April 24, 2013
English 290-Jonestown: Stories of a Cult
Jonestown: Stories of a Cult has been quite the experience. It was not a standardly normal class in comparison to the other courses I am taking, but I am glad for that. I decided to take this course mainly because of the CCC credit requirement that it provided me with, and I consider myself lucky to have stumbled across it. The experience that it has provided me with is priceless.
From day one, this class has always intrigued me. Having a whole class dedicated to one event may seem extreme but not when it is about Jonestown. To be completely honest, I had never heard of Jonestown before this class. I also had never really heard the term “he drank the Kool-Aid” either. Before classes started, I started reading some of the texts from the class to get a sense of what Jonestown was and to familiarize myself with the subject. It wasn’t until that first class period though, that I really understood what I had signed myself up for. This class wasn’t just a place where we were going to learn the facts on what had happened. No. It was a place where we were going to connect on a deeper level to the events and the people that were connected with Jonestown. I found this to be really interesting because I personally like the idea of having that emotional understanding of what I’m learning about. After all, that is what makes history so interesting. The ability to have an emotional understanding of a subject not only allows for a more personal connection, but it also allows for a more accurate understanding to the subject itself and the effect it had on the people involved with it.
One of the main highlights of the class for me was getting to hear all of the different speakers. I thought this was a really cool part of the class because it really allowed for that emotional connection and understanding of what happened at Jonestown. The coolest part about the speakers that we had the chance to listen and talk to, was that they all had direct relationships to what happened in Guyana. This really validated the class in my mind because we got upfront information from people who had personal connections to Jonestown as opposed to people who had just researched the subject. Being able to hear from them and interact with them about what had happened and what they thought was quite the experience, one that can’t really be put into words.
The speaker that really stood out to me was Stephan Jones. We had heard so much about him in class, and I had been highly anticipating his visit to us. He really stood out in my mind though because he is Jim Jones’ only biological son, and he saw firsthand what his father was capable of. I found it really inspiring of him to be able to talk about everything so publicly. I have my own issues with my family, and I can’t imagine talking about them publicly with groups of people. I thought he handled it really well, and it really inspired me. What struck me the most about the interaction that we had with him was how calm and open it was. He really opened the floor for us to be able to ask personal questions, and I appreciated this because it ultimately benefitted our understanding of Jim Jones.
Perhaps the biggest portion of the class was our Jonestown Response Project. I actually was not initially thrilled about this project because it was open to the public, and let’s just say I have a slight problem with stage fright. However, as we delved a little deeper into what the project would be about, I really got into it. I like that the project was a direct reflection of our experience with learning about Jonestown.
I chose to focus my project on the visit from Congressman Leo Ryan and what I thought was a connection with the mass suicide in Jonestown. Basically, I focused my project on the idea that the mass suicide that happened in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, was a result of the visit made by Leo Ryan. Ryan chose to visit Jonestown, Guyana after receiving multiple concerns from members of the Concerned Relatives group. Upon his visit, Ryan met in the community hall with the members of Jonestown. People tried to leave with him, and one even passed him a note asking for help. The next day when Ryan was getting ready to leave, Jones said that the defectors could go with him. However, at the airstrip later on that day, Ryan was shot dead, along with four others. Following that, the mass suicide happened. What really stood out to me about the connection between these two events is the last speech that Jones made to the people of Jonestown. He specifically said that he knew Jones was going to die in an accident with the airplane. Considering we know that Jones was extremely paranoid about the government getting involved in the happenings at Jonestown, it makes sense to me that he would have plotted Ryan’s death. It also makes sense to me to draw the conclusion that Jones planned for the mass suicide to happen just as the government was starting to really get involved. I am sure that there are other opinions about whether or not these two events are related. But based off of what I learned through doing this project and how I feel about it, I stand by the idea that the two are related.
Doing this project really opened my eyes to all of the different interpretations and reflections that this subject matter allows for. Being able to witness the amazing job that my classmates did in presenting their personal reflections on the class really impressed me and made me feel like I was a part of something special. Not many people will have the opportunity that we had to take such a close look at Jonestown. I feel lucky that I was able to be a part of something so much bigger than a final presentation.
Going through this class really added to my first year experience at Bucknell. I never would have thought that I would have taken this class, but I am so glad that I did. There are certain educational experiences that happen to find you, and this was one of them. I started off with the idea that this class was just requirement filler, and I ended it with a much bigger picture in mind. That picture is the idea that we can never really learn about history until we find a way to connect with it. Sure, there are the historical facts that anybody would be crazy to deny. But the understanding of what people went through and how it affected them comes from a much deeper connection to the material. This class opened my eyes to that, and I am extremely grateful for it. I feel as though I have been able to broaden my spectrum of understanding. I now feel capable of being able to go through a process and analyze different events with the ultimate result of understanding why it was significant not only to history, but to the people affected by it. This class has been beneficial to me in ways that I never expected. And while it was not the most normal class I have experienced thus far at Bucknell, it was my favorite in the sense that it really allowed me to focus on my personal response to the material that I was being taught.
As a closing thought, I think it is important that I reflect on one question that has nagged at me the entire semester. Was Jonestown actually a cult? Different people that we have had come to class have caused me to ponder this question quite a bit. I find that some of them found that term offensive, and I can see why they would. At the same time, it does seem to me that there were a lot of similarities between cults and what Jonestown was. After completing the class and going through my final project, I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what Jonestown was perceived as. I reached that conclusion because there is always going to be two sides to that decision. Just as I had my own personal reflection of the Jonestown experience, people are going to have their own reflections and ideas of what it was. I thought it was necessary to include this because it further showcased what this class was about, which is being able to make your own personal connection and reflecting off of that. I am grateful for what this class has brought me, and I will always remember that there is greater knowledge to be found in the deeper connections that we make with our coursework.
