In January 2018, Rebecca Moore, the co-manager of this site, started a year-long series of posts on her Further Moore blog which focused on “issues [surrounding Jonestown and Peoples Temple] that will be coming up and that have already emerged.” By the end of the year – when the Jonestown Journal completed its run – it had almost 40 entries. They are republished below.
- Jonestown Journal, 1/19/2018
- Erasure, Part 1, 1/22/2018
- Erasure, Part 2, 1/23/2018
- Erasure, Conclusions, 1/26/2018
- Ugh!, 2/3/2018
- Was *I* That Bad?!??, 2/6/2018
- Some Final Words on Journalists (or for Journalists), 2/10/2018
- The Black Hole of Guyana, 2/22/2018
- The Women Behind the Massacre, 3/4/2018
- Fact or Fiction, 3/7/2018
- Back to the Sources, 3/15/2018
- The “New Peoples Temple”?, 3/20/2018
- Complicity, 3/31/2018
- Year of the Cult, 4/13/2018
- Blackjonestown.org, 4/23/2018
- Some Two-Dollar Words, 4/26/2018
- Searchable FBI Files, 5/1/2018
- Conversion or Coercion, 5/18/2018
- Coercion – Not Brainwashing, 5/19/2018
- Brainwashing is a Pseudoscience, 6/3/2018
- Conditioning – The Third “C”, 6/6/2018
- Concluding Postscript on Brainwashing, 6/6/2018
- Interview Fatigue, 6/20/2018
- Wait… What?, 6/24/2018
- Photos Online, 7/6/2018
- Shout Out to Don Beck!, 7/15/2018
- Deconstructing the Doctor, 7/27/2018
- Jones Family Collection Online, 8/15/2018
- Fences, 8/16/2018
- The Sunflower, 8/30/2018
- Is Insanity Contagious?, , 9/30/2018
- Hate Mail, 10/8/2018
- Interpreting Jonestown, 10/15/2018
- Apostolic Socialism, 11/9/2018
- Generosity, 11/13/2018
- It Was Beautiful!, 11/21/2018
- Teresa Buford O’Shea, 11/28/2018
- See You Next Time, 12/17/2018
This coming November is the fortieth anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown. This means there is great media and public interest in the topics of crazy cultists, mass suicide, deranged cult leaders, and so on.
Because a lot of crap will be flying around—in addition to extremely measured and thoughtful treatments of Peoples Temple—I am starting this blog to address some of the issues that will be coming up and that have already emerged.
I would like to make it clear that these are the opinions of a single individual. I speak for no one but myself. Those who were members of Peoples Temple, who were survivors of Jonestown, or who had some stake in the organization in the past, will not necessarily agree with what I have to say. I encourage them to start their own blogs.
Did I say that I was speaking only for myself?!?
With that noted, I encourage readers to write, respond, challenge, question, or otherwise engage in the discussion of Peoples Temple and Jonestown during this very significant period. It will probably be the last time anyone inside or outside the network of Jonestown survivors will have the opportunity to reflect on these issues publicly.
Recently Dr. James Lance Taylor discussed the “erasure” of African Americans from the story of Jonestown, along with their erasure from the Western Addition of San Francisco (see article in SFGate). Coincidentally, I will be giving a lecture at Bucknell University on 31 January titled “The Erasure (and Re-inscription) of African Americans from the Jonestown Narrative.”
Much has been happening recently to re-inscribe people of color into our understanding of Jonestown. This includes a significant panel discussion organized by Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco last summer.
But I want to note that there were multiple examinations of the Temple from black perspectives right from the beginning. It is important to remember that Dr. Archie Smith Jr. and Muhammed Isaiah Kenyatta published articles in 1979, and C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya published their important analysis “Daddy Jones and Father Divine” in 1980.
Some of the earliest memoirs presented the experiences of African American males in Jonestown. Ken Wooden’s Children of Jonestown (1981) relied extensively on interviews with Stanly Clayton, while Awake in a Nightmare (1981) essentially narrated the story of Odell Rhodes.
These early accounts were soon eclipsed by a dominant white narrative. The exception to this, however, came from Guyana, to be discussed in the next installment.
Within days of the Jonestown tragedy, Eusi Kwayana criticized the government of Guyana for complicity in the event.
In an article from 21 November 1978 titled “A State Within a State,” the long-time Guyana political activist charged that “the regime stands accused of criminal negligence,” along with criminal greed, criminal conspiracy and criminal arrogance. Kwayana’s voice was one of many from Guyana that have been neglected over the intervening decades.
Writers from Guyana interpreted Jonestown within the framework of historical colonial relationships between Europe and indigenous societies, including slave economies. Their outlook has never been part of the Jonestown story as told in the United States. As they tell it, the story is about Guyana rather than Jonestown.
There are many Caribbean intellectuals I could name who have contributed to the explication of events in Jonestown, Guyana. They include Dr. Walter Rodney (assassinated by Guyana government forces in 1980), Dr. Gordon Lewis, Jan Carew, Fred D’Aguiar, Wilson Harris, Michael Gilkes, Shiva Naipaul, and of course Eusi Kwayana.
One example of many: In a lecture given at Stanford University in 1979, Dr. Rodney proposed the question “Why Guyana?” rather than “Why Jonestown?” He proceeded to examine the social and political factors that made an American expatriate commune so attractive to the developing nation. From the stance of the Guyanese people, Jonestown was a preventable disaster, though “if it was to have been prevented, the principal agency in its prevention would have had to be the Guyanese government.” (To read Rodney’s complete speech, click here.)
In Jan Carew’s dream-like parable “Jonestown Revisited,” the mystical shaman Kalinyas says, “They wrote so many words about Jonestown . . . but they wrote them about themselves. For them we were invisible.” (To read Carew’s story, click here.) That pretty much sums up the nature of erasure. For most analysts Guyana doesn’t exist except as the backdrop to the important actions of North Americans.
African Americans have experienced the erasure or silencing of their voices from narratives about Jonestown. Nevertheless . . . there have been many voices. They just haven’t been heard. I’m going to note a few in these concluding remarks.
Pat Parker’s long poem “Jonestown” repeats the refrain “Black folks do not commit suicide / Black folks do not / Black folks do not / Black folks do not commit suicide.” She then goes on to write that the people in Jonestown were murdered by teachers who didn’t care, by politicians who didn’t care, by welfare workers who didn’t care. Thus, she sets the story of Jonestown squarely within the context of the black experience in America.
darlene anita scott has published poems about Jonestown in a number of literary journals, but they are collected on the Alternative Considerations website here. Scott really captures life in Jonestown, both the joy and the pathos. The poem “How Today Will Look When It’s History (14 September 1977)” grasps the essence of the complicated family structure that existed in Peoples Temple: “I have two sisters, a brother, and / none of them look like me. / Sometimes I wish they did. / Or, I, like them.”
Carmen Gillespie is another poet, whose book Jonestown: A Vexation, depicts the enigma and paradox of life and death in the community. The book comprises commentary, biography, and history as well as poetry, and, on occasion, incorporates words from Jim Jones’ sermons and speeches.
Two memoirs by African American women enlarge our understanding of what life was like in the Temple and in Jonestown. Hyacinth Thrash’s The Onliest One Alive tells her story of surviving Jonestown simply by sleeping through the events. But it is more than that: we see the appeal of Peoples Temple to elderly black women. Leslie Wagner-Wilson’s Slavery of Faith describes the experiences of a young woman in the Temple and her remarkable escape from Jonestown on the last day. If life was arduous in the jungle, Wagner-Wilson found it even more difficult in the United States afterwards. She recounts her time as a battered woman, her struggles as a single mother, and her fight to get free of drug addiction.
Finally, Sikivu Hutchinson’s novel, White Nights, Black Paradise creates four fictional African American women who represent a spectrum of attitudes toward the Temple and toward Jim Jones. Her characters are smart, skeptical, and sharp, and are drawn to the radical politics of the group. Dr. Hutchinson has developed the novel into a drama that has received staged readings in Los Angeles.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Erasure is real. It happens and will continue to happen. This means we must be ever vigilant as to the ways in which erasure occurs. We must be pro-active in seeking out the untold stories, the forgotten histories, the neglected pathways. This is not just the task of the scholar. It falls to everyone.
