Jonestown and the Study of NRMs:
How Survivors and Artists Are Reshaping the Narrative of Jonestown

by Rebecca Moore

(Editor’s note: The article originally appeared as a chapter in The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, edited by George G. Chryssides and Benjamin E. Zeller (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), pp. 73-88.)

The mass deaths that occurred in Jonestown November 18, 1978 came at a time of great public anxiety about cults. The repeal of the 1965 Asian Exclusion Act by the U.S. Congress had altered the American religious landscape by allowing the immigration of yogis, roshis, and gurus from the East. The 1960s counterculture had created a welcoming environment for new religions. Young, white, college students destroyed the hopes of their parents by dropping out and joining the Moonies, the Children of God, the Hare Krishnas, and other offbeat religions. An anticult movement arose to rescue these children, who were believed to have been brainwashed and held against their will. Family members did not believe that normal young adults would voluntarily sell flowers on street corners or live monastically—or communally—unless they had been coerced by a mesmeric guru, who taught them to repeat mantras until their conscious will had snapped.

Thus, the news that more than 900 men, women, and children had died in a mass murder-suicide ritual in a remote jungle commune confirmed popular stereotypes about cults and cultists. Media accounts of the deaths sensationalized life in Peoples Temple and dehumanized the victims by repeatedly displaying images of corpses. Reporters spoke primarily with Temple apostates—the only individuals with first-hand knowledge of the group still alive—in order to understand the organization. A spate of lurid books by journalists, former members, and pop psychologists emerged within a year or two, and reinforced the narrative framed by the media in the first few weeks after the tragedy: a deranged leader named Jim Jones led his brainwashed followers to their deaths in a jungle encampment, after first assassinating a U.S. congressman.

Yet subsequent scholarship concerning new religious movements underwent a remarkable transformation as a result of events in Jonestown. As academics examined Peoples Temple and its history more closely they observed that it did not support the conclusions about NRMs reached by prior research: the majority of members were neither young nor white; the group was multi-racial, multi-generational, and crossed class lines; aspirations were for a this-worldly, political utopia rather than an other-worldly spiritual paradise; other differences; the group engaged with outsiders, and was not encapsulated until members moved to Guyana, in South America. In addition, researchers began to study the opponents of NRMs, the anticultists, as carefully as they studied the cults themselves. They assessed the accounts of ex-members as well as the narratives of members. They challenged the media frame by which new religions were discussed, represented, and reported. This might have happened, eventually, without Jonestown, but the tragic and complicated history of the event accelerated the process by subverting long-held beliefs about cultists, about cults, and about the way we think about new religions.

This paper considers some of the changes in scholarship that have transpired in the more than thirty years since the events at Jonestown. It reflects upon the ways in which scholarship about New Religious Movements has changed. Most importantly, it looks at two neglected areas of NRM research that require consideration: the role of survivors of NRMs; and the ways in which Jonestown has inspired an efflorescence of literary, artistic, musical, and other creative works.

There are numerous accounts about Peoples Temple and Jonestown: more than a hundred scholarly and popular books and articles have attempted to explain the group and its finish. Rather than rehearse Peoples Temple’s history in this brief chapter, we direct the reader to three books and one website. Hall’s Gone From the Promised Land (1987) is the most complete, scholarly, and analytical of all scholarly works. Moore’s Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple  (2009b) is more accessible and aimed at a lay audience. Dear People: Remembering Jonestown (2005), edited by Denice Stephenson, is a lively collection of primary source documents that trace the history of the group from its earliest days, through the end and beyond. Finally, the website Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple provides a comprehensive digital history representing a variety of viewpoints.

