Lecture Series and Reading Responses
Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple was a stark departure from the class’ reading of Raven not only by sheer length, but notably by content and tone. Upon reading her book, it’s clear that Rebecca Moore’s main goal in writing about Peoples Temple and the events at Jonestown is to re-humanize the victims and suggest that the rhetoric commonly used to describe the incidents and the victims may not be fair or appropriate. Moore tells the story not chronologically, as Tim Reiterman does so painstakingly, but rather provides the reader with a set of arguments and lets different parts of the story unfold as necessary. This approach is understandable when one considers her personal relationship to the events, having lost two sisters and a nephew on November 18, 1978, and the text’s positive portrayal of the members of Peoples Temple and the relatively objective description of such terrible events is refreshing.
Rebecca Moore’s lecture on Peoples Temple shared the same sentiment in that her main goal was to positively portray those who followed the charismatic Jim Jones, but pushes the idea that was only mentioned in her book: that Peoples Temple was essentially, at least on a rhetorical level, a Revolutionary Black Movement. Her examples of the Black Panthers and literary works such as “Revolution” by Richard Thomas and the one-act play “Black Ice” helped to support that claim, but it seems to oversimplify Jones’ dynamic and multifaceted set of beliefs and goals for his church.
Moore’s credibility was enhanced by her candid address of and response to opposing viewpoints and her own critics. She openly told the forum that some call her and her husband “cult-apologists” and assured those in attendance that it is not a compliment. Beyond the labeling of Peoples Temple as simply a cult when, as Rebecca Moore said, “We only call religions we don’t like ‘cults,’” these critics argue that the simple fact that Moore does not generalize the 900 people who died in Jonestown as brainwashed suicidal cattle means that she is blind to all of the wrongs that occurred there. Moore somewhat scathingly said that they call everyone who doesn’t blame the victims “cult-apologists.” This discussion point made her analysis of the Peoples Temple member mentality all the more fascinating and honorable.
Although her lecture was succinctly structured, well-rehearsed, and eloquently expressed, Rebecca Moore was most engaging when she paused to speak directly to the audience, included a family anecdote, to answered questions from those who were listening. As impressive and detailed as her research into Jonestown and Peoples Temple is, what made her presence at Bucknell so worthwhile was her personal connection to the people and her ability to talk about the events from a family’s perspective. In contrast to the indifferent and often unsympathetic press reports that serve solely to report facts and present a fanatical story, even Moore’s most abstract ideas provided an engaging and caring narrative.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Watching the film by Stanley Nelson, I was both impressed and intrigued by the clear arch of his story. I was reminded of discussions we’ve had in class about how humans have an incessant need to make sense of things and to put sometimes disparate events into neat little boxes to fit a story. The documentary was exceptionally well done; it seemed to better represent both the allure and fear that members of Peoples Temple held for Jones and the way he ran his church than other sources to which we’ve been exposed.
However, I think the most effective aspect of Nelson’s documentary was his use of both archival and new footage of the members of Peoples Temple. Watching this documentary made it real for me. I think my mind finally made the connection that these people really existed. Strangely, I found it easier to grasp the fact that 918 died in Guyana than to fully comprehend that these people were a part of a community only a few decades ago, that my parents are the age that many of the members would have been had they survived. Hearing the choir perform and seeing videos in somewhat surprising picture and sound quality put the ordeal into perspective for me, that is isn’t some far off tragedy that’s been long forgotten beyond the binding of books. Seeing the faces of members who got out in time to save their own lives was surreal, especially seeing Jim Jones, Jr. I couldn’t help but note at how “normal” they all were. They made us laugh, they told us about Jonestown like a fond childhood memory, that is, until the ending.
Perhaps it was only due to superior editing, or maybe it was a manipulation of the boundless resources available to a documentarian, but the Jonestown story came to life for me for the first time and suddenly became a story I could truly follow.
The documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is an exceptional depiction of the Jonestown story in that it humanizes those who were a part of Peoples Temple by letting them tell their stories among the archival footage. The arc of the film follows the views of the members of Peoples Temple from the initial intrigue of the social community to the final disillusionment in tragedy. I, personally, asked Stanley Nelson about how he became interested in the story and people of Jonestown. He told us that his wife came up to him on one of the anniversaries and spoke about survivors she had heard on the radio and how their experiences contrasted to the stories of psychopaths that most people associated with the tragedy at Jonestown.
Stanley Nelson continued to explain how he wanted to represent Jonestown as the vibrant community it was. H e said that many people he talked to still thought of Jonestown as the greatest times of their lives. He wanted to capture their stories but he didn’t want to “try to convince people to be in the film.” He told us how he would call someone and explain what he was doing and if they didn’t feel comfortable getting involved, he would just leave them his number and say “we’re not going to call you again, we’re not going to hound you. ” I think that, in the world of invasive media, especially that which surrounded Peoples Temple, it is honorable and right that Nelson only included the stories that people wanted to tell. These people were told what to do and say every day by Jim Jones, and I feel as if this action is giving the power of speech back to the victims.
Nelson also spoke about the extensive editing process and the difficult decisions he and the other filmmakers had to make in order to make the story succinct and clean. He cut out the stories of the survivors’ escapes. He cut out interviews from people. Most interesting, however, was his thoughts on Stephan Jones. Jones had actually refused to be in the film and was the only person Nelson tried to convince to be in the film. In the end, however, Stanley Nelson said that he was happy that Stephan wasn’t in the film, because it wasn’t the story he wanted to tell. It seems as though so many people, especially in our class, are intrigued by Stephan Jones, and he is important, but I think that there are so many people with stories to tell and I’m glad that he wasn’t included in the film because he may have stifled and overpowered the voices of others.
What I found so fascinating about Leigh Fondakowski’s book Stories From Jonestown was the fact that she was a complete outsider to the story. She knew no more than anyone else who had seen the original news reports. She had no relatives in Jonestown. She had never been involved in Peoples Temple. Leigh Fondakowski came upon the story of Jonestown through her method. I asked her about the book during the talk and if she had done any preliminary research before creating her play or writing the book. She let the voices of the people who were there tell the story. I found her inclusion of Tim Carter’s story very moving. The other books that we have read have taken the stories of Jonestown and retold them in the voices of the authors and their own very strong point of view, but Fondakowski’s treatment of the stories from Jonestown is refreshing and moving in its raw treatment and wholehearted acceptance of “their truth.”
“The words of the people are how I tell the story,” Leigh Fondakowski told us. Her projects The Laramie Project and The People’s Temple used hundreds of hours of interview footage that she conducted herself to build a narrative. Her job, as an author, playwright, and artist, was to present the stories without manipulating them. She, like so many others, have attempted to paint a portrait of Jonestown that made them more than a group of mindless cultists. She questioned if we could “ever really undo the narrative of crazy Kool-Aid drinkers… and forge a new one. ” Perhaps the story Leigh Fondakowski forged is not a new one, but, as the people of Laramie were so eager to tell their side of the story, her work seems to say, “Let me tell you how the media got it wrong.”
When first introduced to the idea of a project about Jonestown, Fondakowski thought, “Why would anybody want to study death?” She came to realize, however, “it ended in a mass death – but it wasn’t a story of death.” Calling the people on a list and having to convince them that she just wants to hear their stories, she heard things she had never heard before, things no one had ever heard before. She heard about policies in Jonestown, race politics in Jonestown, and she found herself asking “Why don’t I know this?” It wasn’t easy, as Mac McGehee said, ‘‘These people aren’t going to want to talk to you, but they should talk to you.” And I’m extremely grateful that those who did, did talk to her.
It seems as though Leigh Fondakowski built a very deep and personal relationship with the survivors of Peoples Temple, but also the story. One of the most intriguing parts of her speech was when she spoke about the advice of a man who said that “an audience can only follow seven protagonists” and that, in working with these people, she hoped that “the movement would become the protagonist.” She was able to beautifully weave together the stories of so many within the story of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. A quote that I found astonishingly beautiful that she said off guardedly was this: “I’m always so moved by how articulate Stephan Jones is, how articulate people are. ” Her work is so dynamic: it is about the movement, it is full of contradictory truths, but it is also about the people and how this extraordinary woman was able to tell all of their stories instead of simply seven.
