(This blogpost by Kelly Lavoie was originally published on April 24, 2019, and is reprinted with permission.)
I felt compelled to write this opinion piece after recently reading Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore, who is the sister of two prominent Temple members, Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore. After reading this book, I think that, in my anger over the death of so many and the exploitation of mostly black people (a feeling that I do continue to have), I was less analytical toward the Temple leadership circle in prior Jonestown posts than I feel I should have been.
I’m not suggesting that I view any of their actions more favorably, or that my prior opinions regarding what occurred at Jonestown have changed, but that I have allowed my anger to color my interpretation of their experiences in an overly simplistic and reductive way. I want to correct that.
As a former (and lifelong, in a sense) student of Sociology, I’ve prided myself in choosing to be analytical and pragmatic in my approach to research; I’ve also tried to be empathetic in my approach to humans. I think that the similarity of the Temple leadership to myself (i.e. white, civic-minded, college educated, etc.) led me to a more emotionally driven reaction to their roles in the tragedy that ultimately occurred at Jonestown.
Learning should be an ongoing, fluid process, and I am not afraid to alter my position on a subject as I become increasingly informed about it.
As I continued to consider the importance of approaching even emotionally charged subjects analytically, I was reminded of the recent 20 year mark of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Like Jonestown, this was a historically significant example of extreme violence that elicited an extreme public reaction, complete with backlash against those close to the perpetrators.
I want to look at a couple of examples of that, and I want to discuss the importance, both on the social level and the personal level, of suspending our emotional reactions to an extent in order to gain a thorough understanding of all perspectives when it comes to these incidents, including the perspectives of the perpetrators.
We do not know the limits of man’s capacities for supreme effort or willing degradation, for agony or for glee, for pleasurable brutality or the sweetness of reason. But in our time we have come to know that the limits of ‘human nature’ are frighteningly broad. We have come to know that every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society; that he lives out a biography, and that he lives it out within some historical sequence. By the fact of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of its history, even as he is made by society and by its historical push and shove. The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.
C.W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination
I had just turned 13 when the shooting at Columbine happened. Back then, it was not so much the norm to see scenes like that on live TV, and it was quite shocking. There were a couple of kids plainly visible from news helicopters, lying dead or injured on the lawn of the school. There was even a boy who flopped right out of a window, limp and bloody, on live news. In the subsequent days, survivors explicated on the cruelty of the shooters, students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. They had apparently laughed and whooped as they killed their classmates, most of them kids that they didn’t even know, at least not well enough to have a personal grudge against.
The particular way that they carried out this violence has become a template for shootings that have followed, as disenfranchised and/or disturbed individuals emulate their attitudes and aesthetic. Even at the time of this writing, days away from 20 years since the massacre, a young woman has recently made threats against Columbine High School, causing all area schools to go into lockdown.
The parents of Harris and Klebold were ultimately sued by the families of the victims, and oftentimes demonized in the eyes of the public. The Klebolds were even forced to sell their rental properties since the media had taken to staking out the tenants, hoping to gather juicy details from people even marginally connected to the Klebolds. Open hostility was common, and their physical safety was not guaranteed for quite sometime. I’m sure they still spend a lot of time looking over their shoulders to this day.
Many were of the opinion that this was almost as much their fault as it was the young shooters’. Parents should teach their children better. They should know when their child is so profoundly disturbed. They should know that they’re keeping journals that detail killing others and themselves. They should know that they are keeping a small cache of weapons in the bedroom of a family home. They should’ve known, and they should’ve done something, and now several children are dead.
Afterwards, people asked, “How could you not know? What kind of a mother were you?” I still ask myself those same questions.
Klebold, Ted Talk
To be completely honest, at the time, I never gave much thought to their parents one way or the other. Being 13, I was more interested in the perspectives of fellow teenagers than that of parents discussing parenting issues. Indeed, Columbine seemed to bring to a head tension between “jocks” and “goths,” (in our area schools, the lingo was actually “freaks” rather than “goths” for the most part). I had several friends who were involved in fights around this time, over not much more than these social labels.
In the years following the shooting, Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, has given an emotional TED talk and published a book, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. Hearing what she had to say made me feel ashamed that I had never thought to consider how poorly she and others like her are often treated following violent incidents.