How Scholarship Has Changed

Peoples Temple and the events in Jonestown radically reshaped the study of New Religious Movements. We can outline a field “before” as distinct from a field “after.” Before Jonestown, scholars were interested in conversion careers (Richardson 1978) and the “new religious consciousness” (Needleman & Baker 1978), while popular books focused on brainwashing (Stoner & Parke 1977; Conway & Siegelman 1978). After Jonestown, a well-organized anticult movement used the deaths to corroborate their claims that new religions were inevitably toxic (Shupe & Bromley 1982; look at 1980 book to see if relevant). “Every cult, sect, and occult group became a potential Jonestown” (Streiker 1984, p. 13).

Yet a turn occurred as articles and books began to appear that undermined the dominant anticult viewpoint. Smith (1982) chastised the academic profession for failing to consider the events in Jonestown, and pointed out that the press featured the “pornography of Jonestown.” Levi (1982) edited a collection of essays that approached Jonestown from scholarly, as opposed to popular, perspectives. Hall (1987) located Peoples Temple within the context of American cultural history. Chidester (1988) identified rituals of exclusion that served to alienate people from those who died and developed a theology of Jim Jones from the hundreds of audiotapes made by Peoples Temple.

Simplistic notions of cult essentialism—the belief that new religions operate within a vacuum, impervious to external influences or events—gave way to more complex explanations of the interactions new religions experience with their environments. The tragic showdown at Waco, Texas between the Branch Davidians and the FBI brought about a re-evaluation of theories of cult violence, the role that outsiders play in these incidents, and renewed interest in ways Peoples Temple differed from other NRMs. Robbins and Anthony identified the ways that exogenous (external) and endogenous (internal) factors interacted within Peoples Temple in contrast to the Branch Davidians (1995). Hall had noted the role of cultural opponents in his study of Jonestown, but developed this theory of interactionism further as a result of his analysis of the Solar Temple and the Branch Davidians. He noted a “tendency that governmental authorities share with the anticult movement, a tendency to see the dynamics of ‘cults’ as internal to such groups, rather than examine external social interaction in conflict between a sectarian group and opponents and authorities themselves” (Hall 1995, p. 230). Wessinger (2000) created a typology of millennial violence in which she distinguished between Jonestown (a fragile millennial group), Mount Carmel (an assaulted millennial group) and the Montana Freemen (a revolutionary millennial group). Wessinger’s examples of religious violence all demonstrated the role that outsiders played in the final outcome. Bromley and Melton (2002) further analyzed the elements that led to “dramatic denouements” in incidents of violence after Jonestown.

In 2001 the horrifying spectacle of hundreds of bodies decaying in the jungle was replaced by a new image of religious violence: the burning twin towers of New York City from which people jumped in anguish. The anticult movement attempted to make links between terrorists and cults (Wright 2009), and news writers made comparisons between Jim Jones and Osama bin Laden. In many respects, however, 9/11 bumped Jonestown off the map, as academics turned to investigate the rise of other forms of religious extremism. A new wave of literature exploring the nexus between religion, terror, and martyrdom emerged. Nevertheless, interest in Peoples Temple remains high, three decades after its supposed demise.

The Contribution of Survivors

One of the major resources for information about Peoples Temple comprises its surviving members. This group of remarkable people is rare in the history of new religions because they are not united by either hatred or love of the group, but by their shared losses in Jonestown. Moreover, many of them did not abandon the group; rather, the group left them. It is thus important to define what is meant by the term “survivor” in this context. I am using the word rather broadly to include those who left the group as defectors (in Temple language) before the deaths; those who escaped from Jonestown on the day of the deaths; those who survived as by being in Georgetown, rather than Jonestown, that day; and those living in San Francisco and Los Angeles at the time of the deaths. Some today call these people the “Peoples Temple community,” but others reject this identification, preferring either to be called a survivor, a former member, or even a defector (as a badge of honor).