It took a lot of convincing, but Tim Moran of Every Hill Productions persuaded me to participate in a documentary about “the women of Jonestown.” This was more than two years ago.
So it was with great distress to learn that the title of the film is “Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre.” The executive producer, Nicole Rittenhouse, explained to me that the title selection came from A&E, the network airing the documentary in February. Hmmmm. . .
As the A&E website states: “The special will explore the influence that Jones’ wife Marceline Jones and mistresses Carolyn Layton, Maria Katsaris and Annie Moore had on The People’s Temple and its tragic end.” Not a good sign that they can’t even spell Peoples Temple correctly. Aside from the fact that Annie was Jones’ nurse rather than mistress.
I think anyone who has ever talked to the news media knows what it’s like to feel burned. But this sense of feeling burned by journalists is especially true of people connected to Jonestown, whether former members, defectors, relatives, or anyone else for that matter.
Even the good reporters—the ones who “get” Peoples Temple, listen to you, and really understand—never tell the story quite the way you think they will, or you think they should. And then there are the exploiters, who just want to focus on blood and guts. I don’t talk to them. And yet, here I am on “Women Behind the Massacre.”
Before I had a career in academia, I worked as a producer in public television in all the large markets—South Dakota, Montana, Northern Nevada! I did lots of short video packages (mini-documentaries) of five and ten minutes. I also worked in print journalism and remember how I would fashion a news or feature story. Now, after being on the receiving end of journalists’ attention, I wonder if I, too, never got it right.
As I write books, articles, and papers today I think about the fact that I am retelling the story in my own words and in my own way. I am acutely aware of what I am leaving out, how I’m missing the inflections, the qualifications, the elements that complicate the narrative. It’s mainly accurate, and yet. . . space limitations or stylistic choices color the pieces in ways that the subjects might not appreciate.
There is no malice in this process. It’s the disconnect between subject and object. As subjects, we see the world from our unique perspectives; as objects, however, someone else is seeing us, and reporting on what they think we’re seeing. Put another way: we hear what we want to hear. This means that unless we are telling our own story, we are relying on someone else to hear us correctly, and then to write about us correctly. That’s a lot of faith.
In the last few posts I have been criticizing reporters, and perhaps a bit unfairly. Most act with integrity and are sincerely trying to get it right under lots of pressure from management and within severe time constraints. Nevertheless, there are the exceptions. A few final observations.
Item One. Quite a few years ago a cable news company was seeking some information about Peoples Temple and Jonestown for their documentary. (As a side note, Fielding and I respond to all requests—no matter how ridiculous—with courtesy and dignity. We have never taken any money for this, although we have been offered $$$ to be “technical consultants.”) I was not in the documentary, but was nevertheless allowed to look at the script for accuracy. When I told the production assistant that it seemed a little exaggerated and that there were some inaccuracies, she replied: “It’s a news story: there have to be good guys and bad guys.” She was obviously repeating something she had learned in News Writing 101, but that dictum explains a lot about many news stories.
Item Two: More recently, I concluded a conversation with a reporter by saying “Well I hope you can use this background information as you work on your story.” She replied that the entire conversation had been “on the record.” She had not stated that to me explicitly at the outset but, in her defense, she had been speaking with Fielding before he handed the phone to me. I told her directly, “I feel burned.” There was a little tension in the remainder of the conversation, but we have since worked it out.
Item Three: I discussed in a previous blog the disconnect between what I was told about the documentary on “women in Jonestown” and what will actually be airing on A&E. The angle the producers were taking was misrepresented to me.
Moral of the Story: If you don’t want to feel burned, don’t talk to the media.
One of the most influential documents to emerge from the Jonestown tragedy is John Judge’s article “The Black Hole of Guyana,” recently added to the Jonestown website. Why? Because it is the Urtext for all subsequent conspiracy theories.
A complete analysis —or rather, deconstruction—of Judge’s article will appear in the 2018 jonestown report, as will a detailed examination of the conflicting testimonies given by Dr. Leslie Mooto, an inadvertent contributor to the conspiracy literature.
What I’d like to say here is that I have been giving conspiracy theories, and theorists, a bit of a pass because they expressed umbrage at my placing their work in the conspiracy genre. A bit gun-shy after the criticism, I have been calling their work “alternative theories” or even “alternative history.”
In the current era of alternative facts, however, eschewing the conspiracy label suggests that these theories or histories have a credible foundation. That is simply not the case. Not only are sources misused and misquoted, but broad conclusions are deduced from smallest statements. Some things are misrepresented, and then there are outright lies.
Here is just one example. Contrary to the assertion of Judge in “The Black Hole of Guyana”—that Dr. Mootoo “was at Jonestown within hours after the massacre”—the Guyana pathologist actually arrived on the site two days later, in the afternoon of 20 November (FBI Section 28, Serial 1840). Does the expression “within hours” honestly mean 48 hours, two whole days?
That’s the kind of thing that gives alternative historians a bad name. Deservedly so.
I am experiencing extreme grief over the pain and suffering caused by my sisters, which I learned more about in the A&E documentary “Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre.” It is somewhat ironic that the many documents we have made available through the “Alternative Considerations” website were used to such devastating effect in the program.
I am not saying this to gain sympathy—please don’t feel sorry for me! I’m writing this by way of apologia, of recognition, deep recognition, of an agonizing truth.
I have said for decades that Jim Jones could not be held completely responsible for the deaths in Jonestown. Those words came back to sting me again and again, when people in the documentary said Carolyn and Annie were the “masterminds” and the ones “responsible” for what happened in Jonestown.
I could point out that, like Jim Jones, they too cannot be held completely responsible for the tragedy. Many people were complicit along the way and on the day itself.
But the point is this: By designing a plan—which Jim Jones clearly could not do—they *are* culpable. By directing others to implement the plan, on “orders from Jim,” they *are* guilty. And thus the terrible pain for thousands of people—not just on November 18, but the suffering that has reverberated through the years in so many dreadful and difficult ways.
They could have abandoned the plan any number of times. There were so many opportunities for them to ignore Jim, to redirect him, and even to kill him, if they believed it was necessary. But they did none of these things, instead enabling him in his mad scheme. In that respect, therefore, the documentary was quite accurate. But it did not tell the whole story.
[To be continued . . .]
So just how did they get all that actuality footage of Peoples Temple and Jonestown for the A&E documentary on Jonestown? It’s easy, when you have actors re-enact scenes that were not filmed at the time.
“Women Behind the Massacre” liberally mixed documentary footage with fictional re-creations, blending the two so effectively that it was almost impossible to differentiate between what was real and what was fake. (For a truly masterful mix—where the musicians insert themselves into actuality footage—see the Cults’ music video “Go Outside,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAM9diyVRiM.) The A&E producers also used actors to read letters and other documents: the texts were real, but the voices reading them were not.
I hold Errol Morris responsible for the trend of using actors to re-create historical scenes in contemporary documentary filmmaking. His movie, “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), successfully freed a man wrongfully imprisoned by using actors to show how the account of events given by the police was impossible. It was clear in that movie, however, that the re-creation was exactly that: it never purported or attempted to replace or supplement actuality footage.
But in today’s documentaries, re-enactments are routinely used to fill in the blanks: lack of footage, lack of subjects, lack of imagination. Indeed, it might be hard to sell a documentary to a network without such dramatizations.
The problem with this is that viewers are misled into thinking they are seeing, and hearing, real people. That is what is so pernicious: giving people the impression that what they are viewing is true. Would it be that difficult to superimpose the words “Re-enactment” in the lower left corner of the screen whenever such footage or audio material was inserted? Without that disclaimer, it truly is fake news.
I have become a bit skeptical of “facts” disclosed for the first time some decades after 1978. I have begun to trust only, or primarily, the earliest accounts regarding Jonestown that were committed to paper—newspaper accounts, journals, interviews, and so on.
