Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rest in peace, Temple members

Years ago I learned that an acquaintance of mine had been involved with burying the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. My acquaintance, whom I'll call Sam, told me that his family's funeral home had publicized a toll-free phone number for friends and relatives to call if they wanted to identify any of the bodies. I can still remember Sam telling me that no one had ever called, that many victims had ended up in a mass grave. Sam, who is black, seemed to think that society in general didn't care about these people because most of them were either black, poor, or both.

I took this story with a grain of salt, thinking that surely there were many people who grieved for the Jonestown victims. Still, the idea that no one ever called that number has always bothered me, as has the idea that the victims were simply dismissed by the world. It made me wonder who they were and what they went through. At the time, I tried reading a book on Jonestown, but the one I chose was too disturbing for me then, so I set the topic aside for a long time.

Recently, I was flipping channels and caught the last 20 minutes of a documentary on the Jonestown. Later I rented a different documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and after watching it, I read Seductive Poison, a memoir by former Jonestown resident Deborah Layton. Both were excellent. I'm going to devote this post to the documentary, and a future post to the book.

Passionate idealism
If you've never heard of Jonestown, here are the basics: Jonestown was named for the Rev. Jim Jones, who was the leader of a church — or cult — called Peoples Temple. Espousing the causes of racial integration, social justice, and community, Jones led a congregation of 900 people from San Francisco to the wilds of Guyana, on the northern coast of South America, where they said they would build a utopian society, which came to be called Jonestown.

But before too long, questions arose about how people were treated in Jonestown and whether they were truly free to leave. In November 1978, a congressman from California went to visit, along with several journalists — and violence erupted. As Congressman Leo Ryan was trying to leave Guyana with several church members who had pled for his help, Temple gunmen launched an attack that killed Ryan and four others. Later that day, Jones, who had become increasingly paranoid, told his disciples they were in grave danger and ordered them to drink cyanide-laced punch. Those who resisted were forced to drink or injected with cyanide, while armed Temple members kept people from fleeing. A total of 913 people died.

That's a lot of ground to cover in 90 minutes, but that is what this film attempts to do. Actually, it attempts to do even more. The movie, which was directed by Stanley Nelson and released in 2006, begins with Jones's impoverished Indiana childhood, describes the creation of the Temple, its growth in California, and its end in Guyana. Forgoing the use of voiceovers and interviewer questions, the filmmaker relies soley on comments from well-chosen sources — including many former Temple members — and historical footage.

What I liked about the film was the very real face it puts on the group. Especially compelling are former members who describe the ideals that brought them into the fold, mainly Jones's causes of racial integration and equality.

"I was impressed by how it was such an interracial group, and people were really happy," says Bryan Kravitz in the film. He explains that he first saw Jones speak during a Temple visit to Philadelphia. "I heard Jim Jones talking about equality among the races. ... The good works that they were doing. Things that I wanted to get involved with but didn't even know where to make an entrée. And all of a sudden, the answer was there."

Some of those who went to Jonestown speak of the joy they felt in being able to live simply and self-
sufficiently, producing all their own food and essentially being shareholders in a community that they built themselves. As part of the Jonestown footage, the film shows photographs of people tending crops, kids playing basketball, and mothers holding children.

"It was just an exciting time," said former Temple member Laura Johnston Kohl. "Everything was new and unique and just fun, you know? We just had fun with it as it grew. I just loved that we created what we ate, that we did all these jobs."

But there was a dark side. Many people, members from varying stages in the Temple's 20+-year life, speak of discovering Jones's deceit, his sadistic tendencies, and his gestapo-style intimidation of those who might want to defect from the group. These troublesome facts about Jones seemed to become increasingly evident over the years, apparently reaching fever pitch in Guyana.

For many, however, the problems were secondary to the central mission of the group. Many in the film speak of how and why they came to accept the abuses. "It's like a child in a dysfunctional family," said former member Jordan Vilchez. "On a certain level, it's normal."

Added former member Hue Fortson Jr.: "We felt like we had gotten involved and gotten in so deep that there was actually no way out."

