Lines & Strings: Finding Goodness

(This blogpost by Kelly Lavoie was originally published on October 23, 2019, and is reprinted with permission.)

In a previous article that I wrote about Jonestown, I honed in on the “Anonymous Letter,” the suicide note thought to have been penned by Richard Tropp during his final moments before taking the poison. I was exasperated with him for the poetic, peaceful images his words evoked. I felt that he was fooling himself. I felt that he wanted to fool future readers; readers like me.

While working on a term paper for a class (if you know me at all, you won’t be surprised that I’ve incorporated Jonestown into my academic pursuits) I came across another letter written by Tropp. This one did not exasperate me. This one is giving me that tender feeling that seems impossible to have for someone who had a hand in harming all of those innocents.

Why, you ask? (Yes, I know no one asked, but I’m going to explain it anyway.) After a lot of reading, writing, talking, and listening, I’ve started to formulate a hypothesis of sorts (disclaimer – I could be off base, obviously, since I was not there. I was about negative-8 years old when all of this happened): that most people in Jim Jones’ direct orbit were well aware that there was a problem with him – not just a few. When looking deeper, it seems to me that there wasn’t so much a dichotomy of loyalists versus defectors, but different ways of addressing a problem – that problem being Jim Jones’ behavior and mental state. Some thought the way to deal with the problem was to go out into the open with it; talk to the media, try to use the law. Others thought it was more prudent to try to finesse the situation without making waves…and without abandoning the settlement in Guyana. I think that the latter was a major factor for a lot of the people who earnestly wanted Jonestown to become successful. So they tried to subtly influence the situation where they could. There is more evidence of this than just the letter that I am referring to now, but…

Back to Richard Tropp. I believe that is exactly what he is attempting to do in this letter. He’s trying to weave a logical web for Jones without directly criticizing anything.

The more ‘secretive’ we need to be, the more vulnerable we are to ‘defectors.’ If our structure is more able to be publicly examined, then we are less vulnerable. Suppose we had to function AS IF there were ‘guests’ here among us all the time? What would we have to change in our public functioning in order for the guests to be able to see it all and not be shocked or feel we are ‘bizarre?’

Once we are able to modify our public functioning so that it would not risk divulging our secret practices, etc., then we would be much safer…But this will still not keep us from functioning as we need to, I feel. We need to maintain a significant measure of PRIVATE secrecy about our plans, beliefs, functioning. Such ‘private secrecy’ is not observable by any guests, and is not manifest in the day to day life of the community, the observable, ostensible way we conduct our affairs.

I think it is significant that the first thing that was mentioned in yesterday’s meeting was immediate dismantling of the “boxes” or isolation units. This is precisely what I mean – we need to do a lot of this sort of modification. Outsiders should be able to walk around the project, observe meetings, etc. I personally think we are too finicky about the conditions here. Even the housing situation, while overcrowded, is not outlandish or inexplicable. In fact, given what we’re trying to do, it’s quite understandible [understandable] and can be justified.

As you said at the end of the meeting, we need to function on a ‘day by day’ basis. While this is true, I think that without a sense of a possible future, it’s going to be hard to build in the necessary motivation for achieveing [achieving] production goals for the community.

Finally, again, it will provide a kind of psychological balance for the effect of white nights on the kids – they will develop the determination to sacrifice for the collective, but also have the accompanying sense that we are building something, and not just going from one day to the next. I’m afraid that if we don’t do this, many of the young people will be confused about what they will sacrifice their lives for, though maybe here I’m too short-sighted.

Memo from Richard Tropp, May 1978

Upon reading this letter, I was struck with the sense that Richard was trying to make a case for 1.) ceasing several of the negative/abusive activities that went on at Jonestown, and 2.) planning for the future, i.e. not dying. He was trying to make that case to a very sick and paranoid individual, carefully. He couldn’t sound too critical, and he couldn’t sound like he was hanging on to the idea of living too hard, or there would be zero chance that Jones would accept anything he said. This was written just months before the deaths, and Richard was clearly not ready to die.

Richard’s ideas here were good, in my opinion, if it meant stopping the abuse. If I’d been there, I wouldn’t care so much how it was framed when presented to Jones, as long as the right actions were being taken. I really don’t think anyone back in the U.S. would care much about how Jonestown looked, either; what would always be an issue would be abuse, or anyone being kept there when they wanted to leave. People may have had opinions on the housing and work hours, but if residents were free to go, I do not think it would have been a problem, ultimately. But, tragically, the subtle path couldn’t withstand the kinetic volatility of what was to come.

So…reading between the lines of this letter, I’ve found some compassion for the likely author of the “Anonymous Letter” that originally pissed me off so much. All because of researching for my discourse analysis term paper. Believe it or not, academia can get you “all in your feelings” sometimes.