Jim Jones — preacher, con man, pervert, and, ultimately, instigator of mass murder/suicide — is not the sort of man I fear as I close my eyes on another day. Instead, forever and always, I look askance at the person he leads into hell; that wide-eyed, trusting sort who believes in a cause (or a man) to such an extent that he or she will throw it all away in an instant. It is said that we are all, depending on time and place, susceptible to cults and brainwashing, but I steadfastly reject such nonsense. Sure, I may make up shit about a treasonous cousin or something if deprived of sleep for a few days, but it would be utterly impossible to take me into a group, dazzle me with tricks and rhetoric, and before long, whisk me away to a South American jungle where I would live in a commune devoted to peace, love, and justice. First, I abhor groups of any kind, and am not about to spend my evenings in the company of those who say that they love me. Marriage has taught me not to need that. Second, I sure as shit would not toil endlessly in the heat raising crops for the “good of all”, whatever the hell that means. And unless there’s a McDonald’s tucked away in the wilds of Guyana, the comforts of civilization must remain close at hand. Most importantly, however, I am — to my very core — a cynic, and as such, have no faith in anything high or low. Moreover, I have no interest in helping others, understand fully that each and every one of us is motivated by greed and sex, and believe above all that any movement dedicated to change will end up in an ash heap of failure.
Being the eye-rolling misanthrope that I am, then, makes an experience like Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple that much more difficult to understand. Cults are endlessly fascinating to me, primarily because no part of me can conceive of laying down my life without one fucking hell of a catfight. This contradicts my stated philosophy that life is decidedly not worth living, but the egoist in me can’t check out until I’ve had anal. So I find life demanding and pointless, but as death is a far worse alternative, I stick around out of habit. And yet, over 900 people stood patiently in line for cyanide-laced Kool-Aid because a raving loon in a leisure suit told them to. Who were they? What on earth brought them to this spot and to a point in their lives where they would murder their children out of love for a guy with cheap sunglasses and mutton-chops? Nelson’s film is not the complete story, but having access to the few survivors of that day — as well as several others who escaped before things got rough — helps paint a disturbing picture of naiveté so uncompromising that it should be required viewing in all elementary schools. The younger the better, especially in the realm of “belief”, for if our kids learn anything on their respective journeys, it is that adults have no fucking clue what they’re doing, and whatever they tell you at five, you’d better not fucking believe at fifteen. It’s more dire than “trust, but verify”; never trust from the opening bell.
The documentary follows Jones from his Indiana upbringing to his eventual move to California, with previously unseen footage of the man and his rapidly growing ministry. It should surprise no one that Jones was the child of an alcoholic, and from an early age, he obsessed about death to the point where he killed a cat just so he could preside over its funeral. It’s clear that God became the ultimate father substitute (is Freud ever wrong?), but more than that, it is evident that religion in all of its forms (especially Christianity) is one giant death cult. What else could it be with a bloody, savagely beaten corpse at its center? The seeds of Jonestown were planted in youth, and I doubt anything could have been done to avoid the events of that November day in 1978. With a lustful worship of death, martyrdom moves quickly from a dream to a fixation, and the will to bring it about becomes unyielding. Sure, the visit and eventual murder of Congressman Leo Ryan hastened the suicides, but even had Mr. Ryan not bothered to come, another excuse would have been offered. After all, Jones believed that his actions were “revolutionary”, and the ultimate protest against a cruel world. His followers believed that as well, and what better thing than to bring about an afterlife of peace and joy?
Nelson’s interest in the project — and a wrinkle that makes this more than a simple story of religious fanaticism — is based on the fact that the Peoples Temple was largely African American, and that Jones himself, for all of his hypocrisy and zealotry, was genuinely compassionate towards minorities; that is, until he took their lives. He challenged segregation and racism when it was both unpopular and dangerous to do so, and he stood tall for his flock when others would have abandoned the effort out of fear. As many say in the film, he “talked black” and seemed to understand their plight with true empathy, primarily because he grew up as an outsider himself. So here was a man who offered blacks and the poor a haven in a heartless world; a place without labels, skin color, or gender. Sure, it’s a breeding ground for conformity and group sex, but the followers saw only a retreat from barriers and judgment in the larger culture. But again, cynicism would have saved the day, as the first refuge for the hopeful is the possibility of answers, whereas cynics know damn well that a solution is just another name for a scheme to take your money.
But Jones offered quite a show, especially once he moved to California. Trained as a Pentecostal, he knew the value of shouts, screams, healings, and theatrics, and wasn’t above bribing a Temple secretary to pose as a cripple in order to tickle the masses. He even threw Bibles across the room for effect. Followers were also brought to the stage to confess sins — mostly of a sexual nature — in order to be beaten into pulps of atonement. Meanwhile, Jones had crafted an interesting theory: he was the world’s lone heterosexual, and as such, had to fuck everyone in the flock in order to set them straight. One ex-member remembers the time he encountered Jones in a hallway, who then asked him, “Would you like me to fuck you in the ass?” That should have been the young man’s clue to leave the group, but as it was San Francisco, perhaps it wasn’t an isolated request. Jones also had women strip naked before the group, and as he peered lustily over his shades, others mocked the woman’s genitalia. What all of this had to do with changing the world is beyond me, but these are the moments the cult sounds somewhat tolerable. As usual, though, these wild times were accompanied by enforced silence, brutal toil, and submission. Work I can handle, but not while the good Reverend is getting a hummer in the rectory. And as the 1970s went on, Jones became even more paranoid and stoned off his ass, making him less a fringe figure than a symbol of the times. He merely took his shit global and left more corpses than expected.
What makes this film so intoxicating is the fact that so much of Jones’ life has been preserved for posterity. We get speeches, interviews, sermons, and even the last moments of Jonestown itself (“Hurry, children!”), when things became so hopeless that he was able to tune out the cries of children as they were killed before his eyes. But these people had to know it was coming, as he had staged trial runs in the past. He demanded absolute loyalty, and received it almost without exception. The quick run to Guyana in that final year was precipitated, though, by an impending article exposing the less than savory elements of the group, but such “traitors” could be dismissed as conspiratorial factions trying to destroy a powerful movement. And why wouldn’t Jones believe this about himself? After all, he had helped George Moscone become mayor of San Francisco (an effort that secured him an appointment in his administration), as well as held meetings with both Walter Mondale and Rosalynn Carter. He was the Ted Haggard of his day, only without quite so much ass-fucking. No one this important could harbor apocalyptic visions, right?
Jonestown was far from an isolated incident in our increasingly bizarre world, as cults continue to flourish wherever there are people willing to check their brains at the door for the promise of a better life. Wherever there is need, there are those able to exploit that need for power and gain. But men like Jones wear their corruption on their sleeves, and are only as potent as “the people” are stupid. Maybe it’s as simple as someone taking on the religious life to get the kind of pussy he never could as a non-believer, or hoping to leave the pain of a bad childhood behind by externalizing humiliation, but for each and every charlatan who comes down the pike, we act as if we’ve never seen anything like it before. Nearly one thousand bloated, bell-bottomed corpses rotting in the sun weren’t enough to wake us up — we’ve had Heaven’s Gate, 9/11, and the Tokyo subway attacks since, to name but a few — so it’s hard to imagine that we’ll make any progress in the near future. And so we continue to blame the bad men; those handy, convenient symbols that distract us from the real enemy that claws away at our civilization like an unchecked cancer. No, everyone who died at Jonestown was upright and firm; not victims, but agents of their own destruction. And that enemy of which I speak — faith — was their only guide.