My skepticism is based on the realization that memory is fallible and faulty. Scientific studies of memory indicate that what we “remember” is actually a review of the neural pathway created by the memory, not the event itself. A new pathway is created each time we view the memory, sort of like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.
Case in point: the newspaper interviews conducted with Odell Rhodes and Stanley Clayton—arguably eyewitnesses to events in Jonestown—in the weeks immediately following would seem to be the most reliable accounts of what happened on 18 November 1978. We have recently posted FBI interviews conducted with Rhodes and Clayton in December 1978 and January 1979 that also seem consistent (https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=78593).
We also tend to put more trust in the two books published in 1981 that depend upon their reflections—Awake in a Nightmare for Rhodes and Children of Jonestown for Clayton—more than later speculations. This particularly applies to contrarian narratives, the new term for conspiracy theories.
This distrust of new revelations also applies to the memories of these primary sources, especially those of Stanley Clayton, whose addiction to drugs is tragic and well known. So when Clayton asserted in 2011 that Marceline dragged people to the vat of poison—the first time ever mentioned—we were dubious. When he told Fielding McGehee, also in 2011, that he saw a sharpshooter kill my sister Annie, we were suspicious.
Clayton had testified under oath at the inquest in Guyana in December 1978 that he heard a total of six gunshots on 18 November 1978. At that time he never mentioned automatic weapon fire, sharpshooters, or anything else.
We do not think Stanley Clayton was lying when he changed his story or added more details to the existing account. As with other reports we hear, we believe that the narrator is sincere and honest in relating the new-and-improved account. We just trust the earlier version to be closer to the reality of what happened.
In the Renaissance the motto was “Ad Fontes!”—back to the sources. Rather than rely on second- and third-hand translations, the Renaissance humanists wanted to go back to the earliest texts in the original languages. We think that’s still a good habit, and encourage anyone interested in Jonestown and Peoples Temple to cultivate it.
Recently someone asked if there were a “New Peoples Temple.” The short answer is no. This is simply a catch-phrase used to discredit and defame survivors—by which I mean former Peoples Temple members—who have held informal reunions and memorial services for more than a decade.
Dr. Jynona Norwood appears to be the first person to have used this expression. It can be found in the lawsuits she filed in 2011 attempting to halt the placement of four memorial plaques. In those filings she refers several times to “the surviving People’s Church,” led by Fielding McGehee and Jim Jones Jr. Dr. Norwood also mentions “Jim Jones’ gang of leaders Fielding McGehee, Rebecca Moore and Jimmy Jones Jr.” (See the Amended Complaint dated 7 November 2011 at https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Norwood8.pdf.)
Dr. Norwood has faithfully organized memorial services at Evergreen Cemetery year after year. For that we are grateful. But when her fundraising efforts after thirty years resulted in two monuments that were too large to set on the fragile hillside, the Jonestown Memorial Committee raised enough money in three months for memorial plaques to be set directly on the ground. (For the complete story see https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29331.) The fact that the names of all those who died on 18 November 1978—including that of Jim Jones—appeared on the plaques angered her and others.
And so, Dr. Norwood’s effort to discredit anyone who does not support her, her lawsuits, or her annual memorial service. To claim there is a new People’s Temple, or a new People’s Church, is simply a way to create guilt by association. There is no such organization. But there are people who sincerely disagree with Dr. Norwood’s approach to memorialization. I call your attention to reflections written by Dr. Archie Smith Jr. after he attended her services in 2011 (https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=34214) and 2015 (https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=67412).
My sincere gratitude to the individual who posted this question on The Jonestown Forum.
Just as Jim Jones did not plan or direct the deaths in Jonestown all by himself, I think the same is true of my sisters, of Maria Katsaris, and of Marceline Jones—all vilified in the A&E documentary. I hope that enough time has elapsed that I do not sound defensive when I say this.
There is enough culpability to go around—from those who assassinated Congressman Ryan and murdered the journalists; to those who tested the poison, prepared the poison, and distributed the poison; to those who shouted down Christine Miller when she protested; to the parents who stood by while their children were poisoned, let alone those who administered it themselves. All of the adults in Jonestown share some of the burden.
Clearly, people were not brainwashed, since a number attempted to leave and a few did escape. This would suggest that residents were still rational and able to make decisions. We have been told that they were exhausted, ready to give up, and thus susceptible to the temptation of ending it all—perhaps in a blaze of glory called “revolutionary suicide.” Or that they were coerced, although no arrow or bullet wounds were ever detected, and the security forces also perished.
In situations of duress, however, which seemed to characterize conditions in Jonestown, to what extent can we blame individuals? Is everyone a victim in some respect? Were the perpetrators also in some way victims? I am not happy with any of these questions and have no answers.
With the 25th anniversary of the Branch Davidian tragedy right around the corner on April 19; the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown deaths coming up in November; and the release of the documentary series about Rajneeshpuram in Oregon—Wild Wild Country—cults seem to be in the news.
But shouldn’t that be “new religious movements”? Is cult an impartial term? We usually don’t refer to Baptist cultists or Lutheran cultists. It’s only religions that we don’t like, or fear, that we call cults. Yet, after a decade or so of using the less pejorative expression new religion, or new religious movement, reporters are returning to the cult language. Just google “cults in the news” and compare with “NRMs in the news” to see what I mean. (I’m really glad to learn that the New Richmond Middle Schoolers—NRMS—are doing so well in the Olympiad!)
Even the International Cultic Studies Society—a cult awareness group—differentiates between new religious movements (which may be neutral, if not benign) and cults (which are, by definition, bad). Michael Langone, Director of ICSA, suggests using the term “psychologically abusive groups” (http://www.icsahome.com/articles/cults-psy-abuse-and-thought-reform-langone). This broadens the scope to include political, social, recreational, and other groups that may engage in cruel or sadistic behavior. Fraternity hazing comes to mind.
Catherine Wessinger addresses the problem of media bias and the cult stereotype in her thoughtful article about the Branch Davidians in the latest issue of “The Conversation” (https://theconversation.com/the-deaths-of-76-branch-davidians-in-april-1993-could-have-been-avoided-so-why-didnt-anyone-care-90816). I highly recommend reading this to see why calling religious groups cults is misleading and downright dangerous.
In the blogs to come I will continue to address some of the issues relating to definitions and terminology that we are seeing in this Year of the Cult—a much more dramatic title than “Year of the New Religious Movement,” I must admit.
A welcome addition to online considerations of Peoples Temple and Jonestown is the website Blackjonestown.org. As its homepage states, the website is “devoted to lifting up the voices, experiences and social history of African American Peoples Temple and Jonestown members, victims and survivors.”
Clearly, serious consciousness-raising about African American involvement in Peoples Temple is needed, and Blackjonestown.org is a good place to start. The brainchild of three women—Leslie Wagner-Wilson, Sikivu Hutchinson, and Yulanda Williams—the website carries articles they authored, news clips, announcements featuring their work, and more (See “Who We Are” for biographical snapshots.)
We are gratified that a number of articles appearing on Blackjonestown.org were first published on the Alternative Considerations website. To enhance the linkages we have added the URL of Blackjonestown.org to the profiles of Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson and Leslie Wagner-Wilson on Alternative Considerations.
I continue to be amazed at how little the public knows about Peoples Temple and Jonestown in general, and about black involvement in particular. At two university presentations this year, I displayed charts and graphs that vividly depict the racial profile of Jonestown. After both presentations, people came up afterwards and said, “I never knew so many African Americans died in Jonestown.”
The creators of Blackjonestown.org explicitly focus on the experiences of African American women in Peoples Temple. But, as their website states, “We actively encourage contributions from the African American survivor community and beyond.” We wish them well in the months ahead during this significant fortieth anniversary year.
Recently a Jonestown survivor wrote to us that, “I find I still have a bias against the many folks who read a bunch and study a bunch and come up with some new outlook on what was going on in PT.” I’d like to introduce two academic terms—emic and etic—to respond to his complaint.