'She died in my arms'
The film captures — in chilling detail — the strange events of Nov. 17 and Nov. 18, 1978.

The sequence begins with video footage of Ryan and his party's first visit to Jonestown, where residents initially put Ryan's mind at ease. Many of the Jonestown residents seem to be in good spirits, and a singer entertains the multiracial group. As a member of Ryan's party says in the film, "It was a vibrant community. I would never have imagined that 24 hours later those people would be dead."

The first warning sign was when a frightened Temple member tried to pass a note to a member of Ryan's party asking for safe passage out of the community. That person was one of those who eventually reached safety, though Ryan, three journalists, and one defector were not as lucky. They were shot to death while trying to board a small plane out of the area. An NBC cameraman, who died in the gunfire, filmed some of the events before he was killed, and the footage is featured in the movie.

Perhaps even more disturbing is audio that the filmmakers secured, apparently from tapes recovered from the site, of Jones informing his congregation that Ryan was dead and that all of Peoples Temple would be blamed and punished — tortured even — unless they escaped in an act of "revolutionary suicide."

"It's nothing to death, it's just stepping into another plane. Don't be this way," Jones calmly intones. And later: "Quickly quickly quickly quickly quickly. Where is the vat? The vat, the vat, bring it here so the adults can begin."

It is one of the more haunting pieces of audio I've ever heard. I suggest not watching this right before you go to bed.

Of the entire film, some the most heartbreaking moments are the accounts of members who escaped from the scene of the murder-suicides. Two members watched their wives die; one also watched his baby die. You can almost feel the claustrophia of the jungle and the madness of Jones as they describe their loved ones' last moments.

"I saw my wife with our son in her arms and poison being injected into his mouth," former member Tim Carter says in the film. "My son was dead and he was frothing at the mouth. You know, cyanide makes people froth at the mouth. My wife died in my arms. And my dead baby son was in her arms. And I held her and said, 'I love you, I love you,' because that was all I could say. It was like — she died in my arms."

Later in the film he says, "They were just fucking slaughtered. ... It was just senseless waste and death."

Stanley Clayton relays how his wife saw her mother, grandmother, and siblings die. Then she followed Jones's directive willingly.

"She went up to that Kool-Aid, to that death barrel, and she just didn't hesitate," Clayton said. "She took it and drunk and told me to hold her. ... She died in my arms. Once I laid her down — she told me she wanted to lay with her grandmother — I at that point knew that I didn't have any reason to be here anymore." Clayton then cleverly tricked armed Temple guards and escaped into the jungle.

If I have a complaint about the film, it's that I think it glossed over certain details. Perhaps this is a necessity when boiling down a complex topic to a 90-minute presentation, but after doing a little reading on the topic, I think it would have been useful to identify the time frame that each member was in Jonestown, and whether any were "inside" members close to Jones, as opposed to being further way and perhaps insulated from his more frightening behavior.

I also thought that a letter found at Jonestown, and read at the end of the film, was edited in such a way as to make it seem more ambiguous than it really was. Perhaps this wasn't intentional, but from the presentation in the film, I thought the letter-writer was resistant to the suicide order. After finding the full transcript online, I no longer think so. Either way, the letter is incredibly moving and sad; I just don't think it was edited well for the film.

But these are mainly nitpicks. In general, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple offers a fascinating introduction to its topic.

After watching this film, my thoughts turned back to Sam and his recollections. I've since learned that a memorial wall is being erected at the site of a mass grave of several hundred Jonestown victims in California.

My own memorial is below. In my drawing, I chose to make all the headstones the same size to indicate that the people had something in common, but the individual inscriptions were inspired by remembrances I found on a web site called Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. This site, which is part of San Diego State University, includes a list of all those who died, with tools that let friends and relatives leave memorial comments about any of the victims.

If you're curious about this tragedy, I hope you'll either rent Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which is available from Netflix, or go to the SDSU site and look at some of the testimonials about the victims. I think that the greatest honor we can do the Jonestown victims is to remember them, and recognize that each one represents a unique and incalculable loss.

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.