(This blogpost by Kelly Lavoie was originally published on February 22, 2020, and is reprinted with permission.)
Infotainment And The Desire To Blame
There have been some important works on the subject of Peoples Temple and Jonestown in fairly recent years; books and documentaries alike. It’s noticeable, however, that we still don’t want to see ambiguity, especially when it comes to responsibility and blame. We really don’t want to accept any diffusion there. Blame is a comfy blanket. It separates us from the sad and the scary. As we slowly learn more over time, we opt not to abandon our focus on blame in lieu of better roads to understanding, but to shift it. Perhaps in a more thoughtful, thorough direction than before, but “Who do I blame?” is still the main thing we want to settle.
That’s why “Infotainment” – “Television or radio programs that treat factual material in an entertaining manner, as by including dramatic elements” – is so popular. Simplistic, black-and-white reasoning that lends itself to concisely packaged storytelling makes it much easier for us to think we know who to blame.
As for the deaths at Jonestown, here’s what I see:
Late 70’s through recently: Blame the majority of adults that were there for being in a cult in the first place. Or, dismiss them entirely, and blame Jim Jones, evil incarnate, for his machinations. Or some combination of the two.
Now: Blame Peoples Temple leadership just as much as Jones – in some ways, more – for participation and complicity. Especially focusing on the women in leadership.
Now, in reality, there is a lot worth exploring when it comes to women in Peoples Temple – as a whole, it was an organization largely comprised of women. Black women, mostly.
But people (at least, consumers of infotainment) seem to love a story about middle-class white girls “gone bad.” Just look at the news coverage of the “Manson girls.” When white privilege affords middle-class white girls a default status of “good,” it seems all the more fascinating when they do something wrong.
In case you’re wondering, reader – no, I am not going to “defend” the Temple leadership. But I am going to suggest that a blame-oriented lens is inherently flawed, simplistic, and, ultimately, impedes understanding. It can result in deeply flawed conclusions, such as those reached in the 2018 documentary, Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre.
The thesis of this documentary is that the responsibility for the deaths at Jonestown falls to the women (none of the men, I guess?) in the Temple leadership. Especially four specific women: Marceline Jones, Carolyn Layton, Annie Moore, and Maria Katsaris.
Such an assessment is the documentary equivalent of clickbait.
I’d hoped it might explore some of the complex dynamics at work specific to women, such as white feminism and its effect on the Temple’s leadership structure. This was a great opportunity to discuss such a profoundly relevant issue.
There was basically no exploration of the interplay of race and gender other than the obligatory mention of Jim’s predilection for affairs with young white women. He liked sex with white women, he liked sex with his staff, therefore his staff was predominantly white, end of story.
Probably because a complex discussion of race and gender dynamics, one that does not exclusively focus on sexual intrigue, doesn’t make for tawdry, interesting “characters” to marvel at.
But it’s easy to work around the fact that a documentary is meant to be about that pesky “reality” thing, the thing that is complicated and messy and hard to sort out. Easy when we consumers of infotainment are so eager for someone to blame, for a “real-life” macabre soap opera.
I say “we” very deliberately – I’m in the true crime community to some extent. I know how easy it is for people, especially ones who hurt others in whatever way, to become a character, a “villain,” more than a real human.
It shifts that blame and dismissal rather than asking questions about the broad, complex forces that truly did lead to the deaths – political, racial, gender, emotional, psychological, and spiritual dynamics, all overlapping and interacting to create a confluence of events so much larger than any specific handful of women, or any one man.
That does not mean I think the harmful things that individuals did are okay. Not at all. But, it’s not for me to absolve or blame anybody for anything. I’m about understanding what happened and understanding who they were, every last one, to the extent that I possibly could. And if you want to understand, blame gets in the way.
A New Spin On A Pre-Existing Lens
The Women Behind the Massacre presents an extra “juicy” story, involving young women having sex with a much older married man, basically in exchange for power and personal affirmation. But this framing takes no account of many relevant factors. In attempting to portray a perspective that is “new” and “unique,” specific points of view (even specific pieces of specific points of view) are heavily emphasized, while other views and many facts are consciously excluded.
The focus of blame on four particular women stemmed from the ideas put forth in Dr. Mary McCormick Maaga’s 1998 scholarly work, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown.
To be clear, Dr. Maaga did not specifically place responsibility on the four said individuals in her book. She posited that white female leadership in Peoples Temple were acting with agency by sleeping with Jim Jones in order to accomplish their personal goals (whether social justice or personal power) and to gain a sense of affirmation. And that Jim Jones was not all-powerful; others played significant roles in what happened. There was a focus on understanding where some of the leadership were coming from, what was personally motivating them (that part, I am all for).
