The other day I saw the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, the story of the rise and spectacular fall of Jim Jones and his quasi-socialist experiment in constructing an alterative society first in Northern California, latterly in a remote outpost in Guyana.
An interview with the director and some clips from the film are available on YouTube.
The film features many interviews with former members of the Peoples Temple, not least with some of the few survivors of the events of November 17 and 18, 1978. It also has a wealth of archive footage: of services in San Francisco, and of the visit of Congressman Leo Ryan whose visit to the Jonestown colony precipitated the final crisis and mass suicide.
Ryan, very much a hands-on politician, went down to Guyana to investigate reports of abuses. At first the visit went well from the perspective of Jones and his followers. There’s an extraordinary moment in which Ryan addresses a meeting of the community and declares “whatever the [questions and criticisms] are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life.” This statement is followed by thunderous, overwhelming, and evidently spontaneous applause. The tumult of noise simply doesn’t stop. Ryan tries to say more, but is evidently taken aback, embarrassed but also somehow pleased, by the sheer force of the affect he has conjured up.
Now imagine being Jim Jones and receiving such a response on a regular basis.
The screening I attended was followed by a discussion led by a particularly clueless psychologist who repeated all the usual clichés about cults and brainwashing. What was striking was the way in which his discourse simply mirrored that of so-called cults: establishing a clear line between “us” and “them,” and warning us that “they” might seem superficially attractive and rational, but were in fact deeply dangerous and deceitful.
Watching the documentary itself, however, revealed the continuities between the Peoples Temple experience and the atmosphere of the time. Jim Jones emerged at the intersection of a potent cocktail of political radicalism, religious fervor, racial utopianism, and a general questioning of all norms.
Jones’s extraordinarily liberal racial politics were particularly evident, and clearly also long-standing and deep-held. One of the film’s interviewees was Jones’s adopted son, Jim Jones Jr. (he happened to be away from Jonestown the night of the massacre), who points out that he was the first African American child to be adopted by a white family in the state of Indiana. Other interviewees comment that, as far as they were concerned, Jones was not a white pastor: his empathy and understanding for the African American experience was almost instinctual, innate.
The film was particularly effective in conveying the appeal of the Peoples Temple: the way in which it offered an affective community, a dose of ecstasy, an amalgamation of Freedom Ride and hippie commune and underground cell. No wonder at least one former member comments:
a part of the film made me long to be back there in Peoples Temple. [. . .]
I wish that I could again experience the warmth of that Peoples Temple family and see the look of joy on the faces of my children as they interacted with that great big family. Back then I knew that I was a part of something that was going to make a difference in this world, and I was so happy that my children were going to be a part of it. I knew then that my life had purpose, and that I had done the right thing for me and for my children. I was glad that my mother [. . .] was also a part of this.
(Other responses are here).
But then there is the sense of disappointment, the tragedy that something, somewhere, went wrong. Somehow paranoia took over, the multitude turned bad:
I wanted November 18, 1978, to have been an ordinary day in the life of Peoples Temple, the day after November 17, the day before November 19 and so many days after.
It is all inside my head, too much inside my head. I find myself wanting to scream “Let’s have a do over. Let’s not have anyone die. Let’s not have Jonestown and Peoples Temple be what people say to describe a cult.” But if you have a do-over, where do you start from?
How it hurts to have to remember that it is all gone.
For more, see the film’s website, this YouTube montage, as well as Rebecca Moore’s indispensable Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.