What struck me about Jordan Vilchez’ discussion of her experience with Jonestown and Peoples Temple was its personal nature. Her main presentation was a reading of an essay she had written and although I could tell that it was a product of deep reflection as to how her experience relates to humanity as a whole, it seemed almost artificial. There were times where she would mention a fact about Jonestown and, as an audience member, I took it just as I would if I were reading it in a book, but then she would lower the paper down from in front of her and share genuine memories. She paused for a moment to remember what she planted in the fields when she first arrived in Jonestown, “Bananas, I think. Bananas and cassava. ” The question and answer session gave us a more genuine and personal reflection and, despite stumbling over some words and struggling to grasp the central ideas of big questions she hadn’t previously reflected on, she provided the perspective of Jonestown that I feel is the most beneficial for me to date.
Watching Jordan Vilchez speak in front of us about the community in which she grew up, I didn’t see a middle-aged woman’s reflections on her childhood: I saw a sixteen-year-old girl. She spoke about the loss of self in such an oppressive community. I saw a girl not unsure of who she is and what her place is in the world, a girl that watched her words and simply wanted to say what was right, what she was expected to say. I could see her discomfort when the director of Women’s and Gender Studies asked her more conceptual questions that she was unsure as to how to answer. I just found it fascinating to hear the story of Jonestown from a primary source that emits such innocence because of her young age in the time that she was involved in Peoples Temple. Of course, she has tried, like all of the other survivors to create a narrative out of the story that plays in her mind, to make sense of it all and to apply it to the scope of humankind, but in the long run, Jonestown is a childhood memory that she’s simply sharing with us.
As innocent and unaware it seems that Jordan Vilchez was during her time in Jonestown and as a part of the Planning Commission in Peoples Temple, she provided the audience with a plethora of moments where she realized something wasn’t quite right. These moments of questioning and clarity help to illustrate what it seems all of the writers have attempted to do with the story and people of Jonestown: to make them more than blind followers of a madman. Jordan didn’t speak out against Jim Jones; she thought that he knew what was best. She remembered standing at the edge of the jungle holding a machete, waiting for the enemy, and thinking “This is so ridiculous. This is fake: there’s nobody out there, ” but she didn’t do anything about it. Jim Jones was a charismatic and controlling human being, but “just because you’re charismatic doesn’t mean you’re a good person” and similarly, just because you didn’t speak out doesn’t mean you’re a bad person and I hope that Jordan Vilchez will come to understand that. In response to being asked if she would go back and do it all over again, she replied “Oh heck no, well, maybe for one reason: to speak up. ” I think that’s the most tragic part of her story, the fact that she couldn’t have done anything, but she still wishes she had .
Tim Carter had been painted, in my mind, as a combative, angry, bitter, and devastated man. I didn’t find that to be entirely true. He did say a few things with which I disagreed – I can’t help but believe that John Victor Stoen is not Jim Jones’ biological son – but, as an empathetic audience member, I can’t discredit the thoughts and beliefs of another human being. He started off by saying that he wanted to address the needs of the people in the audience and that he only asked that we don’t ask him to recount seeing his wife and child die. Tim Carter was the first and only speaker in this series that brought me to tears and I believe that’s because that’s what I needed. I’ve been having trouble lately dealing with the reality of this tragedy. It took the months, but my heart finally caught up with my mind and it’s a painful epiphany. The utter devastation that I could feel in his recounts of his memories, mixed with a genuine, joyful nostalgia affected me greatly.
Tim Carter managed to depict Jones as both a terrible person and a genuine visionary who cared about each and every member he allowed into Peoples Temple. He told a story that sounded like it was straight out of the Bible: a man donating his last 67 cents to the Temple and Jones telling the congregation that such a donation meant more than all of the other donations combined. At the time, Tim believed that it was truly Jones’ omniscience that caused the declaration, but he later learned that a woman sitting behind the man told Jones about it personally so that he could upkeep his image of a miracle-worker. Carter questioned whether or not that truly made Jones a bad person and that acknowledging the gifts of those less fortunate is a good thing regardless of how he gained the information and I think that’s where a lot of people stand with people like Jim Jones, do the ends truly justify the means?