In American media, particularly taking into account our political dynamic, we tend to be quite preoccupied with righteous indignation. When violent incidents occur, you had best say the correct platitudes, lest you be perceived as selfish, thoughtless, or on the “wrong side” of the issue. Now that social media is so ubiquitous, it’s become a game of one-upsmanship for some to prove just how much they condemn; “They should get life in prison!” “Trash like this should get the death penalty!” “This sick f#$! is gonna get it in prison!”
When it comes to those close to the perpetrator, oftentimes, even silence is deemed unacceptable, never mind continued feelings of love for them. In the case of Columbine, it seems as though, since the shooters killed themselves, we had to make someone pay, and it may as well be the ones who raised them.
In her TED talk, Sue Klebold discusses the potential connection between suicidal ideation and homicidal behavior. But before doing so, she expressed what it has been like for her since the shooting.
When I talk to people who didn’t know me before the shootings, I have three challenges to meet. First, when I walk into a room like this, I never know if someone there has experienced loss because of what my son did. I feel a need to acknowledge the suffering caused by a member of my family who isn’t here to do it for himself. So first, with all of my heart, I’m sorry if my son has caused you pain. The second challenge I have is that I must ask for understanding, and even compassion, when I talk about my son’s death as a suicide. Two years before he died, he wrote on a piece of paper in a notebook that he was cutting himself. He said that he was in agony, and wanted to get a gun so that he could end his life. I didn’t know about any of this until months after his death. When I talk about his death as a suicide, I’m not trying to downplay the viciousness he showed at the end of his life. I’m trying to understand how his suicidal thinking led to murder. After a lot of reading and talking with experts, I’ve come to believe that his involvement in the shootings was rooted not in his desire to kill, but in his desire to die. The third challenge I have when I talk about my son’s murder-suicide is that I’m talking about mental health, or brain health as I prefer to call it because it’s more concrete, and in the same breath, I’m talking about violence.
Klebold, Ted Talk
In her book, Ms. Klebold relates in great detail the indescribable pain of being hated for something that your child has done, knowing that your child has destroyed human lives, the lives of other people’s children. The fame, iconography, and fetishizing of Columbine has magnified this beyond the experience of typical parents-of-killers. Not only does Ms. Klebold, to some extent even to this day, have to consider her physical safety in everyday life; at any turn, at any given time, she could be faced with some reminder of her child’s death and what he has done. Crime scene photos of her son in a pool of blood, having shot himself, are widely circulated online. Kids who want to prove how irreverent and edgy they are dress up as Eric and Dylan for Halloween. In addition to hate mail, she receives letters from misguided young people who laud Dylan as some sort of folk hero. Every time a school shooting happens, I’m certain that her wounds are wrenched open.
I noticed that, even in this book, written years after the fact, she qualifies every attempt to understand her son’s actions, being so careful not to appear to excuse him of anything.
How sad that a woman who’s experienced such horror has been made to feel as though she doesn’t have the right to grieve for her son or to understand what happened.
I know that there are even some who think I don’t have the right to any pain, but only to a life of permanent penance.
I came to know of Dr. Rebecca Moore, the co-manager of this site, and the author of numerous articles on it, of the book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (an excellent read, I might add), and of several other books related to Peoples Temple and Jonestown.
Apart from a scholarly interest, Dr. Moore has a unique connection to Jonestown: she is the sister of two prominent members of the Temple leadership, who died along with many others at Jonestown: Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, who are her older and younger sisters, respectively. The fact that they were adults at the time of their actions as well as the magnitude of deaths and other unique factors means that Moore and Klebold were dealing with differing circumstances and challenges. But, there are many ways that their experiences overlap.
Dr. Moore has spent many years trying to make sense of what became of the Temple and her sisters, as she and her family were apparently blindsided by it. For quite some time, they had been aware that the level of devotion and time the sisters put into the Temple had been, perhaps, “unusual;” in letters, the sisters had even mentioned their willingness to die for their cause.
But the family never imagined that either of them could ever be instrumental in harming anyone. They were both kind, loving, idealistic young women who genuinely wanted to improve the world. In this way, we see the first of many similarities to what Sue Klebold has experienced – sure, there were signs that seem like red flags in retrospect, but how could anyone on the outside imagine the horror that was to come before-the-fact? For example, plenty of people who are intensely religious express their willingness to die for their beliefs, and uphold others who do the same. It isn’t until something tragic actually happens that those words are recognized to be so significant.
