Last November I released my audio documentary podcast, Transmissions From Jonestown, using clips from the Peoples Temple audio archive of the Jonestown Institute. In my efforts to present the history of Peoples Temple and the story of Jonestown, I read every book and every article I could get my hands on. My study spanned more than 20 years as I tried to discern the truth behind the massacre and understand the ideology of Peoples Temple.
Just as I have changed over those 20 years, so have my ideas. Early on in my process, I had to make a decision whether or not to include alternative and conspiracy theories as a part of the audio tapestry. I decided to include every phase of research, every far-out theory and every compelling piece of evidence. Like a vortex of truth, lies, and legend, I wanted the listener to experience the complexity of Peoples Temple and the culture created by the researchers themselves.
I did not know what to expect when I released the program, but I did have one regret. I had never spoken to a Peoples Temple survivor about their personal experiences. I asked myself, “Did I cover every possible angle of this story?“ As my email inbox flooded with questions from listeners all over the world, I realized the answer was “no“. People wanted to know more. I received questions like, “What was day to day life like in the Temple?”, “What is the true meaning of Apostolic Socialism?”, “How was leadership structured in the Temple prior to going to Guyana?”, “ Who raised Mr. Muggs?” Listeners wanted to learn more, and asked scores of questions. Some I could answer, many I could not.
Originally I had not envisioned a second season of the show. But when I listened to my first season myself, I realized that Jim Jones was telling most of the story. But thousands of people were a part of Peoples Temple – whether as lifelong members, whether as casual visitors to a single Temple service – throughout its history. I decided at that moment that I would do another season of the podcast, only this time I would give everyone else a chance to speak.
I began to seek interviews with people who had been in the Temple. Asking strangers to share their personal stories for my audio documentary series was a completely new experience for me. I admit I was a little nervous in the beginning. Working with the audio archive, I felt as though I knew some of these people, and I understood that I was asking many of them to relive the worst day of their life; for others, I would be reaching for memories that had faded away.
My first interview was with Mike Carter, a survivor of Jonestown. I had prepared a list of questions and felt like I had gone over them a million times. I felt determined to gain some insight from our talk, so I had diligently summarized a multitude of questions down to about fifty. I was nervous and stumbled over my words. Mike was very friendly and warm, and quite patient with me as I waded through the mire of my newbie nerves.
One thing he said is of particular significance to me. This not only changed my perception of the entire project, but changed the way I conducted future interviews.
One of the biggest challenges when trying to understand the Temple is that, with thousands of people who were involved, we have a thousand different stories. Especially learning after the fact that not everyone in the Temple knew everything, we all had our own truths. I think one of the hardest things for people to understand is that everyone thought there was this mass collective consciousness, and that was the furthest thing from the truth. We were manipulated and segregated. People were told what they wanted to hear to keep them in line, and it was well orchestrated. The goal for many people was not about Jim Jones but about the work. There certainly were those who idolized Jim, no doubt about it, but for most people my age, it was about the social activism and making change.
David Parker Wise was an Associate Pastor of Peoples Temple in Los Angeles from 1971 to 1976. He left when he discovered that Jim Jones had become addicted to amphetamines and was exhibiting signs of mental illness. David fielded my questions with incredible insight, since his experiences as part of the Temple leadership granted him access to Jim Jones and the inner workings of the Temple that few had.
Something that I had always wanted to understand about Peoples Temple is the power structure. If Jim Jones was the last word, who was influencing Jim Jones? David’s answer to that question challenged my concepts of Peoples Temple leadership and the autonomy of people within the inner circle prior to going to Guyana.
I had to leave the church to continue on a road towards its earlier message. In the beginning Jim Jones had a more open mind and was capable of delegating. Jim Jones trusted my judgment. I was the single signatory for over a million dollars in the American savings bank across the street, but refused to take even I dime when one left Peoples Temple. Jim Jones trained me to be in charge of an entire church in Los Angeles, I got to choose my own pastors. I met with Mayor [Tom] Bradley and local politicians and bought them off with contributions from the church to get them to stop beating up black folk and calling them racial slurs. I worked with the housing and urban development, and set up entire apartment buildings filled with Temple members at great discounts. Like so much of what I did, Jim Jones took credit for this. He depended on people around him, but wouldn’t share the spotlight.
Once, when Jim Jones was speaking at a funeral, he said, “You people” referring to some African Americans in the crowd. I leaned over and said, “You can’t say that, it sounds racist, you should say, ‘you folk.’” Another Temple member attempted to embarrass me for suggesting this to Jones, but Jones assured her that I was right, and for the rest of the service he said “you folk.”
Laura Johnston Kohl joined Peoples Temple in 1970 and was in Georgetown on November 18. I knew from reading her book, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look, that she had been an activist in the 1960’s and was more interested in the political aspects of the Temple. As we talked, I hoped to better understand the ideological allure of the Temple’s message as a socialist movement with a strong religious foundation. Laura’s willingness to share and her unique perspective shed new light on why a person who was not religious would commit to the Temple and its various values.
The quote from the Bible that Jim Jones used a lot and lived his life by was wanting to be all things to all people [Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV): “I have to become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”]. I was basically an atheist, so when I was in the group Jim Jones would talk about politics, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, but when people who were devout Southern Baptists were in the group, he would talk about the Bible and quote scripture. When the Edgar Casey folks who had started coming around in the late sixties were in the group, he would talk about spiritualism. So basically he would create a message in any setting that would touch on what everybody in the group might want to hear. There was never a time when sermons were one hundred percent about the Bible, because he knew people like me would fall asleep. He would incorporate all of the issues so that everyone felt like he was on their wave length.
Laura said something else that had a profound effect on my perception of Peoples Temple and my determination to collect as many points of view as I can.
We all know so much about Jim Jones down to what he ate for breakfast, and yet 917 other people died on November 18, 1978. Not only do we not know about these people, but their stories are often written off. These were some of the best and brightest people I’ve ever known.
As the fortieth anniversary of the mass tragedy in Jonestown approaches, I look ahead to the long road of collecting Peoples Temple oral histories with excitement and determination. Every unique story adds a color or a shape to this new audio tapestry of historical narrative. I am grateful for the stories I’ve already heard and look forward to ones yet to be told.
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On November 18, 2018, I will be releasing a 40th anniversary special about one of the most perplexing mysteries surrounding the tapes recovered in Jonestown. Q875 has been the topic of speculation and debate, both inspiring conspiracies and frustrating historians. You won’t want to miss this. “Transmissions From Jonestown” is available wherever podcasts are found, including at http://radiojonestown.libsyn.com/.
(Shannon Howard’s previous article for the jonestown report is Playback: Reformatting Peoples Temple Audio for a Millennial Audience. She may be reached at email@example.com.)