Then again, what are the ends? Carter put it simply, “children do not commit suicide” and, in the end, 918 people are dead because of Jim Jones and the people who enabled his crazed behavior. Even the few that survived did not receive ends justifiable by any means. Tim Carter’s experience with Peoples Temple was a beautiful time that he cherishes, but “it wasn’t all good, [and] it wasn’t all bad. Every part of this story is a contradiction.” Perhaps the reason why I connected so well with the words of Tim Carter is because he needed to grapple with the reality of the situation as I did. He admitted, “In my mind, I was watching TV, not a real person dying” and that acknowledgement of the lives that ended is one of the most difficult things to achieve because it means that horrors worse than our worst nightmares actually exist and tha t they’re caused by our fellow humans.
I had some trouble connecting to this lecture. I absolutely adored the book. A Thousand Lives was the book with the personal and individual storytelling I craved with a coherent story arch, but I struggled with an inner conflict upon hearing that it was the most factually incorrect of all the books we have read. I so appreciated learning about Hyacinth and Zipporah Thrash and the other central characters, bur seeing this woman stand in front of us, with no connection to Peoples Temple other than interest, I found myself questioning her authority to tell this story. After hearing Tim Carter and feeling his deep pain even through stories of happy times, especially through stories of happy times, hearing Julia’s connection to the story from her time in a religious corrective school wasn’t enough for me. This doubt was frustrating. I knew that if we had read A Thousand Lives and heard her speak first, I would have left the hall feeling inspired or at least satisfied, but I struggled throughout the forty-five minutes she spoke to not feel like it was a complete waste of time. I actually would have preferred to hear about her time in the religious school described in Jesus Land, but instead she spoke about her research process which didn’t hold the same vigor I had found elsewhere.
That being said, she seemed to be no less committed to the research behind her book as any of the other authors and she graciously noted that the other authors and, certainly, the survivors could probably better answer any questions we may have. She talked about spending hours upon hours going through the documents she acquired from the FBI and the way in which she chose the voices that she wanted to drive the story was admirable. She followed many people of which I had previously only heard mention, but I wondered why survivors and scholars alike disliked her treatment of the facts. Perhaps it truly is a question of authority. What gives her the right to write a book about Peoples Temple? Why is she in the same lecture series as Tim Carter and Stephan Jones?
Overall, the lecture was just awkward because she spoke with such a vivacity about her own life and her journey to the writing of her book about Jonestown, but the story of Jonestown was not her own and she struggled to capture those in attendance in the audience and bring them along with her. Questions were limited and seemed somewhat pointless, but I came away feeling bad for her because, as awkward as it was as an audience member to see a speaker be completely finished in under forty-five minutes, it must be significantly worse to be the speaker who knows she is one of the lesser speakers in a series. I wished that wasn’t the sentiment I felt in the room, but it was.
I was very apprehensive when walking to Hunt Hall to hear Stephan Jones speak. When you read hundreds of pages about a man’s life – and I say that not because he’s the story of Jonestown, but rather that Jonestown is the story of his life – the prospect of meeting him in person, in knowing you must accept his existence as an extraordinary ordinary human being, is terrifying. Beyond that, Stephan Jones is always described as the man who takes a step back, who vehemently denies interviews. I marveled at the opportunity I was handed. I knew that I needed to ask him questions, but they all seemed wrong in my head. I thought that Stephan Jones would be the man who accepted because he felt he must: the man who would speak to us, but not about what we wanted to hear.