Dr. Moore has approached the events at Jonestown from multiple levels; that of scholarly inquiry, and that of a grieving sister. Being an academic, it is only natural that she would attempt to suspend judgment and moralizing while learning as much as possible about the events surrounding the massacre. We would know very little about history if, each time an act of violence occurred, we all threw up our hands and said, “Well, they’re obviously evil and that’s why this happened. The end.” She also wants to understand what happened from the perspective of a loved one who lost family, a motive that I find utterly human and understandable.
Unfortunately, over the years, not everyone has felt that way. Here, I am going to share just a small portion of the type of criticism that Dr. Moore has faced over the years.
When purchasing her book on Amazon, I read through some of the reviews. No doubt, there were many glowing ones, but there were several that were critical of Dr. Moore for humanizing the Temple members too much, and for talking about the positive things that the Temple accomplished in its earlier days. After all, they’ve killed children; they do not deserve to be understood, right? All we need to know is that they were the kind of people capable of such actions, fundamentally different and separate from normal people.
Here is a quote from one such review; I won’t share the name here, but I just want to show an example of this:
Instead of writing these rose-colored nostalgic portraits of groups like these, writers like Ms. Moore should remember PT and Jonestown by studying their destructive behaviors and applying them to similar groups still operating today and use that knowledge to rescue the millions of trapped cult members out there, and help avoid future tragedies like Jonestown.
First off, Moore was a professor of new religious movements for a long time, and now works on an academic journal regarding the same subject – so she does study groups like Peoples Temple.
I disagree that Moore created a “rose-colored” portrait. She included more information than we typically get, much of it objective facts. And it is objective fact that the Temple did a lot of good in its earlier days. She included the memories of people who were a part of the Temple or who knew people who were. I don’t see that Moore has misrepresented anything in any of her writings – she is up front about her relationship to two members of the Temple leadership. Like Sue Klebold, she often qualifies her statements about them with things like “This doesn’t excuse them,” especially when correcting inaccuracies.
It is clearly a tragedy what the Moore family had to endure after the deaths at Jonestown. But it is equally a reality that Moore’s sisters, Carolyn Moore Layton and Annie Moore, if judged by any measure of first world criminal law, should go down in history as 2 of Jim Jones’ top lieutenants that were as responsible as anyone in the planning, logistics and execution of the mass murders of almost 300 children and hundreds more senior citizens and non-consenting adults.
I’ve never seen Dr. Moore deny this; in fact, I have heard her explain, on multiple occasions, that she finds it very likely that her sisters participated in the planning and perhaps the murders themselves. This doesn’t mean that she does not have the right to deeply delve into the history of Peoples Temple, the good and the bad, in order to attempt to understand the tragedy, from an academic perspective and from the perspective of a sister.
Researchers and writers are not obligated to police their tone to please those who would rather engage in platitudes than learn the fully fleshed out truth. You don’t leave certain facts out because you’re afraid to divert from the typical narrative. It’s best to let facts and evidence shape the story, not the other way around. The positive aspects of Peoples Temple are directly relevant to explain why all of these people ended up where they were, and I will get into this more a bit later.
Tom Kinsolving is the son of Lester Kinsolving, a journalist who published several exposé articles about some of the unsavory aspects of Peoples Temple in the San Francisco Examiner, back in the early 70’s. He kept a now-defunct blog, archived here, called Jonestown Apologists Alert. He gets rather personal in his critique of Dr. Moore. In one post, he pictures several names from the Jonestown memorial monument, and comments underneath:
Annie Moore, sister of Becky Moore. Becky runs the cult apologist organization ‘Jonestown Institute’ with her hubby Fielding ‘Big Mac’ McGehee, both of whom served as the front group to fund this memorial with cash from an ‘unknown source.’ Annie, mass murderer.
Carolyn Moore, Becky’s other sister, was the Jones’s mistress, a smooth-talking version of Eva Braun wanna be. Utterly ruthless. And, of course, a mass murderer.
I don’t know this for a fact because I do not know if Dr. Moore goes by the nickname “Becky,” but, coupled with the tone, I feel like he is calling her that only to be sarcastic and disrespectful. And the comment about Carolyn seems to be specifically meant to hurt Dr. Moore, given that he is addressing her in the same sentence. It is possible to believe and say that Annie Moore and Carolyn Layton were mass murderers without being mean spirited to their relatives. He even went so far as to have invented the New Peoples Temple; that’s how he referred to anyone who he deemed an “apologist.”
