December 2008

Scott Blackwood

Flame in the Mouth

Message from Jonestown

They whip dreams of madness out of their own nightmares.
-- Jim Jones 

Words fail.
-- from an anonymous letter found at Jonestown

The 30th anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy slouched by last week. Though it might seem like some 1970s cult relic, a nightmare from some distant untethered time, the story of Jonestown is really about contemporary America. It’s about the unexamined life. The one we’re living now -- the one that we’ve always tended to live. But something twitches in us from time to time. Some little used muscle grabs. Makes us look, despite ourselves: every few years, we have a collective need to gaze at and then shove away images from Jonestown, Guyana. In one memorable photo taken soon after the mass suicide, a black man and woman lie on the ground together on their stomachs; between them, clasped in their mutual embrace, is a little boy. His toddler legs jut from a pair of blue shorts. On his feet, gleaming white tennis shoes. It seems inconceivable. These loving parents putting cyanide-laced Kool Aid to their little boy’s lips. A child they would have laid down their lives for. Yet here is the photo. The iconic American family, in love with its own annihilation. The media reports about Jonestown often feature the large sign that hung over the stage (“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) where Jim Jones sat those last hours, exhorting these parents and hundreds others to kill their children because he knew the rest would be easy -- after that, who would want to hang around?

Unlike more iconic American stories, including September 11th, Jonestown is a story with less humanity on its surface. It’s difficult to point to redemptive moments, to say there was when our dignity rose, here was when our courage won out. There is no let’s roll, no rushing of the cockpit door. The plane simply goes down. But that’s what seems to draw us to Jonestown again and again -- its unmet humanity. 

Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1983 book on Jonestown, Raven: the Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (Tarcher/Penquin), which has just been reissued in paperback for the 30th anniversary, makes the case that though we may remember the past we shouldn’t confuse this with understanding it. We’ve projected so many of our desires and fears into the Jonestown story that it’s true lessons elude us most of the time. The ambivalent feelings it leaves us with -- after all, over 400 of the dead, all American citizens, were initially refused burial by cemeteries across America -- are tied to our ambivalent view of our selves.

We want to see the Peoples’ Temple members as something separate because they are very much us, though seen through the glass, darkly. They had stopped telling their own stories and had become characters in Jones’s story. In Reiterman’s scalding analysis, this point is implicitly laid bare again and again: Jones’s vision for Peoples’ Temple was modeled, not on some alien new-age spiritualism or radical off-shoot of Islam, but on familiar bedrock Christian fundamentalism (complete with speaking in tongues and fake healings, sleights of hand more dependent on the audience’s desires than the magician/ hucksters’ talents). The Temple’s social justice was founded on the volatile promise in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal.

It was the belief in freedom -- of conscience, speech, and act -- which pivots off this promise that sent Jones and his people into the jungle. And once there, their dream -- their story -- went mad because Jones went mad. In the end, drug-addled and convinced he was dying, Jones transformed this idea of freedom into a dream of submission and self-annihilation that leads us back to the photo of the family in their final embrace. Jones, like a shabby Ahab on the quarterdeck, staring out at that dead sea of devotion. This is a truth that crouches in the dark corner of the American story -- the American berserk -- that novelist Phillip Roth has written about prophetically in American Pastoral. It makes us terribly uneasy, Jonestown. It speaks to the potential in all of us, hidden even in our creed, to give over our stories at our weakest moments, in the name of freedom.