Jonestown Response Packet
In her book, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Rebecca Moore discusses a personal account of the Jonestown tragedy, while simultaneously attempting to humanize the 900+ victims that died on November 18, 1978. Moore’s account is personal in that she is the sister of Carolyn Moore Layton, who bore a child controversially fathered by Jim Jones himself, as well as Annie Moore. Rebecca Moore present a unique account of her family’s personal journey through the event leading up to November 18, where the story begins and ends for most. Moore humanizes her sisters, as well as other members of the Temple stating, they truly believed that they were doing good.” She also describes how her mother and father felt about her sisters’ involvement in Peoples Temple. Rebecca portrays both her sisters as particularly intelligent and stable minded adults. These were not the crazed cultists that they were often made our to be, they were typical, well-respected adults who were concerned with making a difference in the various injustices present in the United States at the time.
Moore attempted to present strong logical reasons in her lecture as to why and how individuals became strongly invested in Peoples Temple and in Jim Jones himself. She was not defending the tragedy, or the wastefulness in the lives lost that day, she was simply attempting to interpret it. One of her most interesting points was the correlation between Peoples Temple and the happenings in African American culture at the time.
The Black Power movement asserted a positive need to fight for the cause of equality and was often framed in a vocabulary of martyrdom. Rebecca Moore explained how Jim Jones capitalized on this movement’s ideals, targeting minorities to join his movement, which had similar views on resistance. Peoples Temple saw themselves as martyrs in African American liberation, Moore explained. The Black Panther Party also factored into this allegory of armed resistance. Jones manipulated Huey Newton’s theory about Revolutionary Suicide to support his cause. Though he condemned suicide for “selfish reasons,” Jones believed that revolutionary suicide was the ultimate form of resistance to the capitalist’s oppressors in the United States. Moore explained the term, “audience corruption” in which the relationship between leaders and followers is mutually destructive. She asserted that Jim Jones was not the one who ordered the cyanide, he did not mix the drink that day, and he did not test the poison on the farm animals. The people that did that were members of Jones’ elite inner circle, which included Moore’s sisters. Moore believes that Peoples Temple members truly believed that they were working towards a positive cause; in the fight for social justice, individuals slowly began to comprise their ethics.
I found Rebecca Moore’s lecture to be very touching and sincere. Her account of the Jonestown tragedy definitely holds less bias than the author of Raven. In Raven, Jones is portrayed as evil from birth, a bad seed. Moore presents him as a person who did not have the best upbringing, found his power to speak young, and used his influence for good, until he used it for evil. I really enjoyed her attempt to humanize the victims of this tragedy, instead of leaving them viewed as crazed cultists. People typically have this opinion because there is a common human need to complete a narrative. The story of Jonestown is tragic and unexplainable to most; therefore, explanations arc usually fabricated. Rebecca Moore uniquely treats each individual as one with their own story, and I am very fortunate to have heard her own.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple Documentary:
Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, was an interesting change of presentation. As I have become accustomed to hearing the story of Jonestown through written narrative, through my own internal voice, it was greatly moving to hear the story from a first hand perspective. Nelson’s documentary told the story of Jonestown through a relatively unbiased account of the history and events through the eyes of Peoples Temple members, survivors, and reporters who have had a direct experience with the events of November 18, 1978.
This film described the history of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple from its roots in Indiana, to the Redwood Valley in California, and finally the transition to Jonestown as well as the events of that final day. All of this was depicted without narration, which was highly unnoticeable and a very skilled way of portraying a historical event. This documentary provided an adequate overview of the story of Jonestown as a whole, but did not delve into the depth of information I would have liked as a student of the subject.
I found the image of the story to be powerful in a way in which text is not. Seeing the survivors retell their memories of loved ones dying in their arms is irreplaceable. These images of the survivors’ were very moving. You could feel the pain they still had in their hearts and sense that they were aware of the immense tragedy that they were apart of. Tim Carter described the scene as a “waste” with nothing revolutionary about it. I think a lot of people agree with this perspective, including myself. The members of Peoples Temple had good intentions, love in their hearts, and a strong desire to change the world for the better. This film shed light on these truths, while painting the tragedy of Jonestown as a complete waste of life and energy to work for a positive cause.
