I was born in 1975 in San Francisco, raised in Berkeley. My parents were not part of Peoples Temple, but they were in another group. My parents’ group was in some ways sort of a cult, but it was not really a destructive cult (although we kids – the second generation raised within these groups – will always have trouble seeing the “dangerous cult” aspect, and regardless of damages, I will always have respect for what wisdom was imparted upon us).
What does this have to do with PT and Jonestown? Well, for me, I guess I never really understood my childhood until I began researching it. I couldn’t understand why the often grainy and colorful images of the 1970s – the ’70s in general – would haunt me so with the oddest feeling.
My parents’ group was very dogmatic; its tenets and themes controlled our lives. I was often raised communally, while my parents were with the adults doing the seminars and other stuff that adults do. There was also a philosophy, that if you leave your kids to their own devices, even in regards to walking and potty training, the kids will become accelerated. In many ways, we kids raised ourselves. I see that too in the faces of the children of PT and kids of other groups.
What I realized from studying PT/Jonestown is that people really need to understand the 1970s, and the first person who needed to understand the ’70s was me. I never understood it before, but I think I am finally understanding it.
As I began to see it, in many ways, Jonestown was an amped-up version of so many other groups of that era. Groups like my parents’.
My parents’ generation worked hard to make a new world. They worked hard to build something. They were actually “walking the talk,” whatever their talk was. However crazy the talk turned out to be.
I feel that part of what made their work-efforts so legitimate was their willingness (or semi-willingness) to drop their individuality and really get together, to make the change they wanted to see in a cooperative effort.
This is also true of the generation before, the parents of my parents. An amazing hardworking generation My grandparents were truly the “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” generation. Faced with the Great Depression, they made do, and worked with what they had. They didn’t have modern washing machines, much less the swiffer.
Perhaps in this environment of people with such powerful work ethics, it felt perfect to listen to somebody – sometimes older, seemingly wiser – and who had it all worked out for all of us as a group, as a collective. A tribal chief? A man with a plan?
I never used to understand how my parents and their generation were not as lazy like mine. While I think there are a lot of hardworking people in my generation – and I try and get the job done myself – I can’t help but feel we, the kids, are relaxed.
For example, we heard about the draft, but we didn’t get drafted. But the men of my parents’ generation did. Years after the Vietnam war ended, my parents refused for quite some time to get Social Security numbers for my brothers out of fear of the draft. We didn’t eat school lunch for many reasons. Not only was it said that the food would give you cancer, if you signed up for the school lunch program, they’d put you on a list and draft us into war when you hit 18. See, my parents couldn’t relax.
The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation continued through the ’80s, but by the ’90s, the United States finally thought it could relax. There was other problems of course – drug wars and prisons among them – but it was a fruitful time for many. We became so lazy, or perhaps apathetic. We tried to recycle, some of us didn’t drive cars and rode a bike to reduce our carbon footprint, and we didn’t want to get arrested for pot, but we could sort of relax.
My generation didn’t have to work so hard. We didn’t go looking for the change, or try to create the change. Rather, the change came to us. We chilled out. Tried to teach our parents the art of chilling out. Did it work? Are they chilled out? Or are they still moving with lightning speed, telling us, “It’s not too late…”
And now the pendulum swings and people fear again the end of the world. Even though at times the politics seem farcical, there is also real fear. A climate of fear is back in vogue, and “media control” (via internet) seems to be going along fairly smoothly.
I see a new generation has emerged as well, one that is even less inclined to work for change than mine was, partly because the media control has everybody hypnotized… kind of how leaders of groups in the 1970s entranced and hypnotized their followers with words and ideals.
Today almost everyone joins, but what they join is a social networking group, and (like a cult) this is where your friends and family are, and the tech giants (the cult leaders) have you for life. They ask us to fill out the little blurb with our current thoughts, and we comply because we have been conditioned, and there is a strong social pull. The social pull is everything. So now we have a society of people looking at their phones and devices.
Anyone can call me crazy, or laugh at my comparisons, and that’s okay, but this is how I feel about our current times. They do compare to the ’70s, but many of us are following more blindly than ever trying to fit in. Trying to create something. Trying to be something with our fellow humans.
It’s a trip that it’s come down to this, but perhaps the best we can do is try and realize that nobody needs to “join,” nobody needs to “follow” (both common social media terms), we don’t need a bigger “cause” just to fit in, to be part of life here on this planet with our brothers and sisters. We can truly just be. Hopefully we can also work on making the world a better more livable sustainable place for the future generations, but we can also truly just be.
Many more animals lived on earth back in the 1970s than do presently, and I think it is safe to say that our world is vastly changing. But we, as a human race can keep evolving and making ourselves less of a threat to wildlife, or to ourselves.
I learned humanity studying Jonestown, humanity for my parents, my grandparents. For all the children lost in Jonestown, for all the grandparents and seniors, for all the middle aged and young adults, their lives permeated from day one with our over-culture which has often been defined by fear.
My take away lesson is that there is no such thing as “the enemy.” We need to rise up from that mindset, and hopefully we will.
(Esther Cohen is a pseudonym. She is the author of “Let It Rain, Let It Rain” (a diary).)