Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, by Rebecca Moore (Praeger, 179 pp., $34.95)
On November 18, 1978, a knife-wielding henchman of Jim Jones tried and failed to assassinate Congressman Leo Ryan, who was visiting Jonestown, Guyana, at the behest of concerned constituents—people who had left Peoples Temple, Jones’s organization, and relatives of people still within. Later that day, at an airstrip outside the agricultural commune, Jones’s gunmen finished the job, killing the California congressman, NBC reporter Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and disenchanted cultist Patty Parks. Back at Jonestown, Jones then ordered his followers to join him in committing “revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world,” which they did. As with the nineteenth-century utopian experiments New Harmony, Brook Farm, and Oneida, the beautiful idea hadn’t failed; the world had.
But in its ghastly outcome, Jonestown was unlike past utopian communities entrenched in the American tradition of building “a city upon a hill.” It belonged more to the totalitarian socialism of the twentieth century. Peoples Temple attorney Charles Garry’s proclamation to journalists after visiting Jonestown—“I have seen paradise”—recalled the reactions of Lincoln Steffens, John Reed, and W. E. B. Du Bois upon making pilgrimages to the Soviet Union. And like the attempts to build paradise in Russia, Cambodia, and North Korea, Jonestown ultimately became not a heaven on earth but a hell. Just four cultists inside Jonestown when the “white night” began escaped their assigned fates; 909 perished. Code words delivered by shortwave radio even prompted a mother in faraway Georgetown, Guyana, to murder her three children and herself. Four months later, Jones’s spokesman, Mike Prokes, called a press conference in which he expressed allegiance to the aims of Peoples Temple and promptly killed himself. Jim Jones holds sway even from the grave.
Four pictures grace the cover of Rebecca Moore’s recent book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple: a white woman teaching black children, a smiling multiracial group cooking a feast, a senior citizen receiving medical treatment, and a man working a pottery wheel. Rather than helping us understand Jonestown, the images create the impression that the South American jungle colony was really a pleasant place. Indeed, Moore contends that the commune’s “reality was not completely at odds with the façade” that Jim Jones presented to the world. She insinuates at every turn that the San Francisco political cult transplanted to Guyana wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be.
“There are apostate accounts that described the jungle community as a concentration camp,” Moore writes. “Although these stories prompted Congressman Leo Ryan to travel to Jonestown in November 1978 to investigate conditions, they exaggerated some problems.” What problems did they exaggerate? Moore doesn’t specify, simply implying that Jonestown was something other than a “concentration camp.” But armed guards, confiscation of passports, drugging of malcontents, incessant loudspeaker harangues, torture, public browbeating sessions, food rationing, and ultimately a survival rate below that of Auschwitz surely made Jonestown a concentration camp.
It would be tempting to dismiss Moore, who in addition to her latest apologia has authored such titles as A Sympathetic History of Jonestown and In Defense of Peoples Temple. But like the group whose reputation she seeks to resuscitate, Moore does not operate on the margins, however marginal her views. She chairs the department of religious studies at San Diego State. When the subject of Jonestown arises, as it did recently on the 30th anniversary of the events, media outlets solicit her expertise. Stanley Nelson’s PBS documentary “The Life and Death of Peoples Temple,” for instance, featured Moore as a talking head. And she published this latest book not out of her garage but through Praeger, a respected imprint of a major publishing house. However reassuring it is to believe that all cranks are tinfoil-hatted denizens of the furthest recesses of the Internet, the examples of Jones, the darling of the San Francisco power structure, and of Moore, a tenured, media-designated authority, prove that what’s comforting isn’t always what’s true.
For years prior to Jonestown’s cataclysmic finale, unheeded voices, such as journalist Les Kinsolving’s, warned America about the raven-haired preacher feted by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, supervisor Harvey Milk, and mayor George Moscone. In her topsy-turvy narrative, Moore seems most concerned with refuting these lonely critics. She calls the relatives of Jonestown members who exposed oppression within the Temple “apostates” and “defectors,” faulting them for failing to “consider the effect these actions might have upon residents of Jonestown.” The slain Congressman Ryan didn’t provide adequate notice for his trip and embarrassed the Temple by bringing an entourage of journalists, Moore claims. “Violence erupted because Jonestown residents believed that Ryan jeopardized their ultimate concern, which was to be in solidarity with all oppressed peoples, but especially with African Americans. He represented the power of the state and its ability to destroy the community.” This is the kind of tripe that one would have expected to hear over a Jonestown loudspeaker. Here it is in a book by a department chair at a respected university.
