Studying the tragedy of Jonestown reveals many facets of the story of Peoples Temple, but it also raises many questions. One question in particular lingers on my mind: What were they thinking?
What were the residents of Jonestown thinking in those final hours in the pavilion after they realized the final White Night was truly imminent, as they witnessed their comrades falling around them? How long did it take for them to realize that this was not a drill or a loyalty test? How many knew what Dad’s report about the Port Kaituma airstrip shootings meant? Did they experience a sense of victory, as their leader exhorted them to, did they feel despair … or were they in denial over the horror to come?
How many felt the excitement of committing revolutionary suicide? How many believed that their deaths would inspire and change the world? Were the cheers on the death tape expressions of elation, or were people just trying to be good disciples and avoid becoming a target of derision?
What were Christine Miller and her silent supporters thinking as she courageously attempted to persuade Dad to change his plans? Did they actually think she would be successful? Were they surprised that no one else stepped forward to support her? Were they surprised that they themselves didn’t?
How many felt sheer terror at the thought of permanent sleep? How much collective anguish was experienced as this massive group witnessed the children become the first to die? How many parents wanted to snatch up their own children and run, or at least to find their closest relatives and friends before any of them stepped over? How many struggled to express final words to family members as they embraced? Did they worry for the safety of their family and friends whose own worries led to this day?
Did they believe the remaining Temple members would carry out Dad’s orders to kill traitors? How many were ecstatic at the thought and envious of such an opportunity? How many felt hatred towards those outside forces they held responsible for forcing the purple potion into the bodies of their comrades? How many wanted to direct their ire towards the CIA conspirators they had been taught to fear? Alternatively, how many had come, at that moment, to hate Dad?
How many mourned for the loss of the organization itself? How many were sickened to see their highest commitment, the purpose of their lives, being thrown away? What collage of images crowded into the minds of those in the pavilion when considering what would happen in the aftermath? How many realized that the organization’s reputation would be forever tarnished, that Peoples Temple would be written off by American society as a group of gullible fools and unhinged idealists?
How many were preoccupied with the afterlife? How many truly believed in Dad’s teachings that they were moving on to a higher plane? How many believed that they would all reunite after stepping over? How many had worries of being reincarnated as a lower life form due to blasphemous thoughts? How many were actually fearless in the face of death, as Dad wanted them to be? How many welcomed their liberation from an existence of seemingly endless White Nights? Did those who had held on to their Christian beliefs dream of moving on to Heaven? Did some fear Hell as a possibility?
How many rank-and-file members had regrets? How many wished they could communicate with beloved family and friends on the outside one last time after cutting them off for the Cause? How many regretted a missed opportunity to escape Jonestown? How many regretted ever moving to Jonestown? How many regretted not permanently defecting from the Temple when they first had concerns? How many regretted joining Peoples Temple in the first place? Did the newly-adopted children and teenagers wish they had never been adopted? How many people realized they had contributed to the deaths of so many, by bringing their own family and friends – their own children – into the Temple?
How many felt nothing? How many had become indifferent to the prospect of death? How many were numbed by exhaustion from laboring long hours in the tropical climate, deprived of sleep, malnourished on a starchy diet, badgered to do more and more, with no relief in sight?
What was going through the minds of that handful of black men who managed to slip past the guards and escape from the pavilion? Did they plan an escape, or did they just seize an opportunity? Did they wonder if they would be hunted down and forced to share the fate of their comrades? Did each one think he might have been the only one to get out? Did anyone else think about escape, but never had the opportunity, or lost the will in the midst of turmoil?
What were members of the Jonestown leadership thinking? What about the nurses who squirted the poison down the throats of the babies? What about the gun-toting security guards? Did any of these trusted chosen feel a sense of pride and purpose in their actions? Or wonder how they ended up in such a position? Or attempt to quash the deadly plan? Or regret of what they hadn’t done throughout the years? Or wish they had confronted the drug-fueled paranoia and collapsing sense of reality that led to this day? Or feel defeated by the Conspiracy? Or actually believe in the Conspiracy, and decide that their leader knew best ?
What was Jim Jones himself thinking in the end? Was he drunken with a sense of revolutionary pride as he watched his disciples fall, one by one? Did he think he had finally accomplished his goal of joining the ranks of the communist icons he so admired? Did he rejoice at the permanent mark his name would leave in history? Did he consider what final image of himself and his organization would be projected to the world? Did he think that Jonestown would serve as an inspirational model for others hoping for structural change and societal evolution? Was he truly convinced that his final decision was one of mercy and justice, that he had a duty to save his people from deadly enemies and nuclear war? Did he think that killing them was more humane than allowing them to live without Dad? Was he surprised that there wasn’t more dissent? Did he find the concept of someone else taking over his leadership role to be unbearable to his ego? Did he have any twinge of guilt over leading his people to their deaths through a web of deception, fear, and mental and physical deterioration? Above all, was he relieved to be leaving behind his own misery? Was he fearful about ending life by his own hand, or did he actually pull the trigger himself? Did he conclude a bullet to be less painful than cyanide?
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There are endless questions that arise from those final hours, that final White Night, in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978. There were undoubtedly many wide-ranging emotions and existential crises experienced by everyone gathered together to make a final statement, whether or not that statement was of their own choosing or not.
“What were they thinking?” It’s a typical inquiry – or rather, exclamation – from many when they first learn about this group of Americans living in Guyana who “drank the Kool-Aid.” To truly understand, we must ask the question in earnest, with a desire to seek honest answers, to take a look at the complexities that make up human nature, human need, and group dynamics. We must consider the features of Peoples Temple that attracted so many people in the first place, and the features that kept them there, the humanitarian positives and the coercive negatives. We must seek ourselves in “them,” not try to cast them off as an alien species whose behavior we would never in a million years emulate. We must question why so many people sought out, and still seek out, an alternative structure and way of life to exist at odds with the current standard of living. We must not allow the initial visceral and fearful reaction that arises within us when we learn about this event to dictate our knowledge and understanding of the tragedy.
There is so much more to the people of Peoples Temple than the Jonestown massacre. It’s our duty to listen, analyze, self-reflect, and research facts to obtain truthful answers as to why this tragedy occurred. Only then can we begin to understand what they were thinking.
(Amy Brown is a student of Peoples Temple history. Her previous article for the jonestown report is Reflections on Jim Jones – 2019.)