I have always been fascinated by cults. One of the best comments in the documentary Jonestown: The Life And Death of Peoples Temple, is that nobody joins a group thinking it is a cult.
"Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organization, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like," said Deborah Layton, a Peoples Temple member who wrote a book about the experience.
People join groups because they think the cause is good and just or they want the camaraderie it provides. I recently wrote a piece about Civil War re-enactors and mentioned that I once asked a re-enactor whether he thought the camaraderie he gets with his re-enactor buddies is much different from the camaraderie gang members get.
The re-enactor did not like or understand my question so I changed the topic. But I maintain I was on to something: We all want to belong to something. There is nothing like the feeling of being accepted into something bigger than ourselves. For some of us, that bigger something is our family. But people with broken families will seek out other groups to belong to. I think a major reason why people join gangs is so they can have that feeling of being part of something. The gang also provides sort of a replacement family.
What does this have to do with cults? I see joining a cult as being similar to joining a gang. You join a group because it is doing something. You don’t think it will end, as People’s Temple did, with more than 900 members dead in a mass suicide in a compound in Guyana on November 17, 1978.
But with street gangs you can, hopefully, point out to gang members the physical and legal dangers they will face because of the connection between many gangs and crime and violence. In contrast, many cults are not breaking any laws (initially, though many seem to later on) and in fact often preach that they are working for justice.
This documentary focuses on the Peoples Temple, the cult run by Jim Jones, but it can teach lessons far beyond that one specific group. The movie is powerful, moving, engaging, disturbing, and educational, a real emotional roller coaster.
The directors treat the subject with empathy rather than sympathy. Instead of just making us pity those killed in, and the few who survived, the Jonestown massacre, it helps us understand – and better appreciate and learn from – what actually happened. The first step, of course, is understanding who exactly Jim Jones was. He had a frightening, disturbing upbringing, providing funerals for dead pets, for example. But the important thing I learned was that he was charismatic and very passionate on the subject of racial harmony.
The second step is getting us to understand that the group functioned in almost every way like a traditional black church with much passion, singing, emotion. The fact he was white was ignored or explained because he understood and spoke like the black members, members said.
The movie’s best draw is that it has interviews with people who were long-time members of the church and survived the attacks and they are able to walk us, the viewers, through the growth of the church, the church’s move from the San Francisco Bay Area to the jungles of Guyana and the ultimate massacre.
We learn, for example, that Jones was not above some common tricks such as having a member pretend to be crippled so he could “heal” her. Sometimes it’s not enough to be charismatic, the cult leader needs some extra edges and a few fake miracles help with that.
As with many cults, there is a weird sexual element. In this case Jones claims that everyone was homosexual except him. While forbidding all members to have sex with each other, calling it selfish and irrational, he had sex with male and female members.
The movie reminded me of the time I wrote some feature stories on a college friend who was a straight-edge punk guitarist who was also a member of the Los Angeles sect of the Hare Krishna. I went with him to two services. I was never interested in joining but I was interested in understanding its appeal. And in a way I did — the appeal there, like the appeal of People’s Temple, comes from believing you are part of something beautiful and true and just and you are working to improve the word. Who, believing those things, would consider what they are doing as bad?
But what happens when some followers discover that this is far from the utopia Jones portrayed and instead there are sexual assaults, drug use, welfare fraud, etc and they want to leave? Jones did not want anyone to leave, he saw it as a personal betrayal, and that’s when things get problematic.
Some members' desire to leave the group is part of what led to its sudden demise. The move to another country was sparked by negative media reports of strange things going on within the group. That led Congressman Leo Ryan, in November 1978, to make a fact-finding mission to the temple.
The most chilling parts of the movie come, as you might expect, when you watch the footage (including new audio footage) of Jones and others at the temple during their final hours. Members at first tell Ryan that they are happy with the group. At first things seem fine. For a minute you think maybe this won’t turn bad after all.
This footage is intercut with interviews with two survivors who escaped. One of them suspected things were going to get violent. In one of the more disturbing memories shared, the survivor said he told Ryan that he needs to be careful. Ryan told him that there was a shield around him, since he was a congressman, and nobody would harm him. Talk about bad foreshadowing.
We are reminded that Jones had previously distributed juice to all members, had them drink it and then told them they had all been poisoned. After the members began to freak out he told them it was just a loyalty test. But apparently as Ryan arrived they began to bring out the juice again. Incidentally it's often referred to as Kool-Aid as in the saying, "Don't drink the Kool-Aid" but it was actually Flavor-Aid.
At first Ryan’s visit is going fine but then some began to speak about wanting to leave. Jones is adamant that nobody will leave. Footage is shown of one woman screaming about being separated from a child who is leaving.
Things unravel fast and after a man tries to attack Ryan. The congressman and his group leave but are attacked, ambushed really, at a nearby airport. The congressman and others are killed.
About 45 minutes later, as those who perpetrated the attacks at the airport return to camp, Jones tells those assembled at a meeting that the congressman is dead. Then the really ugly business of poisoning them – first the babies, then the adults – begins.
Jones can be heard saying, "Die with a degree of dignity! Don't lay down with tears and agony! It's nothing to death. It's just stepping over into another plane. Don't, don't be this way," according to a PBS transcript for this documentary. He is later heard saying, "Quickly! Quickly! Quickly! Quickly! Quickly! Where is the vat? The vat, the vat… Bring it here, so the adults can begin."
Ultimately, all but four are killed by the poisoned punch or, in a few cases including Jones himself, gunshots. Two survivors brought me near tears as they told about escaping from the camp after watching family members die.
Indeed, both families – their biological families and the larger family of the cult – had died.
There is an intriguing semantic issue that arises late in the movie: Is it appropriate to call it a mass suicide when some were babies and some just didn't know what they were doing?
Jones put it this way: "We laid it down… we got tired. We didn't commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."
Tim Carter, one of the members who escaped after watching his family die, said: "We were just [expletive] slaughtered. [Expletive] slaughtered. There was nothing dignified about it. Had nothing to do with revolutionary suicide, nothing to do about making a [expletive] statement, it was just senseless waste, senseless waste and death."
I’m sure some of you may hesitate to rent this because you see it as “a piece of history” or “something depressing” but this is much more than that – this is a glimpse into a part of life and society most people don’t spend enough time contemplating or discussing. I encourage you to watch this film.
Incidentally, the DVD has some great extras, including longer interviews with the survivors and relatives of some of those killed.
The contents of an anonymous note found at Jonestown:
To whomever finds this note. Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. We did not want this kind of ending. We wanted to live, to shine, to bring light to a world that is dying for a little bit of love.
There's quiet as we leave this world. The sky is gray. People file by us slowly and take the somewhat bitter drink. Many more must drink.
A teeny kitten sits next to me watching. A dog barks. The birds gather on the telephone wires. Let all the story of this Peoples Temple be told.
If nobody understands, it matters not. I am ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on Earth.
I wanted to include that quote and this last one to remind readers that the people killed were at least trying to do something, which is more than many of us can say.
Eugene Smith, a surviving member, said:
We were people that — we wanted to make a change. It's a shame it didn't happen. It might not never happen. But one thing I can say, at least we tried and we didn't sit back and wait on the laurels for somebody else to try it. Yes, we tried it. Yes, it was a failure. Yes, it was very tragic. But at least we tried.