Jones’s seductive rhetoric attacking racism, capitalism, and homophobia, which helped delude his supporters, has deluded Moore as well. In the Jonestown aftermath, the Left quickly distanced itself from Peoples Temple to save face; 30 years later, Moore highlights the Temple’s role within the American Left to revive the Temple’s reputation. If not exactly an attempt at innocence-by-association, this is at least an effort to use Jones’s associations with prominent Democrats and radicals to highlight what Moore sees as the Temple’s overlooked redeeming aspects.
Indeed, Jim Jones was a power player in Bay Area politics and thereby a player in national Democratic Party politics. Local politicians and activists benefited from the slave labor that he could provide on little notice to people political rallies and hand out campaign literature. In gratitude, Moscone appointed him chairman of San Francisco’s housing authority and Willie Brown likened Jones, a man who would eventually kill more African-Americans than any Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, to Martin Luther King, Jr. First lady Rosalyn Carter and her husband’s running mate, Walter Mondale, both met with the cult leader. Jones even appropriated the title of Huey Newton’s book, Revolutionary Suicide, to describe the extermination of his flock (which included several of Newton’s relatives). Once Jonestown’s residents had performed this “revolutionary suicide,” the wills left behind bequeathed all to the Soviet Union.
None of this would move any sane reader to think better of Jones, which is why his former political supporters, eager to distance themselves, attempt to paint him as a species alien to them—a religious crazy of the evangelical variety, in one too-convenient retelling. But Moore—correctly, for once—disdains the religious excuse and highlights the politics. “Jones gave no sermons in Jonestown, but instead interpreted international news, directed the Jonestown economy, and gave monologues—or harangues—at Peoples Rallies,” Moore explains. “When religion did come up, it was to criticize it. For example, when Jones exhorted residents to pretend to be ‘in’ the Holy Spirit, he was mocking the Pentecostal roots of the movement. He called Jesus an oppressor of black people. Peoples Temple was no longer a religious organization, at least not in Guyana, but was instead a socialistic utopian experiment.”
Peoples Temple disproportionately attracted vulnerable people, ensuring an easy-to-control flock: the very old and the very young, drug-culture dropouts, the urban underclass, and mush-headed idealists. In Jonestown, forced labor, a “snitch” culture, and sleep and nutritional deprivation conditioned docility. Politically predisposed and programmed to believe that American agents of capitalism and racism lay in wait to torture their children, Jonestown’s residents were fed misinformation and exposed to fake attacks—or, as Moore artfully puts it, Jones and his assistants “precipitated a state of siege in which residents believed that they were under attack.” Periodic acid tests weeded some people out and solidified the loyalty of the herd. Members signed paychecks and deeds over to Peoples Temple, uprooted their lives and moved to another continent to follow Jones, played along with his phony faith healings, falsely admitted homosexuality or allowed themselves to be taken sexually by Jones, aborted children on command, and participated in dry runs of suicide. And just in case this didn’t move them to stand obediently in the Kool-Aid line, Jones took the precaution of surrounding them with armed men when the time for death arrived.
Moore is too close to the story to see the picture clearly. “Because my parents and I had personal knowledge of some of the Jonestown victims, we were unable to accept pop psychological analyses of ‘brainwashed fanatics’ and ‘crazed cultists,’” she writes. “These descriptions did not apply to either of my sisters or to other members of Peoples Temple that we knew.” But they did. One of Moore’s sisters, Annie, lobbied Jones to poison his flock and administered the toxic concoction. The other sister, Carolyn, bore Jones’s child. Both sisters shared Jones’s bed, planned the killings, and ruled over the commune as part of its hierarchy, with Annie so high up that she is believed to have been the last person to die at Jonestown.
Rebecca Moore’s book is the equivalent, then, of a concentration camp warden’s kin putting the best face on his work. “I am convinced that given the right time, the right leader, and the right circumstances,” Moore admits, “I too might have joined a movement like Peoples Temple.” She convinces her readers of this point, if of nothing else.