This vocabulary comes from the discipline of anthropology, the branch that does fieldwork. Observers go out and study the customs of unusual or foreign tribes, such as the Trobriand Islanders, or American high school students. They understand that there are different forms of knowledge. “Emic” refers to the experience and insight held by insiders, while “etic” describes the knowledge and perception of outsiders.
In the case of Peoples Temple, then, former members have an “emic” or insider perspective and journalists, scholars, and others have an “etic” or outsider view. The knowledge of survivors is vital to our understanding of what happened. Those who experienced life in the Temple have much to tell outsiders. They also have a certain moral authority, given what they endured.
The emic outlook is an important part of the story, but it is not the whole story. This is apparent in survivor reports that they did not know everything that went on in the Temple. Information was dispensed on a “need-to-know” basis, so many truly did not know about fake healings, financial irregularities, or harassment of critics. Life for the rank-and-file was different than life for the inner circle. It is also clear that survivors do not agree among themselves, nor do they relate a single, uniform account.
Outsiders have located a great deal of information, thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests, finding documents, tapes, photos, and other items that shed light upon the internal workings of the movement. Etic analyses have studied everything from what people ate in Jonestown to internal crop production reports.
Thus, both perspectives broaden the angle of understanding Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Neither is complete apart from the other. That’s why it’s important to listen to as many different voices as possible—insider and outsider.
The FBI’s investigation into the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan—code-named RYMUR—generated thousands of pages of internal government documents. Most of those have been released under the Freedom of Information Act, and are available at Alternative Considerations and at the FBI Vault on Jonestown.
What is new, however, is that most of these PDFs have been transcribed by Fielding McGehee into searchable html files. Fielding is in the process of uploading all transcribed RYMUR files, with three sets of serials already online:
- Section 24, consisting of a single serial, 1681, comprising the FBI’s report of January 12, 1979 on the attack at Port Kaituma which left the congressman and four others dead;
- Section 25, consisting of Serials 1682-1729, ranging from interviews with Jonestown survivors Joan Pursley, Robin Tschetter, and Leslie Wagner-Wilson, to the government’s efforts to recover Temple assets in Caribbean countries, to monitoring crew members of the Albatross;
- Section 26, also consisting of a single serial listing the 587 bodies which had been identified as of December 14, 1978; and
- Section 33, consisting of Serials 2231–2264, ranging from interviews with Jonestown survivors Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes, to the government’s efforts to recover Temple bank accounts in Switzerland and Panama, to an investigation of an allegation of the Temple’s role in a 1973 train explosion.
The entire work in progress is titled RYMUR Sections as Individual Serials.
The RYMUR documents reveal the FBI’s investigative efforts, from the immediate aftermath of Jonestown, through the second trial—and conviction—of Larry Layton in 1986 for his role in the shootings at the airstrip. Taken as a whole, the documents show the government acting in real time as it tries to understand the scope of the Guyana tragedy, its challenges in piecing together a coherent narrative, and its frustrations in finding someone to pay for the congressman’s death.
The FBI also gathered thousands of documents generated by Peoples Temple but these are separate from the RYMUR release. There are also thousands of other pages of government documents, the existence of which has only recently been discovered, and the scope of their contents is still unknown.
We will be reporting in future blogs on what these serials reveal about the FBI and its assumptions. One thing is immediately apparent, however: the investigators were only interested in how the congressman died. They displayed little, if any, interest in how people in Jonestown died.
In February 1974, Patricia Hearst, the daughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped and imprisoned by a radical urban guerilla group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Two months later, a gun-toting Patricia Hearst joined the group in a bank robbery. In “American Heiress,” Jeffrey Toobin’s 2016 book about Hearst, the author raises the question as to whether she voluntarily became a revolutionary or if she was brainwashed into committing the crime.
The thrust of Hearst’s legal defense in her 1976 trial on robbery charges was that the SLA used mind control techniques to force her to become a bank robber against her will. Despite testimony from two experts in “thought reform” theory—Louis Jolyon West and Robert Jay Lifton—the jury rejected the argument and found her guilty.
There were several connections between the Hearst kidnapping and Peoples Temple, some of which Toobin notes. Jim Jones and the Temple offered to run the food distribution program sponsored by the Hearst family in response to SLA demands. (They were turned down.) Toobin also suggests that the deaths of what he calls brainwashed individuals in Jonestown prompted the Jimmy Carter administration to commute Hearst’s already light prison sentence.
Other connections, unmentioned by Toobin, were the Temple’s offer to provide $2000 in ransom money to the Hearst family to free Patricia, and the Temple’s offer to present several members, including Jim Jones, as hostages in Patricia’s place.
The most significant parallel, however, revolves around the concept of “brainwashing.” Like the word “cult,” brainwashing is only applied to groups we disapprove of. We don’t say that soldiers are brainwashed to kill other people; rather, we describe that as basic training. We don’t say that fraternity members are brainwashed to haze their members; instead, that’s considered peer pressure. But when someone joins a political, social, or religious group that has values at odds with the mainstream, or our own, then they are brainwashed.
I would like to propose using two neutral, and more precise, terms to replace the word “brainwashing.” The first is “conversion,” which, according to dictionary.com, describes a change in attitude, emotion, or viewpoint. Conversion typically refers to religious transformation, though it can describe political change as well. Generally we conceive of conversion as a voluntary process. It can be sudden and dramatic (think of Saint Paul), or slow and gradual (think of Mahatma Gandhi).
The second term is “coercion,” which indicates the use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance (dictionary.com). If someone is compelled to do something under threat of physical, emotional, or spiritual harm—whether to sell flowers on a street corner or to take up a gun—that is coercion. In the case of Patricia Hearst, there is conflicting evidence as to the extent of her conversion and the role played by coercion.
The tricky part in the case of Peoples Temple is determining when people proceeded out of a sincere commitment (and therefore acted voluntarily), and when coercion occurred. That is the topic I will take up in the next journal entry.
I have spoken with a number of former Peoples Temple members who believe that they were brainwashed. This is especially the case for those who left long before the end. Yet the very fact that these “defectors” chose to leave is the strongest evidence against their own claim. To put it bluntly, if their minds were controlled, how could they make any decisions against the wishes of the controllers?
I would never deny that abusive and coercive practices occurred throughout the years that Peoples Temple existed in California and then in Guyana. Indeed, in an article I contributed to the volume, Violence in New Religious Movements (2011), I classified four types of violence present in the Temple—discipline, behavior modification, behavior control, and terror—with each step escalating in cruelty and intensity. In addition, it is clear that these practices did indeed affect behavior in the Temple. Members figured out what to say and do in order to avoid being “called on the floor.” As in every social situation—home, school, work, and elsewhere—people learned the rules of the game. Those who didn’t, or who rebelled, faced especially harsh punishments in Jonestown.
But knowing what the rules are, and abiding by the rules to escape the consequences of resistance, does not mean that we either accept or approve of the rules. Prisoners of war may publicly denounce their home country, or claim allegiance to the enemy, just to survive. When they are released from captivity, however, they revert to their true beliefs. In other words, coercion (or exhaustion or hunger) makes people do things they might not otherwise do (as Patty Hearst did when she took up a gun), but it does not change how they think (consider chattel slaves and their longing for freedom).
Of course, there are bound to be some exceptions to these broad generalizations. What I believe, though, is that as long as individuals question what their leaders or fellow members are doing, if they know that the actions of the group are wrong, if they wish there was a way to change things or—as an alternative—a way to escape, then they have not capitulated to the master narrative. By definition, then, we cannot consider them brainwashed.
A successfully brainwashed person would have no qualms or doubts about the justice of what they were doing. But if their conscience tweaked them, and they ignored it and went right ahead anyway, then any attempted thought reform must be deemed unsuccessful. Even the prevailing ethos in the Temple that “the end justifies the means” indicates that (some? many? most?) members were well aware that what they were doing was ethically questionable.