How wrong I was. It’s called “giving a speech” for a reason and, even though he didn’t give a lecture, he certainly gave the audience something very special. He’s extremely eloquent and I found myself drawing a contrast between his steady, reflective tone that was so obviously full of emotion, but packaged in a way that we, as an audience, could experience it in a way that we could handle. He was asked a lot about his similarities to his father, but the trait that most strikes me is his ability to know how things needed to be said to different people. I found myself wanting to be his friend, or neighbor. I wanted him to be my best friend’s father, my Uncle coming for a visit, and perhaps that’s why I felt so inclined to ask questions about family. I wondered about his relationships with his brothers and his Grandmother Lynetta and I’m so grateful that I had an opportunity to hear those stories that stick out from the meddled mess of memories of his childhood in the Temple.
Professor Gillespie began the night by discussing her motivation for starting the series. She quoted a phrase that says whatever you’re doing between the ages of 11 and 14 is probably what you’ll end up doing in life. I think, for Stephan Jones, that’s questioning the ways of the world and finding a way to be a part of a family while maintaining honesty. Of course, I didn’t know Stephan Jones when he was that age, but, much like with Jordan Vilchez, hearing him speak, I could see the nineteen-year-old who was on the basketball team and just wanted things to make sense. I really appreciated the opportunity to hear him speak and begin to get to know him. Stephan Jones has his father’s ability to make everyone feel like they have a purpose and that they’re important, but he allows us to also believe that we’re special and that each of our individual opinions matter because he recognizes his father’s need to be recognized in every human being. It’s extremely honorable that he’s accepted that philosophy as a part of his life and that he’s vowed to take the time to get to know a person, whether they’re doing evil or good, instead of devoting their part of his heart to hatred.
Overall, I’m astonished that we had the opportunity to hear him speak and I’m so glad that he wasn’t this intimidatingly reflective man I had imagined, but rather more like a father or a friend who encourages everyone he meets to discover themselves by meeting and understanding others. He made a point of saying, “I shouldn’t speak for others” and I truly appreciated his respect for those who study and write about Jonestown. It was refreshing having expected him to be angry and bitter, but I am overjoyed to feel validated in my interest and personal connections to the tragedy.
If I hadn’t searched the University Catalogue for courses that fulfill the Diversity Requirement, I may have never known the incredible story of Peoples Temple and the unique array of individuals who lived and died in Jonestown. Signing up for the course for the fulfillment of a requirement and an intrigue for the description of “unconventional assignments, ” I never expected to become so invested in the story and the people. I recall sitting in the passenger’s seat of mother’s car over winter break and admitting that I hadn’t the slightest idea what Jonestown was. She responded with a general and factually inaccurate summary of the tragedy of Jonestown. She described it as a religious group composed of African Americans whose leader brought the members to Africa and eventually instructed them all to kill themselves by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. I had heard the phrase “to drink the Kool-Aid” plenty of times before, but I had never heard of Jonestown. Perhaps there was a sentence or two in the cult section of a chapter in an American History Textbook, but it didn’t resonate with me. My mother, who was my age on November 18, 1978, remembered the shock of the incident, but little else. Others who were alive that day are plagued with the misinformation that permeated the country and the world in its aftermath. Media was frenzied and almost entirely inaccurate, preferring sensationalism to sympathy.
Perhaps my initial intrigue in taking the course was similar to that of those alive at the time. I wanted to understand what actually happened. It seemed so simple to say that Jonestown was a Black brainwashed cult that traveled to Africa to kill themselves. Of course, Peoples Temple was actually a mixed-race religious group focused on social change that started a community in Guyana, South America, and eventually fell to the madness of one particularly charismatic and disturbed man , but even those facts seem to be missing something crucial to understanding. There had to be more to the story and seeing the lengthy and widespread collection of books written on the tragedy and the events leading up to it assured me that, at the very least, there were others who believed that the story was about much more than a brainwashed cult.
The people that take on the story of Jonestown and its Peoples Temple, whether they are creating a book, a play, a collection of poetry, a dance, or are simply pursuing a better comprehension of the seemingly incomprehensible, assemble the copious facts and anecdotes into a narrative that spans and includes all that the individual can process. Having read books, watched documentaries, and listened to survivors and others involved in the story of Jonestown speak, I know so much about the people and the place beyond the tragic events, but I can’t, at any one time, recall all of these figures and individuals to tell a complete and all-inclusive story. I needed to create m y own unique narrative to help me to come to terms with the story and my lack of connection to Peoples Temple beyond my studies and the compassion I share with others as a human being.