In another post, under a photo of Annie, Carolyn, and their father, he writes, “Rev. John V. Moore and his mass murderer daughters.” Additionally, he writes:
Rev. Moore, who officiated at the May dedication of the Jim Jones Memorial Wall, had earlier proclaimed that the cult was a ‘model for other churches.’ Much like, say, Sandusky was a model for a youth leader? This begs another question: Besides Jones, why should the names of ANY of the other mass murderers, such as Carolyn and Annie, as well as others like Jonestown death doctor Larry Schacht, be on this new memorial? These blood-thirsty beasts have no more right being honored with the defenseless children and adults they butchered than does Jim Jones. What next, adding the names of the ‘victimized’ Nazi SS executioners on the Auschwitz memorial?
I’m not weighing in on the issue of the monument; I’m not saying that I support the inclusion of their names, I’m not saying I don’t. My point in sharing this is to point out what Dr. Moore has had to endure over the years; disrespect and name-calling that does no harm to her sisters who aren’t here to hear it; the only ones it hurts are her and her family, who were not involved in the Temple.
To his credit, though, he also published something of a semi-apology later on, in which he explained his anger at the time of writing those posts, and expressed some understanding of why Dr. Moore would want to understand how her sisters died.
In spite of being treated this way, on many more occasions than I am going to detail here, Dr. Moore keeps a balanced perspective on how the media presents things:
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.
On her blog, Moore has also discussed what it was like to view the A&E documentary, Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre, which she participated in. First, she felt that the way the documentary was to be framed was misrepresented to her when she agreed to be in it (I will be posting some of my own commentary on it at a later time). She did, however, acknowledge that some of it was accurate. It was painful for her to watch:
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.
From an individual, empathetic perspective, I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with the knowledge that your loved one has hurt others. Like Sue Klebold, Dr. Moore has to reckon with not only their deaths, but the fact that they ended the lives of others in the process. Also similarly to what Klebold must face, the gruesome photos and iconography of Jonestown are liable to pop up at any time, especially around anniversaries. Each woman has to grapple with loving people who have become symbols of terrible tragedy in our history.
Speculating About What Went Wrong
From a social perspective, we as a society owe it to ourselves to achieve true understanding of what underpins extreme violence. Social progress will always be halted by rejection of knowledge; even knowledge that is painful, and even when we must suspend our anger to a degree in order to gain it. Saying, in our anger and indignation, “Instead of saying this, why don’t you talk about that!”should never cut it in terms of discussing history, violence, or any socially significant subject. We need to talk about all of it, even if we feel uncomfortable. When we make certain facts and opinions taboo, we all lose out.
I want to try to gain a substantive understanding of what brought people who were previously exceptionally good to take actions that were so exceptionally heinous. In order to do that, we have to trace the steps toward the events in question, without worrying whether we appear to be making excuses for the perpetrators. So, I’ll say it now and get it out of the way. My attempts at thorough understanding do not reflect any desire to excuse the actions of anyone I am discussing.
“How do you say, ‘I’m sorry my child killed yours’?”
Klebold, p. 102
According to friends and family, Dylan was not the first person you’d expect to be capable of murder. Barring around a year or so prior to the incident, he’d never been in any serious trouble. He seems to have had a close relationship with his parents, who were rather accepting, loving, and stable. For example, Ms. Klebold’s book details how they would watch classic films together regularly, like Vertigo and Seven Samurai, and discuss the art of filmmaking. Even Dylan himself cannot come up with complaints about his parents on the infamous “Basement Tapes” (the videos he and Eric had made prior to the shooting, detailing their grievances and hatred for the world, touting their superiority). He says that they’ve been good to him, and taught him to be “self-reliant.”
He was not the outcast portrayed by the media either, at least not to the extent that was portrayed. He had many friends, and spent plenty of time going out and doing things with them, like most people his age. He went to his prom, with a date, just days before the shooting. He was exceptionally intelligent, and was talented in maths, computers, and tasks involving methodical thinking.
The fact was, no one knew of the extent of his emotional and mental disturbances because he hid it from most, including his parents.
