Jonestown Residents Found A Home

Jonestown is one of my strongest news-related memories. I was twelve, living in Central California, when I heard the first reports of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan’s death. I followed the story to its end and into a few of the books that appeared on the subject. My interest was innocent and fairly ghoulish; the second part is still true today.

I arrived at the Jonestown website on a whim. In the late 70s and early 80s, the NPR documentary, “Father Cares,” which I had taped on its original air date, was a frequent late-night listening choice. Soothing is the only word for it. But I often wondered what came before and after the short passages excerpted in the program.

Hearing the tapes in their entirety both adds and detracts from their power. One gets a better sense of Jim Jones’ methods and how he used them to devastating effect. At the same time, one wearies of the more drawn-out sections and bristles at the accusatory rants.

A dozen hours of Jonestown hasn’t made me any more comprehending of the religious experience than I was 25 years ago: I still believe that faith is a mistake. Yet, I am more forgiving and have come to think that a person’s life is theirs to live in any way they see fit, and that death is one of the choices available to us.

It is clear from the tapes that Jim Jones’ followers were better with him than they were without him. That’s not to say that he always treated them in a kind manner, or that they weren’t subjected to things they shouldn’t have been. At the same time, they found in him the things they were missing from their lives: a sense of belonging, security, and love. These things, even if only in small quantities, can have more importance than a life lived long. Isn’t this one of the lessons of Jonestown?