The first work that I read was Jonestown: A Vexation a collection of poetry by Carmen Gillespie. The poems were beautiful and stirring, but despite the explanations interspersed within the collection, I felt like I was missing critical information to truly understand the words and their significance. I read the poems with only the information from a short discussion and a forty-five minute documentary, The Final Report: The Jonestown Tragedy. It was nowhere near enough to understand the emotional charge of the events captured in the poetry, but reading those poems was my first experience of wan ting to learn about the people of Jonestown. I was especially affected by “Hyacinth.” The imagery of a n old woman reverting to the childish act of hiding under her bed to hide from the unknown dangers a round her was especially haunting and stayed with me despite the limited information presented about her in the books I read.
Tim Reiterman’s Raven was 580 pages of in-depth research and storytelling from a man who was shot on a Guyanese airstrip on that fateful day by a group of Peoples Temple members from Jonestown. His insight into Jim Jones’ childhood, though clearly told from a pointed perspective of someone who believes that Jones was always twisted and evil, is unmatched and respected even by those who believe that his book unfairly and inaccurately depicts members of Peoples Temple. Reading the book was fascinating and the abundance of information was crucial in my journey to fully understanding what happened in Jonestown, but its length failed to give me a clear picture of what it all meant. Reiterman’s narrative was one of someone who wanted the world to know that Jim Jones was deranged from the beginning, but that was his story and I still needed to find my own.
The next book I read was Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore, who spoke with us on February 6, 2013. The book was unique in that it had a clear mission: to humanize those Peoples Temple members who had been reduced to blind cultists gone insane and drawn to mass suicide. Rebecca Moore didn’t offer her own interpretation of what happened that November evening in Jonestown, simply because she wasn’t there and she didn’t want to pretend that she was. Rather, she interpreted the ways in which the “outsiders” viewed Peoples Temple and the judgments they made. The December 4, 1978 edition of Time Magazine is brandished with a photograph of a tub of purple, cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid and the dead bodies of those who drank it. In bold white letters outlined in black, the magazine declares Peoples Temple a “Cult of Death. ” That is the simple, sensational narrative of Jonestown to which so many are limited, but Rebecca Moore explained that “we only call religions we don’t like ‘cults.’” According to Moore, the movement was about Black Power and that Black Power “was something to be lived” in Jonestown, but in the end, Jonestown was about the death of 918 people. The mass suicide-murder “took years to prepare but appears to have happened in a moment.” She mentioned that there’s a human impulse to have a coherent story and her reasoning was one that resonated with many: “the children were killed first, why would you want to live with this?”
Stanley Nelson tackled this desperation and loss of hope in his documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. He taped hours upon hours of interviews with Jonestown survivors and witnesses to the tragedy, but needed to edit the story down to the length of a feature film. Nelson spoke a lot to his audience at Bucknell about the storytelling process and how the addition or subtraction of a seemingly insignificant piece of information changes the entire portrait of an event. The documentary begins with death: “This is the story of how 900 people died.” Stanley Nelson wanted the audience to know that from the beginning, but after that, he relied solely upon the words of those he interviewed to tell the story, letting their words and the video footage he could find guide the viewer through the impossibility of the events leading up to the Final White Night. This posed some limitation as to what story could be told. Stephan Jones declined to be interviewed, but Nelson expressed his gratitude that there was no “father-son weirdness.” The story of Tim Carter’s survival was excluded so as to not lead the viewer astray from the death of a people. The stories of others, such as Jordan Vilchez, were left out entirely, so as to not introduce too many separate and unique stories that would detract from the arc of what Stanley Nelson was trying to say, which was simply the Life and Death of Peoples Temple.