It is not as though his parents did not notice any changes in him, though. In the couple of years leading up to the shooting, Dylan got into trouble at school for hacking into their files and getting other students’ locker combinations, resulting in suspension for a few days. He also scratched something into another kid’s locker, which some have said was a homophobic slur. The latter incident was related to a problem that would be frequently discussed following the shooting: Columbine’s culture of bullying. It seems that Dylan and Eric were at times on both the receiving and giving ends of bullying, and it was apparently a pervasive issue at Columbine. Dylan and Eric also got into legal trouble in the year before the shooting when they broke into a parked van and stole some computer equipment (they were caught by the police pretty much immediately after doing it). They were able to get into a diversion program to avoid criminal charges, which they both completed successfully.
In addition to these outward actions that seemed out of character for Dylan, he became increasingly moody and withdrawn in the lead up to the shooting. From what Ms. Klebold describes, he would always reassure her, showing his normal, sweet side, just enough that she would back off, convinced that he was going through normal teenage angst. He had been an independent type since his childhood, and she was conscious of pushing too hard or invading his privacy too much.
The opinions of experts, to the extent that they can form an opinion based on Dylan’s journals, tapes, and reports of his behavior, seems to be that Dylan was extremely depressed and suicidal.
He [Dr. Thomas Joiner] proposes that the desire to die by suicide arises when people live with two psychological states simultaneously over a period of time: thwarted belongingness (“I am alone”) and perceived burdensomeness (“The world would be better off without me”). Those people are at imminent risk when they take steps to override their own instinct for self-preservation, and therefore become capable of suicide (“I am not afraid to die”). The desire for suicide, then, comes from the first two. The ability to go through with it comes from the third.
Klebold, p. 194
Dylan goes into great detail in his journals about his desire to die, his self-loathing, and his unrequited love for a girl that he, apparently, never spoke to. He had intense, pent-up anger, mainly at himself. A neighbor and family friend related that he would randomly explode in anger when he felt embarrassment; he was not laid-back about making mistakes.
“I would see Dylan get frustrated with himself and go crazy,” she said. He would be docile for days or months, then the pain would boil over and some minor transgression would humiliate him.
Cullen, p. 127
His inability to go through with suicide at the times he wrote about it in his journal seemed to cause him to hate himself all the more. He was clearly in the throes of severe mental anguish for at least a few years leading up to the shooting.
When someone is in an extremely suicidal state, they are in a stage four medical health emergency. Their thinking is impaired, and they’ve lost access to tools of self-governance. Even though they can make a plan and act with logic, their sense of truth is distorted by a filter of pain through which they interpret their reality.
Klebold, Ted Talk
Clearly, Dylan’s anger would ultimately focus outward as well as inward. Behavioral experts who have studied the shooting, Eric and Dylan’s journals, tapes, and accounts from those who knew them, seem to have concluded that the dynamic between them was a “perfect storm” scenario. It does not seem likely that Dylan would have ever killed anyone on his own, and perhaps the same can be said for Eric. Eric did, however, show many red flags of sociopathy. His journals are quite different from Dylans.
Like Dylan, Eric kept journals…They are almost unreadably dark, filled with sadistic images and drawings, fantasies of rape, dismemberment, and scenes of massive destruction, including, in more than one place, the wholesale extinction of the human race. Dr. Langman writes, “[Dylan’s] journal is markedly different from Eric’s in both content and style. Whereas Eric’s is full of narcissistic condescension and bloodthirsty rage, Dylan’s is focused on loneliness, depression, ruminations, and preoccupation with finding love. Eric drew pictures of weapons, swastikas, and soldiers; Dylan drew hearts. Eric lusted after sex and fantasized about rape; Dylan longed for true love.”
Klebold, p. 205
Dylan’s eventual choice to participate in the rampage with Eric almost seems like a forceful catalyst to bring about his own death. He could not go through with the act of suicide on his own; going through with Eric’s plan would assure his death, though, one way or another. He’d either die by cop, or by his own hand, but after killing a bunch of innocent people at random, he knew there’d be no backing out of it, and his life would finally be over. This is what he wanted so much more than he wanted to kill; he saw death as a release and an end to his pain.
The one thing that his and Eric’s journals have in common: the idea that their mass murder rampage would make them “godlike.” Perhaps, for Dylan, the violent rejection of his own humanity became preferable to continuing to feel the way he felt.
