Q & A with Dr. Rebecca Moore

(Author’s note: Rebecca Moore is the co-founder and co-manager of this website. She is also the author of numerous books on Peoples Temple, including Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, and has written numerous articles about the Temple and Jonestown, many of which appear here. She is the sister of Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, both of whom died in  Jonestown on November 18.

(This interview is adapted from its original publication on Lines and Strings in July 2019.)

You’ve taken up the mantle of managing the history of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Being an expert on the subject, as well as one personally touched by the events, what has it been like for you to reconcile your personal connection to the subject at hand with your professional interest? 

Well, I don’t see myself taking on any mantles or “managing the history of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.” I do see myself as one interpreter of history, and perhaps a facilitator – along with my husband Fielding McGehee – of preserving all the stories, photos, documents that we can before people and things are lost forever. We see ourselves more as preservationists than as managers. For that reason, we collect everything, even narratives with which we may disagree.

I guess I have been able to compartmentalize the personal from the professional. At the first, it was definitely a personal quest to try to understand what happened, given all of the conflicting accounts that were circulating back in 1978. Ironically, conflicting accounts continue to circulate, even more than forty years later. I think our quest – and I always include Fielding in the “we” and “our” because he is more important to the website than I am at this point – is and remains to respect and honor those who died by trying to understand who they were, what they were trying to accomplish, and why they failed. Think of it this way: would you want to be remembered simply for the last 24 hours of your life? Or would you rather we consider the trajectory of your entire life? We’re just trying to enlarge the story. That is both a personal and professional endeavor.

Were you interested in new religious movements prior to your sisters’ involvement in Peoples Temple? What was your journey to your profession like? Did you have a clear motivation in mind to understand what happened to Peoples Temple, or was it more of a fluid progress toward what you would ultimately come to gain expertise in? 

I did not have any particular interest in the academic study of religion prior to Jonestown. I did have a personal interest in new religions, and dabbled in Zen, meditation, yoga, and other religious practices. After the deaths, we tried to find out what exactly happened, both in Jonestown and leading up to it. This took me into the study of American communal groups, where I learned that Peoples Temple was part of a long tradition of utopianist groups. My career interest in research and writing led to advanced studies, but not in new religions. I focused on the history of Jewish and Christian Relations. This was the topic of my dissertation, of two books and many articles, and a book I am currently working on.

With that said, I felt that it was my calling, my dharma – my duty, if you will – to try to interpret the story of Peoples Temple in a way that outsiders might understand. It was impossible for any family to consider their relatives “crazy cultists,” and so it seemed imperative to challenge this over-arching narrative. And though I did not learn of my sisters’ direct participation in planning the deaths until a decade or so ago – which I guess might qualify them, if anyone, as crazy cultists – I still see them as human beings. Do people lose their humanity when they commit inhumane acts?

Especially immediately following the tragedy at Jonestown, as you are well aware, public reactions were very harsh toward Temple members. In the years to follow, continued scrutiny seems to have produced a mixture of views on the Temple. In terms of the reactions of the public to the tragedy at Jonestown, what has it been like for you, personally, to have your sisters placed under a microscope?

As I’ve noted, the master narrative about Peoples Temple – and about most new religions – is that members are either brainwashed, crazy, weak-minded, or all three. This simply reflects popular (mis)understanding about why people turn to alternative religious groups. Perhaps, as I said, I am good at compartmentalizing, but I believe that my sisters are responsible for their own actions. I feel sorrow that they caused suffering, but I don’t feel vicarious guilt for them since I was unaware of the internal workings of the Temple and of life in Jonestown.

We get hate mail, and of course rude and abusive comments are made in online commentary and blogs. Tom Kinsolving’s “Jonestown Apologist Blogspot” was one of the more snarky efforts. But we were concerned that, as a historical response to Jonestown, the blog might be lost, so we asked Tom if we could archiveit on the Jonestown website. And he agreed.

If people just write anonymous attacks – baby-killers, etc. – we ignore them. Sometimes people write critically, but sign their name. Then we may respond with a clarification, a counter-question, and so on. We tend not to engage with critics unless they sincerely want to talk. I think that people know where we stand, what we think, but still accept us because we try not to judge others’ views. If they are factually incorrect, we let them know. But many things are just matters of opinion, not worth fighting over. The website demonstrates that we are willing to present a wide variety of perspectives.

Did you ever feel endangered or threatened following the deaths due to your connection to the Temple? Were most reactions critical, or did any take a more understanding/sympathetic approach?

There were a variety of reactions after the deaths. We never felt fearful or threatened. What was interesting was how many people wrote or commented thanking us for trying to humanize the victims. They didn’t see us as apologists or defenders of Jim Jones – or of murderers – but rather as people who were trying to restore the humanity to all those corpses that kept being repeatedly shown in the media. We were never members of Peoples Temple, so as outsiders we never believed in or accepted Jim’s claims to miraculous or incredible powers – so we never believed in a hit squad or band of “angels.” I think my dad said to Tim Stoen something like: We never thought Jim Jones was God, so we don’t think he’s the Devil now. I imagine that some Temple members saw us simply as clueless, and so our fearlessness.

