We were gone all day on an off-campus retreat. When we got back late that November 1978 night, we heard the news on the radio: a US congressman had been killed in the jungles of Guyana. Our first thought, not all that far removed from the long slog of Vietnam, was “Holy crap, we’re going to war.”
The reality wasn’t even close: it was far more horrific. The murder of Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Cal.) and others in his party at an airstrip was just the beginning. As the incident’s full record trickled out to the world, everything about it was staggering: the magnitude (918 dead), the method (mass suicide, as it was commonly reported, but some were also shot), and the site (a place carved out of the middle of the jungle in a country we barely could find on the map).
The most befuddling thing about hearing the news of the massacre at Jonestown (note that few called it a massacre in those early days) was how it could have happened in the first place. What was a Jonestown, and what were all those people doing down there in the first place?
The story of Rev. Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple was well known in progressive circles in San Francisco and elsewhere in California, but not at all anywhere else. The enigmatic, self-styled preacher had amassed a large following, and a measure of political clout, with his message of social and economic justice for all. But while news articles hinted at a dark side to Jones’ dealings, nothing on the level of what happened in that jungle was ever suspected.
Jonestown occupies a singular place in our history. The story touched a nerve across the world, but there were no calls to change things as a result of it. We perceived it as the most bizarre and gruesome action imaginable of a cult whose leader had gone beyond merely mad, but with him among the dead, there was no way to bring him to address his misdeeds. We wondered what could persuade so many people to give their whole lives over to such a quest, but we couldn’t draw broader lessons about the human heart from it. We grappled with the nonsensical madness of Jonestown as best we could… but that was all the vast majority of us could really do.
The story is different for those who survived the massacre, Temple members who stayed behind in San Francisco (and defied an expectation that they’d join their Guyana mates in suicide), and those families who lost loved ones. As our attempts to come to grips with the horror of it all receded into the back pages of everyday life, theirs were only beginning.
Much has been written and said about Jonestown over the years, including a play, The People’s Temple, written by Leigh Fondakowski from three years of interviews with survivors (she did a similar work, The Laramie Project, around the murder of Matthew Sheppard). She has compiled those interviews and more into Stories from Jonestown, a sweeping reminder of the promise that drew so many under Jones’ sway, and the horrors that eventually befell them.
This isn’t a strict chronological history of Jones and his followers, although Fondakowski skillfully weaves in enough history to ground her narrative. It begins quietly, in 2001, at the annual gathering of survivors and relatives of the deceased to mark the tragedy’s anniversary. It becomes immediately clear that the community of survivors is, understandably, a sensitive and delicate thing. For starters, they clearly do not take to being scorned as emotionally unhinged cultists.
That community includes one of Jones’ sons, Stephan. It would be tempting to automatically demonize the son of a maniacal despot, and surely many survivors have done just that. But throughout the course of several interviews, Fondakowski reveals Jones to be a survivor in his own right, as well as someone who can help put a human face on a tragedy that remains unfathomable.
That’s the greatest accomplishment of Stories from Jonestown: it allows the people of the Peoples Temple to speak in their own words, unframed from mass perception. Fondakowski and her theatrical collaborators set the stage for each of their stories, then step aside and allow the survivors (or family members of the deceased, in some cases; they are indeed survivors, too) to give their own accounts. It may be that after all these years, there’s finally enough distance from the massacre to consider it, and everyone who was a part of Jim Jones’ orbit, with less emotional confoundedness and more clarity. By merely showing them the respect of allowing them to speak in their own voices, this effort restores a large measure of dignity and respect to people who haven’t always been treated that way.
As the stories continue, a common thread emerges. The wide variety of people who signed on with Jones saw an opportunity to answer a fundamental longing. Elderly black people who had always been treated as second-class citizens (Jones attracted a large number of black followers), idealistic young white people who wanted to change society, street people needing a second chance, parents who wanted a safe haven for their kids: they all were seduced by the charismatic preacher/activist who’d journeyed west from Indianapolis to find a place where he could bring his vision to life.
No one questions Jim Jones’ effect on San Francisco politics: if he didn’t directly drive public policy, he certainly helped get a lot of people elected by marshalling the Temple’s resources. But was all that cover for something much more nefarious? Did he truly believe he could change the world, or at least create a new one? Did he plan an oasis in the jungle all along? Did he plan to commit mass murder once he got there? Did power, paranoia and drugs drive him mad, or was he already there? Most of those answers, of course, we’ll never know. But as the survivors tell it, his enterprise was nothing if not a well-oiled machine fueled by fear, deception and the hopes and dreams of unrooted souls desperately seeking a progressive Heaven on Earth.
All those dreams came crashing down in the Guyana jungle (the drink was Flavor-Aid, Fondakowski reports, not Kool-Aid; at the very least, Kool-Aid’s brand managers ought to consider a campaign against that unfortunate catchphrase about swallowing whole the company line). Stories reaches its emotional apex as survivor Tim Carter walks Fondakowski’s team through a videotape of the final hours. The actual truth is at once much more complicated, much more nuanced and much more sickening than we knew back then.
We also had no sense of how hard it was for those fortunate few who returned from Guyana alive, both the process of returning and the reception once they got back. It’s no wonder that the story has remained so painful for people to live with all these years. (The city of San Francisco itself, in a way, was also wounded by Jonestown: its nerves were already disturbed when, nine days after the massacre, Mayor George Moscone and city council member Harvey Milk were murdered. The incoming mayor, Dianne Feinstein, thus had multiple seismic events to resolve right after taking the oath of office.)
Jonestown and the workings of the Peoples Temple are well documented. Numerous books have been written, by historians, biographers and survivors alike. Many articles and photographs are archived at the California Historical Society, and Fondakowski’s interviewees present numerous personal mementos as they tell their stories. But there’s a whole generation for whom Jonestown is not even a memory, and for the rest of us, we probably haven’t given it much thought in a long time. In that respect, Stories from Jonestown is more than just a searing recounting of what happened. It’s also a poignant testimony to spirit, forgiveness, and the power of stoic resilience.
And it’s also a cautionary tale – not just about the dangers of surrendering all judgment to a seemingly larger-than-life messiah, but of how to carry on in the wake of the unspeakable. There’s no event in recent memory that compares to the nature and scale of the Jonestown massacre, but there have been many other unspeakable massacres since; the devastation that befell Newtown, Connecticut is only the most recent. In each of those cases, the wounds linger long after the bodies are buried and the media decamp. The Sandy Hook survivors will discover, as the Jonestown survivors did, that the anniversary of the attack will be a hard date to face for a long, long time.
Although the events are obviously dissimilar, the people of Newtown might be able to draw some strength from knowing of the Jonestown survivors. They might see – if they haven’t already – that healing is hard work. In fact, as Jonestown’s survivors will attest, it’s lifelong work. But with time, faith and support, healing from even the most horrific excesses of human behaviour can happen.