I am not blaming the victims: as I said above, people do things under coercion that they would not in ordinary circumstances. But I am saying that there is evidence to show that individuals retained their ability to think and even to exercise agency, right up to the last day.
That is why “conversion” and “coercion” are better, more descriptive, terms than “brainwashing” to describe the processes at work in the Temple and other religious, political, and social groups.
To be continued. . .
Proponents of the notion that people who join cults are brainwashed suggest that it is the only explanation for how individuals can make countercultural, and even criminal, decisions that seem so alien to their previous, more rational, more socially-acceptable lives. Such claims have a certain panache to them, as if they were based in scientific theory. The reality is the opposite: the theory of brainwashing is a pseudoscience which does not stand up to the rigors of scientific query.
To explain what I mean, let me start with a definition in terms. Merriam-Webster.com defines pseudoscience as “a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific.” According to Mark Perakh and Matt Young in their discussion of intelligent design, some features of pseudoscience include the following:
• Denial of established scientific fact. The fact is that those who join new religions, or cults, generally leave the group within two years of joining. If brainwashing were effective, more people would join and stay in these groups. In the case of Peoples Temple, between 16,000 and 20,000 people came through its doors in its three established facilities in California, but fewer than half of them stayed for any length of time. About a thousand people moved to Guyana—including a handful who were coerced—but this number represents only 20% of the people who had been in the Temple long enough to have membership cards. If brainwashing were scientific, it seems like many more people would have joined and stayed in the Temple.
• Pseudoscience tries to prove that something is true (like brainwashing), while science tries to determine whether something is true. There is a big difference between the two ideas, and not just semantically. Proponents of brainwashing explanations assume what they want to prove, rather than testing the veracity of their hypothesis. To prove the existence of brainwashing, we would have to perform tests (on human subjects!) that could be replicated. If brainwashing were scientific, it seems like members of Peoples Temple would have reacted in the same way to various stimuli, but this was not the case.
• Untestable hypotheses. In order for a theory to be considered scientifically credible, it must be falsifiable; that is, it must be able to be proven incorrect. Since we cannot really prove that brainwashing does not exist, it fails to meet the standards of the scientific method. We cannot prove that Temple members were not brainwashed, just as we cannot prove that they were brainwashed. If brainwashing were scientific, it seems like there would be a way to prove conclusively, yes or no, that it exists.
• “Everyone is wrong but us,” is a belief found listed by Perakh and Young. By this they mean that there seems to be no way to have a conversation about brainwashing: you either accept it or you don’t. You can’t argue against someone who says “I was brainwashed,” even though what they might mean is “I felt compelled to do things I didn’t want to do,” or “I feared for my life.” If brainwashing were scientific, it seems like we could discuss experiences, feelings, and emotions without being placed in the “anticult” or “cult apologist” camps.
• Finally, pseudoscience tends to use made-up terms and vague concepts. For example, the late Margaret Singer, a renowned cult expert, propounded the idea of “the fallacy of one similarity” to argue that cults are more dissimilar than similar to other groups. Edgar Schein’s schema of “unfreezing–changing–refreezing” is another instance of introducing a vocabulary that appears scientific. Neither of these terms really mean anything, except to the people who coin them and those who want to believe them. If brainwashing were scientific, it seems like we might agree upon a shared vocabulary to describe the phenomenon.
The bottom line is that “brainwashing” is a word reserved for groups with beliefs we don’t like. I have tried to make the case for using the terms “conversion” and “coercion,” since they are neutral and descriptive. Group members may take actions out of deep conviction (conversion) or out of duress (coercion), but not because they were brainwashed.
Several alert readers have pointed out the difference between “conditioning” and “brainwashing,” and suggested that it might be a more precise term to use. I agree.
As it’s used most of the time, “conditioning” refers to the psychological process of learning to behave in a certain way in response to certain stimuli. Think Pavlov and his bells, or how you might start to salivate when you visualize chocolate cake. (Mmmm… doughnuts!)
More broadly, however, conditioning can describe the habitual responses we have to things that happen to us. Travel on planes = knot in stomach; Smell of bread baking = hunger pangs; Upcoming test = serious migraine.
The fact is, as we grow up and experience life, we become conditioned by parents, teachers, friends, and society to think and feel in certain predictable ways. There is nothing evil or nefarious about this process—it just happens. We learn, we remember, and we respond. Some are conditioned to be obedient, punctual, or helpful, because this behavior has been rewarded over time. Others are conditioned to be aggressive, tardy, or suspicious—even though these are bad habits—because this behavior has similarly been rewarded. We quickly learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
Most of the folks who joined Peoples Temple were conditioned—that is, they learned—to be altruistic, thoughtful, kind, and idealistic before they ever set foot in the Temple. Since most members came from church traditions, or political activism, or both, they brought these characteristics with them. As the sociologist Jim Richardson has pointed out, brainwashing theories do not consider “predisposing characteristics of NRM participants.”
How, then, did such nice people end up doing such terrible things? The process of conditioning—rewarding some behaviors and punishing others—seems to have more explanatory power than that of brainwashing. Peer pressure (think Stanford Prison Experiment) and obedience to authority (think Milgram Experiment) helped shape negative behavioral changes. There’s nothing very mysterious about this, and there is quite a bit of research to document how conditioning operates.
(By the way, conditioning is not an irreversible state of being. We are not prisoners of our past. The Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti says a great deal about how we react unthinkingly according to our environments. “When you become aware of your conditioning,” however, “you will understand the whole of your consciousness.”)
If we consider conditioning, along with conversion and coercion, to explain why individuals were attracted to Peoples Temple—why they joined, why they stayed, and why they ultimately accepted (or perpetrated) great evils—we don’t really need a brainwashing theory to understand what happened. We have a large body of social scientific research upon which to draw.
And that’s real science, not pseudoscience.
The last few posts have made clear my perspective on brainwashing, and why I don’t use that term to describe the experiences of people who join new religions—or cults.
I do not discount the fact that true believers exist. My sisters fall into that category, sincerely promoting the cause—no matter how misguided or lethal—because of their deep commitment to it. I don’t consider them brainwashed, however. They made decisions and choices more or less freely. They knew what they were doing. The same is true for members of the Branch Davidians: they accepted and believed the word of God as interpreted by David Koresh. But true believers are a rare breed.
If brainwashing actually existed, or really worked, we would expect to see many more dangerous people running around, planning to carry out reprehensible schemes. Instead, we find that people abandon their beliefs as soon as they leave situations of desperation or coercion. This fact does not address the reality of the difficulty of leaving high-demand groups, whether political parties, religious groups, social clubs, or even business environments. Should we consider the situational stresses and peer pressure that affect personal behavior forms of brainwashing? If that were the case, then everything—and nothing—constitutes mind control.
One thing that has always bothered me about the brainwashing explanation is that it often functions like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card—“I wasn’t responsible for my actions because I was brainwashed.” (Or, the Devil made me do it!) I totally accept that, at times, people were manipulated, abused, and coerced as Temple members. But we should also remember the rewards some individuals had by being members: power, authority, responsibility, control. How many young women were managing million-dollar institutions in the 1970s? How many young men had authority over hundreds of others?
Further, it dehumanizes those who died in Jonestown to say that they were brainwashed zombies, unable to think for themselves. I categorically reject this claim. This is not the same as asserting that “they were not brainwashed, so they fought to the end.” I reject this as well, though not as strongly: some were murdered outright, some resisted, and some took the poison. The evidence on this is mixed. But I would argue for the proposition that residents of Jonestown were not brainwashed. Exhausted—yes; afraid—definitely; coerced—perhaps.
Strange as it may seem, I would rather hold people accountable—whether victim or perpetrator, innocent or guilty—than deny their humanity by calling them brainwashed.
Mac (that’s Fielding McGehee when he’s being formal) talked to six production groups today that are planning or preparing programs on Jonestown or Peoples Temple—ESPN, ABC, NBC, Sundance, People Magazine, and an English company. That list doesn’t include the half dozen other documentary productions and fictional adaptations that are also in the works.
