Feeling as an outcast, I’d early developed a sensitivity for the problems of blacks.
Dysfunctional family: we got a nice name for it now, but when you live in a dysfunctional family, you think it’s normal.
—Jim Jones Jr.
“My family was a template of the rainbow family,” says Jim Jones Jr. A snapshot bears out his description: his attentive white parents, pose with their children—adoptees Jim and his two Asian-American sisters, and the boy they call their “natural son.” Jim Jr. is the only family member interviewed for Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Stanley Nelson’s intriguing and sometimes frustrating documentary about Jones Sr., and the church he built and destroyed.
The fact that Jim Jr. is black goes to a central theme of the film, that is, the remarkable integration of the Peoples Temple. The church, initiated at a time when such social and political mixing of races was still somewhat “daring” in the United States, inspired members to see themselves and each other in ways that seemed revolutionary. “Peoples Temple,” says one former member at the film’s start, “really had the potential to be something big and powerful and great.” Says another, the church was premised on “having this vision to change the world, but having this whole undercurrent of dysfunction that was beneath that vision.” Despite the group’s hope and faith that they might reach a “promised land,” they were led instead to a horrific and also strangely symptomatic mass suicide in Guyana.
Looking for order and some measure of respite from daily grinds and cultural confusions, the Peoples Temple adherents were willing—not unlike many members of organizations, spiritual and otherwise—to let pass some odd behaviors. Remembering her discovery that Jones was having sex with her sister, Rebecca Moore says in some amazement, “Everything seemed plausible, except in retrospect, everything seems bizarre.” While the documentary tends to marvel at what was, in retrospect, bizarre, it doesn’t delve too deeply into how and why believers went along. Rather, it offers their own amazement that they did go along, as well as their grief over lost loved ones, even recollections of children and wives dying of poison in their arms. It’s a stunning assembly of images and ideas, but in the end, Jonestown is less about context and process than it is about spectacle.
Just so, it attends closely to the church’s use of spectacle, owing in large part to Jones’ particular genius and charisma. Services consisted of rousing sermons and community-moving songs (say, “Something Got a Hold of Me”). According to Garrett Lambrey, the congregation “had soul, they had life, they had power: we were alive during those services.” Former member Hue Fortson Jr. recalls that he was especially impressed by the “interracial” nature of the group, as it embodied an ideal of socially and politically progressive harmony. As Moore puts it, “Peoples Temple really was a black church. It was led by a white minister but in terms of the worship service, the commitment to social gospel, its membership, it functioned completely like a black church.” The appeal, notes Deborah Layton, who wrote a book about her disillusionment with the church, Seductive Poison, for “so many people from diverse backgrounds” was realizing “that there was something bigger than themselves they needed to be involved in.”
Jones’ articulation of and seeming commitment to this ethos is linked in the documentary to his childhood experiences. His childhood in Lynn, Indiana, pop. 1000, was less than happy. He says in a recording, “I was undoubtedly one of the poor in the community, never accepted.” His “childhood friends” see his difference differently, one observing, “There was something not quite right… He was obsessed with religion, he was obsessed with death.” Indeed, as a child he reportedly conducted a funeral for a cat, which he killed with a knife. “Having a funeral for it was a little strange,” remembers Chuck Wilmore, “Killing the animal was very strange.”
As Jones came to formulate his sense of community, he identified with “outcasts” and set out to embrace them. Not only did he devise a congregation that welcomed all races, he and his wife also put their ideals into practice in their personal lives. Jones Jr. observes, “I was the first Negro child adopted by a Caucasian family in the state of Indiana.” Determining that the state was “too racist” for the church he had in mind, Jones moved to Ukiah, CA, somehow measured to be the town most likely to survive a nuclear attack (his use of such a measure seems an indication of increasingly grandiose and paranoid worldview).
This early community was commune-like, as would be the last incarnation in Guyana. Jones describes himself in a videotaped interview as akin to Jesus, who also fed the hungry and clothed the naked. Membership grew as Jones and crew traveled by Greyhound busses around the country, offering promises of love and purity. The fact that the church was soon indulging in some standard issue hoodwinking (a “crippled” woman turns out to be a church secretary in a wig, a discovery recounted by a member who yet remained in the group). As commitment to the community took up increasing amounts of time, energy, and money for the congregants, they were less and less inclined to leave, to consider their membership a choice instead of a calling.
Jones turned more “bizarre, including those sexual exploitations of church members that are now legendary (some former members here recount specific unease, as when he offered one male member, “I’ll fuck up in the ass if you want” or told another, “All of us were homosexuals and… he was the only heterosexual on the planet. The rest of us were just compensating”). Members didn’t share with one another their concerns, and so their capacity for resistance diminished.
It’s this last part, the evolving inability to walk away or think outside the church, that is most striking here, in large part because it remains unexplained and likely, inexplicable. For even as the film recounts in chilling detail the events that led to the murder of California Congressman Leo Ryan and the mass suicide, with survivors recalling moments during that day, 18 November 1978, they can offer no elucidation of victims’ thinking, only remorse, horror, and guilt. While moving to South America constituted a severe commitment (survivor Joyce Shaw-Houston says it was “kind of like getting married”), members didn’t anticipate the desperation that would engulf their leader. If they were able to question their choice at this point, it meant rethinking all kinds of spiritual, political, and emotional investments they had made over years. When Jones called the rest of the world hostile or ignorant, it underlined their own enlightenment, or at least their conviction. “If we can’t live in peace,” announced Jones over his final PA address to his congregants, “Then let’s die in peace.” Stanley Clayton recalls his wife’s last moments: “She went up to that Kool-Aid, to that death barrel,” he says, and then “she died in my arms.”
While Jones maintained, “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world,” the survivors deem it otherwise. Their loved ones’ deaths were conceived in fear and submission, not rapture and not faith. As survivor Tim Carter puts it, “They were just fucking slaughtered… Now I can’t believe in heaven any more.”
The story is surely tragic, and the details—of memory, subjective experience, and regret—are surely revealing. The meaning you draw from Jonestown, however, may tell you something about yourself. As much as it leaves open individual questions of devotion and need, it does make clear the dangers of seeking solace and identity in the embrace of such a complex ego. While the “integrated” church may have seemed awful after Jonestown, that wasn’t what Jones had wrought. No matter how he described himself, his power was that of a white man, self-focused and entitled. Jonestown shows that Jones—whether you read him as insecure or aberrant, imperious or symptomatic—was a sign of his times.