Around two years ago, I followed the trail of blue highlighted words on trusty Wikipedia and stumbled across a page dedicated to something called ‘Jonestown’. Out of curiosity, I read and became consumed by the story of a devilish, elusive, communist cult, led by a psychotic mastermind which had come to an implosive end in the Guyanese jungle in a mass suicide to overshadow any committed before or after.
It became a bit of a conversation starter with me, no one around me knew about it. After I told the thrilling tale I’d often get the response; ‘Oh, like Waco?’.
Jonestown was a mystery to me.
When the opportunity to complete a college requirement of an Extended project qualification (EPQ), I just thought of Jonestown. An EPQ can be based on anything, there just needs to be a title; shed-loads of research, with all that comes with it (literature review, reflective journal, planning); and then a final dissertation or artifact or both. I saw this as a great opportunity to get a qualification under my belt and also delve deeper into the mysterious world of ‘Jonestown’.
I didn’t want to simply write a dissertation however, I wanted to create a piece of historical fiction: 1) to be a bit different and 2) to sate my desire to write creatively.
Before I could do anything I knew I had to get my facts straight: names, locations, dates. I delved into Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives and Rebecca Moore’s Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple and came away realising there was a lot more to the word ‘Jonestown’ than I had first expected.
Firstly, I saw that I wasn’t really looking at what happened in the short time Peoples Temple was situated in Guyana, I was looking at how the Temple had come to be and evolved.
November 18th wasn’t a singular event to be looked at in solitude.
My whole short-sighted plan on what I had wanted to create evaporated as I watched Jonestown: The life and death of Peoples Temple and became closely acquainted with this website; inhaling article after article and revelling in my enlightenment after each one. The word ‘cult’ began to leave a bad taste in my mouth, and I stopped referring to my project as being about ‘Jonestown’ but rather it being about ‘Peoples Temple’. I also drew away from focusing on the charisma that is Jim Jones, and saw real fascination and potential in the actual members of Peoples Temple.
This revelation brought me to gaining some essential primary research, which meant actually speaking to people. I excitedly ravaged the ‘Speaker’s bureau’ for email addresses and sent my pleading messages out to a number of fascinating people.
I remember holding my breath as I started to get responses. I was overcome with relief and delight when I realised my respondents were interested in what I was doing, and they wanted to help!
My correspondence has not only been compelling and extremely useful, but it made me positive that I wanted to write my novella in an abstract fashion, from a first person point of view, to truly present my findings and give due respect to those who were part of the Temple. Also, after realising how genuine and kind these people were, I realized that the output in my writing must reflect the input of my research. I resolved to make the members of the Temple the focus of my novella, not Jones.
I have begun writing my novella and I truly feel the weight of responsibility with each word: Not because I have any ideas towards publication, or because I think my substandard fiction writing will make any difference in any way, but because with all I have learnt, I could not feel satisfaction or accomplishment if I created a piece that did not represent the true sentiment and beauty of Peoples Temple.
This select group of people was gloriously unanimous in their desire to change the world for the better, or at the very least theirs and their children’s world. Peoples Temple gave its members and others a ray of hope, a channel for their energies, a way to do something. The fundamentals of the Temple – integration, equality and freedom – were (and still are) wonderful, and in a way, the Temple’s relative accomplishment of them is all the more marvellous.
History has been cruel to anyone involved in Peoples Temple because often the tragic events of November 18th blot out the reason people were part of the Temple and why they remained to be to the very end. We fear what we do not understand.
Perhaps the greatest revelation I had from all of my research was that the tragedy did not lie in the deed of the suicide, but in their misinformed reasoning for taking such drastic action and the circumstances it took place under.
Still, what happened in Jonestown was a calamitous end to something unique, something that had become suffocated by society’s potent neophobia and suffered from a breakdown and betrayal in leadership.
In all honesty, the grade I will get means very little to me.
I’d like to thank Tim Carter, Hue Fortson Jr., Laura Johnston Kohl, Rebecca Moore and Catherine Wessinger for their help and support with my project. Their help has been invaluable and deeply appreciated.