Searching for complete understanding of something has always been my thing. If I hear of a story or topic that catches my interest, I embark on a quest of rigorous research. I Google, I read books and articles, I dive into and get neck-deep in Wikipedia, I watch documentaries. I do whatever I have to do in order to learn as much as I can to reach my desired level of understanding. I crave knowledge, especially when it comes to certain historical happenings.
Most recently it’s been Peoples Temple, Jonestown and Jim Jones that have quite intrigued me. I wanted to understand how it all went down. I needed to know how this could happen!
It all started with Jonestown: Paradise Lost, a documentary of a beautiful thing gone bad. I’d heard little of the subject before. I had a general knowing of the tragedy itself, but nothing of what led up to it. The more I watched, the more I became engrossed. The start, the end, the bad, the good, the leader, the people. I wanted to know how this tragedy could happen, of course. But I also wanted to know more about this beautiful fellowship of selfless and non-judgmental folks that was Peoples Temple.
One of the first things I learned in my research was that the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” was derived from the tragedy in Jonestown. How tacky? How insensitive? How ignorant? I felt sad for anyone whose life ended that day, and for their surviving family members. I couldn’t bear the idea of what likely went through those family members’ minds and hearts when they heard that sickening phrase. (Naturally, I also had the same thought that a lot of people who have knowledge of the subject share: it wasn’t Kool-Aid, it was Flavor-Aid.)
And then I came across the “death tape”. It took a lot for me to click the play button on that one, but I did. Just like many of you, I had a hard time listening to that. The babies crying, Christine Miller bravely standing up to Jim Jones to ask if there was another way, her suggestions being shot down, and through it all, Jones being so hellbent on those children dying right there before anyone else. It hit me deep in my heart. I have children, and I know their innocence. I know that they didn’t understand why they were being killed. But some of the older children did know that death was coming. They cried, screamed, likely fought for their little precious lives.
By this time I was very much emotionally invested in this topic. Any free time I had for several months was spent researching Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. I learned that Jones performed “healings” as a way to gain followers and admiration from them. He played God. He reportedly encouraged couples to refrain from sexual intercourse in order to keep their heads straight and focused on the cause and what they were supposed to be achieving. He also made members who disobeyed his strict rules to stand before the congregation and endure physical punishment. There are countless other reports of misconduct. A lot of people wonder, how could Temple members stay so devoted to the cause and Jim Jones after he displayed such questionable behavior. I have also had those questions. However, I’ve always been able to bring myself back to the whole reason people joined in the first place. Lost souls, people looking for something bigger than themselves in life, people who were at a vulnerable place in life, they all walked into that building and felt at home, at peace, and most of all, they felt understood. That was what they’d been longing for. This church was important to them.
To me, it’s always been about justification. It’s my understanding that these people turned a blind eye, so to speak, when shady stuff happened. To be willfully ignorant in a situation that you’re desperate to have work, is easy. They were at this place they had needed so badly in their lives, it was easy to justify some of these goings on.
I share the story of Peoples Temple with anyone who will listen. I’m almost always asked, “Why didn’t they just walk away? Why would they stay so devoted after witnessing such dubious acts!” To that I reply, “There’s a great chance that you would’ve stayed too. Put yourself in their shoes, and then get back to me.” Of course, nobody can put themselves into the shoes of those people. We weren’t there. We weren’t them. So, on that topic, I don’t judge or question why these people stayed put, even after things started going downhill.
As a result of my research, my feelings and opinions have changed on a lot of points. For example, I used to believe that Jim Jones was an irredeemably horrible person with no good intent. I had my mind made up in the beginning, but I find myself slowly changed my outlook on Jones. There is no doubt he helped many people throughout the Temple’s history in the States. Elderly folks, drug addicts, lower class citizens, and blacks, he stood up for anyone who was treated poorly. His decision to do something to help bring this country together was out of the goodness of his heart.
Then there’s the question of did Jim Jones have an eye for spotting situations that were easy to manipulate? Those are things that cannot be answered definitively. I do believe he genuinely wanted equality for all mankind, for black, white, rich, poor. That’s a person with some good intent. He also might’ve had an unfair and unstable example in his parents. It is arguable that Jones had sociopathic tendencies from the beginning. Stories of his childhood recount how he was obsessed with death, being a leader as well as church and theology.
Does that make him evil? No. That being said, I’ve come to the conclusion that Jones – by happenstance and possibly some mental illness – evolved into a paranoid, controlling and manipulative leader, possibly a sociopath, and that it all tragically ended with more than 900 lives being lost. Someone with a lot of knowledge on this subject, who is related to Temple members once told me that evil isn’t people. People are not evil. Rather, there are evil things in this world, and things happen that cause people to do evil things. I adopted his philosophy and always encourage people to consider it as well.
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Recently as I was browsing the internet, I came across something that set me on fire. A coin has been produced that pays homage to Jim Jones. One side had Jones’ face on it, the other side displayed a “Kool-Aid” pitcher with a death skull in the middle of it, surrounded by a Jim Jones quote “If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.” I don’t think I can even explain my feelings of finding that memorabilia online. I don’t know if it’s available for sale, but I don’t know who would want to have that. Just in the past few days, I came across a podcast that dealt with Jim Jones and his “cult.” Of course, the people hosting the podcast joked around. They need listeners, and making light of dark is their method of gaining those listeners. The hosts had done their homework – I’ll grant them that – and played a couple of tapes to show Jones’ deterioration over the years, but the accompanying commentary showed a disrespect to anyone who followed him. (I did find it interesting that the two men described the earlier recording as being Jones’ “pre-tinted sunglasses phase.” They weren’t wrong. But I thought to myself, the sunglasses are a symbol of sorts. A red flag, if you will. The more he started wearing the sunglasses the darker the dynamic of Peoples Temple became.
Still, all of this stuff I see that makes light of the tragedy makes me feel even sadder.
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The story of Jonestown isn’t known to most people. My hope is that everyone who has knowledge of the tragedy be respectful and have sympathy where it’s due. I’ve been very analytical and emotional throughout research of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. I’ve done a lot of thinking and consideration. I’ve gone back and forth between understanding and having more questions than I started with. After several months of digging as deep as I could, I still don’t have the understanding that I’ve wanted so bad. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never fully understand the whys and hows. How could I? After all – thankfully – I wasn’t there to experience the negativity that those people experienced. However, I know that once upon a time Peoples Temple was something amazing, and I can only hope to experience something so powerful and positive sometime in my life.
The sources of my research are as follows:
- Book: Raven, by Tim Reiterman, with John Jacobs
- Book: A Thousand Lives, by Julia Scheeres
- Book: Seductive Poison, by Deborah Layton
- Film: Jonestown: Paradise Lost, by Jason Sherman
- Film: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, by Stanley Nelson
- Film: Deceived: The Jonestown Tragedy, by Mel White
- Phone Interview with Fielding McGehee
(Catherine Peters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)