(This blogpost by Kelly Lavoie was originally published on September 22, 2019, and is reprinted with permission.)
I’ve been working on a book about Peoples Temple. In the midst of researching many writings, documents, audio, and the wealth of material that exists on the subject, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to speak with some former members and survivors. I cannot overstate how drastically my understanding of Peoples Temple and Jonestown has shifted. Honestly, it is continuously shifting, amorphous as I continue to get to know the people who have been so gracious with their time and their memories. Hopefully I will get to speak with many more.
Laura is a lifelong activist, teacher, and survivor. Even before her time with Peoples Temple, her life was fascinating and unconventional. She has dedicated much of her life to helping the rest of us better understand Peoples Temple and what happened at Jonestown, including writing her book, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look.
Jordan was brought to Peoples Temple by her mother when she was only 12. As children do, she adapted and survived. With an exceptional intellect and capability, she was given a great deal of responsibilities at a young age. After Jonestown, where she lost her sisters and young nephews, she rebuilt her life. She and Laura even returned to Guyana in 2018 to have a dialogue with the Guyanese people about what happened at Jonestown, a perspective that many have not thought to address. She is a talented artist with a beautifully compassionate outlook on life and people, and it has been a joy getting to know her.
Stephan is the son of Jim and Marceline Jones; needless to say, his life was fraught with complexities specific to his unique position. Being born into the Temple, it was all he knew. He lost nearly every person in his life, in a single day, at 19 years old. He was arrested shortly after, and spent his first few months of grief in Guyanese prison before his charges were dismissed. I have seen and heard speculative talk about Stephan on the internet over the years, and let me definitively say this: he is a lovely person. He is frank and honest in his appraisal of all parties: the Temple, Jim Jones, and himself. Never shies away from the difficult subjects. His approach to trauma is to contemplate what he can learn from it. He is kind, witty, and extremely intelligent. I’ve learned more from our conversations than I ever could have from any amount of books or documents.
I am so grateful to these people for their willingness to share themselves. It shows tremendous strength and character…history will remember Peoples Temple and Jonestown through a more nuanced lens because of it. I highly recommend checking out their pages/writings (all are highly talented writers as well!). Thank you so much Laura, Jordan, and Stephan.
With that, and without giving too much away (I want to leave some things for the book, after all), I will leave you with a few of my main takeaways from the research process so far:
- Peoples Temple was never a monolith, from beginning to end. Rather than imagining their collective reasons for choices they made, it is more useful to see each individual there as surrounded by a whole universe. That universe is populated with constellations of their own history, personality, temperament, passions, attachments, traumas, motivations. These complex constellations overlapped with other members’ in some ways, and in others looked completely different. Although there were certain goalsthat many members shared (i.e. social justice, socialism, etc.), I don’t believe there were virtually any personal qualities or traits that I would feel confident stating every single member had in common with one another. The cult narrative seriously undermines this idea, and while I wouldn’t say that Peoples Temple was not a cult… I would say that the common conceptions of what cults are and the humans in them are overly simplistic.
- The tapes do not tell the whole story. While they are truly a remarkable historical resource, and a great source of insight, it is very important to combine study of the tapes with study of other sources (assuming one wants to understand things accurately), especially when those sources are the survivors. There have been numerous instances where my impression from a tape was substantially changed after speaking with former members about specific incidents in the audio, or things alluded to in the audio. Trust me, I am as captivated by these tapes as anyone, but context is essential.
- I believe that Jim Jones was a sick individual who maneuvered himself into an environment that supported and enabled that sickness. There have been many who have expressed their regrets, wishing they could have changed the outcome in one way or another. The events that led up to Jonestown’s horrible end were so complex and entangled (remember, all of those universes, bumping against one another, forming an unfathomable multiverse of humanity…) that I am not sure I believe much could have been done to avoid what happened. Remember, no one had the benefit of hindsight that we do. Most people in and around the situation were trying to navigate dangerous waters in order to find a solution, doing their best to come up with a way to solve the problems while doing as little harm as possible. “Constant Triage,” was Stephan Jones’ apt phrase during one of our conversations. In my personal opinion, I really don’t see anything more that could have been done given the context and equation of circumstances.
- Peoples Temple and Jonestown have been relatively rarely viewed through the lens of their significance to black history (Hutchinson). Although, in recent years, authors such as Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D.are giving this lens the attention it deserves in works such as White Nights, Black Paradise. I’d also recommend checking out survivor accounts such as Slavery of Faith by Leslie Wagner Wilson, and The Onliest One Alive: Surviving Jonestown, Guyana by Hyacinth Thrash. Also, check out org. The majority of the people who died at Jonestown were black. Over 900 Americans died there, and I generally don’t see it approached with the gravity afforded comparable mass deaths. For example, 9/11 is the only event that surpassed the Jonestown tragedy in terms of American deaths “…in a single non-natural event” (Portwood). Obviously there are a number of things that contribute to the drastic difference in how these two events are remembered. Surely, some of it is due to the cult stigma and even the stigma of suicide (although, as we know, that is not the appropriate definition of what happened there). Given the United States’ ongoing struggles with racism and resistance to reckoning with our history, I, personally, cannot help but wonder if the blackness of the group has diminished the gravity and respect with which the subject of their deaths tends to be approached.
I’m trying to come up with a non-cliché way to state how much more I have to learn, how I want to talk to more people and read more things, how I am just beginning…but all I can think of are tips-of-icebergs and scratching-surfaces. You get the idea – I still have A LOT of work to do. And, really, even after I finish this book, and after more people write books about it, there will always be more. It is a Multiverse that we are trying to grasp, after all.
Hutchinson, S. (2018). BlackJonestown at 40. Dick and Sharon’s LA Progressive. Retrieved from https://www.laprogressive.com/blackjonestown/
Portwood, J. (2018). See Jim Jones’ Sons Speak About Murder-Suicide in New Doc. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/jonestown-massacre-murder-suicide-jim-jones-730030