to unearth a lot of information about Jonestown that had not previously come to light. She was very thorough and this came through in the way she dealt with questions from the students as well.
I knew that meeting Stephan Jones would be a culminating experience after everything that we have gone through during the class. After our meeting on Wednesday I emailed him my set piece for the class and gave him a brief background of my experience with religion. After writing to him, I realized that my family background and religious background are extremely related. I am an atheist, but my mother is a minister, my father went to seminary, and his mother and brother are both ministers as well. Never once was my decision to be an atheist questioned by my parents, and I never really considered how helpful this was for me. I wrote my mom a letter to tell her how much I loved her for this on Thursday morning.
This is the message I sent Stephan Jones:
I realized that it may be useful to give some more of a backstory about me and my thoughts going into this project. I am a n atheist and have been as long as I can remember. My mother is a Unitarian minister, my father went to seminary, and his mother and brother are both Presbyterian ministers. My mother’s sermons were always concerned with loving others and finding inner peace, and my uncle’s, which focused more on God than hers, were still very positive and looked toward the greatness that is Heaven and how the teachings and message of Jesus can lead to greatness. I have also been to services that are not as positive and focused on fear, and this is something I saw in the sermons of Jim Jones that I wanted to counter. I wanted to capture the positive messages that religion could bring and highlight that there need not be any negative messages.
When talking to Stephan Jones, everyone who asked questions asked about something that was incredibly important to them. I finally got the answer to my question a bout how impressive Jones was, what he did to persuade people, and how dissenting voices that could provide proof against him were ignored. Those voices did not exist or were silenced, or chose to remain silent themselves out of peer pressure.
I knew that a big part of what I wanted to learn about Jonestown came from the sermons of Jim Jones. I wanted to learn what words he was saying that convinced everyone that they should follow him to Jonestown and do all of the things that he asked.
I realize now that a lot of what happens in Peoples Temple happened outside of Jones’ public sermons on Planning Commission meetings and private Temple meetings. I still started all of my work by reading through his sermons.
I got the impression when reading Raven that Jim Jones would not use the Bible as reference and would be pretty exclusively using his own material for his sermons. The sermons on the Alternative Considerations site highlighted quotes from the Bible in red, and it was quickly apparent that Jim Jones used a great amount of this material. The Bible has obviously polled well among the religiously fervent so it makes sense that him using it could attract followers.
Another thing I expected to find in these sermons was a lot of “I”-centric writing that focused on his greatness, and how he should be followed because he was god. There were definitely examples of this, but it was not as overwhelming as I expected it to be. He put a much larger focus on helping others and bringing equality. I have been to a variety of sermons in my lifetime, and Jim Jones’ words sat somewhere between the easy going Presbyterians and the terrifying Catholics.
Reading Raven, I imagined that Jim Jones was ruling through fear, but it became apparent from read testimonials that people truly loved Jim Jones. There are certainly those who feared him, but the kind of devotion he got from his followers could not have been done from only fear.
I wanted to learn about how Jim Jones’ fragile kingdom did not come crashing down around him when a skeptic pointed out his fraudulence. I learned from my research two things. Jones’ kingdom was not fragile. Skeptics were kept out. I wanted to ask the first couple of speakers about skepticism at meetings, but I did not know how to phrase it in a non-offensive way. From reading on the Jonestown site, I learned that they employed a form of screening that kept those unlikely to become Temple members out. It wasn’t until Stephan Jones came that I got the full answer to this, that there were likely people there who thought that there was something up, but were too caught up in the crowd to do anything about it. There are also enough people who want to believe that they don’t want to take this away from someone else so they go along with it.
I say that Jones’ kingdom was not fragile because there were those who helped Jim Jones with his stage theatrics. The people who assisted in the healing just went along with him even though they were part of the fakery. Tim Carter told a story about being up on the balcony and having Jones call him out for his great contribution of donating his last dollars and cents, later learning that someone behind him just reported that to Jim Jones during downtime. The informant did nothing to stop Jim Jones from this lie, so it is obvious that any information on Jones being a liar and a cheat would not stop him from being faithful to him.
A good deal of my research was also spent looking at how Stephan Jones responded to his father throughout his life. The Alternative Considerations site also provided me with all of Stephan Jones public writings on how he has dealt with the experience of being Jim Jones’ son. One of the most important works for learning about this was “Like Father Like Son.” Being part of a group that is so compassionate yet also capable of attacks on its members had lasting effects for Stephan Jones.
