Our assignment was simple: create a documentary on an important topic in United States history from the past one hundred years. What was not simple was choosing a topic, something interesting enough to captivate a room of high schoolers. Many groups chose fashion trends, soccer games, or music genres. We decided to research the Jonestown Massacre.
Before this project, we had never heard of the Jonestown Massacre, and neither had anyone else in our AP United States History class. The generational divide was incredible. Everyone we spoke to who was alive during Jonestown vividly remembers where they were and how they felt when the news broke, their numbing realization of more than 900 lives lost. Nothing similar to Jonestown had ever happened before or has happened since. So why is it so widely forgotten by modern day society?
Based on our class’ response to the Jonestown documentary, young people’s disinterest is not the reason for being unaware of Jim Jones. After all, the plot itself seems straight out of a horror movie. Rather, people born after the event do not know about Jonestown because it was before the age of modern forms of communication and occurred so far from the United States. Media coverage was largely limited to photographs and hazy video coverage shot from overflying aircraft, and often took hours, if not days, to reach American audiences. Today’s students expect behind-the-scenes interviews, colorful videos, and thrilling instant updates.
Even thinking about it in today’s terms, though, the events that transpired are appalling. We were certainly surprised by the fact that something like it could be a reality. Borne within this surprise was a certain curiosity, a desire to know what truly happened and why. That’s what truly motivated us to make a documentary chronicling this infamous part of history.
Throughout this research project we were able to get in contact with amazing and helpful people: experts on Jonestown, professors who taught about cult culture, and actual Peoples Temple survivors. In particular, Laura Johnston Kohl, a Jonestown survivor, impacted our view of the event. At a first glance of Jonestown, it is easy to marginalize those members of Peoples Temple. How could they have blindly followed Jim Jones? Why did they let themselves die? However, after in-depth research, it is clear the real questions are: How could Jim Jones betray all of his followers? Why is there such evil in the world? Peoples Temple members were a community under Jim Jones and no one could have expected the end result. They were normal people who wanted to do good and spend time in a community where they were happy and belonged.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the person of Jim Jones when discussing the events of Jonestown. With him being the leader of one of the greatest massacres in history, the tendency is to delve into his psyche and to ask questions about his motives, mental state and ultimate desires for power. While he had his part to play, the story of Jonestown is so much more than just that of Jim Jones. It is a story of sacrifice. It is a story of human nature. It is a story of people. Remembering Jonestown is remembering more than 900 people who were killed because of Jim Jones’ insanity, and ultimately it is they who deserve to live on.
Learning about what happened in Guyana will help ensure that nothing like it happens in the future. It teaches us about our own vulnerabilities and fears as people. But at the same time, it is one of the greatest reminders of the strength which people possess, the will to endure anything. And perhaps that is the greatest lesson to be learned. As Laura Johnston Kohl wrote in an email to us: “You can survive anything. Life is fragile and can be taken from you in an instant. Don’t give it away. Don’t let anyone else take it from you. Live it to the fullest.”
(Grace Dougherty and Nico Dangla are students at Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle, Washington.)