Dr. Dwayne Fuselier, a clinical psychologist and the supervisor in charge of the FBI team during the Columbine investigation, told me, “I believe Eric went to the school to kill people and didn’t care if he died, while Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care if others died as well.”
Klebold, p. 212
CAROLYN LAYTON & ANNIE MOORE
Carolyn Layton is a woman who has been frequently puzzled over by Jonestown researchers and historians. Like so many of the Temple leadership, she was simultaneously an intelligent, educated, and deeply principled person, and, in all likelihood, one of the main players in the horror that took place at Jonestown. By the accounts of Jonestown survivors and ex-members, she held a special status in the Temple because of her relationship with Jones; I sort of despise the word “mistress,” so I will say that they had an ongoing sexual/romantic relationship, one that Jones’ wife, Marceline, eventually came to know about and reluctantly, painfully accept. Indeed, Marceline publicly announced to the whole congregation that she realized she must “share” her husband. Jones was known to have slept with many of the Temple women, but his relationship with Carolyn appears to have been the most serious; the most like an “actual” relationship.
Annie Moore, the younger of the two sisters, worked as Jones’ personal nurse toward the end of his life; to my understanding, she is not thought to be one of his lovers, as the description of Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre incorrectly states. He was addicted to various prescription drugs in addition to being ill with an ongoing lung infection, so she spent much of her time near him. Annie’s final note was one that left me quite frustrated upon my initial reading, and I referenced it in another post; I thought to myself, “Look at what is all around you, how could you possibly be mad at the world and not at yourselves?!”
I looked at the Temple leadership, Annie and Carolyn included, and I resented their rationalizing of the deaths of others. Their white privilege stood, even in a progressive group of people preaching racial equality. It is impossible to ignore the magnitude of black people who are now dead because of the carefully planned scenario conceived of and mainly brought about by white people.
Many seem to resist the notion that Peoples Temple was ever anything more than a cult full of lunatics, that they ever did anything positive, because that bolsters the notion that normal people could never be found in such a terrible situation.
This is objectively untrue; the Temple had done a great deal for the poor, the elderly, and others in need of help during their time in the States. The Temple was not always seen as an insular group of “crazy” people. This is why Jones himself won awards, was appointed to public service positions, and endorsed by several well regarded political leaders.
People who joined up because they wanted to make a difference in the world were able to realize that goal in the beginning. At that time, it was a good organization to be a part of if you really wanted to take action in helping the poor, or if you wanted to live the ideals of racial inclusion (although, as previously stated, these racially inclusive ideals were rather surface-level when subjected to scrutiny.)
When considering the opportunities to actually do good that the Temple provided in the beginning, how the leadership came to the point of accepting the unthinkable begins to come into focus.
I’ve said in previous posts that I believe we can assume that many of the people in Jonestown were murdered, and I still feel that way.
But even when we talk about the people who came up with the plan and eventually saw it through, we should understand that these people did not walk into the Temple on day-one willing to kill themselves and their children.
There was a long series of steps that slowly chipped away at the normal response to that idea, which would be one of resistance and horror. Slowly, through steps, and through a confluence of circumstances, the normal horror response turned into one of resignation, based on the deeply flawed, misguided belief that they had no other choices. Or, at least, that dying was better than the other choices.
*I’d like to clarify at this point that when I refer to the Temple leadership, I’m not talking about Jim Jones himself. I’m talking about the inner circle of people close to Jones, who facilitated what went on. Jones has a whole pathology that would require much more than a blog post to deconstruct, so I’ll leave him be for now.
First off, the Temple began as a religious organization, slowly shifting into a strictly political organization. Most sources that I have come across note a pivot shortly after the church relocated from Indiana to California. Which makes a lot of sense when considering the youth and progressivism of cities such as San Francisco that the church now was able to draw from. Some original members from Indiana left the church at this time, but many remained. The Temple was an effective conduit to doing good things like helping the poor and the needy, and I think that these people were committed to living such ideals, regardless of the shift in doctrinal specifics.