Stephan Jones talks about wanting his father’s approval, but also disagreeing and fighting with his father. He also loved his mother and wanted her to be happy in the face of everything that was going on in his family. I wanted to find as many interviews with him as I could, but these were fairly scarce, as it seems for the most part he has avoided the public on this. What I did find was very powerful, especially the earlier materials. Nothing could compare with seeing him in person and watching while everyone asked him questions that pertained to their passage through the Jonestown story.
From watching everyone’s set pieces, it was clear that each person was responding to Jonestown in a different way. There were those who were moved by a specific event or character, and others who were intrigued by an aspect of the Temple that they wanted to explore more thoroughly. For others the whole experience evoked emotions about their own lives that they wanted to express through the story of Peoples Temple.
Heidi’s piece looked at several aspects of her life and how they pertained to Peoples Temple. It was impressive to hear her speak so openly about her life, especially about her father leaving. She did not have any reservations about this. I had the feeling that most of the rest of my classmates did not come from a family where a parent had left, and certainly none of them had served in the military. Heidi’s unique perspective helped bring another part of the Jonestown story home for me.
The poetry of the class also greatly impressed me. I have not had a chance to hear poetry of classmates since high school, and it is clear that there has been a vast improvement. Most of those were mandatory assignments, but it was clear from these that they were written based on how the story of Jonestown moved them. Matt’s poems were very distinct, with one focusing on the lives of two Temple members and their interactions, while the other questioned why we were so specifically concerned with Jonestown at all. When I first heard Matt’s piece it struck me as a negative on looking at specific events of history, but as I heard it more and more I realized that he was showing how important Jonestown was because despite being so insignificant mathematically, we were still looking at it.
Kiara took a different angle with her poetry. When I came into this class I was looking at everything very skeptically, assuming most people who were involved were gullible and that I would not have been taken in. Kiara talks about how all of us don’t want to think that we would have been tricked and taken in. She talks about all of the things Jones had to offer people. I would have wanted to be a part of all the great social change, and I assumed if that is all I wanted that I could have gone elsewhere and helped. As we looked more at the climate of the U.S. in the 70’s, I questioned whether I would have had other options. People like Tim Stoen went to Peoples Temple for that reason more than the religious aspect. It’s hard to say what it would have taken to stop me.
It was difficult for me to analyze Allison Friedlander’s piece. I know that she came from a religion background, but I couldn’t tell if this was something that is still regularly part of her life or something that she has forsaken after childhood. If I had known this it would have been easier to understand her intentions with her reading from the “Book of Marceline.”
Jack, Ben, and Jess’ pieces all were similar to me. They looked at a specific character or event that was important to them, and they dramatized the parts of that which spoke to them most strongly. For those who did not know the details of these players in the Jonestown story, they did an excellent job conveying the powerful emotions accompanying their roles in Peoples Temple. Jack highlighted the background of Tim Stoen, showing the significance he placed on the fact that even someone like that could be taken in by Jones.
When I first heard Kate Van Ness’ poem, I immediately re-imagined it as a rap. Her delivery had such good tempo, it could easily have been set to music and performed in that way. She captured the fear of Stephan Jones w hen he tried to commit suicide the first time. I have never understood suicide, and when Stephan Jones explained in person that his ego would not permit him to do it, I understood it slightly more.
When I first imagined my set piece, I had a vivid idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to stand in front of an auditorium full of people and belt out a sermon that I had written that characterized all of the morals that I held high and also showcased that this could be done in a way that showed the inherent bad in Jim Jones. I adapted this on the recommendation of Professor Gainer to include the words of Jim Jones. Originally I was going to have them projected, but I realized it would be much more powerful if someone else read them. This allowed us to interact effectively and show this juxtaposition even more. Professor Gainer helped us block this and coached us on de livery as well, giving us a powerful piece to share with the audience.
This project made me want to preach or go into politics or something. I suddenly wanted to speak at graduation or at a rally. Learning about Jonestown and Peoples Temple showed me that I had something to say, and I wanted to share it with a crowd. I also realized how important my parents have been in making me the person that I am today, and I know that if I do as good a job as they did, if I ever have kids, they will turn out well. There is no limit to the good that can be brought into the world, and it’s my responsibility to bring as much as I can.