The Closing Window

The 40th anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy is getting a lot more media attention than I anticipated, which is ironic since the four-part Sundance Channel miniseries based on my book is part of it. I’ve personally been contacted by five other producers (three TV, two podcast) who want me to be part of their definitive “takes” – popular word among media types – on What Really Happened and What It Means Today. I turned them all down, because of my commitment to the Sundance project. I’ll bet that several of the survivors have heard from ten times that many.

I hope that this interest is gratifying to everyone whose lives have been affected daily for 40 years. But I appreciate that most will feel relieved when the attention is over. What more can be said by “insiders” or dissected by “outsiders”? When is it enough?

For what it’s worth, I believe that almost all the intense, in-depth attention to Peoples Temple and Jim Jones and Jonestown is reaching one final peak. Unless (and, sadly, it’s always possible) some future tragedy with many of the same elements and overtones occurs, there’s going to be this current flurry of coverage, and then most of the media will decide that everything possible has been gotten out of the story. Coupled with that is the fact that the number of participants – people who were in Guyana, former members of Peoples Temple, relatives, and friends – is dwindling. Without first-hand descriptions, the story loses a sense of immediacy, and these days that’s what mostly attracts viewers/listeners/readers. Besides, there are so many fresher tragedies to snag our attention; it seems like one after another. We’re in a new(er) era of cultural upheaval and subsequent loss of life. It’s certainly possible to draw certain social parallels between the Temple-related past and the present; I certainly do, whenever I’m given the chance. But I sense that after November 18, 2018, that window will close.

What this doesn’t mean is that what Peoples Temple really stood for – important things like respect for everyone and the opportunity for economic equality – no longer counts. Those of you who were part of it know why you participated (or why family or friends did), and the passage of time doesn’t diminish your love for those who were lost. The best tribute to the dead has been how so many survivors have gone on not only to give their accounts of what happened, but to continue working on behalf of the principles that drew them to Peoples Temple in the first place. The fevered media attention to Peoples Temple this year will wane, but the social struggle goes on.

People like me have been privileged to know you, and to learn from you. So many of you, in the past 40 years, have done your share and much more. When this current flurry of coverage is over, I hope you savor the peace and quiet. You deserve it.

(Jeff Guinn is the author of The Road to Jonestown. He may be reached at