I think that your parents likely would have been correct in assuming that demanding Carolyn and Annie come back to the U.S. would have resulted in being cut off completely; they were careful to keep the lines of communication open as much as possible. Was there any indication leading up to the deaths that your sisters and everyone else were in physical danger? Were your parents worried? How did you personally feel about Jonestown/ Peoples Temple before the deaths?

My family had no knowledge of the inner workings of the Temple. My parents believed what Annie and Carolyn told them. So we never felt that Carolyn and Annie were in danger. Even after reading the New Westarticle, we were not alarmed. For one thing, my sisters said most of what was in the article were lies. Second, if we read the article without any preconceptions, we see that the authors simply state that it was a Spartan existence. They don’t say it was dangerous.

My parents had frequent contact with Temple members and with my sisters. Of course, they only saw the public side of the movement. But they did not have any reason to be duly concerned. There were one or two incidents – one of which involved Tim Stoen – which seemed weird to them, or rather, paranoid on the part of Temple leadership, but they understood that that was part of the Temple worldview. And in the 1970s, it wasn’t always paranoia to think that U.S. intelligence agencies were out to get progressive political and religious groups.

I thought that the people in the Temple were engaged in worthwhile social causes, and were doing things to alleviate poverty, help the poor, protest injustice in the U.S. and abroad, and other progressive activities. But their so-called Marxism was suspect in my eyes, since I had been well-educated in Marxist-Leninist literature in college and realized that they were not operating along party lines. By that I mean that they were not working in alliances or coalitions with the working class, with trade unionists, or others in the proletariat that were supposed to make up the vanguard of the revolution. Jones seemed to be a doctrinaire Stalinist, another problem for anyone interested in progressive causes.

Had you considered joining Peoples Temple yourself, or were you always sure that it was not for you? Why or why not?

I don’t think I ever considered joining, although my sisters tried on numerous occasions to get me to join. They wrote letters about the wonderful things they were doing, how great Jim Jones was, and I got a first-class tour of the facilities in Redwood Valley. I just have never been much of a joiner, always quite suspicious of leaders and of groups, and the endless meetings would have been anathema. I realize that my sisters and others were caught up in The Cause and believed they were working to change the world. They thought that they could only achieve that collectively, in a group, which is why the Temple was so important to them. I too wanted to change the world, but that was not my way to do it.

Since you’ve expressed in your blog that you felt deceived after the “Women Behind the Massacre” documentary came out, can you tell me a bit about that whole debacle? i.e., How did they initially present it to you? Could you discuss some of the problems with the way it has ultimately been presented?

In a nutshell, I think what happened – or hope what happened – is that the initial producer was telling me the truth when he said that he was working on a documentary about women in Peoples Temple. It took him about a year to persuade me to participate in the documentary, but he did his homework, read things I had written, and appeared sincere. At some point along the way, he dropped out of sight and another producer, or producers, took over. I learned only by chance about the title of the program, and realized that the documentary was not what I had signed up for. I was told by the current producer that A&E required or demanded a sensationalistic title, so it wasn’t her fault. But the reality is that the title was quite accurate in describing what the documentary was about. It was about the women purportedly behind the massacre. But it wasn’t about women in Peoples Temple.

That was a bad experience for me. Not just because my sisters, and others, were repeatedly called murderers and masterminds, but because I felt I had been duped into participating in a program I would never have agreed to had I known how the story was going to play out. To suggest that four women alone were “behind the massacre” is as ridiculous as saying Jim Jones was responsible for the whole thing. What about the men at the airstrip: do they bear no responsibility? It was a group effort – from planning, organizing, arranging, administering, and ending things. Unfortunately many people were involved in effecting the last days of Jonestown.

Over the years, have you experienced frequent instances of having your words about the Temple twisted or misrepresented, and if so could you share why you think that is? Why do journalists/authors/etc. sometimes do this? 

I generally give journalists the benefit of the doubt. They are doing the best they can. They frequently get things wrong (dates, names, spelling), but I don’t think that is out of malice. They are also at the mercy of assignment editors or bosses who want to cut out nuance and ambiguity and get to the juicy stuff. We recently had a phone call from a producer who was in tears because the higher-ups had pretty much abandoned the story she had planned to tell in favor of the standard narrative we see in the media. It is extremely difficult to dislodge the mainstream story of Jonestown, or to make it more complicated than the simple morality tale of good vs. evil. One fact-checker for a story that aired on a major network a number of years ago told me there had to be heroes and villains in the account.

With that said, there definitely have been authors and reporters who had a story in mind before they ever came to the phone or internet to talk with us or with actual former Temple members. They didn’t really need or want to talk with real people, since they already knew what they wanted to say. That is advocacy, not reporting.

People believe what they want to believe, what conforms to their world view and what confirms that view. Life is a lot less complicated that way. There is satisfaction in thinking that the anger we feel over the tragedies that happen is justified – not just in Jonestown, but everywhere on earth today. There’s a lot to be angry about. But I don’t think that helps us understand the people who gave their lives – either literally or metaphorically  –  to Peoples Temple and the cause they believed they were working for.