What I Learned About The Jonestown Cult By Spending Time With Survivors

Above the stage where the Reverend Jim Jones addressed over 900 members of the Peoples Temple church for the final time, compelling them to leave behind the conditions of an inhumane world and commit 'revolutionary suicide', there hung a sign reading: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Attributed to philosopher George Santayana, this quote serves as a warning to human beings not to overestimate our separation from past atrocities, and can be found (in a slightly altered form) inscribed on a plaque at Auschwitz. For many who witnessed the 1978 media coverage of the Jonestown massacre, though, the quote became inseparable from images captured in the aftermath of the tragedy: the vat of cyanide-laced fruit punch, the strewn paper cups and syringes, the bodies left to bloat in the heat of a remote jungle in Guyana.
Advertisement
These are memorable images. Unforgettable, even. But what have we learned from them?
In the spring of 2015, I travelled to the US as research for my novel Beautiful Revolutionary – a work of fiction that was largely inspired by my desire to understand how the Jonestown massacre could have happened. I spent time in California speaking with survivors, and others whose lives were touched by the tragedy through the loss of loved ones. I scrutinised archival documents, photographs and recordings, searching for long-dead people. Before I could begin to understand why they died, it was necessary to understand how they lived and what they believed in.
Peoples Temple didn’t begin in Jonestown, nor did it begin by espousing 'revolutionary suicide'. The church was established in 1950s Indiana and promoted equality (particularly racial equality) and service of one’s fellow human beings as Christian principles. In the 1960s, Peoples Temple relocated to California, where it expanded and redefined itself as a more outwardly socialist, revolutionary organisation. By the late 1970s, Peoples Temple was an active force within San Francisco’s political left. It came under fire following allegations from former members about abusive practices within the church and the declining sanity of leader Jim Jones. This prompted a 1977 mass exodus to Jonestown, the Temple’s agricultural settlement in Guyana.
The people of Peoples Temple weren’t blind to history. If anything, they were more aware of it than most. Records were kept. Sermons and public meetings were regularly taped. One Jonestown schoolteacher, Edith Roller, kept a diary at the encouragement of Jones. Another, Dick Tropp, was apparently working on a book. Listen to the tapes recovered by the FBI after the massacre and you’ll hear references to wars, genocides, enslavements and sieges, from biblical times to the present day. There’s even a tape where Jones mentions contemporaneous cult the Manson family, and discourages members from referring to the Temple as a 'family'.
Advertisement
Then there are the chilling words Jones utters on the 'Jonestown Death Tape', recorded as the people of Jonestown are dying:
"…what a legacy, what a legacy."
These are the words of a man who wanted to go down in history – and he has, as a mass murderer. This isn’t unjust. Other things, though, have been misremembered or distorted in our eagerness to separate ourselves from the atrocity of what happened in Jonestown, and to convince ourselves that it could never happen to us.
There are a lot of Jim Jones memes on the internet, many of which have to do with 'punchlines' or being thirsty. Humour is a pretty good defence mechanism. So is disassociation.
One meme that’s regularly shared by self-proclaimed atheists and freethinkers features Jim Jones at a pulpit, along with the words: "This Christian killed 911 people and nobody blamed Christianity." The problem with this? There’s a lot of evidence that Jim Jones was actually an atheist.
Sure, he was a reverend. He performed faith healings, sometimes wore clerical robes, sometimes quoted the bible. But he also regularly declaimed 'sky gods', was witnessed throwing the bible on the ground and was said to have encouraged his followers to use its pages as toilet paper. On one tape, Jones confesses to infiltrating the church as a way of better spreading the message of Marxism.
Although many members of Peoples Temple were Christians, many (particularly those in leadership positions) were not. They were a diverse group. Neither Christianity nor Marxism nor any other belief system alone was responsible for the massacre, or can be blamed for all the massacres of the past. Power, and the abuse of power, comes in many different cloaks.
Advertisement
Which leaves us with something messier than a single belief system: people.
I don’t just mean Jim Jones. I mean the people who obeyed his orders – and in some cases, implemented them. They weren’t merely brainwashed cultists or bodies standing in line. They were people, who left behind voice recordings, diary entries, letters and memos, through which aspects of their individual histories can be discerned.
There are many reasons why a person might join a movement like Peoples Temple. We join because we want to be part of something. Because we’re dissatisfied with the world around us and want to change it. Because we want a better life. Because we want to believe in something, anything. Because we’re lonely. Because we’re hungry. Because we’re in love. Because the people are friendly. Because it seems like a cool place.
The reasons why people stay are also recognisable; the same reasons we might stay in bad jobs or bad relationships. Inertia. Financial dependence. Peer pressure. Cynicism about whether we have better options. Fear of retaliation from those we’re leaving. Fear of what we’ll lose, in leaving them behind. The hope that things will get better if we just work hard enough, put up with the bad stuff a bit longer.
It’s hard to know when is the right time to leave. It’s also hard to know if history will repeat itself when we’re in the midst of it. If there’s one thing Jonestown can teach us, though, it’s that we all have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the wrong kind of person. Vulnerability is human. There’s no strength in denying this. The best thing we can do is remember.
Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett is out now, published by Scribe UK.
Advertisement

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series