The Jonestown massacre: a technicolour tragedy

A 25-year-old writer flew to San Francisco to interview survivors of the 1978 mass suicide

 Dead bodies lie around the compound of the Peoples Temple cult on November 18th, 1978 after more than 900 members of died from drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid; Photograph: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Dead bodies lie around the compound of the Peoples Temple cult on November 18th, 1978 after more than 900 members of died from drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid; Photograph: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

 

I was 25 when I decided to travel to America to interview former members of Peoples Temple – a church best known for the 1978 mass murder-suicide of more than 900 of its members at the behest of their leader Jim Jones. In retrospect, it’s a decision I might not have made if I wasn’t 25, confident and cashed-up from a recent writing contest win. I’d won the contest with a story about Peoples Temple. I’d been researching Peoples Temple for months, developing stories around it, including what would become the first chapters of my novel Beautiful Revolutionary. But being 25 had a lot to do with that initial leap of faith.

A lot of Jonestown survivors have died since 1978. Some died before their time – like Mike Prokes, who killed himself in a hotel room four months after the massacre, or the Mills family, who were murdered execution-style in 1980 (the case remains unsolved), or Paula Adams, who was shot by an abusive ex-partner in 1983, along with her 18-month-old child, or Christopher O’Neal, who died by “suicide by cop” in 2015 after a prolonged period of mental instability. Others have died of natural causes. Teri Buford O’Shea, a high-ranking member who defected from Peoples Temple three weeks before the massacre, died of liver failure last November – just 10 days after the 40th anniversary of the tragedy.

They’re a dying breed. This might explain why some of them were willing to tell their stories to a 25-year-old.

In the spring of 2015, I rented a short-lease apartment in Hayes Valley, San Francisco. A survivor I’d been emailing alerted me to the fact that I’d be arriving on “Father’s Day” – Jim Jones’s birthday. This was typical survivor humour.

Jim Jones, the cult leader behind the mass suicide. Photograph: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Jim Jones, the cult leader behind the mass suicide. Photograph: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

I also arrived the weekend a Mad Men marathon was airing on TV; every episode, back-to-back, in anticipation of the series finale. Considering I’d come to the city to learn about events of the 1960s and ’70s, it was another happy coincidence. Between exploring, I binged on Mad Men, taking note of as many historical details as I could.

For a month, I walked through the city where Peoples Temple was based during the ’70s and where it attracted its largest following. Many members came from neighbourhoods near my apartment; historically black neighbourhoods like the Tenderloin and the Western Addition. Three days per week, I buried myself in the Peoples Temple archives at California Historical Society. On days the archives were closed, I met with survivors.

Many survivors still live around the San Francisco Bay Area. Many – though not all – are still inclined toward socialism, the central faith of Peoples Temple (contrary to popular belief, the Temple was not primarily a religious organisation, though it utilised the trappings of Pentecostal religion). Those who were close to my age when they joined the Temple were in their sixties and seventies, at the time we spoke. They’d lived outside the temple much longer than they’d lived within it. Nevertheless, talking to them, those times still felt fresh.

“Technicolour” is the word survivor Garry Lambrev used to describe his time in Peoples Temple. It came through in the stories he told me about people, encounters, events. But I could just as easily have used the same word to describe how I felt in San Francisco in 2015, listening to the stories of survivors, walking through the city, even poring over archival documents. I wonder now how much of that technicolour feeling was about Peoples Temple itself, and how much of it was about being young and committed to a new idea, learning new things.

Ultimately, my youth was an asset when researching Peoples Temple. How the victims and survivors of the Jonestown massacre were treated by the media immediately after the events was another tragedy, on top of the already unfathomable loss of life. Several survivors have commented on the fact that people of younger generations – people too young to have seen the newsprint about “crazy cultists”, “brainwashed zombies”, “death squads” and “baby killers” – are more receptive to learning about what Peoples Temple stood for, and the real people who lived and died in Jonestown. Also, when writing about young characters who are searching for meaning, it doesn’t hurt to be young and searching yourself.

I’m 29 now and deep into writing my next novel, but I’ll always remember my time researching Beautiful Revolutionary as a technicolour time. I hope some of that colour touches my readers, too.
Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett is published by Scribe at £12.99

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