Inquiries range from finding film or video footage, to obtaining copyright permission to use photos, to identifying people in photographs, to tracking down the origin of Temple documents, to locating interview subjects. What is quite clear, however, is that producers already have a preconceived notion of what kind of story they want to tell. They don’t use the documents, photos, interviews, and films to learn what the story is. Rather, they have a story in mind from the outset and then use the evidence to illustrate it.
When it comes to putting the various productions in touch with interview subjects, Mac directs them to the Speakers and Resources listed on the website. This page identifies people who have agreed to be contacted by the media—though it does not mean that they necessarily will agree to be interviewed. Many producers, however, would like to talk with people who do not appear on this list, the ones who are not open to general contact or who have removed themselves from the Speakers Bureau after being burned by the media. In those cases, Mac suggests that the requester write an email to the individual explaining why they want to contact them, the nature of the program, and so on. Then Mac forwards the request to the subject. That way the privacy of individuals is maintained. In other words, we don’t give out people’s emails or phone numbers.
But that’s not to say that enterprising journalists cannot get the information in other ways. Indeed, they’re not very good reporters if they are unable to track people down on their own. In these days, nothing, and no one, is very private. Still, we like to think that we, at least, are not the ones to spill the beans!
This is a long preamble to saying that lots of former Temple members are experiencing “interview fatigue.” They are besieged with requests to speak: from reporters writing news stories, students doing school reports, and random people who write them to find out “how it really was.” We should all be mindful of the stresses that this particular year, and these particular requests, may engender. PTSD is real, and many are re-living the horror. Trailers and programs are constantly on the air—an A&E production airs repeatedly, People Magazine’s package of video and print appeared in early June, and NBC has scheduled a date in late June for its documentary focusing on the news team who accompanied Leo Ryan to Guyana in 1978. This is just a preview for what will occur this fall. It’s hard to imagine the sheer volume of requests that folks are receiving these days.
There is a sense among Temple survivors that the fortieth anniversary is the last big one for media coverage. Let’s hope that they can all survive this, and that the sun will rise on November 19 with a general sense that both the dead and the living have been treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. It is certainly not too much to ask of the reporters and producers who cover this story.
Fox News recently reported that Tracy Parks tried to wake up her mother after Patty Parks drank the Kool-Aid. Just one problem—the Parks Family left with Congressman Ryan’s party and were not in Jonestown as the deaths were occurring. They were at the Port Kaituma airport.
Here is what Fox News reported:
Tracy Parks, who was just 12 years old, recalled holding her mother’s body, trying to wake her up after she drank cyanide-laced grape punch alongside hundreds more in Jonestown, Guyana.
She said her father yelled at her to ‘get in the jungle’ and ‘run’ as more and more bodies fell to the ground around her. She said her older sister Brenda started running and she followed suit.
Here is what I am reporting:
Patricia Parks was one of the five fatalities at Port Kaituma, along with Congressman Ryan and three reporters. It seems pretty clear that the gunmen deliberately aimed at Ryan, his aide Jackie Speier, and the journalists, rather than those who had been leaving Jonestown. In other words, Patty was not directly targeted the way the others were. Nevertheless, she died in the assault.
It’s too bad Fox News couldn’t give Patty the dignity she deserves by getting the facts straight.
The Department of Special Collections at San Diego State University has developed an amazing archive of photographs, through the Digital Collections at SDSU! More than a thousand digitized photos appear at this link.
Everything is free to look at. But before you start downloading and sharing, please remember that use of the photographs requires the permission of Special Collections. You can write to Robert Ray to see what is allowed.
Almost 500 photographs were donated to Special Collections by Stephan Jones. You can see them starting at item number 30 (and going to 528). Or follow this link to the first photograph in the collection.
There are also photos of Port Kaituma and Jonestown taken by the FBI, and released to the Jonestown Institute under the Freedom of Information Act, starting at item number 529, and ending at 712. More than 180 photos—some depicting the aftermath of the death scene—start at this link.
The FBI gathered publicity shots and candid photos that residents of Jonestown had taken. These start with a photo of David Chaikin working (at item 1052, going to item 1129). Go to this link to see these wonderful (and heartbreaking) pictures.
And don’t forget the great collection of photographs maintained on Flickr by Laura Kohl. Again, you should write to Laura or to the Jonestown Institute if you want to use them in any sort of publication. They will freely give permission for what is in the public domain, but some photos may belong to the California Historical Society and CHS permission is needed to use those.
A hidden treasure on the Alternative Considerations website is the link titled “Jonestown Research.” Most of the items in this section were created by Don Beck, with assistance from Tim Carter, Laura Kohl and others.
Don compiled many of these documents by examining Peoples Temple records—censuses, address lists, minutes from meetings, and more. For example, the page on Education, Housing and Population presents lists of all of the school teachers (and what they taught); all of the school children (and what grade they were in); members of the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (!); counselors and counseling groups; and a list of infants born in Guyana.
There are helpful maps that he developed in collaboration with Tim Carter. And of course the fascinating journals of Edith Roller that give a day-to-day account of life in San Francisco and in Jonestown. The late Michael Bellefountaine (God bless his soul!) and Don nearly went blind transcribing bad photocopies of Roller’s texts provided by the FBI. Unfortunately, the entries for September, October, and November 1978 are missing.
The Jonestown Censuses page provides information on when folks arrived in Guyana (by name and by date); lists of who lived where; and membership on key committees. Some of the information has been superseded by the page on Demographics and Family Trees prepared by Fielding McGehee, but the census page is a very good place to start.
“It takes a village. . .” and in the case of the Jonestown website, that is very true. I will try to call out other contributors in future posts. In the meantime, a huge hug to Don for providing the analyses that future historians (and ourselves) will be able to use.
Contrary to what many believe, Dr. Leslie Mootoo, the pathologist assigned by the Government of Guyana to examine the bodies in Jonestown, did not conduct autopsies on any of those who died there—not even on Jim Jones.
In his sworn testimony before the Guyana Inquest Dr. Mootoo stated that he performed “post mortem toxicology study” on some of the bodies Odell Rhodes had identified, along with “toxicology study” on an additional 25 unidentified bodies. A cable from the U.S. Embassy (see PDF pages 325–327) in Georgetown provided additional details, reporting that Dr. Mootoo had examined 39 identified bodies, for a total of 64 bodies. This cable notes that these examinations were performed “without vivisection,” which I interpret to mean “without dissection.”
Jim Jones and my sister Annie Moore received closer inspection than the others because external wounds were visible, namely gunshot damage to their heads. Although Dr. Mootoo did slice into Jones’ abdomen, anyone familiar with Crime Scene Investigation or Law and Order would not call this slice an autopsy. And see the definition of Autopsy on Wikipedia to confirm the general understanding of what that word indicates.
Dr. Mootoo did conduct traditional autopsies in a Georgetown laboratory on Monday, November 20, on the five people shot and killed at the Port Kaituma airport. And on Wednesday, November 22, also in Georgetown, he performed four more on Sharon Amos and her children.
He and three assistants, therefore, were in Jonestown for a single day, Tuesday, November 21, though they had arrived the evening before.
The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology did conduct standard autopsies on Jim Jones, both of my sisters, and four other individuals. The AFIP protocol on Annie’s autopsy, states “that cyanide was recovered from syringes at the scene and from the stomach contents of 65 victims.”
And the reporter Charles Krause, who was wounded at the airport, was at the scene in Jonestown on November 21, and attended the Guyana Inquest in December, stated that Dr. Mootoo testified he had completed 56 autopsies in Jonestown.
Whether the number is 56, 64, or 65, it is clear that Dr. Mootoo never examined more than 70 individuals. But the number of people he supposedly “autopsied” began to grow, by his own account.
When he spoke at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in February 1979, “Dr. Mootoo reported that tests of stomach contents from 81 bodies at Jonestown showed evidence of cyanide, and that additional tests showed another 83 people had been injected with cyanide.” And the numbers continued to increase. He told a reporter from Freedom magazine that 187 individuals had been killed by injection (email correspondence with the author).
