Lessons of Jonestown Remain Elusive

I discovered the “Alternative Considerations” website after looking for Jonestown on the search engine Google. What attracted me to the site initially was the listing of the numerous tapes acquired by the FBI after the Jonestown tragedy. I decided to see if I could purchase copies of some of the tapes listed.

The biggest challenge was trying to determine what tapes to request. There were transcripts available online for a number of the tapes, but for most of them, I had to rely on notes that the FBI had made while listening and cataloging the hundreds of tapes they acquired. I was interested most in recordings made in Jonestown. I felt that they represented one of the few things that remained untainted by time. This is of course presuming the FBI didn’t delete, edit or doctor any of the tapes that they released via the Freedom of Information Act. I was also looking for tapes that hadn’t been made available to the public until just a few years ago. I was overwhelmed by the amount of material available that fit these criteria.

My knowledge of Jonestown was based on what I had been told and/or saw on the news as an eleven-year-old child. Later I would hear Jim Jones sampled by music groups, and in hindsight the recordings tended to just reinforce what I already knew: Jim Jones said and did crazy things and supposedly brainwashed over 900 people into killing themselves. I wanted the tapes to give me a parallax viewpoint to some of the preconceived ideas I had about Jonestown. I wanted the tapes to prove or disprove what I had been told and thought all along. I was truly fascinated by the chance to have in my hands recordings from Jonestown that few people in the general public had ever heard. In hindsight, I wanted to be surprised or shocked by the recordings. I wanted to hear the odd, inane, and crazy things that Jim Jones and Peoples Temple said and did. I found all of that, and more.

The tapes didn’t necessary change my viewpoint, but they made me realize that everything wasn’t so black and white. It was more like a grey scale of good and bad. A few of the tapes I received were recorded before the move to Jonestown. They helped me to better understand what sort of ideals the Temple was built on. I was surprised to hear a lot of references to socialism, communism, and the evils of capitalism. In the early recordings, Jones’s teachings seem a lot more logical than after the move to Jonestown. He tends to sound more like an overworked dictator than a leader.

On one Jonestown tape, Jones asks people to explain what they would like to do to their relatives back in the States. Numerous people speak of torturing and killing their family members, and other enemies of the Temple. After each person explains their own special brand of torture and murder, the entire congregation and Jim Jones starts laughing and cheering. Jones laughs so hard at times he sounds like a hyena. If the Devil had a laugh, this is what it would sound like.

The quality and length of the tapes varies, but most of the recordings that I heard fall within the fair to good category. Pre-Jonestown tapes will give you a better understanding of what the Temple was all about, while the Jonestown tapes cover many facets of life, from the mundane to the disturbing.