Research about those surviving cults abounds in the domain of psychology and recovery, where clinical professionals counsel those whose damaging experiences in NRMs have disrupted ordinary life. There is a large body of literature which explores the level of neuroticism, depression, and other mental disorders occurring in ex-cultists. While Jonestown looms large in these sources, only a single study focuses directly on Jonestown survivors (Hatcher 1989), though Streiker (1984) describes the reaction of former members of Peoples Temple who were involved in a recovery center they established in Berkeley prior to the deaths.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein appointed Dr. Chris Hatcher, a clinical psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, to coordinate public safety resources, job and welfare assistance, and mental health counseling in the city following the deaths in Jonestown and the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. What Hatcher found were Temple survivors who “wanted a chance at a job, any job,” and whose primary goal “was to establish stability in their day-to-day lives” (Hatcher 1989, p. 135). Working with a team of city and county professionals, Hatcher helped the survivors find work, or, when this was impossible, helped them apply for welfare support. “Some welfare workers, when confronted with Peoples Temple members in person, simply refused to assist them,” he reports, “and their supervisors were reluctant to take action to deal with this issue” (p. 135).

Hatcher identifies six factors relating to psychological adjustment of the survivors with whom he worked. He notes that they tended to believe the world inside the Temple was better than the external world, and this feeling “competed strongly with the grief over the loss of others at Jonestown” (Hatcher 1989, p. 136). Survivors had a difficult time explaining to others why they’d been part of peoples Temple. Moreover, subgroups remained a strong force for a long time, with loyalist survivors describing the positive elements of Jonestown, and critical defectors emphasizing the destructive side. Fear of former members who had participated in punishments was high. Thus, no uniform pattern of coping existed among those surviving Peoples Temple.

Nevertheless, Hatcher distinguishes nine landmarks in the adjustment pattern of survivors. The first stage was one of shock, disbelief, and immobilization, closely followed by affiliation with a known Temple subgroup; in other words, with Temple members with whom one felt comfortable. The year following the deaths comprised the search for structure in daily life, exchanging information with other survivors, feeling frustrated with the external world, and feeling conflicting and alternating images about Jonestown and the Temple. At some point in the process, the majority of survivors began to vent anger at Jim Jones and Temple leadership, and this was followed first by anger at oneself for participating and then accepting responsibility for one’s actions. During the decade after Jonestown, the survivors constructed new lives, maintaining primary contact with those in their Temple subgroup. Hatcher characterizes the final stage as one encompassing new lives, with minimal psychiatric hospitalization. “The low rate of subsequent criminal involvement or psychiatric hospitalization for Guyana survivors is quite remarkable” (Hatcher 1989, p. 146).

Hatcher’s anecdotal observations were compiled after the first ten years of his work with survivors. Without a quantitative study, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the mental health and stability of these former members. Informally, it is possible to say that some have been treated for clinical depression, some have struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, and some have lived on the margins of society. Others have become productive members of society: school teachers, librarians, writers, psychologists, conflict mediators.

A profile of survivors is being constructed, however, through the publication of personal reflections and observations on the website Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Begun in 1998, the site has developed far beyond the imagination of its founders, my husband Fielding McGehee and myself. It has become a memorial site for those who died; a repository of primary source documents generated by Peoples Temple; a collection of reflections and observations made by former members, both defectors and loyalists alike; a compendium of scholarly analyses, student papers, articles by members of the general public; and a venue for online debates about issues of controversy. Alternative Considerations lets survivors continue the processes Hatcher noted in the early years of their recovery: deconstructing their experiences in the Temple, sharing information they had not known in the hierarchical structure of the group, arguing with one another on contested issues—was the Temple a religious organization? did Jim Jones have paranormal abilities?—and simply maintaining contact with those with whom they had experienced some of the best and the worst moments of their lives. Many grieved, and continue to grieve, the loss of feelings of closeness, community, commitment, and purpose that they felt as members of Peoples Temple.