I do not agree with all of Maaga’s assertions for a variety of reasons that I will detail in this post. However, I think it is important to point out that Dr. Maaga’s work is very thorough and informative. I’m going to hammer a lot of points that she made in The Women Behind the Massacre, but her book was not as simplistic as this documentary. Her interviews were cut up just like everyone else’s, I’m sure.
Even though I do take issue with her summation of Jim Jones’ leadership circle, in both her book and this documentary, I found that the documentary presented the most simplistic and misleading framing, using her ideas as a springboard. I find her efforts to have been a sincere attempt at understanding, whereas the documentary was driven by the demands of the entertainment industry.
First of all, Annie Moore was not Jim’s mistress, as she is presented to be in the synopsis. I obviously have no idea if she ever slept with him or not, but her primary role was that of his nurse. Casually referring to her as his mistress is sloppy, sensationalist journalism, and it is sexist. The only reason a fact like that would be “overlooked” by professionals is because it sounds more salacious and fits into the crafted narrative neatly.
Secondly, Marceline Jones is presented as a silent contributor to the deaths. While she was complicit in a great deal of what led up to the events, there are 1.) mitigating factors to consider, and 2.) glaring reasons to believe that she was absolutely opposed to the plans for everyone to die.
Marceline could have left, and could have probably even left with her children. But she would have lost all these people with whom she had been living her life for over a decade. And it would’ve meant losing this possibility to bring about a transformation in the world.
At that point [when Jim first states, on November 18, that now was the time they’d have to die], perhaps there still would have been a moment where Marceline Jones might have stood up and said, ‘Let’s not do this.’ I think Marceline’s role in legitimizing the cult of suicide was in her silence. I really do think that she was, herself, so exhausted from all these years of having no privacy, no resources of her own, sharing her husband with the women of the community, seeing that this ideal had become instead this insular, paranoid, violent community, that I think she didn’t have it in her to fight anymore.
Maaga, “Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre“
Although this documentary presents these opinions as if they were facts, they are based on one perspective, one interpretation of some of the information. Several other perspectives, including those of people who lived it, assert the exact opposite when it comes to Marceline.
She technically could have left, but the implication that she could have done so easily is not backed up by what we know.
Marceline had attempted to leave Peoples Temple. She was threatened, told she would never see her children again if she did. In 2020, we know that using children to make threats against a partner is a form of coercive control and emotional abuse. When abused women end up dead, do we typically say “She should have just left?” We don’t, because we realize that it is so much more complex than that.
Also important to note – abused women sometimes participate in harmful, negative behavior, even criminal behavior, things they would have never normally done, at the behest of their abusers (Moe, 2004). Happens all the time, unfortunately.
In addition to the stated threats against Marceline and her children, there were influences on her decision making that held a great deal of weight. Her mother, clearly unaware of just how dire the situation would become, urged her to stay in the marriage, to maintain some sort of family unit, to try to make things work with her husband.
This is in addition to the clear pattern of gaslighting that she experienced from Jim and others in the Temple, all insisting that Jim’s affairs were benevolent gestures and that she was emotionally unstable.
When Marceline’s parents later visited her at Jonestown, her mother would retract that advice, disturbed at Jim’s condition and state of mind. But Marceline felt it was too late for that, and told her mother so.
It is clear that her reasons for being complicit up to a point are complicated and changed over time. An equation of factors. Perhaps losing her community and the opportunity to change the world played some role in her staying at first. But even then, she was concerned about the welfare of her children, and she was being told by people she trusted not to trust her gut.
By the end, unambiguously, she remained because her children and grandchild were there. She had tried to extricate her teenage son Stephan in multiple ways – getting him an apartment in the U.S., slipping him money and travel documents in Jonestown. These are the actions of someone who knows it would be best to leave, but feels powerless to openly do so.
Marceline was heading up the community’s meetings in its last days, trying to reassure everyone that things would be okay, as Jim was hidden away in a drug-addled state. This was her attempt to take the reins and see them through Congressman Ryan’s visit without anyone being hurt, without anything drastic being done. She wanted Ryan’s visit to be successful – for him to come away satisfied, and for no one to die or kill.
Now, one might look at that and see her as a villain trying to hide the same things that Jim wanted to hide – abuse, coercion, keeping people there against their will. But I don’t think she wanted to hide these things to save herself or preserve her power, and here’s why…
In plain view of staff at Jonestown, the day before the deaths, she chastised Jim for his paranoid words and actions, for the drugged-up state that he was in. She chastised the staff for listening to him when he was clearly losing touch with reality, clearly lost to the drugs he was addicted to.
