JONESTOWN, AGAIN (Letter to ‘Bookforum,’ 12/05)

To the Editor:

The piece in the Oct/Nov Bookforum on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple [“Fade to White”] is a disgrace: dishonest, exculpatory, and false. There’s no need to go past Scott Saul’s locutions on how Congressman Leo Ryan’s party (which was visiting Jonestown in Guyana to investigate reports that people were being held there against their will or without their consent) was “attacked” by Peoples Temple members and then somehow “died” to make this point: That’s what Saul is saying, rather than, “Leo Ryan and four other members of his party were murdered by Peoples Temple members,” which is what happened. Saul’s leaving the situation open is like Alexander Haig saying that the Maryknoll nuns who were raped and murdered in El Salvador were killed in a “crossfire,” implying that they were complicit in their own deaths. Saul’s equating the group of relatives of Peoples Temple members that was desperately trying to get help from compromised Democratic political leaders with Jones himself (courtesy of a plague-on-all-their-houses Shiva Naipaul) is disgusting.

Saul sniffs at the notion that Jones was a cult leader and the Peoples Temple members part of a cult. To him Jones was a progressive visionary force pushed into madness. All cult leaders are visionary; all stand against the established order. To say that is like saying they all breathe. Like Joseph Smith or David Koresh, Jim Jones was a traditional American cult leader, exercising absolute sexual dominion over all members of his cult. He was a murderous fiend. He beat children and forced their parents and other children to beat them. These were not aberrations: Jones’s accumulation of the power to commit crimes and be worshipped for them was what the Peoples Temple was for. Jones turned out thousands of phony voters for the likes of Willie Brown, George Moscone, and Harvey Milk, who rewarded him with official posts and official protection—and the kind of praise Saul quotes as if it means something. Jones left California when stories about his corruption, theft, violence, and rape were breaking, in the San Francisco Examiner, New West, and elsewhere—after years of using his political connections to have similar stories spiked—and in so doing he committed multiple acts of kidnapping of underage children of whom Temple members did not have custody. Then he killed them. The book on this is Kenneth Wooden’s 1981 The Children of Jonestown, which makes Jonathan Kozol sound like a whiner, which he isn’t.

No one who was in the Bay Area then has trouble remembering this—except perhaps those who have their own reasons for constructing false memories that tell a different story.
Greil Marcus, Berkeley, CA

Bookforum, December 2005

4 thoughts on “JONESTOWN, AGAIN (Letter to ‘Bookforum,’ 12/05)

  1. Greil Marcus’s response to this is so vehement that it’s natural to think, “What the …?” Whatever the rights or wrongs of what Scott Saul wrote, it seems fair to put it in context. His original Bookforum piece is here:

    And this is how he responded to Greil’s letter, which was published in the same issue, December 2005:

    It’s strange to find yourself attacked by a critic whose work you admire, and doubly strange when the critic seems to have been so inflamed, rubbed so raw by some perceived moral affront, that he seems not to have actually read your piece, not quite.

    Marcus thinks that my essay was meant to redeem Jim Jones and to suggest that Congressman Ryan and his investigative party were responsible for their own deaths. It wasn’t. I pointedly wrote that, in terms of “criminal culpability,” Jones and his lieutenants were responsible for the deaths at Jonestown (which included not only the five dead from Ryan’s party but also the more than nine hundred members of the Peoples Temple who died there). I also emphasized that the Temple employed “brutal forms of discipline on the dissident and the faithful alike,” and I endorsed a sociologist’s observation that violence was “the glue which held people together” in the Temple.

    Marcus is right to register, however, that the main thrust of my piece was not to condemn Jim Jones. There is no dearth of books that do precisely that. Rather, it sought to explore the recent documentary-theater play The People’s Temple and the new wave of scholarship on Jonestown, both of which seek to provide fresh perspectives on the Temple, partly by shifting away from an obsessive focus on Jones alone. I invite Marcus to see the play and read these works of scholarship, and come to his own conclusions. However worthy it may be, Kenneth Wooden’s book hardly represents the last word on Jonestown: The Temple’s vast archive has been catalogued and opened up, and scholars have been particularly interested in recovering the voices of Temple members who died at Jonestown, so that they might better reconstruct the motives that brought people to the church. They have also explored how the tactics of the Temple’s opponents-demonizing the mentally unstable Jones, catalysing governmental investigations of the Temple’s practices-backfired by fuelling the paranoia within the Temple. To acknowledge this fact is not to censure Ryan and his party, just to recognize the unwitting role that they played in the escalating drama.

    Lastly, Marcus implies at the end of his letter that an ulterior motive lurks behind my piece. For the record: I was eight years old at the time of Jonestown. I was moved to write this essay after I saw the play The People’s Temple; impressed by its subtlety and theatrical power, I was curious to see how it spoke to more recent reinterpretations of Jonestown coming from historians and sociologists of religion. Inasmuch as I have an agenda, it is simply to give the dead of Jonestown an extended hearing – and to understand why Jones and his followers took the unbelievable course of action that they did, so that we might never have to gasp in disbelief again.

  2. By sheer coincidence, I only just read Scott Saul’s piece in an old Bookforum I found around the house, and my initial feeling is that GM’s criticisms are justified. There is a fine line between “There are plenty of books arguing for Jones’s monstrosity, so I’m looking at this from a different angle” and “In context, Jones’s monstrosity was not as unforgiveable as others have claimed.” Maybe I’ll go back and read the piece again.

  3. And, I would add, to say “I wasn’t being exculpatory, I was just following the lead of the play ‘The People’s Temple'” elides the question of whether the play was exculpatory.

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