The psychology and recovery literature seems to neglect the issue of survivor grief, although some therapists do note a sense of grief over lost opportunities due to cult involvement, as well as grief over the loss of purpose and direction (Langone 1993; Hamburg & Hoffman 1989; Schwartz & Kaslow 2001). Feelings of depression, confusion, suicide, guilt, and betrayal are frequently noted (e.g., Jacobs 1989), though a case study of former members of the Unification Church reported positive social adjustments as well as strong “affiliative feelings” with those still part of the church (Galanter 1999, p. 165). An analysis of former members of the Jesus People movement Shiloh found that they underwent feelings of loss. One respondent admitted, “I experienced a great sense of loss and grief at the loss of Shiloh” (Goldman 1995, p. 348). A search of PsycARTICLES on grief resulted in 325 entries; adding the word cult produced no articles. A search of PsycINFO on grief resulted in 12543 entries; adding the word cult produced six articles, only one of which was truly relevant. Mapel (2007)—relying in part upon Rice (1990), who describes the feelings of ex-Catholic priests—analyzes the grief that ex-Buddhist monks experienced upon leaving their life in the monastery.

In short, the psychological studies generally do not address the grief that attends leaving a new religious movement. This is a serious omission especially when considering the survivors of Jonestown who suffered the loss of their community as well as feelings of disenfranchised grief that was the result of the stigmatized deaths in Jonestown. “The horrifying deaths, and the sensationalistic responses they elicited, created a climate that disenfranchised those who wanted to mourn the loss of their relatives in Jonestown” (Moore 2011, p. 46).

The deaths in Jonestown—with parents killing their children, and conflicting reports emerging concerning the level of coercion that occurred—clearly were stigmatized. Survivors returning to the U.S. were called “baby killers”; some lost their jobs when their connection to Peoples Temple was discovered. Family members, especially those in the African American community, felt shame and an inability to mourn in public. The popularity of the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” further alienated survivors and relatives by trivializing what had happened. The sympathy reserved for victims of tragedy, like those who died in the World Trade Center attack, simply did not exist on a widespread public level for the victims of Jonestown. Over time, however, this situation has changed for a number of reasons.

First, the Jonestown website, coupled with the jonestown report—an online journal that contains news about research projects, artistic works, and current events relating to the Temple—served as the impetus for survivors and family members to identify each other and to connect in virtual reality and in real life. Second, annual memorial services helped to change the relationship between defector and loyalist survivors as they started attending the ceremony sponsored by Rev. Jynona Norwood, an African American pastor whose mother, aunt, and cousins died in Jonestown. More and more began to come once a decade had passed; after twenty years had elapsed a group of thirty gathered in a restaurant following the service at the Oakland cemetery where more than 400 bodies are buried. Survivors continued to assemble at Evergreen Cemetery each year until 2003, at which time they held a private ceremony apart from Rev. Norwood’s. Many defectors and loyalists saw each other for the first time in twenty-five years. One former member described the experience at the graveside in this way:

I felt gratitude that despite the myriad ways we each took action in those final years, oftentimes casting each other as the adversary, we were able to come and be together, remembering not only the ones who died and were killed, but also to remember ourselves in that earlier time and to perhaps close the circle in some profound and inexplicable way after all these years (Anonymous 2004).

Paradoxically, the deaths in Jonestown offered the means for reconciliation. Survivors could share in the loss of loved ones there, as well as the loss of their community. Even outspoken critics of Jim Jones and the Temple felt connected to those with whom they had suffered much. The introduction of four large granite plaques at Evergreen Cemetery in 2011, amidst some controversy since they included the name of Jim Jones as well as everyone else who died on November 18, 1978, has also brought some measure of closure, since there is now a physical location (as opposed to an Internet site) where relatives can find their loved ones by name.

Third, personal, face-to-face discussions among survivors brought a hidden history to light. Because the Temple had a highly compartmentalized structure of social organization, few individuals had a complete picture of its operation. At the 2003 reunion, and at subsequent ones, survivors told stories that few others knew. They shared experiences of pain, terror, laughter, and happiness. They argued about whether or not they were brainwashed; they disputed Jim Jones’ paranormal abilities; they compared conflicting memories of the same events. They also wrote their stories, observations, and reflections in the jonestown report, thereby enlarging the body of knowledge of life in Peoples Temple and in Jonestown by providing firsthand testimony.

Several other factors also helped to create a type of survivor community (as distinct from a new church). The California Historical Society, the repository of thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of photographs from Peoples Temple, welcomed survivors into its research library. There the survivors pored over photographs, year after year, to identify those whom historical researchers were unable to classify. It was a unique turnabout: the subjects themselves working in the research library to help future historians understand who they were.

Another factor that connected former members was the research and production of a documentary-style play from the writers of The Laramie Project. In 2002 a group of defectors, loyalists, and even someone who escaped Jonestown on foot on November 18, gathered in San Francisco to discuss plans for the drama with Leigh Fondakowski, the lead writer. Fondakowski and three other writers spent three years interviewing almost fifty former members, relatives, and others. When The People’s Temple premiered in Berkeley in April 2005, one reviewer noted that the audience were active participants in the drama. “The play has also been a catalyst for others to come together and re-explore their personal history with the Temple,” wrote Bellefountaine (2005). “It is helping them to share their stories with others, thus preserving them for history and future interpretations.”The play brought together still more former members who had remained closeted or apart for various reasons. Although few believed that The People’s Temple adequately captured their personal experience, they nevertheless felt it was the best attempt to communicate the ambiguity and complexity that they had ever seen.

The success and reach of The People’s Temple, along with the passage of time, prompted a number of survivors to self-publish autobiographical accounts and poetry describing their experiences. One of the earliest self-published works was Hyacinth Thrash’s as-told-to book The Onliest One Alive: Surviving Jonestown, Guyana (Thrash 1995). Since then Leslie Wagner Wilson published Slavery of Faith (2009) and Laura Kohl published Jonestown Survivor (2010), two books which offer divergent, yet fascinating, accounts of life in Peoples Temple. What is unique about these two volumes is that they detail life before joining the Temple, and life after Jonestown. Most of the first-person popular accounts end with the deaths in Jonestown.

Garrett Lambrev, who defected in 1973, and Teri Buford O’Shea, who defected in October, 1978, have both published volumes of poetry. Some, though not all, of the poems in Lambrev’s Dogstar and Poems from Other Planets (2007) discuss Jonestown, while the majority of O’Shea’s work in Jonestown Lullaby (2011) concerns her experiences in, and reflections about, Peoples Temple. O’Shea’s poem “Forgiveness” captures the journey the survivors have traveled.

You…
Familiar with
Original pain
Squeezed my hand
In one brave act
Of forgiveness
So please…
Rock me gently
In your soul
Teach me
The lost art
Of living
After death
          Has ruled
So long

Artistic Representations of Jonestown

In 2000 I rather gloomily asked “is the canon on Jonestown closed?” (Moore 2000). Although I outlined the contours of three canons in that essay—popular, scholarly, and conspiratorial—I privileged the body of scholarly literature that provided what I believed was a more complex look at Peoples Temple that accounted for questions of race, gender, cultural opponents, and ideology. Today, however, I would argue that the canon is definitely not closed, nor is it likely to close, but not because of academic work. On the contrary, popular representations serve to keep Jonestown and Peoples Temple at the forefront of cultural considerations.

Bakhtin’s essay “Discourse in the Novel” (1981) helps to explain the amazing fecundity of Jonestown. In that essay the Russian literary theorist identifies “centripetal forces” that tend to centralize and unify overarching discourses, canonizing ideological systems into a single “unitary language” (Bakhtin 1981, p. 271). Yet this centralizing drive operates against the centrifugal pull of diversity and dialogue. “This dialogic orientation…creates new and significant artistic potential in discourse” (Bakhtin 1981, p. 275). Although he was discussing the novel, Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia—in which any given utterance must be understood against “a background made up of contradictory opinions, points of view, and value judgments” (Bakhtin 1981, p. 281)—works well when applied to descriptions of Jonestown. No single statement about it will suffice, given the babble of rival claims and depictions.

Bakhtin accepts the existence of different canons, or in his terms, the “generic stratification of language” (Bakhtin 1981, p. 289), giving as examples the language of the lawyer, the doctor, the teacher, and so on. Using the idea of canons on Jonestown we might call them the language of the public, the scholars, the conspiracy-minded, and add that of the artistic interpreter. Bakhtin notes, “that these languages differ from each other not only in their vocabularies; they involve specific forms for manifesting intentions, forms for making conceptualization and evaluation concrete” (Bakhtin 1981, p. 289). At any given moment, then, representations of Jonestown, and in regard to art, theidea of Jonestown, contend with each other in competing languages of heteroglossia (Bakhtin 1981, p. 291). This requires the consumer of information about Peoples Temple and Jonestown to participate in the dialogue, since understanding is active rather than passive, with both the artist and the recipient dynamically engaged. The Internet has made this interaction possible in ways Bakhtin could never have imagined.

It is easy to encounter the heteroglossia of Jonestown. Literary works such as novels and books of poetry; artistic works such as paintings and sculpture; musical works such as individual songs and complete operas; and dramatic works such as plays and films, have broadened public understanding of this unique religious movement far beyond the confines of historical or sociological studies. We have come to call Jonestown “The Vortex,” a place into which individuals are drawn for personal and professional reasons. Some survive and even flourish in the Vortex; some escape after a brief time of being hurled about; and some are chewed up and damaged by their encounter. We never know who will be a casualty. Yet the immensity of the catastrophe continues to draw individuals into itself.

One explanation is that Jonestown is attracting a generation of interpreters who grew up outside of the cult wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Andrew Brandou’s series of Jonestown paintings, called “As a man thinketh, so he is,” features cute furry animals engaged in murderous acts. In one painting, Jim Jones is portrayed as a friendly lion rescuing a rabbit from real and imaginary threats. The artist was ten years old when the deaths occurred, and since he was attending Catholic school at the time, he heard daily sermons on the tragedy. His siblings, however, who were considerably older, described the events in ways that did not correspond to what authority figures were saying. As an adult, Brandou

became driven to understand exactly “what” had taken place, not only to the victims of circumstance who became “a nation’s tragedy” but to myself, as a frightened child suddenly forced to question authority. [T]hese are the forces which have always driven me for my series regarding [P]eoples [T]emple (Brandou 2007).

As a result of this self-reflexive child-adult perspective, the artist painted the history of Peoples Temple in a picture-book style, though one that was not immediately indicative of the original story. Brandou explains that he did not want to mock anyone or glorify the tragedy, and it is true that the connection with Peoples Temple and Jonestown is not immediately clear from the paintings. He adopted this perspective, “because [I] am coming from a youthful perspective, as an outside observer trying to reverse engineer an ‘unsolvable’ situation” (Brandou 2007).Brandou’s outsider status is one that a number of younger interpreters can claim. The events in Jonestown have not been overdetermined for them as they have been for those whose historical memories of the events tend to be fixed and hardened.

Other artists use Jonestown as the point of departure for explorations that extend beyond the events themselves. Laura Baird’s Jonestown Carpet is an interpretation of the famous aerial photograph taken by David Hume Kennerly of the brightly-colored bodies spread out upon the grounds of Jonestown. Baird explains that the impetus for the work, which was ten years in the making and remains deliberately unfinished, was the death of her sister in 1980 (Baird 2004). She describes “a highly memorable moment” occurring in 1983, when:

A faint wisp of green stuff in Kennerly’s photo quite suddenly and emphatically became a banana leaf. Abstract shards of color soon began to emerge as distinct figures, some with limbs, some with limbs conjoined, apparently expressing terminal gestures of affection and consolation. In this way the subject I chose in 1981, the aerial photograph, seemed to transcend itself and became something else. Perhaps, as others have said, it became hyperreal. I don’t know of any terms that fit the picture precisely as I see it (Baird 2004).

The Jonestown Carpet realizes Baird’s intention of presenting appearances and encouraging perception. Her subject was not Jonestown, but rather a representation of Jonestown; and now her representation adds another level of interpretation.

Bakhtin’s critique of stylistics (the branch of linguistics that studies literary styles) can also be applied to novels and poetry about Jonestown. Bakhtin argues that traditional stylistics is deaf to dialogue, and that it conceives of literary works as though they were hermetically sealed and self-sufficient, constituting “a closed system presuming nothing beyond themselves” (Bakhtin 1981, p. 273). He asserts that various works, and their styles, act as rejoinders to other rejoinders participating in the same dialogue. This dialogical engagement is very apparent in two works about Jonestown that come from Guyanese writers, and a third from an African American poet.

Wilson Harris’ Jonestown (1996), is a dreamlike novel that uses the story of Jonestown as a way to examine the effects of colonialism and postcolonialism in Guyana. Harris is interested in history and memory, especially the erasure of the precolonial memory due to the extermination of indigenous peoples. He justifies his obtuse literary style, saying “The lives and limbs of those who have perished need to be weighed as incredible matter-of-fact that defies the limits of realistic discourse” (Harris 1996, p. 82). Moreover, as Harris says elsewhere, the novels written by and about all-white characters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who ignored all other peoples, were product of imperialism (Harris 2002). Thus Jonestown, the ostensible account of Francisco Bone—the sole survivor of the Jonestown holocaust—describes the state of the colonized. When Bone encounters his skeleton-twin in some sort of nether world, his twin says:

You danced into GRAVE LAND on primordial feet. But in fact you are alive, you survived the holocaust [italics original], you possess—it is true—all the appearances of having died. But you belong to the living extremities of the WASTE LAND. You are almost in a post-wasteland grave. Almost in. Almost there. Not quite… (Harris 1996, p 147).

The Waste Land, aside from referring to T. S. Eliot’s famous poem, serves as the metaphor for contemporary Guyana, and the plight of all colonized peoples. Harris’ novel, therefore, exemplifies Bakhtin’s decentralizing tendency in the literature about Jonestown (fiction and nonfiction) because he assess Jonestown from outside its North American context, but from within a Caribbean context.

Fred D’Aguiar also examines Jonestown as an insider of British-Guyanese descent, and as an outsider from the United States in the book of poems titled Bill of Rights (D’Aguiar 1998). Like Harris, D’Aguiar uses the story of Jonestown to examine the contemporary life of the dispossessed, from Brixton to Glasgow to Tiger Bay. He “puts Jonestown within the context of the surge and flow of immigrants across continents, always demonstrating an awareness of the legacy of domination” (Moore 2009, p. 76). The deaths in Jonestown are larger than a single place, and Bill of Rights is a song of protest against oppression in Jonestown, in Guyana, and around the world.

Finally, Carmen Gillespie writes from a dual vantage point: as an African American she is a cultural outsider in the U.S., but a cultural insider in Jonestown. Gillespie’s poetry collection Jonestown: A Vexation (2011) uses dictionary definitions of “vexation” to structure the poems in the volume. She presents “found” poems that emerge from things Jones said; newspaper headlines; a mélange of a dictionary definition, a CDC description, and an encyclopedia entry; and a series of 918 X’s titled Schemata: A Requiem. Gillespie’s poems communicate outrage at the terrible loss, but also convey a sense of commitment and high purpose that the community felt at some points in its existence. Several poems suggest that Jonestown was not a prison camp: “There, there were flowers”; “There, there was loving”; “There, there was color”; “There, there was laughter.” Here Bakhtin’s “dialogic imagination” exists within the covers of a single volume.