Stanley Nelson’s lecture was more of a question-and-answer session regarding his documentary and the process of making it. Nelson was drawn to the story of Jonestown through his wife’s reaction to a radio broadcast interviewing former Temple members. His wife was surprised at the genuine care these people expressed in their failed attempts to change the world. Nelson admitted to having the initial reaction of the tragedy of Peoples Temple as being “a bunch of crazy cultists who killed themselves at the following of a mad man.” This was the main point of view of the average American at the news of this tragedy in the late 70s. Writers and directors, like Stanley Nelson, have attempted to break this perception of the Peoples Temple tragedy through a deeper look at those who were invested in the Temple, and survived. These people were not crazy; they were your mother, your brother, your doctor, etc. This documentary portrays Peoples Temple as an active community trying to make positive changes to the world. It was in essence, a beautiful thing gone wrong.
Nelson discussed the initial idea of doing film recreations in Guyana. In the end, he decided that there was so much powerful footage left behind, that recreations would have taken away from the realness of the story. I could not agree with this more. I believe that the use of the original footage, and actual recordings makes the film so much more powerful and effective. Nelson also pointed out that there is no narration in this documentary, which is almost unnoticeable at first viewing. Though there are obvious difficulties in telling a historical narrative with no narrator. The fact that Nelson was able to compile a story so seamlessly without narration proves his expertise in filmmaking.
Stanley Nelson said his Life and Death of Peoples Temple, is “a lot sexier than some of the stuff on American Experience. ” Nelson was not personally invested in the events of Peoples Temple, but it “turned him on’ so to speak. He presents this story as being filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I felt that he chose this story as a compelling topic for a documentary, though he had no personal ties to the narrative. I felt like his distance to the topic was positive in that there were really no evident biases in the narrative he presented. He mentioned that Stephan Jones refused to participate in this documentary, and suggested that the narrative would have likely changed if he had. Since Stephan is Jones’ only remaining biological son, his interviews would likely have put a greater focus on the relationship that he had with his father, and that was not really a direction that Stanley Nelson wanted to take. Nelson’s lecture was effective to me in how he portrays writing as done in a different way. Writing is no longer simply words on paper. Media, the way we manipulate pictures and video and sound to tell a story is a new way in which we can shape our personal narratives.
Leigh Fondakowski’s most recent publication Stories From Jonestown stands out in my mind from what we have read so far because of its focus on life after the Jonestown tragedy, rather than simply life in Jonestown up to November 18, 1978. Through a multitude of fascinating interviews with a plethora of Peoples Temple members, Leigh provides us with a broader perspective on the story of Jonestown, and the life-altering affects it has had thus far in the lives of the people involved. There a re also interviews with family members, lawyers, and reporters, creating a further illustrated portrait of her narrative on Jonestown.
In her talk, Leigh discussed her methods of developing her theatre performance about Jonestown. Initially, she asks her first question: why would anyone want to study death? Fondakowski comes to the conclusion that the story of Peoples Temple is not just a story about death, as it is most typically perceived. Like most, Leigh admits to knowing nothing more than the “crazy Kool-Aid” narrative, which most people have on the subject. This “blank slate” method was Fondakowski’s purposeful approach to conducting the interviews for her book and play. Sometimes she felt ignorant because of this, but it was a method used in order to create an unbiased representation of the story of Jonestown. Much of Leigh’s talk was focused on asserting the theatre artists roll in portraying these events in history. She presented the interview process as very slow; it was a process of earning people’s trust. Leigh stated that the words of the people are how we tell the story.
I felt that Leigh’s lecture gave great insight into the creative process of theatre direction and will help with our semester projects. However, I do not feel that I learned much more than I already knew about the events of Jonestown. Her book provided much more new information about the stories after Jonestown and the personal connection many people have to these historical events. I appreciated her attempts to stay unbiased, however, I do not know if I would have gone into the interviews with no knowledge of the events I was interviewing a bout. Fondakowski made it work for her, and her very successful theatre career is proof of that. I really appreciated her awareness of the contradictory nature of this narrative and how it is not her job to make assumptions about what is true and untrue, rather she simply presents the stories she is told.
Jordan Vilchez’ lecture was by far the most inspiring and provoking talk, for me, that I have attended this semester. Her focus was on the adolescent experience of Peoples Temple and what it was like for her growing up as a Temple member. Jordan became a member of Peoples Temple at age 12, she was sent to Guyana at age 20 where she worked in the capital Georgetown, and was age 21on the final day of Jonestown. She described the attractiveness of the Temple to her lay in the atmosphere itself as a political statement as well as a religious movement. As a child growing up in the Temple, Vilchez was not allowed to become friends with anyone not a member of the Temple. She describes her adolescence as controlled and fearful, and her lack of sleep was deeply affecting her performance at school; it is likely that she only received good marks because of the Peoples Temple members who were within the administration of the school. In Guyana, Jordan was a member of the planning commission. Because she did not particularly like the life in Jonestown, Vilchez found a way to work in Georgetown. Her job was to walk the streets of Georgetown advertising the Jonestown agricultural project and asking for money. Looking back she acknowledges the ridiculous of a foreigner begging locals for money. Jordan escaped the fate of death on November 18, 1978 because she was on business in the capital.
Vilchez spoke about the loss of identity she felt was a product of spending her adolescence in Peoples Temple. She spoke of Holocaustic propaganda, which was continually repeated and emphasized and “branded into her core. ” The powerful discussion of her tainted adolescence included discussions on her loss of a sense of identity. For Jordan Vilchez, her own personal value existed only to the extent that she could be of value for the cause. “The cause” in this sense was the cause of Jim Jones; loyalty to the cause was actually the loyalty to Jones. Her childhood hopes, dreams, and desires were seen as selfish, feudal and insignificant. Her selflessness was supposed to be seen as a way of honoring all people who were suffering injustices all around the globe, according to Jones. Because of the imminent threat of torture, Temple members had a perpetual readiness to defend their ideals of equality and working class pride. Vilchez still believes these to be worthy ideals, though the price on the Temple members was enormous because while the principles were noble the circumstances were ironically repressive and destructive to her diminished sense of self and self-worth. Being so unacknowledged at such a young age resulted in a significant amount of detriment to Jordan’s psyche. She describes her feeling of handicap from a lack of skills that most people learned as young adults. She believes that her experience in Peoples Temple has caused her something similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The most inspiring part of Jordan’s talk was her focus on the things she gained from this unfortunate experience. These “gifts” she spoke of include an insight into the complexities of life and the ability to view complete and painful situations as a process in which something new is trying to emerge. She asks if we, as a society, can see the ways it is reflective of the larger microcosm of the human story, reflective of our level of competency. These lessons we learn help u s grow towards mastery of communal living amongst societies. The most inspiring gift Vilchez describes is the gift of compassion. To Jordan, compassion is the ultimate pain reliever. With compassion, whether you are happy or sad, you can always be content. Compassion allows us to cope with conflict. When we feel compassion, including compassion toward s those you don’t particularly like or agree with, we a re each reflecting a different angle of where we are on the journey of humanity.
Excused with Doctor’s Note.
Julia Scheeres’ book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Stories from Jonestown, gives an in-depth account of the experience of Peoples Temple from five of the surviving members of Jonestown. They include: Hyacinth Thrash, Edith Roller, Stanley Clayton, and Jim and Tommy Bough. Though the reasons for all of these individuals to join the church of Jim Jones varied, there was a common thread that each individual strived for, the moral roots of what Jim Jones was preaching about: racial equality and love amongst all people. Scheeres makes it a point in her book to illustrate the Jonestown tragedy as a mass murder rather than a mass suicide and it was apparent from her lecture that she strongly believed that the individuals who died that day really had no other option. Through the telling of Peoples Temple through these five individuals, Scheeres eloquently displays the horrors of what it was like in the Temple as well as how hard it i s to transition back into a “normal life” after escaping death. Her own personal experiences in a reform school in the Dominican Republic provide substantial insight into the abuse of the Jonestown residents and provides for a truly heartfelt story.
During her lecture, Julia Scheeres described her abusive past and how it has led her to have empathy and understanding for those who resided in Jonestown against their will. Julia was sent to a reform school in the Dominican Republic, which incorporated strange disciplines into their curriculum reminiscent of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Both the Temple and the boarding school engaged in boxing matches between superiors and weaker individuals to assert some strange sense of control. If you ran away from either, your hair was chopped off. The common experiences that Scheeres survived, leads to her overwhelming success in conveying the literary narrative of Jonestown.
There was a sense of longing for a perfect society in Jonestown, which Julia related to while feeling trapped and voiceless herself. A Thousand Lives successfully tells the story from the perspective of ordinary Temple members who had nothing but good intentions from the start of this socialist endeavor. Scheeres expressed her hesitancy to write about Jim Jones, as not to glorify his infamy in any way. “Jim Jones wanted to be famous. He is famous. ” Scheeres admits to being bored with him half the time and the little she did have to write about him became a chore.
Julia Scheeres tried to humanize the tragedy of Jonestown by showing the stories of individual members and what their reaction was to Jones’ increasing insanity as well as his plan to kill them. I feel her lecture was one of the most informative I have yet to hear; I learned a lot that I had never heard regarding the Jonestown narrative. Her sense of empathy for these characters was apparent throughout her book and lecture, and I feel this aspect of her demeanor only added to her portrayal of the Jonestown narrative. Scheeres conveyed unmistakable similarities to Jonestown given her very unique and unfortunate childhood, which aid in her emotional retelling of this narrative.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. ” Stephan Jones prophetically quotes mystic poet, Rumi in his reflections on the Jonestown tragedy. He paints Peoples Temple as an institution of genuine, well-meaning people who came together for common goals of peace, justice, and equality. However, Jones Sr. aided in the alteration of this philosophy into believing “if you don’t agree with us, we’re going to convince you. If we can ‘t convince you. you are the enemy. ” Stephan acknowledges the love he felt from Jones and even though he describes him as delusional, he does not have to resent his father; he just had to find ways to love and forgive him.
I admired Stephan Jones’ welcome of challenge to hi s opinion. One of the main points I took away from this discussion was the importance of openness to speak freely and to listen to the opinions of others. Often times, there are two sides of an argument; those that go against you may distract you from your initial purpose of movement. When we lose sight of what we believe in, what we were inspired to change or fight for in the first place, through hatred or anger for the opposing perspective, we lose sight of the good intentions we had. It is important not to get caught up in butting heads with those who have different views than you. Instead of proactively working towards the cause you set out to, you in turn, are fighting with the other side, creating perhaps more problems than there were in the first place. Stephan Jones stressed the importance of listening and being respectful to other peoples’ views, if they are not your own, try to understand their perspectives rather than change them. Perhaps you arc the one that’s wrong. I feel this is a very powerful and relevant message for society today.
I feel like we can all learn a lot from Stephan Jones. I feel his selectivity with what kind of interviews he partakes in has a lot to do with paying tribute to those who died in Jonestown. Stephan is not interested in making money or becoming a celebrity with his story, instead he chooses to educate student s, future generations of his experiences and what he has learned through such a series of unfortunate events. Stephan has become a loving father and speaks upon his daughters as in a way saving him from the pain he lived in Jonestown. I admire hi s ability to not take himself too seriously and encourage others to do the same. When we seek to understand different perspectives rather than making others understand our own, we are creating something better, something we could not have come up with on our own. Stephan Jones’ insightful philosophy of life would be beneficial in a world truly in need of peace, understanding, and compromise.
Written Project Response
Throughout the course of this semester, my perception of Jonestown has drastically evolved largely due to the vast amounts of research it took to compose our reflective performance. Initially, I chose two responses: one regarding Sharon Amos’ violent murdering of her children and the second dealing with the events which took place on the last day in Jonestown. However, due to time constraints, I was only able to present one, The Last Day.
While researching Sharon Amos, I could not help but find myself compelled by her children, much more than I was compelled to her alone. Martin and Christa Amos were ruthlessly slaughtered by the woman who gave birth to them. This was the most horrific event in the whole Jonestown narrative to me; I was extremely terrified and affected by this merciless act. For my presentation, I wanted to present a “mock funeral” type scenario for the children who died so violently and went without proper memorial for their deaths. I ended up writing a eulogy for both Christa and Martin. In a way, this eulogy was a memorial to all the helpless, innocent children who were murdered on November 18, 1978 in Guyana.
The research process began at the Jonestown Institute website, where I uncovered tapes, pictures, and news broadcasts regarding the Amos family. I found audio tapes of conversation between Jim Jones and both the Amos children; it was shocking to hear eight-year-old Martin discussing the fate of the Guyanese children with Jones and just as surprising to hear Christa talking of her opinions on moving Peoples Temple to Soviet Russia. Upon hearing these actual records of Temple children so mindlessly taught the ways of the Temple, what to say, what not to say, etc., I was taken aback to say the least.
The sheer influence of power Jones impressed upon parents and children alike was undoubtedly impressive, if only his efforts were channeled towards a progressive movement, rather than evil and destruction.
After compiling the audiotapes, I did more research on the Jonestown Institute to attempt to find if any memories of the children had been recorded. I stumbled upon an entry written by ex-Temple kindergarten teacher Don Beck who described young Martin as a “very independent, engaging and strong-willed kid. [Martin] was never the shy type. [He] was manipulative, used to getting his own way and almost always smart enough to make it happen” (Jonestown Institute). I also discovered written records of Temple meetings in which Jim Jones himself described both Martin and Christa as “geniuses” (Jonestown Institute). These personal accounts of memories of the Amos children were very touching; I included them in my eulogy. Hearing firsthand accounts of the childlike innocents and potential, which was all uselessly wasted on November 18th in Jonestown, was heartbreaking to me.
The final step in my response to the children of Jonestown was to collect pictures of all of the various children who lived in Jonestown. I believe that giving the audience real faces to connect to is a helpful tool in creating a genuine emotional response to the narrative. I used the Jonestown Institute and the California Historical Society to find images of these children and there were many. It is sad to see the multitude of individuals who lost their lives without choice.
My narrative “The Last Day, ” was inspired by an excerpt of Carmen Gillespie’s book Jonestown: A Vexation. Carmen points out that Peoples Temple seemed alive and well the night before their deaths. They had a celebration filled with eating, singing and dancing to songs like Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World. ” Less than 24 hours later these people, so seemingly filled with life, were dead. I connected with this part of the narrative because I have memories of that particular song; my mother listened to it when I was very little. The lyrics are very eerie in retrospect. I wanted to convey the irony of the song juxtaposed with images of the mass deaths in Guyana. In Stanley Nelson’s documentary, he used footage from this gathering, particularly the moment of performance of the Earth, Wind, and Fire song. I wanted to incorporate this video clip into my performance narrative.
Professor Gainer and I collaborated through our shared interest in the letter written by Dick Tropp, which expresses the need to collect the history of Jonestown, look upon it critically, and team from the mistakes that they have made. We both thought this would be a great way to end our Jonestown presentation and decided to have each member of the class state a line from the letter at the epilogue of the presentation. Following this, the original version of Earth, Wind , and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” would play as the audience was exiting. In order to accomplish this, I met with Deb Balducci who is an expert in audio/video editing. She showed me how to cut the pieces of the song and video, which were both available on YouTube, and add them to the PowerPoint presentation I had been working on. Once the pictures were inserted, my presentation of “The Last Day” was complete.
