Discourse Community Ethnography – Jonestown

by Suriah Ramnarain

(Suriah Ramnarain wrote this paper for a class in English Composition at the University of Central Florida.)

When you think about a discourse community, you don’t usually consider “negative” ones. Most people would not join a community that would allow for bad behavior or something to negatively affect their lifestyle. However, in many cases, people do join communities without the full extent on the knowledge of how joining it would impact their life. Take into consideration Jonestown, a cult founded by a man named Jim Jones that took place in the heart of the rain forest of Guyana, a tiny, third-world country in South America.

Peoples Temple was originally a religious cult that Jim Jones recruited men and women from California to move to Guyana, due to the prominent leadership from influential black men with a left movement political standpoint. Although this cult is no longer around today, its presence still holds long and true to the many survivors as well as the men and women who lost their family in this organization. On first glance, it seems that the overall goal of this community was to create a utopia in a sense where men and women, children and family, could go in order to express their emotions and beliefs without any form of backlash from the media, as a socialist community. However, it will become clear that the purpose of this community was not as ideal as it seemed.

According to Ann Johns’ “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice,” there are six characteristics created by a man named Swales. One of the characteristics that I feel pertain to this discourse community is the threshold level of experts in the community, the authority. Along with the authority, I believe that the cost of affiliation is an important standard of being a part of this community as many members sacrificed a significant amount for this. Finally, a third characteristic is mechanisms for communication and feedback. Through the use of examining these three traits in this discourse community, I believe that we can conclude the objective of the community and how they are observed in activities or genres.

Authority:

To represent his authority and nature when recruiting men and women, Jim Jones, the founder of Peoples Temple once said: “I represent divine principle, total equality, a society where people own all things in common. Where there is no rich or poor. Where there are no races. Wherever there is [are] people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am. And there I am involved.” The choice of words used here seems to portray a kind, father figure, and as a reverend, reaching out to men and women with promises of a society with no negativity.

I Do Not Love You”, a poem by Teri Buford O’Shea, a survivor of the Jonestown Massacre, sheds more insight on who Jim Jones actually was. Through this poem, the nature of who Jones was is now seen. In the second stanza, O’Shea states “Instead you point a gun// at my head// and tell me to say // ‘I love you’// but I don’t”. This was based on a true event that took place during the seven years she was there. Regarding this poem, after the massacre occurred, O’Shea reflected that, although she was with the other members as a family, those years were simply horrendous. Another former Temple member, Vernon Gosney, recalled that “Part of [Jones’] philosophy was that family relationships are sick and need to be broken down.” The portrayal of Jones as such shows his perceived authority, as well as how he can simultaneously break down someone’s values and roots. He managed to recruit over 900 men and women who felt broken, made them believe he would create a society that would accept and provide a comfort, treat them in such a negative way, and still have all the members stay a part of the Temple.

While there, Jim Jones also indirectly used his authority to influence the basis of the members of Peoples Temple. In another article, The Trauma of Marriage to a Temple Survivor, a woman recounts how her husband – now ex – slowly turned into the man Jim Jones was. She recounts how he started to sleep with guns and knives, slowly turning paranoid, which was understandable given the traumatizing circumstances that he had gone through. However, he started to become abusive, “domineering others”, as well as becoming unfaithful to her. Although this was an indirect consequence, this represents how his power of influence for the seven years it took place, took on an adult man’s fundamental character.

Cost of Affiliation/Sacrifices:

Within the times of Peoples Temple, all the men and women obviously made many sacrifices to be in it. For many, it was giving up their time, money, freedom, and lives. In the Jonestown Massacre, over 900 people died in the mass suicide/mass murder. One survivor Leslie Wagner-Wilson spoke out 35 years later on how she lost her faith and hope in Jonestown. “Because I didn’t trust anyone, I wasn’t capable of seeking out the help I needed when I came back to the USA…The only thing I knew was that I was angry at God every day when I woke up because he had let me live.” It is prominent that at this point in her life, Wagner lost her own self-confidence that her life had purpose to it. Joining Peoples Temple caused her to also lose her faith in God, when the entire movement was originally in a religious pursuit.

The cult also made people sacrifice their ability to see good in the world. It is often said and believed by others, psychologically, that you have an unconditional positive regard toward the outlook of life. This organization stripped the many survivors, as well as the many men and women who died, that fundamental belief. Another survivor Jordan Vilchez confided that she “felt that I had to dedicate myself to the cause. I had also been convinced that the world outside was nasty and without hope.”

Vilchez lost her voice of self-dependence. She felt morally obligated to dedicate herself to a cause that she no longer felt as though she respected. Furthermore, like many others, she lost her will to see things in a positive light after being surrounded with so much negativity.

Another sacrifice made was innocence, as Vilchez recounts, “first and foremost because a woman who was extremely, extremely dedicated, Sharon Amos, killed her three children there, in the house in Georgetown. She told us that we should commit suicide too, but none of us did.”  To hear that someone that you grew close with, would kill her own children and advise you to kill yourself destroys the innocence of others.

Mechanisms for Communication and Feedback:

Although the Jonestown incident was generally an awful event, there were times when the community had meetings where everyone danced and sing as though a united family would have. They would have town meetings where people would voice their opinions. One letter that Marlene Tarver wrote to her family in America states that “Father has given us a great opportunity! …This town is really buzzing with learning these days…we are really an educational community.” This is representative of the community that Jones had promised and provided to them.

Referring to the lives of the children and how they communicate with one another, prior in the letter, they were free to communicate however they pleased. Kain and Wardle have stated that an activity system was generally a set of activity theories which men and women use together in order to find out a common motive to have the best outcome (395).

This has proven to be a mechanism used by Jim Jones and significant group of women who had been supportive of him. They had had drills to drink the Kool-Aid in preparation for if the time ever needed to come. This represents the one-sided nature of their relationship that the men and women had under his influence. The common motive was in this case to survive. For those who drank the Kool-Aid knowing that it could have been filled with poison, the common motive was being loyal.

Results:

There have been many instances in any discourse community which provides insight and feedback about the true nature of one, although it wouldn’t first come to mind the reason for people to join a discourse community that threatens their lives or lives of their loved ones, it commonly happens. People want to feel supported, welcomed, and equal. After taking advantage of this natural feeling, Jones was able to create a cult that not only represented what was wrong in his religious beliefs, but as well as killing over 900 people, and getting the title of being a mass murderer in his name.

Through the use of his authority, cost of affiliation and sacrifice, as well as the mechanisms for communication and feedback, it was portrayed that there had been a common objective with the followers of Peoples Temple and the leader himself.

Works Cited

Johns, Ann. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice.” Writing About Writing, edited by Elizabeth Wardle & Doug Downs, Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 319-342.

Kain, Donna, and Elizabeth Wardle. “Activity Theory: An Introduction for the Writing Classroom.” Writing About Writing, edited by Elizabeth Wardle & Doug Downs, Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 395-406.

“The Trauma of Marriage to a Temple Survivor.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=16972.

“I Do Not Love You.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29438.

Originally posted on September 29th, 2018.

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