I thought this speaker session was a cool way to start off the series. She is one of the founders of the Peoples Temple website, and she also had a sister and a nephew who were killed in Jonestown. This seemed like a logical way to start of the series in my eyes because while she wasn’t actually a member of the Peoples Temple, she still had a direct connection to what happened there.
Something that really stood out to me about this talk was that she specifically said that she wasn’t trying to defend Jonestown; she was just trying to understand why and how. I found this to be especially powerful because it is more common for people to first act on anger and defensive tactics than to seek to understand. I related this to personal situations that happened in my life and how I could have reacted the same way that Rebecca did with her response to Jonestown. Overall, I thought this session was an interesting start to the series.
Jonestown Documentary: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
My initial reaction to this movie was how powerful it was. Seeing what happened at Jonestown and the direct focus on Jim Jones was really interesting and got me more excited for the class. My impression of Jim Jones after watching it was that he was crazy. That may or may not have been the intent of Nelson, the director, but I found myself questioning Jones’ mental stability more than once throughout the documentary. I felt like this video really set the tone for the exploration of Jonestown that this class was meant for.
This was a cool follow up to the documentary because Stanley Nelson is the guy that directed the documentary. I thought the coolest part of this session was being able to hear why Nelson got interested in Jonestown in the first place and why he decided to make a documentary on it. I liked his presentation and how he was pretty interactive with us. It was cool that he showed us clips from the documentary and then explained his reasoning for them; I really thought that was beneficial to us because it showed us how he was able to make a personal reflection from the events at Jonestown, which is what we were ultimately trying to do with our projects.
I did not actually get to attend this speaker in person because of basketball, but I looked at notes from the session. From what I understand, she directed and wrote a play about what happened at Jonestown, titled The People’s Temple. This was really interesting for me to think about because I wouldn’t really think of what happened at Jonestown as typical material for a play. That being said, that goes against the idea of what we were trying to attempt with our projects. While the point of our projects was to evoke a personal connection and reflection for the Jonestown events, it was meant to do so in a creative way. I think that the example of Fondakowski and her play and fiction work really encouraged the idea that we could make something creative of what we gained from learning and connecting with Jonestown.
Unfortunately, I was not present for this speaker either, but I again looked at notes from the session. I feel like this session made the class more serious because it was the first time we were hearing from someone who had been in Jonestown with Jim Jones. Vilchez was in Georgetown on November 18, but she lost her sisters and nephews. What really stood out to me about Vilchez is that she was a teenager when she was a part of Peoples Temple and living in Jonestown. That really made me think about if I were in the same situation. It is hard for me to imagine what being a teenager in Jonestown would have been like. I wonder if she had friends or if she had crushes. Obviously she was a normal girl just like me, but I cannot imagine myself being a part of a religious cult at my age. I hardly know how I feel about my own relationship with God, let alone leaving my life to be a part of a religious group. This session really made me put Jonestown into perspective.
I was actually here for this session (about time, I know). This was cool because Carter was also a member of Jonestown like Vilchez, so we were able to witness another directly personal relationship to what happened there on November 18, 1978. Carter was not among the dead that day because he left to go on a mission for Rev. James Warren Jones with his brother and another man. He lost a lot of people very close to him on this day. Up until this point, I hadn’t really thought about how the people who survived must feel. I feel horrible saying that because I feel as though it is a really important aspect to consider, but this session really made me think about how Carter and others must have felt upon learning that everyone they loved had died and how they should have been one of the dead. I cannot imagine how they must feel. This was another situation where I found I put myself in their shoes to see how I would have felt if I would have experienced the same. It’s not a great feeling. I think the term for it is survivor’s guilt; regardless, it is unexplainable to even think about the guilt that they must feel. It makes my heart break thinking about it. While this session was one of the more painful ones to think and process, it really provided a broader understanding of how some of the survivors felt, which is ultimately crucial to how we perceive Jonestown.
Julia Scheeres is the author of A Thousand Lives, which told the stories of some of the members of Jonestown. Her reasoning for writing the book and getting interested in the topic was that it was very similar to her reform school growing up. She made a note that she had intended to write a satire novel about Jonestown, which I think would have been really cool. Some of the similarities that she mentioned about her reform school in comparison to Jonestown were the silences, the haircuts, boxing matches, isolation from the outside world, confrontational therapists, trapped feelings, and no privacy in sent mail. I thought that this was a really interesting set of similarities to note. I went to boarding school myself, which is not quite reform school, but I do know what it is like to sometimes feel isolated from the outside world, especially from your family. I also noted that Scheeres called Jonestown weak. This really stood out to me because I had never really thought about Jonestown being weak or strong before. That being said, while I enjoyed hearing from Scheeres, I didn’t find her session as interesting as the others because I personally am more interested in those who had experiences in Jonestown.
This was by far my favorite session of the whole series, as I am sure it was for other people as well. This was not only cool because Stephan Jones was Jim Jones’ only biological son, but it was also cool because of Stephan Jones himself. I thought that he was a really chill, down to earth person. He approached sharing his experience with Jonestown with grace, which really stood out to me considering he wasn’t exactly known for that in the past It was cool to see someone who had been so directly affected by what happened there, who had grown from it. That is what stood out to me the most: the growth that he has achieved since November 18, 1978. Another aspect that I really loved about this session was how open and intimate it was. It was a giant conversation, which I thought was a really cool way to address his interaction with us. Overall, I feel like I really gained insight as to how Stephan Jones has been able to grow from what he experienced at Jonestown and what he experienced with his father, which I find to be really admirable.