The performance element of the class response was most intimidating for me. I do not consider myself very skilled in public speaking: I tend to get really bad performance anxiety. Regardless, due to the skilled coaching between Professor Gainer and myself, I feel like the presentation was a great success. Professor Gainer has enormous experience in theatre and performance and I can honestly say that the speech coaching and stage direction would not have been half as good without his expertise and dedication to our project.
I felt that the class as a whole effectively captivated the audience members into a closer look at the Jonestown narrative. There were many different responses to many different characters and events. I felt that this was a useful way to look at Jonestown in a unique and multifaceted way. Our audience heard the story of Peoples Temple through the voices of young people who have studied the subject greatly. Choosing which events were most personally affecting was a great part of the group’s success. It was obvious to our audience that these students were all genuinely affected by the stories they were telling. Their creativity and skill in presenting was apparent and effective. The class was very successful in creating their own narrative in the larger story of Jonestown and I think all of the individuals mentioned would have been honored and impressed with the classes overall performance and success.
Like Dick Tropp’s famous last letter, I feel that my personal reflection was effective in tying together the loose ends of the Jonestown story. We saw Jones’ sermons dissected, the Gospel according to Marceline, and interpretations of the life of Tim Stoen. The Last Day was an intended honorary tribute to all of those who lost their lives in Jonestown. Through my performance, I intended to point out the eerie juxtaposition between the liveliness of the Temple, the song “That’s the Way of the World, ” and the horrific images of the aftermath in Jonestown. Personally, these images arc haunting. I intended to emphasize the importance of viewing the tragedy objectively. Each individual had a story to tell, a story which will remain untold. It is our responsibility not to let these deaths remain in vain; after all, Peoples Temple was working towards positive goals and dreamed simply of a world of peace. It is easy to forget or misinterpret the true positivity in the community of Jonestown, I believe my presentation was successful in reminding the audience that these people were human and they made mistakes. They should not be crucified or looked down upon for their unfortunate end. There is much to learn in the narrative of Jonestown.
The course readings and lecturers were a large part of my personal growth over the course of the semester. Two particular speakers who stood out to me were Jordan Vilchez and Stephan Jones. Vilchez spoke about the loss of identity she felt was a product of spending her adolescence in Peoples Temple. She believes that her experience in Peoples Temple has caused her something similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The most inspiring part of Jordan’s talk was her focus on the things she gained from this unfortunate experience. These “gifts” she spoke of include an insight into the complexities of life and the ability to view complete and painful situations as a process in which something new is trying t o emerge. She asks if we, as a society, can see the ways it is reflective of the larger microcosm of the human story, reflective of our level of competency. These lessons we learn help us grow towards master y of communal living amongst societies. The most inspiring gift Vilchez describes is the gift of compassion. To Jordan, compassion is the ultimate pain reliever. With compassion, whether you are happy or sad, you can always be content. Compassion allows us to cope with conflict. When we feel compassion, including compassion towards those you don’t particularly like or agree with, we are each reflecting a different angle of where we are on the journey of humanity. This inspiring story, coming from someone who lived through the torture of Jonestown, is one of the many sources of positivity, which has arisen from Peoples Temple. Jordan has become a strong woman with the desire to share her message, though personal, with those who may gain from it.
Stephan Jones was the most humble, charming, and good-natured guest out of the entire series. Jones taught me that when we seek to understand different perspectives rather than making others understand our own, we are creating something better, something we could not have come up with on our own. Stephan Jones’ insightful philosophy of life would be beneficial in a world truly in need of peace, understanding, and compromise. Once again, confirming the good that came out of Jonestown.
It is clear throughout the course readings, lectures, discussions, and the course project we have come to gain a deeper understanding of the narrative and the life of Peoples Temple. These were not Kool-Aid drinking zombie cult members; they could have been any of us. They each have their own story to be told and retold with the examination of the Jonestown tragedy. I feel that it is our responsibility as scholars, onlookers, the future generations to come and those that may have passed , to remember the individual narratives that each of the lost lives could have told and keep the memory of this tragedy alive, look upon it respectfully, and be cautious not to see it repeated.