Keep Jonestown Out of the History Books

We were seated around the fire, my brother and I, a bit drunk and loose-lipped. As often happens in these situations, I had steered the conversation between us to Jonestown. As we talked I could see my mother’s discerning face flickering across the fire. “You’re not talking about Jonestown again, are you?” She asked. It was true, this is usually the way it was at family functions.

Here’s the thing about my mother: she possesses an unhealthy interest in the history of the Titanic. I suppose my interest in Jonestown is equally unhealthy, but I can’t help but feel that it is different in some way. The sinking of the Titanic is one of those historical events which amazes us in its mere happening, but it can hardly be said to confound the generations which have succeeded it.

The Titanic sunk because it hit an iceberg, and the chain of events which followed (horrific as they were) occurred quite logically. But what sank Peoples Temple? What truly led to the sinking of Jonestown? And how, even now that we have the evidence right in front of us, can we ever hope to see logic in their unfolding? This is what separates the history books from current affairs. Stories need an ending before they become history, before they can become the subject of philosophy. As Hegel put it, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

It is of great importance that we continue to examine the events of Jonestown, and to make sure that it never falls into the stagnant realm of the history books. Stories like the Titanic are fascinating, but the stories we should be interested in should be terrifying. Stories like the Titanic have answers and resolution, but the stories we should be interested in should have questions, and uncertainty. The Titanic is ancient, it feels like it belongs in folklore; but Jonestown feels far too close for comfort.

Year after year new books and articles are published about Jonestown, yet we seem to be no closer to the truth. Part of the reason for this is that the story has little to do with the facts. It is not the case with Jonestown, as it may be with other events that the lure is the unknown. What keeps us at a distance to the Jonestown story is that so much of it is known, and that what we have found perhaps scares us. When we talk amongst ourselves we often say that “I wouldn’t have done that” or “I couldn’t have done that to my kids.” But I think each of us knows, deep down, that we aren’t so certain of what we would have done. It is always terrifying to try and examine the lives of such ordinary people, because they are in so many ways similar to us, or those we know and love. We would much rather discuss those who are on the fringe, or over the edge. In his book Ordinary Men Christopher Browning attempts to explain how a group of “ordinary” people such as those who made up the Reserve Police Battalion 101 could end up becoming the cold-blooded murderers in Hitler’s Final Solution. But what makes us endlessly confounded by the Holocaust is the realization that, no matter what evidence Browning or any other historian could possibly unearth, we will never be any closer to understanding the truth. Nothing could ever possibly explain such events. I feel the same way about Jonestown.

But, if there is no hope of reaching a consensus, what then is the purpose of these endless dialogues? I believe that the fruit of such discussion lies not in the hope that we may finally come to terms with or understand the people and events which were involved, but instead—pragmatic as it may be—that in digging deep into these terrible and dark events we may in the end learn more about ourselves and our fellow citizens.

I know that for myself, I am always mindful of some of the questions which Jonestown has asked of me. I believe that in going forward, it is of the utmost importance that my own and the following generations be faced with the same difficult questions. And it is this fact: that Jonestown asks more questions of us than it gives answers, which keeps it alive in our culture. And that is, as I see it, our task going forward: to keep Jonestown alive; to not let the conversation die; to keep it out of the history books—to not let the owl of Minerva spread its wings.

Back around the fire, my mother’s question lingered for a moment and a few of the others turned to see my response. My wife answered her before I could: “He’s always talking about Jonestown.”

I smiled, and continued.

(Richard Gubbels is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he studied English Literature and Philosophy. He currently lives in Neenah, Wisconsin. His previous articles for the jonestown report are here. He can be reached at, through his Twitter account, and through his blog.)