Leigh Fondakowski also relied upon the voices of others to form her narrative of Jonestown, but she laughed at the idea that “an audience can only follow seven protagonists. ” In her book, Stories from Jonestown and her play The People’s Temple, she uses direct quotes from her extensive interview process to weave a comprehensive story of Peoples Temple. I truly believe that if it were not for the practical limitations of time in the theatre and length in the publishing industry, Leigh Fondakowski would have included every single word uttered by her interviewees. In describing Stephan Jones, she exclaimed, “I’m always so moved by how articulate he is. How articulate people are. ” This genuine appreciation of the stories every individual has to tell is perhaps why a man in the “Jonestown Vortex” warned her, “These people aren’t going to want to talk to you, but they should talk to you. ” When Peoples Temple members talk about Leigh Fondakowski, they usually have a loving and appreciative smile, because she let them have their own voices and when she needed to exclude the majority of the interviews she conducted in the creation of her play, she decided to write a book, so she could spread the word of those who were there. Their voices are that important.
One particular voice that affected me was that of Jordan Vilchez. Listening to her speak about her experiences as a part of Peoples Temple as a young girl, I could see the sixteen-year-old who was personally invited to a Planning Commission meeting. She became the youngest of Jones’ “closest trustworthy members” and had her young-adulthood shaped by secrecy and obedience. She joined Peoples Temple with her older sister, Diane, at age twelve and moved to Jonestown at age 20. Her speech was carefully prepared in the form of an essay, which she read directly from the paper, but it was the little moments where she looked up from the sheet and told us that taking apart the phones to try to find the wire-tap was their “favorite pastime as children” when the audience could truly connect with her as a human being. It was almost as if the thoughts she had formulated into an essay were a manifestation of the life she lived under Jones, controlled and rehearsed, and those moments of genuine human interaction were those that she remembers from her time before Peoples Temple and those that she has tried to recreate in the years since the mass murder-suicide of her fellow Peoples Temple members. She admitted that “[she] didn’t really even know who [she] was.” She was supposed to be in Jonestown that day, but she convinced Jones to let her return to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana to collect money for the Temple from the Guyanese. It was a job that she created and proposed to Jim Jones. She used to spend her days in the fields planting cassava, but she much preferred her life in the city of Georgetown and never enjoyed the obligatory trips back to the settlement. However, her lack of connection to the settlement in no way lessened her commitment to the cause or the man himself. She told her intimate audience at Bucknell that she “thought he knew what was best” and moved us all when she admitted, “I probably would’ve died – for sure I would have died. ” She told us that “he had this obsession with death and pain” and explained to us what it took her years to realize: “just because you’re charismatic doesn’t mean you’re a good person.” Jordan Vilchez had spent the 35 years since the Jonestown tragedy trying to figure out who she is and accept the ways in which her time as a part of Peoples Temple shaped her as an adult.
Tim Carter was already twenty-nine years old when he moved to Jonestown and one year later, he bore witness to the suicide-murder of 918 people that meant everything to him. He told us that “maybe forty people committed suicide. . . they were murdered. ” When Jones originally asked Peoples Temple who wanted to commit suicide, one person raised their hand. It was only later that everyone began to raise their hands in response to exhaustion, intimidation, and pressure to conform. When the media describes the people of Jonestown as brainwashed cultists that all committed suicide, Tim Carter exclaims, “It’s just not true… children do not commit suicide.” Tim Carter lost his family that day: he saw his wife and son die in each other’s arms, their mouths foaming from the cyanide. It was something he refused to talk about to his audience at Bucknell and it is the reason his narrative is about getting people to understand that Peoples Temple was a community brought together for the want of social change. “The ending was so horrible,” he expressed, “the ending ruined the progress. It wasn’t all good, it wasn’t all bad: every part of this story is a contradiction. ” But Carter’s narrative asks one thing of those who listen: to never use the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.” He spoke to each and every individual in the audience and said, “Never use that phrase again, unless you’re thinking about two hundred dead children, because that’s what it’s about.” As a father, Tim lives to ensure that the world knows that Peoples Temple was his family and that he would do anything to see them all again.
