As the new administrator of the Jonestown Forum, I would like to introduce myself with an expression of my deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to serve. I am especially grateful for the trust placed in me, because I have no personal connection to Peoples Temple. I am not a former member, I am not a Jonestown survivor, and I don’t have friends or family who died there. I’m just someone with a deep interest in the subject and compassion for the people.
The link for joining the group is here. This is a closed group so you can’t see postings without signing up.
When I first came on board, Rikke Wettendorff was at the helm. At that time, my function was simply to assist her. Later, when she decided to move on to other projects, she asked if I would take over her responsibilities. I knew that it would not be an easy task to fill her shoes. Rikke was – and is – a trove of information. She had a way of interjecting into various threads with well-articulated and researched responses.
From the beginning I made up my mind that I would embrace this challenge with vigor and equanimity. My vision has been to help foster an atmosphere of inclusivity, and to make the forum a place where survivors and non-survivors alike could come and share their thoughts and talk about all manner of things, even controversial ones. The only rule would be that people be respectful to each other.
So what is the Jonestown Forum anyway? Essentially, it is a place where anyone can learn about every conceivable aspect of Peoples Temple. Our members include people from the Jonestown survivor community, former members of the Temple, and folks like myself, with no connection to the group whatsoever. Metaphorically speaking, we travel together on an incredible journey, from the early years in Indiana, to the sultry jungles of Guyana. We talk about books people have read, issues that have come up about PT in the media, and plans for the upcoming anniversary.
I think we are lucky to have so many people from the survivor community as members. Their insights and first-person accounts are riveting and often sobering. Their contributions provide context to many of the questions we non-survivors have. What is equally fascinating, is when survivors share some little nugget of information that isn’t widely known to the general public.
I could point to a long list of many wonderful books on the market, but when the stories come straight from people who were part of the Temple, it’s always a welcomed and refreshing new angle on the Jonestown narrative. Names like Christina Miller and Sharon Amos frequently come up, as well as countless others.
Not all of our discussions focus on the tragedy of November 18. We talk about everyday life in Jonestown, like how the community’s kitchen was able to churn out hundreds of meals every day without the aid of modern commercial equipment.
When more sensitive topics come up, we proceed with an abundance of caution so as not to offend or to say something in bad taste. I’m not suggesting that survivors are made of glass, but we act out of a sense of deference for then. We all try not to overwhelm then with too many “what if” questions, questions they have undoubtedly been asked for decades. So far everyone seems to be on the same page.
Sometimes we segue into current events that are only loosely related to PT. Other times we stray completely off course to the point where I have to gently steer the conversation back into forum-related topics. I don’t want to inhibit anyone, so I don’t tell people that they can’t talk about anything they wish, but I do try to encourage staying on track.
As an administrator, I do try to encourage lively discussion, but I must admit there are some discussions that I watch, especially when it comes to questions about conspiracy theories involving MK-ULTRA, or whether or not Jim Jones was really working for the CIA. Any Kool-Aid jokes or mean-spirited hazing will buy you a one-way ticket to the forum’s exit.
This brings me to another topic: How I approve new members. While we don’t really have a formal screening process, there are certain guidelines I try to keep in mind.
I estimate I get anywhere between five and 10 requests every couple of weeks or so. Most of the people who show an interest are welcome to join. However, I do try and screen potential new members in the best way I can. My method isn’t foolproof and is rather unscientific, but it does work for the most part. I normally take a quick look at a new person’s profile try to get a feel for what their interest in PT might be. Sometimes, I will even reach out to a potential member and chat with them via Messenger.
Of course, when I do this, I am ever mindful not to come off as being too intrusive, or seem like I am interrogating them. I keep it light and professional. Some people make the decision easy for me, like when they say something like “I want to join because I heard that you guys have free Kool-Aid.”
Last year, I approved a couple of people who acted like they were interested in learning more about PT. A few days later I received a message from another member alerting me to the fact that one of the people I had just approved was part of another group on Facebook called “They Call Him Father.” I saw a few of the threads from that page, and what I read was very distressing. They included very offensive things about members of the survivor community and even claimed to have some of their home addresses. That experience underscored the need to be very proactive in the selection process.
But those are the few exceptions, and I am committed to being vigilant and protective of our group. I hope the experience of our members is that in our Forum there are no strangers, there are only friends that I am exceedingly glad to know. I look forward to more growth in both our numbers and in the quality of our discussions.
(Mark T. Gallaga is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His companion article to this piece is Traversing a mine field: A day in the life of the Forum administrator. His earlier articles may be found here. Mark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)