Researching Peoples Temple

Attempting to grasp – let alone retell – the extensive history of Peoples Temple is a monumental task, and I have on many occasions found time to consider how it is that I came to find myself in this position, and why I chose to tackle such a challenging story.

As a boy, I lived on an intentional community in Virginia. The place was founded and populated by people such as my parents, adherents to an alternative spiritual path. Though the place was very different than Jonestown, that was what I thought of when I first learn about Peoples Temple. I was fourteen in August 1977 when I read the New West article by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy. I increased my understanding as I watched news reports and read articles in The Los Angeles Times.

When the news first began emerging from Guyana in November 1978, I followed along as if I were somehow connected. There were kids my age there. None of it made any sense and it felt to me that the news reports following the incredible tragedy of November 18, 1978 raised more questions than they answered.

Thirty years later I watched several documentaries on the subject. Though some of them were quite good in some respects, I was always left with the same questions that I had when I was fifteen. How would anyone become involved with such an organization? Why would anyone have stayed with this group if things were so bad? Who were the people of Peoples Temple? And why had there never been a credible narrative film made on the subject?

With the advent of the internet, it became much easier to research the subject more deeply than it had been in 1978 and 1979. I studied this site and started ordering the many books that had been written on the subject. But I still wondered why it was that no credible movie had ever been made on the subject. As I began working on timelines to keep straight the extensive amount of information I was gathering, the answer to at least this one question became clear: the subject is just too mammoth to be contained in a single film.

It took several years of research before I felt comfortable committing to the idea of a miniseries. One reason for this was that I wasn’t certain that even such a format would allow enough time to relate the history of the Temple in any comprehensive fashion. My main stumbling block, however, was my awareness that there were many people – survivors, former Temple members, relatives – whose treatment at the hands of reporters and other filmmakers had been insensitive, if not shabby. I didn’t want to add to sense of betrayal many people had felt over such experiences. I had to be sure that I felt I could do a retelling justice before I involved anyone with a Temple connection.

When I finally committed to my project, I told two people, each of whom I had already been in communication with regarding my research. One of them is responsible for this website, a man with whom I have become a good friend. The other is a talented and successful director and producer. Both were men that I have come to know over years and whom I trust to understand the nature of my endeavor. After I had the support of both, I began the process of interviewing people, primarily ex-members but also people who had grown up with Jim Jones, people who had written about the Temple, family members and others who had somehow interacted with the Temple and/or Jim Jones. Sometimes my interview subjects referred me to other people who would talk with me, and other times I was quite fortunate to encounter people seemingly by coincidence: A woman I approached on the street in Indianapolis remembered the Temple feeding unemployed workers; the brother of a friend had gone to school with Temple kids at Drew Prep in San Francisco; a woman in Ukiah remembered attending a Temple service the day Jim Jones was allegedly shot in the church parking lot.

I feel comfortable now, after so many years of research and careful contemplation, developing the story I intend to tell. The guiding principles that I felt at the beginning of my consideration of telling this story – to be considerate to those whose story it is, and to be accurate in my retelling – are still with me and in fact have shaped the story I have gathered in such a way as to dictate a somewhat different story than the one I originally set out to tell.

The miniseries I am developing will be a story primarily of those who lived through the experience, the history of the Temple through the eyes and words of those most qualified to tell it. I remain in close contact with those I have spoken with and intend to use their guidance to insure that my retelling is as accurate and as humane as possible. I feel humbled and honored to have this task with which to apply myself, and hope that the finished project will do justice and honor those who have been so generous in their sharing of information with me, people who have become my friends and from whom I have learned much. I hope to play my small part in broadening a deeper understanding of the Temple.

(Richmond Arquette is a filmmaker and Peoples Temple researcher living in Los Angeles. His previous article in the jonestown report is Voices from the Past.)