Insights into Jonestown

As a television producer, I always say the biggest perk of my job is the opportunity to meet remarkable people, and to talk to them about their lives. The list has ranged from Chet Hanson, an aide to General Omar Bradley in World War II, to Julie Andrews, to the Canadian Air Force officers who actually tunneled to freedom in the story of The Great Escape. But none of them really prepared me for Tim Carter and his story.

I first contacted Tim last autumn, when I was working on a History/H2 series called “America’s Book of Secrets.” We were preparing an episode about cults and new religious movements in America. In addition to authors and scholars, we wanted personal testimony – something that would help the audience to understand why people would be drawn to groups that most of us would dismiss as a strange cult.

Tim Carter was a member of Peoples Temple. He was in Jonestown on the day of the massacre and lost almost his entire family. The grace with which Tim copes with the hand life dealt to him is extraordinary. When you’re producing a documentary, it seems like your life is trying to balance network requirements with the script and available images. Then suddenly you meet someone like Tim, for whom this is a personal and important part of his life, and you remember why you do this work. You’re also fearful that the show won’t do justice to his story.

One of the many amazing things about the Jonestown story is the amount of footage and photographs that still exist. Watching the video of Tim as a young, idealistic man, and describing the paradise he believed he’d found, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I’m about the same age as Tim, and I remember well the arguments I had with my father about Vietnam. And that was in Scotland! Who wasn’t idealistic at that age, and especially at that time in history? I was oblivious to what I learned later, that so many Vietnam vets – like Tim – returned to the US to be met with hostility, disrespect and disdain for their service. I can only imagine if my idealism had been soured with the type of reality Tim faced upon his return from Vietnam, and if I had also been rejected by my family, friends and peers. My curiosity about the Maharishi when one of his disciples came to Edinburgh could easily have drawn me into what I now would call a cult.

And that’s the story – and lesson – of Jonestown that I came to understand by meeting and talking with Tim. Peoples Temple wasn’t a group of crazy people grabbing a new religion. It was people like me, like you, like Tim, thinking they’d found a new way to live.

Not coincidentally, that’s the story of America: a blank page where anyone could write their own story. During production we also interviewed Mitch Horowitz, the author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation. His book is a fascinating history of new religious movements in the US, demonstrating that they have always been part of this country’s fabric.

The desire to belong is part of human history. Groups, cliques, cults and new religious movements are always going to be with us. We need every tool we can lay our hands on to assess their legitimacy and worth, if we’re to avoid more tragedies like Jonestown. Tim’s honesty and insight into the Peoples Temple story have been an inspiration to me, and I know he’ll continue to be an inspiration to others.

© Frankie Glass 2013