She knew that things were not okay at Jonestown, make no mistake. But she knew that Jim would not stand for losing face. So, she felt the way to fix the problem was to get through the public scrutiny unscathed and address the problems internally. She may have even thought, as some survivors did, that he would die soon from his addiction.
She seemed to feel that Jim was the main obstacle to the least harmful result; ultimately, she was not entirely wrong. The same can be said for others in the leadership, according to several memos (like this one, from Richard Tropp, or this one, from Gene Chaikin, for example) and survivors.
This documentary implies that the leadership were a monolith, but they were not all on the same page, not even close.
In fact, Carolyn Layton referenced Marceline’s disapproval of the death idea in a memo to Jim.
You have always seemed sure that we could do away with ourselves and the babies we are worried about. Yet, each time MJ [Marceline Jones] gets totally freaked out at this and I have not seen you yet consider it without letting her know which under different circumstances she has a right to be informed and a part of.
Getting “totally freaked out” is neither a sign of silence nor approval.
Survivor accounts also suggest that Marceline fought as the children were poisoned, physically restrained, begging for them to stop. So, people wondering why nobody tried to rush up, fight, resist? Marceline did fight until the tragedy was too much to bear. Seems she did have it in her to fight at the end.
And, beyond worth noting, so did Poncho Johnson, who tried to fight the men who were putting their hands on Marceline. For his brave intervention, he was forced to drink the poison immediately, according to witness accounts. And of course we know that Christine Miller stood up to Jim as best she could. I don’t know why people still sometimes seem to assume there was no resistance.
Marceline did not plan or approve of the poisoning, and it is a deeply misleading simplification to suggest that she and only three others bear the brunt of responsibility for the deaths.
Dismissing Sexual Abuse And Manipulation
The minimizing of sexual abuse and manipulation through generalizations made with little evidence to back them up is a major theme in this documentary. Information that demonstrates the lack of agency of multiple women was omitted, while facets of Dr. Maaga’s opinion are presented as all-encompassing fact.
Some of these women slept with Jim Jones so that they could have influence over him. That the power actually flowed both ways.
Maaga, “Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre“
Maybe so, for certain women. It is easy to suggest this about, say, Carolyn Layton, who obviously held a great deal of power in the Temple organization.
But since we can only speculate, we could just as easily speculate that she was in love with Jim based on many letters from her to her family. Couldn’t that have been a driving force for her? Or the fact that she was the mother of Jim’s young son, Kimo? It is not possible to be sure.
It is not a fact that anyone slept with Jones “so that they could have influence over him.” Purely speculative, and not firm enough ground stand on in terms of saddling four specific people with the responsibility for over 900 deaths. It is unprovable that people such as Carolyn were driven to sleeping with Jones by their desire to effect social change or gain power.
Not only that; I find it irresponsible that this documentary, by omission of any perspective other than a single opinion, suggests all of the women who slept with Jim did so for some form of personal gain or furthering an agenda. Or even that they all did so entirely willingly.
The very young women who were clearly preyed upon are disregarded in this framing, some of whom certainly were part of the leadership circle. Deborah Layton immediately comes to mind, who detailed Jim’s predation of her in her book, Seductive Poison. Shanda James was drugged into submission when she chose to refuse him.
I’m sure there were more, since his position of power was innately coercive, especially to younger, more impressionable people.
Maria Katsaris, one of this documentary’s “big four,” was barely an adult when she first slept with Jim. Just 18 when he coerced her into a physical relationship. That is not just speculation; the lead-up to an early encounter between them was unwittingly overheard by a young Stephan Jones, one of Jim’s sons. Jim manipulated her guilt (guilt that he imposed upon her) and her deference to him as the Temple’s leader. She was pursued by him, not the other way around. This portion of Stephan’s interview for the documentary was cut.
That was not a woman who, with full agency, was choosing to use sex to manipulate a powerful political and religious figure to gain prestige and effect social change. That was a malleable teenager, an adult only by arbitrary legal measure of the difference between 17 and 18. The age and gender difference between them creates an inherent power differential, not to mention the fact that he was the end-all authority of the organization that she was a part of. And remember, Jim Jones successfully played much older and more experienced people than Maria.
For these reasons, I am not comfortable singling her out in responsibility for the deaths on the assumption that she was some sort of power-mad seductress, as this documentary presents her. She’d been sexually manipulated, arguably abused, for years by that point. While that doesn’t absolve her of her role (and it’s not for me to absolve, anyway), I find it very relevant.
He began serving them instead of the other way around.
