Empathy: A Personal Relationship with Jonestown

I was born after the events at Jonestown and did not become aware of Peoples Temple until my late teens. At that time, I developed a keen interest in death and tragedy, as some adolescents are prone to do. In the wake of Oklahoma City, Columbine, and the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, and as I developed as a young artist, these abject occurrences began to fascinate me. What has become known in popular culture as the “Jonestown Massacre” was certainly one of these for me.

The LA Riots, the OJ Simpson Trial, and especially the Columbine Massacre, all combined to create a realm of the world in the 1990’s that was cultivated by the growing twenty-four hour news cycle and globalized pervasion of information. This immersion in world news began with the media’s coverage of the first televised war – Vietnam – developed throughout the Cold War, cultivating in the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly the coverage of the Berlin Wall being torn down. This has been my perception of the media and the world. World events are experienced as media, much like how reality television has become the most popular and cheapest to produce form of entertainment. The nihilism that developed in certain veins of the late 90’s supported the dissemination of the abject, from the blurry VHS tapes of R. Bud Dwyer committing suicide on television, to the video store backroom copy of the Faces of Death series.

And what might this have to do with Peoples Temple and its ultimate demise? My personal journey began on March 26th, 1997 with the media coverage allowing me to enter the San Diego house of the Heaven’s Gate cult and to tour the scene of the mass suicide. I will never forget how television allowed me to go in, and then to stand there and look at the bodies with their black, decomposed hands exposed from under their purple drapery. Something deep inside my younger self told me those hands would reach up and grab me from beneath my bed. The boogieman was real, and his name was death. I did not sleep well for weeks. I had not been afraid of the dark before. I was 13, and did not understand how such a thing could inspire so much fear. I had no ability to reconcile the reality of death and the fantasy of the ghost in the dark. I still have no idea how my adolescent brain interpreted the information in such a way. I don’t expect to ever understand.

Years later, while making a certain brand of nihilistic and (to a degree) misanthropic art, I came to research the events of November 18th, 1978. It took me years to learn what it meant to me, but at this time, early in my college career, I began to try to understand. I began to understand violence not as an action of a perpetrator against a victim, but as often a victim against a victim – albeit regular exceptions to the rule. I came to wonder about the nature of violence, faith, manipulation, and sacrifice. I do not demonize the relationship between these items, or think either are an axiomatic result of each other. They exist as human conditions and serve to raise the questions of how we are human, and what it means to be human?

This combined with the complications from systems of belief and religion. The yearning for faith and meaning that appears as much of a part of human nature as dreaming. Materializing in the quest for knowledge and understanding, and the safety in knowing the sun will rise in the morning. My own complicated relationship with religion turned from disdain to acceptance of others in choosing the path of their own. This was most apparent in my belief in the right to die, which I’d held for years before. I began to develop my own relationship with faith as an atheist and attempt to understand the faith of others, and how their faith I’d held disdainful for a majority of my youth.

Everyone, including the children, was told to line up. As we passed through the line, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. We all did as we were told. When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev. Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test. He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands. – Deborah Layton

My own experiences with Peoples Temple relate mostly to the audiotapes available on this site. I continue to experience the lives of the people in this way, and to use their faith and tragedy as a means both to inform me as an artist and to become a better person. I don’t ever expect to know the truth. I don’t ever expect to understand.

I have currently been listening to the ghost audio and blank tapes more closely and hope to develop an artwork with this absent audio at sometime in the near future.

(Matthew Sochocki is an artist, writer, and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. His previous article for the jonestown report is Making “A Shovel in Soil”: An Artwork in Audio.)