Let me make it clear that I am not arguing that people were not injected with poison in Jonestown, or that some were injected against their will. We have eye witness testimony from Tim Carter, Odell Rhodes, and Stanley Clayton—reported at the Guyana Inquest and in Rolling Stone Magazine—that gives us a good idea of what went on.
All I am saying is that Dr. Mootoo is not a credible witness in this regard. He examined no more than 70 bodies in Jonestown, under extremely adverse circumstances. He did not perform what we would consider to be actual autopsies. And he exaggerated what he had actually accomplished.
I’ve provided some of the evidence about Dr. Mootoo here. The rest of the story will be published in the Jonestown Report. Stay tuned!
Still more items are now available online through Special Collections of the San Diego State University Library—thanks to the generosity of Stephan Jones and the work of collection staff at SDSU Library.
The Jones Family Memorabilia Collection, 1962-2002 contains almost 600 photos, letters, documents, drawings, and other artifacts.
If you go to the site, you will notice that many of the titles of the images say “unidentified” but descriptions make a good guess at the identities. Users have to open up the image to get this additional information, however.
If you would like to help in the identification process, please contact Robert Ray, the head of Special Collections. Kristine Alles and Laura Johnston Kohl helped tremendously with identifying individuals pictured in the main Peoples Temple Image collection. Assistance in such identification is greatly appreciated—now, before it is too late.
Once again, permission is needed to use these items, but is generally granted free for noncommercial purposes.
Take a look at these amazing items!
Our neighbors are furious with us for picking blackberries from the bushes on their property. It was a misunderstanding that went nuclear. In their wrath, they posted a “No Trespassing” sign that faces our house and informed us that they were building a fence. We pre-emptively constructed our own, a big one.
This fence issue got me thinking about August Wilson’s play “Fences,” which was made into a great movie starring Denzel Washington. (This will lead to Peoples Temple in a moment.) Washington’s character, Troy Maxson, is a bitter man, angry about his missed opportunities as an African American living in the segregated society of the 1950s. This righteous rage destroys his friends and family, however.
Even before the election of Donald Trump, a pervasive fury colored national political discourse and social media. Of special concern to me, though, is the ambient anger that seems to underlie some discussions within the network of Peoples Temple survivors.
Of course, there is a lot to be mad about. People feel they were misled and fooled by Jones; that he and other leaders killed their relatives; that he hurt them personally; that he was never punished. Old animosities, which time was supposed to heal, seem as fresh as ever—forty years later. What is going on?
Anger arises out of a sense of grievance: we have been wronged! If we don’t feel this injustice, we don’t get mad. How, then, do we handle the resentments that have simmered through four decades?
I don’t have the answer, I’m just raising the question. Each one comes to terms with the past in their own way. But one thing seems clear to me. Building fences may work in property disputes, but they do not promote harmonious human relations.
In his poem “Mending Wall” Robert Frost writes:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out.
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Good advice for all of us busy building our fences—literal or figurative.
Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal poses the following problem in his book The Sunflower: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do?” What Wiesenthal did, as that prisoner, was to listen to the soldier’s confession of a horrifying atrocity he had participated in. But then, when asked for some kind of absolution, Wiesenthal left the room without saying a word.
The first part of The Sunflower describes Wiesenthal’s encounter in detail. The second part presents responses to the Nazi hunter’s question from a variety of perspectives—Christian and Jewish, Buddhist and Atheist, to list a few.
Most of the writers agreed that only the individual who has been wronged can grant forgiveness. And that each person is responsible for their own actions. “No soul carries the burden of another,” one of the authors asserted. After that, however, responses ranged widely.
Some wrote that silence was indeed the best response: let the sinner live with the sin. Others noted that “the injured”—the six million who died in the camps—are unable to grant forgiveness. They are “incapable of exercising such prerogative or indeed of expressing any opinion at all.” Another observed that we can neither forgive murder nor the murderer, as long as the murder is not atoned for.
There is an epilogue to Wiesenthal’s story. In 1946, he visited the mother of the dead soldier, out of what he called a vague feeling of duty. She described the schism in her family that occurred when her son joined Hitler Youth. Wiesenthal did not have the heart to destroy her illusions about her “good” son, so he said little. “I saw her grief and I knew my own grief. Was sorrow our common link? Was it possible for grief to be an affinity?”
In a previous blog I wrote about the fences that arise due to our anger. At the time I thought that perhaps forgiveness was one way past the barriers that exist. But after thinking about Wiesenthal’s question I wonder if, instead, it is the recognition of our common loss that might unite us.
All of us lost dear ones in Jonestown. While many other issues can be debated, we have that one irrefutable fact before us. Our grief was denied for decades because of the way in which people died. Can that grief—refreshed and renewed by endless media inquiries this anniversary year—bring us together? Or will it drive us apart?
I had the occasion to read (or re-read) a memo my sister Annie wrote on 5 November 1978. (A Spanish translation will appear in the forthcoming jonestown report.) In it, she lists the reasons she suspects that Joyce Touchette, also a nurse, is attempting to poison Jim Jones.
It is a rather disturbing document for several reasons—the accusation itself, the evidence presented, and the conviction that the CIA and FBI are involved. Of course, in some respects it is no different from other letters to “Dad,” in its presuppositions, language, and outlook.
Nevertheless, it appears more batty, if I may use a non-technical term, than usual. Examples, quoting directly:
- Joyce’s handwriting reveals schizophrenia and disintegrated personality. Has slant change severely in different parts.
- Has been confronted on the floor. Hostile about special privileges, dishes being sterilized, hostile at men.
- She seems insistent that it is the [milk]shakes. No one suggested this. She is clever but not enough to fool us
An independent witness contributing to the upcoming jonestown report confirms that Jim Jones feared he was being poisoned. Peter Elsass visited Jonestown eleven days before the tragedy. Jim Jones told the visiting filmmaker: “The CIA is using every trick to gain control of me. At times they even control and influence my thoughts, so I cannot think clearly. They have their means, so they poison my food, and that poison also affects my brain activity.”
Then there is Jim Jones’ memo of 16 October 1978 in which he warns residents to be careful with heavy equipment because there is a full moon. “We are 98% water and we rise like the tide,” the memo states. “Most people it affects positively and some it affects negatively. So we have to be more aware for dangers to our life or crippling disorders or diseases around the 16th and the full moon. Please remember that fact & regard it for your own safety.”
I am not attempting to provide an insanity defense for either Jim Jones or Annie Moore. But could we make a case for “diminished capacity” for everyone living in Jonestown? Diet, stress, fear, exhaustion, and more all served to weaken the residents physically, emotionally, and mentally. Annie as much as anyone else.
A contributor to the jonestown report recently asked that his email address be removed from the site. He had just received an email with the subject line: “You are worse than Jim Jones.”
What’s truly amazing is that this individual had no connection with Jones and has been critical of Peoples Temple for a very long time. Anyone knowing him would be saying, “What, him? No way!”
As website managers we accept hate mail as one of the consequences of providing a variety of perspectives on Peoples Temple. An entire blog was devoted to criticizing us as Jonestown apologists (which we have archived on the site). And a recent podcast from “Open Minds” spent more than sixty minutes attacking me personally and saying that my sisters must have been psychopaths from birth. (We have linked this podcast from the website). All of this goes with the territory.
Several times throughout the year we receive anonymous emails (usually written in capital letters) calling us baby killers, deviants, and so on. We generally reply by noting that we are willing to engage in civil discourse with everyone, and inviting them to write an article for the website. Sometimes they even do.
What we do not accept, however, are personal attacks against anyone else, especially against contributors to the website. We know that this happens quite frequently in the climate of hatred we currently live in. So we are doubly grateful that people are willing to have their names, photos, and addresses posted with their articles. We especially appreciate those who serve on the Speakers Bureau, the most visible targets of vitriol.
Undoubtedly much of the animosity will die down when the media feeding frenzy ends and the anniversary passes. It is small consolation to know that this, too, will pass—since the grief over losses will never end. That’s what makes the hate mail leveled at website contributors so despicable. Haven’t they suffered enough?