Maaga, “Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre“
Who is “them,” first of all? The entire inner circle, or just the four people this documentary declares responsible? The women only? There were more women than just these four in leadership. Also, no men? Remember, there were, in fact, some men in the inner circle. And men did the shooting on the airstrip, and a man figured out how to mix the cyanide…
The inner circle, even some outside the really-inner circle, were making decisions about Jonestown’s everyday functions while Jim was high. Doesn’t change the fact that Jim wielded ultimate authority. There are even some memos that suggest his micromanagement of day-to-day matters, such as this one from Harriet Tropp, who was irritated with his poor logistical decision making.
This documentary highlighted the story of Jim’s “fake kidnapping” idea, which Maria, Carolyn, and Stephan Jones quietly put a stop to – Why would they have to finesse situations like that to prevent them from happening if Jim served Maria and Carolyn? Why couldn’t they just veto a plan like that openly?
Because Jim wasn’t serving anyone but his addiction at that point. The women on his staff who left near the end – Deborah Layton and Teri Buford – were clearly very frightened of him, clearly not “served by” him.
The generalization is dismissive of abusive dynamics that existed between Jim and multiple women he was involved with.
As Dr. Rebecca Moore pointed 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.
Moore, Q & A
The Infotainment Industry Is Shady
There are a few things worth mentioning concerning the interviews for this documentary:
Several of the people whose interviews are used – nearly everyone who appears in the documentary, in fact – expressed to me that their words were misrepresented through cutting and editing. And that the way it was initially presented to them was entirely different than the final product.
The consensus among those I spoke with is that the producer from Every Hill Films who developed relationships and trust with interviewees initially was somehow overruled well into the project – it was sold to A&E, who apparently demanded the flawed and sensational framing of the story. By that time, they already had their interviews and the freedom to edit them as they chose.
Dr. Rebecca Moore, scholar and sister of Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, said of the experience:
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.
Moore, Q & A
A point that I find especially egregious is the omission of Jim Jones’ sexual predation of teenage Maria Katsaris. Because they wanted to include her as one of four specific women who, they posit, manipulated Jim Jones in exchange for power, they chose to cut from their footage a piece of information that perhaps could have humanized her too much for their purposes. Regardless of how one feels about blame – even if you hate Maria for her role – should a woman who was preyed upon be portrayed as nothing more than an obsequious tart?
I have no doubt that this sort of thing happens all the time in “the biz.” Stuff being left out, people’s words being twisted. That doesn’t make it any less shitty. These people they got interviews from are human beings, not conduits to satisfy our voyeuristic fascination… or to make A&E some money.
Don’t take any one source as the end-all, readers. Especially when there are entertainment industry-driven factors in the mix influencing and altering the final product, as is the case for Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre.
“Analysis of Future Prospects,” FBI Document RYMUR 89-4286-X-3-e-32a – X-3-e-32e.
Bellefountaine, M. (2013) “Christine Miller: A Voice of Independence.”
“Children as an Abusive Mechanism” (Aug. 29, 2014) National Domestic Violence Hotline. Retrieved from https://www.thehotline.org/2014/08/29/children-as-an-abusive-mechanism/.
“Harriet Sarah Tropp Memo on Uglification of Jonestown”. FBI Document RYMUR 89-4286-EE-2-S-13A – EE-2-S-13B.
Jones, S. (2019-2020) Personal Communication.
Jones, S. (2005) “Marceline/Mom”.
“Jonestown 1978 Poncho Johnson.” Peoples Temple/ Jonestown Flickr.
Kohl, L. J. (2019) Personal Communication.
Layton, D. (1999) Seductive Poison. Anchor.
Maaga, M.M. (1998) Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
“Memo from Dick Tropp, May 1978.” FBI document RYMUR 89-4286-EE-1-T-64 – EE-1-T-65.
Moe, A. (2004). “Blurring the Boundaries: Women’s Criminality in the Context of Abuse.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, 32(3/4), 116-138. Retrieved February 16, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004583
Moore, R. (2017) “An Update on the Demographics of Jonestown.”
Rittenmeyer, N. (2018) Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre. Broadcast: A&E. Production: Every Hill Films.
“Undated letter from Gene Chaikin.” FBI document RYMUR 89-4286-EE-1-C-10 ff.
Vilchez, J. (2019) Personal Communication.
Yates, B. (2013) “Murder by Thorazine: A Look at the Use of Sedatives in Jonestown.”
 It was rightly pointed out to me after publishing that the previous two paragraphs could be construed as implying that black women ought to have more focus in terms of blame. I want to be extremely clear: since black women made up such a large portion of Peoples Temple, I find it a testament to white privilege that an unbalanced proportion of the curiosity, inquest, and analysis of what happened tends to center around white women. This is absolutely not because black women members of Peoples Temple should shoulder more of the blame, but because black women members deserve deeper understanding. That is what my statements above were in reference to. Thank you to the person who pointed out the need for clarification here.