Stephan Jones was one of the only blood relatives of Jim Jones to live in Jonestown. This biological connection to the leader of Jonestown and the fractured father-son relationship that they shared gives Stephan Jones a unique perspective of the events leading up to and following November 18, 1978. He has struggled to accept the tragedy to which he is so personally and biologically connected, but has come to terms with his connections and similarities to his father and accepted the opportunity fate gave him to live after the death of hundreds of his closest friends. He wants to “make the most of their loss” by keeping the conversation about what happened there open and honest. Stephan Jones is quick to tell anyone he meets that they probably know more about Jonestown than he does. For him, it’s a haunting memory, but for us, it’s a living narrative. Stephan Jones is a particularly interesting character in the story; he was in Georgetown with the basketball team when the order to drink the cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid was given. He didn’t kill himself then and he urged all Peoples Temple members not in Jonestown to preserve their lives and the lives of their children. Later, when dealing with the survivor’s guilt, Stephan Jones attempted suicide. “I thought about killing myself,” he told us candidly, “but my ego wouldn’t let me kill its host.” Stephan Jones has made a point to only speak to those who will benefit emotionally and mentally from his views of Jonestown: he’s more likely to speak to a student than Oprah, but he also has resolved not to speak for others. Stephan Jones doesn’t speak generally, he knows that his narrative is only what he has experienced and believes that every person’s interpretation and the narratives they create from it is valid, regardless of the factual accuracy, because our acceptance of these events as humans is most important in the healing process.
In the beginning, I was intrigued by the story of Jonestown and the fact that I knew nothing about it, but as time passed, I felt connections to every person I read about. I could feel the weight of the 918 bodies of people who came together for social change weighing down on me and I found myself crying as Tim Carter spoke about the people he loved and lost. It took three months for m y heart to catch up with m y head, but seemingly all at once, the mass suicide-murder became the individual deaths of 918 unique individuals. The image of Hyacinth Thrash hiding under her bed, amidst gunshots and bedlam and a so-called “revolutionary suicide” never left me. That moment – that fear – was the central and essential element of the story of Jonestown that I needed to understand. I found other moments: Odell Rhodes standing in front of a field in which mothers were cradling their children, convulsing together into a pre-mature death and Marceline Jones tending to the children in the nursery, knowing her husband was planning their deaths. I knew that there was a part of this narrative that would never leave me and that I could never quite explain, but I could attempt to ex press my understanding of the events by sharing the story with others.
Working to develop a narrative that shared m y personal view of the events, I found inspiration in an unlikely place. The only lecture over the series that I felt lacked a true connection to the people of Peoples Temple was that of Julia Scheeres, who, ironically, wrote the book that provided the stories of Odell Rhodes and Hyacinth Thrash whose words would become the piece “Survivors. ” In the piece, I attempted to demonstrate that although they physically survived the mass suicide-murder, there will always be a piece of them in Jonestown, walking in a trance, wondering how it all happened and why they’re still alive while others, like Marceline and the three hundred children of Jonestown, lie dead. I used the survivors’ own words to tell their stories, as Leigh Fondakowski had, and was surprised at how much self-reflection could come from a “found” piece. My other piece, “A Reading from the Book of Marceline” was my way of processing the story of Jonestown as a whole, creating that cohesive narrative, but “survivors” focused on the stories after Jonestown: the reflections and regrets that plague those who innocently evaded such a horrible departure from Jones’ Eden in Guyana.
While presenting “Survivors, ” I accidentally referred to Hyacinth and Odell Rhodes as victims, and since then I’ve realized that those who survived are victims too. I often find myself wondering what I would have done if I had been in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, whether or not I would have been one of those survivors. I struggle to separate myself from the comforts around me, but then I go back to that image of Hyacinth hiding under her bed. I would have been terrified and I probably would have died. Perhaps that’s why I feel such a connection with all of those who I’ve encountered during m y journey to comprehension of this tragedy: I know that the victims of Jonestown were real people, not mindless sheep, and that I could have easily been one of them. Many survivors have expressed that they’re still proud of what they did in Jonestown as a part of Peoples Temple. As Tim Carter reflected, “We built a city in the middle of nowhere and it was hard.” The suicide-murder was only the ending. The true narrative is the stories of the people and I’m so grateful to have heard them and understood.