One of the most amazing things to emerge from the terrible tragedy is the variety of creative works. Poems, plays, short stories, and novels; operas and dramas; paintings, sculpture, performance art; music and more attempt to capture the complexity of not just the last day, but the entirety of the Peoples Temple movement. (The artwork shown is by Nick Burgess.)
These efforts can be seen on the newly-uploaded page “Jonestown in the Arts.” Fielding McGehee compiled all of the relevant articles and items appearing in the twenty volumes of the jonestown report. There is a lot!
Clicking on “Short Stories,” for example, presents a number of items written by professional authors that appear only on the website. Scrolling down to “Poetry” we find works by former members of Peoples Temple and those by poets unconnected to the Temple—they are all fascinating in very different ways. These poems are also unique to the website.
Book reviews and literary criticism are included in the compendium. This means we can read accounts of Guyana poet Fred D’Aguiar, as well as original works by survivors and other critics. Perhaps my favorite item in this section is Matthew Thomas Farrell’s analysis of “Peoples Temple as Plot Device.”
I hesitate to single out any one contributor for mention, although I am quite partial to the late Jan Carew’s story (or is it an essay?) “Jonestown Revisited.” But they are all worth a look since they help expand our thinking outside the narrow framework established by the news media.
If anyone other than Jim Jones had proposed it, Apostolic Socialism might be the operating principle of today’s progressive Christians. A newly-posted FAQ provides the biblical justification for a theology of Apostolic Socialism, and notes its ultimate distortion by Jones.
The New Testament book of Acts quite clearly states that members of the early Christian church practiced communal sharing (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–35). The gospels also depict an itinerant movement that seemed to have some kind of communal financial arrangements (Judas is well-attested as the treasurer). The idea of bibical socialism, then, is not far-fetched. Indeed, there was a movement for Christian Socialism in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose members worked for social justice .
Jim Jones took this a step further, however, by equating God with Socialism. He utilized the following logic: If God is Love, and Love is Socialism, then God is Socialism. By love, he was indicating the Christian concept of charity (caritas in Latin). The religious meaning of charity does not suggest giving people hand-outs, but rather loving people in concrete, rather than abstract, ways: providing food, shelter, clothing, and more, as indicated by the Temple letterhead drawn from Matthew 25:35–36.
Jim Jones then asserted that *he* was the Divine Principle, “God Socialism.” While the Christian doctrine of the Trinity admits three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit (or Creater, Redeemer, Sustainer)—it doesn’t seem to make room for Jim Jones (or for the Virgin Mary, as some would like to see).
But should we throw out the idea of Apostolic Socialism because its progenitor misunderstood, and abused, the very idea? I would like to see the concept rehabilitated and developed in a constructive, rather than destructive, way. As sociologist David Feltmate recently wrote:
We might want to refrain from seeing apostolic socialism as something that inevitably led to Jonestown. Instead, we want to see if this idea led to ideas and actions worth emulating in the contemporary world and if so, what are they and why are they worth emulating” (David Feltmate, “Peoples Temple: A Lost Legacy for the Current Moment,” Nova Religio, November 2018).
We can consider this alternative legacy, however, only by looking at the people of Peoples Temple and all of their accomplishments.
Anyone who has had dealings with the media knows the risk involved in telling one’s story. Our own narrative isn’t necessarily what appears in the final cut. It never seems to come out quite the way we said it.
Yet time and again survivors have gone out on a limb, exposing their deepest feelings so that all of us can learn from their experiences.
I’m sure I am neglecting someone when I call out Leslie and Laura, Jim and Stephan, Yulanda and Tim, Jordan and Thom, Vernon and Tracy, Hue and Debbie and Eugene, for special mention. My apologies to those I’ve failed to mention!
They and others on the Speakers Bureau have spoken with journalists throughout the year. They have helped the general public understand the tragic events that happened four decades ago. We should all be grateful for their spirit of generosity.
There was a mood of both reverence for the dead and joy at greeting old friends and meeting new ones among the 170 people present, despite the smoky skies and chilly air at Evergreen Cemetery. (To see the event, visit the 40th anniversary photos at JonestownMemorial.com.)All of the speakers were Temple survivors—or “Temple Family” as emcee Jim Jones Jr. said—with the exception of Raphael Cobb, daughter of survivor John Cobb. Each shared a different perspective on their experiences in the Temple and since Jonestown.Janet Shular spoke of the importance of understanding change, while Eugene Smith presented the origins of his militant outlook on life. Both Laura Kohl and Jordan Vilchez explained the significance of their March 2018 trip to Guyana. Liz Foreman reminded listeners of their connection to those who died (the 99 percent, in her words), and Stephan Jones looked at the ways in which Temple members were complicit in what happened.
A very powerful part of the service was the reading of the names of those Temple members who have died since 1978. Deb Harper and Lena Flowers performed this task eloquently.
Two unscheduled speakers read beautifully prepared remarks during the open mic section of the program: Nicole Ruffo (daughter of Kristine Alles and Rob Tarver) and Tim Carter, a Jonestown survivor.
One of the most important parts of the service was the introduction of the Jonestown Memorial website, developed by John Cobb and Regina Hamilton with the assistance of Kathryn Barbour. This site can be accessed with a QR code at the cemetery itself. It presents photographs of those who died, thus bringing the names on the plaques to life.
The memorial site itself was completely renovated thanks to a gift from an anonymous donor, and the hard work of Jim Jones Jr. and John Cobb. I encourage people to make the trip to Evergreen Cemetery to view this very moving monument.
Teri battled numerous illnesses for a number of years. Her daughter Vita and Teri’s friend Martha provided ongoing care in her Northhampton, Massachusetts apartment until she was hospitalized during her final weeks. They remained with her to the end.
Teri is perhaps best known for being one of the Temple’s financial secretaries, who left Peoples Temple with attorney Mark Lane a few weeks before the 1978 deaths. But there is a lot more to know about her.
Teri was a poet, a painter, and an artist. Plagued with severe PTSD after her years in Peoples Temple, she nevertheless was able to help others navigate the social welfare system in Massachusetts as a client advocate. In other words, she guided folks like herself to the services they needed.
Mac and I were fortunate to visit Teri this past summer (2018). She was weaker and thinner than we remembered her from summer reunions, but was gracious and hospitable. We reminisced a bit, talked about her poetry, and admired the art that she and Vita had created.
This brief blurb doesn’t do justice to the spirit that burned in Teri, so I hope that folks will write remembrances of her to post to the Jonestown website! Please send your stories and condolence notes to Vita and Martha (Teri’s closest family outside her Temple family) via Fielding McGehee, who will forward them directly.
This is my last Jonestown Journal. Not just of 2018, but ever.
This doesn’t mean I’m no longer researching and writing about Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Far from it. But the primary venues will be the Alternative Considerations website and academic publications.
I’ve already been writing short items for the website. Most recently posted was the answer to the FAQ “What pathologists investigated the deaths that occurred in Jonestown, Georgetown, and Port Kaituma?” Answer here.
I’m continuing to talk with students working on their National History Day projects (this year’s theme—Triumph and Tragedy in History). Still responding to email inquiries, the most recent being from an undergraduate student in Russia researching the political activity of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. I will never stop writing, thinking, and reflecting on the huge topic that is Peoples Temple (which encompasses Jonestown but is not limited to that single event). I’ll just be doing that in some different ways.
The columns that appeared on the Furthermoore blog will come down at the end of this year. But the scintillating analyses (though not the heated comments posted in response) are not lost forever. They are archived on my page on the on the website.
A big “thank you” to all who took the time to read and respond. You are all part of the ongoing conversation, and I appreciate your involvement.
I initially titled this last column “Sayonara,” which is Japanese for goodbye. But according to the Urban Dictionary, sayonara carries much more finality than a simple “adios.” I don’t see this column as being quite that terminal, so I prefer “See you next time.” That is a lot more indefinite, which describes how I am feeling at the end of this tumultuous year. A bit more indefinite.