Lessons of Jonestown

A new documentary explores the story behind the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana. When faith is turned against the faithful.

Newsweek/October 19, 2006
By Joshua Alston

In November 1978, 913 people died in a shocking mass murder-suicide, and 28 years later, the Jonestown Massacre still remains the most chilling example of faith turned against the faithful. The group was led by the charismatic Jim Jones, who started his church, the Peoples Temple, in Indiana. He then moved the group to the San Francisco area, and ultimately to a desolate area of Guyana, where the tragedy played out as a concerned group showed up to investigate. Leo Ryan, a California congressman, led the delegation, and was killed by Jones’s guards when he attempted to fly defectors out of the site. Hours later, Jones instructed the group to drink cups of grape Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide.

In a challenging new documentary that opens in limited release this week, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple,” acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson reconstructs the Jonestown story. From its seemingly auspicious beginning to its horrific end, Norman uses the testimonial of 40 former Peoples Temple members and a cache of archived video footage to shed light on the lingering questions that still haunt many. What made the victims join the group? Why didn’t they leave? What more could have been done? Norman recently spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Joshua Alston about the film and his take on how such a tragedy could happen. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What made you want to do a documentary about Jonestown?
Stanley Nelson:

The project started three years ago, on the 25th anniversary of Jonestown. I heard Peoples Temple members on the radio and became fascinated with the Peoples Temple and their story because it was so different from the story that I had always heard and thought I knew.

They talked about this church that was very socially active, about this church that was trying to change the world and about the church members they still loved. The biggest thing was that they sounded so sane, so normal. I’d originally thought that these were 900 people who had gone into Guyana to follow this madman to their deaths. But after hearing them on the radio, I started thinking that they must not have all been crazy. So what was it that could have attracted them to Peoples Temple? That’s what started me off.

There’s an amazing amount of video and audio footage in the film. Why was so much of what happened at the Peoples Temple being documented?

The footage came from a number of different sources, but there was a lot of footage in the film that did come from Peoples Temple. We found members who had film stuffed in the back of their closets and had never showed it to anybody. When organizations are doing things that they think are really great, they document them. Nazi Germany kept some of the best documentation of the Holocaust because they thought what they were doing was wonderful. We even got 400 audiotapes of Jim Jones starting from 1953, when he had first started as a preacher, until the last moments of Jonestown as he’s encouraging people to drink the poison and to “die with dignity.” You can hear the people screaming in the background.

Do you think Jones was a man who became corrupted by power, or was the massacre part of his plan?

In the film, we go back to his childhood and talk to his childhood friends who say that at 5 or 6 years old that he was “off.” He was not normal. He had a fascination with death.

But I don’t think Jim Jones ever decided to go down to Guyana and kill everybody on a predetermined date. I do think that he had a fascination with death, and he certainly ordered the cyanide. I mean why was the cyanide there? It was there before Congressman Ryan arrived. He had rehearsals where he would give his congregation a drink and then he would say, “What I just gave you was poison,” just to see how they would react. So I think that it was something in the back of his mind, if things got too bad, an option was for them to commit suicide.

One of Jones’s major messages was the equality of the races, and he aggressively pushed an agenda of racial integration. Is that what made him so attractive as a leader?

Yes. One of the biggest attractions of the Peoples Temple was the promise of integration, that people would be able to live in a truly integrated community, and he provided that. I think that one thing we have to understand about Jim Jones is that he delivered on his promises for a long time, and that’s how he was able to build a congregation and keep them. He told people that they would live in an integrated community, and that was true. He was able to build a following that way.

That’s the most fascinating thing about Jim Jones. He believed a lot of what he was saying, and it made me understand that kind of personality and how that kind of thing can catch on, because he was not totally evil. It wasn’t a doomsday church at first. It was something that was sane, rational and made people feel good. He told people to invest their welfare check or Social Security check and he would turn it into something that would be so much better than being taken care of by the government, and he did that. That’s why sane people joined and stayed.

But in the film, you show how Jones’s behaviors toward the congregation became deviant and bizarre. It’s difficult to understand why people didn’t leave.

As Jim’s behavior became more deviant, people went along with it because it was a small part of their lives. They might have been in a meeting that was very weird, and had some kind of weird sexual content, but that might have happened only once a year. The rest of the year they were with people they knew and loved in the church. So they would excuse that away.

But there were people who left. In the life of the Peoples Temple, there were a lot of people who visited and decided it wasn’t for them. The Peoples Temple had a very high profile in the Bay Area, so it attracted a lot of members, some of whom visited or joined for a while and decided to leave. But the story we know is of the people who went to Jonestown and stayed, and that’s the story we care about.

So people weren’t kept against their will? They were allowed to come and go as they pleased?

As things progressed it was harder to come and go. The more you knew, the higher up you were in the church, the harder it was. Certainly by the time you reached Guyana, it was impossible to leave. Jonestown was 250 miles away from Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. So it was 250 miles straight into the jungle. They were in the middle of nowhere. So not only would Jim Jones not allow people to go anywhere, it was basically impossible to do so.

Do you think the effort to get people out could have been handled better?

Sure, I think that it could have been handled in a different way. One issue is that Congressman Ryan had no idea what he was going into, and hadn’t done enough research to understand what he might face in Jonestown or the madness of Jim Jones and the lengths to which he would go to protect his colony. But Jim just panicked. There were only 20 people who wanted to leave. It wasn’t a mass exodus. But he had a thing about people leaving. He looked at that as a betrayal, so for Jim, 20 people out of 900 people made it seem like this thing was collapsing. And when his members tried to stab Congressman Ryan, Jim understood that an incredible shift had taken place. Once someone tries to stab a congressman, you’re about to be in trouble.

How do the Jonestown survivors feel about religion and faith now? Are they still faithful people or have they been soured by that experience?

I found that the survivors that we talked to differ, from one who now is the pastor of a small storefront church and is very religious, to people who don’t seem to be very religious at all. I think part of it depended on what you went into Jonestown looking for. There were a lot of people who joined the Peoples Temple who were really not necessarily looking for Christ, or religion. They were looking to be part of this social experiment and change the world. Those people didn’t go in for spiritual reasons, so they tend not to be spiritual today.

In a post-Jonestown America, do you think it’s possible for new religious movements to take hold?

I think that new religious movements are taking hold all the time. Religion has assumed incredible importance in the United States, much more than anyone would have believed 30 years ago. This kind of tragedy is something that has happened over and over again. I don’t think the Peoples Temple was a function of its time at all. I think it’s a function of human nature; people want to be part of a society and be part of something that’s bigger than them.

What is the lesson of Jonestown?

There’s one point in the film where a survivor is talking about a deviant sexual event that he’d seen, and he says, “I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t do a thing to stop it.” And that’s the message. When do you stand up and say something’s wrong? When do you say stop? That’s important, because the change that took place in the members of Peoples Temple happened little by little. They didn’t say no, so they changed a little. They didn’t speak out, so they changed a little more. So by the time they got to that final day in Guyana, they were very different people.

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