A closing example of Bakhtin’s heteroglossia comes from music, which relies upon “acts of recognition” (Bakhtin 1981, p. 278) to make its statement. Jonestown has its own history of symbols, languages, and meaning, upon which songwriters and musical groups capitalize. While only a single musical work can yet be called symphonic—Frank Zappa’s Jonestown—there are countless popular interpretations, ranging from thrash rock to rap to electronica, that incorporate Jonestown’s “contradictory multiplicity” (in Bakhtin’s words, p. 278). Electronica, in particular, mixes sound from Peoples Temple audiotapes into digital mashes that may transmit a message of terror or warning, though rarely of sympathy. Sometimes mere shock value is the point, as in the name of the longstanding group the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Musicians from the group Cults inserted themselves into home videos from Peoples Temple in a music video that accompanies their hit song “Go Outside,” undoubtedly for some shock value as well, since an initial, high production video treats the song in an entirely different way. Isaiah Seret, the video producer, explains that he “couldn’t help but notice their [Jonestown residents’] similarity to my current community of friends i.e., smart, tolerant, with spiritual inclinations and a yearning for shared community” (Seret 2011). Seret describes reactions to the video, including those from a former Temple member, and concludes:

While it’s easy in hindsight for us to dismiss Jim Jones and the tragedy as some kind of anomaly in history, through making this video, I learned that at the beginning these followers were promised two things we all want: a meaningful life (closer to God); and financial security. These are two things that are very hard to pass up (Seret 2011).

Seret acknowledges the layers of meaning already surrounding Jonestown, yet produces his own “rejoinder” to the ongoing dialogue over Peoples Temple.

The Lessons of Jonestown for Scholars

Hatcher’s work with Peoples Temple survivors revealed that former members of all opinions shared the belief that “society has learned little from the mass suicides and murders at Jonestown” (Hatcher 1989, p. 146). There is something about moralizing certitudes that undermine the magnitude of the event; and, conversely, the enormity of what happened subverts any and all convictions of accepted standards. The academic dicta of neutrality and objectivity seem to miss the dialogical nature of representations of Jonestown, including those of scholars themselves. Artistic interpretations, on the other hand, take heteroglossia for granted.

In addition, the voices of survivors themselves serve as a counter-balance to scholarly assessments of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. They act centrifugally against efforts to unify discourse about Jonestown, both within the public and the academic canon.

The Internet has played a significant role in these developments. First, it has allowed survivors to continue to be in dialogue and reflection. Unlike the polarizing animosity ex-members have for some groups today (e.g., Scientology or The Family International), a sort of fellowship of common loss exists that enables survivors of all opinions to meet, talk, and ponder their experiences in Peoples Temple. “Whenever participants in an historic event gather to reminisce, it is a continuation of that history” (Bellefountaine 2005).A panel of Temple survivors spoke at the 2011 meeting of the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco. The audience got to see firsthand the debates that continue, as panel members argued with each other about… what?? These ongoing discussions, both online and off, continue to be revelatory, and this engagement necessarily keeps the canon more open than I predicted in 2000.

A second reason the Internet has shaped discourse about Peoples Temple is that it has introduced the group to a new generation of people for whom the cult wars of the 1970s and 1980s are irrelevant. This generation finds Jonestown a powerful subject for works of art, literature, and music, that attempt to meditate upon life’s deepest mysteries: good and evil; life and death; humanity and inhumanity. They consider Peoples Temple outside the confines of religion, or cults, and place it within the larger frame of existential meaning, undermining all notions of canonicity.

As Bakhtin notes, “no living word relates to its object in a singular way” [italics in original] (Bakhtin 1981, p. 276). He describes an elastic environment, in which “alien words” about the same object and same theme make it difficult to penetrate. The earlier cult wars drew deep divisions between those who focused on the welfare of individuals (those involved in counseling and recovery), and those who considered groups as a whole within the larger context of society (sociologists and historians). Those living outside the world of scholars, however, such as artists, former members, and others, are not bound by these same constraints. As long as they find Jonestown the stimulus for continued reflection, the canon will remain wide open.

References

Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple

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Originally posted on May 1st, 2019.

Last modified on October 24th, 2021.
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