Because the Temple moved to a small town, namely Redwood Valley, they faced some scrutiny and hostility from the white, conservative locals for their progressive ways. Feeling persecuted can draw the members of a group together, increasing feelings of loyalty to one another and suspicion of outsiders. This also allowed Jones to play up any incident, magnifying these effects. The Temple at this point had its public face, and its insider face. Naturally, members felt a sense of purpose and camaraderie, being privy to private meetings and drawn tightly together in their shared sense of outside persecution.
I think that this insider-outsider dynamic was an important factor when trying to understand the mindset of the Temple’s leadership circle. Over time, there would be a sense that all outsiders are out to get you and not to be trusted. Everything they might say and do would be treated with suspicion; value judgments on the content of what they’re actually saying would no longer matter. This is how, as a group, the irrational can be conflated with the rational; you’ve been made to believe that your own logic and impulses are lying to you. If a parent or a friend asks you why you can’t spend more time with them, you’ve been warned against it, told that even well meaning outsiders just don’t understand what the group is facing and the magnitude of their social goals.
Physical violence comes into the picture by slowly justifying it as a legitimate method of self-defense, and then self-governance (i.e. the use of corporal punishments on members). In terms of defense, it was easy enough to justify when the racially mixed church was disliked by many. Facing some harassment, most would likely have accepted abandoning a pacifist stance.
Jones fantasized attacks on the church and magnified some real hostility from the outside community, blowing it all into a siege mentality that would remain to the end.
Reiterman, p. 200
Dr. Moore points out the tension felt by Temple members at that time:
The absence of people of color in rural northern California also made life difficult for the multiracial movement…Racial incidents occurred frequently, and the children of Peoples Temple hung out together for protection and self-affirmation.
Moore, Location 738
In terms of self-governance, Dr. Moore explains:
Disciplinary actions against members came under the rubric ‘catharsis.’ Catharsis sessions comprised confession and humiliation before the entire community. True catharsis required a change in behavior, such as repenting of an elitist attitude, or giving more time to the cause. Some of the behaviors requiring repentance included resenting decisions made by the Temple Planning Council (the decision-making body for the group), or calling someone names. It is clear that church members, not just Jim Jones or the Planning Council, vigorously participated in the discipline. One Temple woman kept a diary which noted that:
‘Glenn Hennington was on the floor for driving without a license for six months. He got a ticket. He had to fight with a girl who knocked him out, which exhilarated the feminine portion of the audience…’ (Moore 1985, 127).
Complicity in discipline, catharsis, fake faith healings, and other questionable, unethical, or illegal activities bound Temple members to each other.” Moore, 2000
I can see how the Temple leadership in particular, more so than the rank-and-file membership (who were not privy to all of the information), would continue doing logical gymnastics to justify this sort of behavior. After a while, it could become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, where the continuance of the methods is necessary to avoid acknowledging its wrongness in the first place. I think this is similar to what people are referring to when discussing “shared hysteria,” when a group feeds off and affirms the energy of itself.
The leadership seems to have come to a point where they believed pointing out wrongs in Jones and/or themselves would jeopardize the integrity of the organization, and therefore, the movement. Gradually, members had to watch what they said and how they acted at all times, or someone was likely to come to Jones or the leadership to “tattle” on them (which was encouraged regularly by Jones). They were trying to sustain a house of cards for so long that they lost sight of what is right and just, which was supposed to be the whole point of the movement.
They seem to have lost sight of reality to a large extent as well. When so many Temple members moved to Jonestown, the fragility of what they had going seems all the more apparent, and it would have been easier in such an isolated environment to entirely lose oneself in the siege mentality. Those close to Jones, like Carolyn and Annie, were in the midst of keeping Jones relatively functional while in the throes of drug addiction, which seems to have been a pretty open secret, what with his slurred ramblings over the speakers.
As an aside, I think it’s worth mentioning that the creation of Jonestown itself, i.e. the physical clearing of the land, building it up, and making it run day-to-day, truly is an amazing feat. The rank-and-file Jonestown residents – their hard, backbreaking work, and intense desire to build a good place to live – are responsible for the successes that came about. However amazing it was to physically clear a patch of jungle and build a functional town – I believe the credit goes to them.
They were all gradually introduced to the idea of dying, through “White Nights” that were essentially suicide practice. The community gathered together, and Jones would tell them they were facing attacks so dire that they must figure out a course of action or die. If you weren’t willing to die rather than be sent back to a life of capitalism, you’d be viewed as a person who lacks commitment, who is still holding on to elitist, capitalist attitudes.
