Few days ago, a friend started a conversation about mass death. The first thing came to my mind was Jonestown. The notorious event left its name as one of the largest mass murder in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life before September 11, 2001. I remembered myself watching the documentary “Witness to Jonestown” on MSNBC and struck by what I learned. The tragedy happened on November 18, 1978, a day many survivors will never forget. In the middle of the jungle in Guyana, 909 people lay dead after drinking poisons, another five people were killed near the jet outside Jonestown on an airstrip.
The story began with a man named Jim Jones who started the Peoples Temple, a religious organization. At the beginning, Jones promoted socialistic ideals, creating a set of values that was strongly felt and believed by his followers. The particular historic background of late sixties and early seventies gave Jones’ preaching a powerful attractiveness. Violence flooded the media with news from the street fights, the Vietnam War, and political assassinations. People sought for peace and an ideology that would guide them through the chaotic reality. Jones made use of the opportunity in the vulnerable crowd and became the spiritual leader of his religious cult group. This very same person, who once brought his followers hope of a better world, commanded people to die on November 18, 1978.
The Jonestown incident was shocking not only because so many people died, but also because Jim Jones claimed that it was a “revolutionary suicide,” protesting an “inhumane world.” The word “suicide” possesses meanings more than just “death.” It indicates a voluntary property in the choice of death that inevitably brings up the question of “why.” Suicide challenges the social orders in an extremely problematic way. In a suicide, there is not a killer to blame to, because the killer is at the same time the victim. People barely know how to react to suicides. There is not a socially acceptable appropriate way to react. Families and the public are left with perplexing feelings. Such conflict results in an attempt to explain the act by environmental causes, such as social structure, expectations and stress. A mass suicide of 914 people could have been a ground-shaking challenge to the society, shouting for an explanation.
Fortunately for the social structure, we later learned that the “mass suicide” Jones claimed was actually a mass murder. It’s noteworthy how quickly the media and the public changed their views and attitudes after learning about the forced deaths of more than 900 followers. All of a sudden, people knew who to blame and what to say. Rightly enough, the psychopathic Jim Jones degenerated from a fraud to a mass murderer. Anger, fear, despise, and sadness, sympathy, grief… All these feelings that were suppressed for suicides were then allowed to be expressed and released. This reminds me of how mourning is not just a personal experience, but also a socially regulated process. We respond to different deaths within each cultural context accordingly.
“Witness to Jonestown” has covered many original sources from the news of that period and recovered audiotapes from Jonestown. It also interviewed survivors extensively. It provides a comprehensive view of how the Peoples Temple developed and degraded from a dream people held, to a nightmare they could not escape from.
Video clips from the documentary “Witness to Jonestown”: