A Usable Past and a Usable Future: Research Must Not Forget the Survivor Community

Jonestown was one of the signature events of my childhood, like Kennedy’s assassination for the generation ahead of me, or 9/11 for the students enrolled in my religious studies classes today. Its historical significance has yet to be appreciated, but I believe it will be remembered 1000 years from now. It is unsettling, therefore, that in our own time the Peoples Temple experiment is deliberately and dramatically misunderstood. Jonestown is “othered” on a scale that places Peoples Temple alongside Satan and the Third Reich. I think this is because Peoples Temple, in both its failings and successes, challenges American culture, especially its individualism and the wide-spread, “healthy-minded” conceit that we have psychic control.

Jonestown represents a problem of human meaning, as well as historical interpretation. In this context, the jonestown report contributes greatly to human understanding. The journal and the Alternative Considerations website serve many interconnected purposes: memorials to people who died, a resource bank for researchers, a community of survivors, and a site where the general public can find answers and learn more.

In all these capacities, the jonestown report helps with the making of a “usable past.” This idea, which comes from the historian Hayden White, has been on my mind in thinking about writing this piece. White sees the need for interpretation and narrative coherence as fundamental for both individuals and societies. In other words, interpretation and meaning are essential to the inner lives of people, and to the communities they imagine and create.

In my own experience, trauma and loss have a double quality – something both central and completely peripheral to the people survivors become. Grief can be constitutive, but survivors are more than their grief. The articles in the jonestown report attest to this – so many of them resonate with positivity, even while they and others are stunningly realistic about things that happened. Knowing that I still struggle to navigate disclosing a past that has included suicide and violence, I am humbled by the writers’ courage to be forthright, and by their capacity for forgiveness.

The story of Kisagotami is a famous parable in Buddhism. A young mother loses her sanity at the death of her infant child. The Buddha offers to restore the boy, but says the spell requires a handful of mustard seed from a house where no one had died. Kisagotami’s search leads her from house to house, and in every one she hears of tragedy and loss. This restores her, and she becomes one of the first women to join the monastic community.

I like this story very much for the way it illustrates the healing power of narrative – both in the telling and the hearing. Rereading the journal over the past few weeks, I have found myself filled not with words of my own, but with a desire to be quiet and to hear more.

When I was approached for this edition of the report, I was asked what questions I would like to leave for future researchers of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Let me echo the call sent out by other writers for the jonestown report, on the importance of chronicling the story of the survivors. As many have noticed, there is a tendency for studies on Jonestown to conclude on November 18. I would add that this points to a broader problem in research on intentional communities: too often, studies end with the disbanding of the formal organizational structures of a group, against a good deal of evidence that former members maintain deep relationships with each other. The Jonestown survivor community upends many stereotypes about both Peoples Temple and alternative religions. It is a story of resilience that American people would do well to hear.

(Holly Folk is an Associate Professor in the Liberal Studies Department at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Her review in Nova Religio of two books by two Jonestown survivors appears here. She can be reached at Holly.Folk@wwu.edu.)