The idea of “revolutionary suicide” was an appropriation of the Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton’s idea. Unlike Jones, Newton introduced the idea,
“…In the context of what a revolutionary should expect as the consequence of challenging the system: if you carried the banner of revolution into the street – to stand up against the power of the Man – the Man was going to shoot you down. You would die at the hands of the oppressor. But the movement would continue: a brother or sister walking behind you would pick up that banner and keep walking. They would likely be shot down as well, as well as numerous revolutionaries following them. But one day, one of your successors was going to carry that banner all the way to freedom from the oppression and tyranny of the system.”
What Newton was describing is bravery in the face of what might seem like certain defeat. He used the word “suicide” hyperbolically rather than literally to get that across. I seriously doubt he had anything like what occurred in Jonestown in mind.
All the while, former Temple members and the Concerned Relatives did what they could to express their concern about the goings-on at Jonestown to people in power. Tim and Grace Stoen wanted their child back. The rank-and-file at Jonestown were told that they were under attack, literally and figuratively. That Temple defectors and family members were spreading lies, and were essentially going to sic the U.S. government on them. They simplified the situation to that extent. It seemed that the leadership felt that this was the case as well, even though they obviously were privy to more details of what was going on.
I think that the leadership justified this tunnel vision by viewing defectors as people who were simply too weak willed to live out communal ideals. It seems that the desire to return to the U.S. was one of the ultimate taboos in Jonestown – it showed that one was elitist.
Labeling people this way allowed the leadership to ignore the specific concerns raised by family members and defectors; since they had shown their lack of commitment to the communist ideals upheld by the Temple, everything they said was suspect. The fascistic nature of what Jonestown had become did not even have to be addressed; the subject could be avoided entirely or explained away with sketchy logic and half-truths when it was “traitors” bringing up the concerns.
The leadership continued on, prioritizing the holding of everything together, losing sight of what the point of Jonestown was supposed to be to begin with. They had been conditioned over time to accept the idea that they must focus on the desired outcome, doing whatever it takes to make that possible.
To Annie and Carolyn, Jonestown was everything in the sense that its failure would mean there was no hope of creating a just, equitable society. They had poured everything they had into the efforts of the Temple. They had looked the other way and/or justified things that I am convinced they must have known were wrong.
In actuality this was mostly in service of Jones himself, for he was the one getting his way; but I think that they came to view Jones as somewhat synonymous with the idea of an equitable society, or at the very least that he was necessary to achieve it, perhaps even as a figurehead. I think the reason that these civic minded people were able to make such terrible choices was because they believed they were doing so in the service of achieving a socialist utopia.
When they felt that there was no hope of an equitable society, I think they came to truly believe that there was no hope at all.
The Emotional Labor
I do not believe in “monsters.”
I do not say this lightly. I am not naive; quite the contrary. But calling a person “evil” is simply not an explanation that is going to cut it for me. Sure, there are likely biological factors at play in many cases of extreme violence, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of an instance where this is the only factor at play. And it is not wrong to want to understand.
The idea that a kid who was once good, who was raised right, who really had potential to contribute to the world, could go on a shooting rampage, laughing and cajoling his victims as they bled to death in front of him, is not a comfortable thought. It isn’t easy to swallow.
The idea that anyone intelligent and innately good could find themselves in Jonestown is an uncomfortable prospect when one chooses to reject the complexity of human experiences. And some vigorously reject that discomfort and complexity.
It is work to try to overcome that discomfort and to try to understand that complexity.
But, it is pragmatic to attempt to understand. If there is any hope of preventing similar incidents in the future, it is crucial to learn what went wrong when tragedies occur. The social underpinnings of the place and time in which they occur can teach us about what problems exist that should be addressed. Empathy benefits all, increasing understanding and allowing victims (and sometimes offenders) to move forward. Society benefits from informed critique. Lack of meaningful inquest due to anger does the opposite. Not only does it fail to undo what has been done; it does nothing to create a better future.
Columbine by Dave Cullen (2009, Kindle Edition)
Tom Kinsolving, Jonestown Apologists Alert
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Susan Klebold (2016, Kindle Edition)
The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills (1959)
Rebecca Moore’s Jonestown Journal from her blog
Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore (2009, Kindle Edition)
Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman, with John Jacobs (1982)