Stephan Jones went to the movies the night his world died. That’s how he, one of three of Jim Jones’s children to survive the massacre, described it in an essay titled “Death’s Night,” published by an archival project at San Diego State University called Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. He and his friends—teammates on a Jonestown boys’ basketball team—were enjoying themselves at a movie theater in the capital of Georgetown when a shadowy figure appeared to tell them Stephan’s father wanted revenge. That was the night Congressman Leo Ryan and a cohort of journalists and relatives of Peoples Temple members were shot on the Guyanese airstrip outside Jonestown and Stephan’s father gave his infamous order for revolutionary suicide.
A few years ago, a close friend of mine was working on a piece about Jonestown, which I only knew about at the time from the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.” She outlined the basic beats of the Jonestown narrative for me, and I became fascinated with the idea of Jonestown, especially the racial dynamic within Peoples Temple. Though integral to Jonestown’s history, this dynamic seemed to be pushed to the background of the popular memory of the event. My friend mentioned that she was in touch with Stephan. I asked if she thought Stephan might be willing to speak to me. She said yes, an answer I was ill-prepared for, given that I had no authorized reason to be so curious about him or the circumstances he and his family and friends faced. It wasn’t until I actually spoke with Stephan that I learned how unwieldy and dark the enterprise of digging through someone’s past could be. My questions were deflected by his habit of casting his selfish personality as a teenager in aggrieved, slightly pitying language. “I don’t know how much you know about the Temple, but we were a very controlled group,” he told me, offering a little context. “The idea of enjoying a film was really taboo. I mean, we did it, but we always felt guilty while doing it. My father liked to go to films. But, if we had movies in the Temple, they always had to have some kind of social conscience. Usually, they were disturbing to a sensitive kid. They were disturbing to me because they always touched on or were about dictatorships or man’s inhumanity to man and, you know, really dark horrors that were a little hard to hold for a kid.” The rest of the conversation played like a crash course in the broad brushstrokes of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, with Stephan’s personal viewpoint adding a voyeuristic sense of immediacy: an “apostolic socialist” group started by Jim Jones in Indiana, which espoused proudly left-wing, anti-racist views, Jonestown recruited from all over the country, amassed a large following, became increasingly involved in local and state politics, and eventually relocated to Guyana to avoid the attention of the media, which was drawing unwelcome scrutiny from the U.S. government. Though touted by Jones as an exemplary coalition of inclusive do-gooders led by a selfless champion of the common man, internally Peoples Temple was rife with abuse, manipulation and racist bigotry, most of it stemming from or fomented by Jones himself. In November of 1978, 913 members of Peoples Temple in Guyana died by mass suicide, or as it came to be known, mass murder.
A cavalcade of recent events caused me to wonder what Jim Jones’s place in society would be if he had come to prominence today: the collapse of the Champlain Towers South outside of Miami last year, the heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, the death of George Floyd, the multitude of COVID-related horrors. Jones’s apocalyptic vision of a world ravaged by capitalism and greed was never far from reality. Nor were his exhortations against the government and, eventually, religion itself. These were flawed institutions that did nothing to serve the people they were meant to help—something the black communities he preached to understood intimately. Jones exploited that understanding, turning paranoia about an evil, uncaring world into a mandate for personal responsibility. “You’re going to help yourself or you’ll get no help,” he once said. “There is only one hope of glory, that’s within you … Nobody’s going to come out of the sky. Nobody ever come to save us. There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to make heaven down here!”
I couldn’t help feeling that Stephan must be living with an insurmountable amount of survivor’s guilt. What must it have been like to have a father whose influence led to an act of baffling enormity, perhaps even outright evil? I had also projected an unfounded amount of psychic weight on the fact that Stephan is the only biological child of Jim Jones and his wife, “the seed of the deed,” as Stephan once referred to himself when speaking to me. Really, I was reaching for a simple, all-encompassing narrative.
Jim Jones’s shadow looms large over the popular memory of Jonestown. Almost every prominent published account of the formation of Peoples Temple and the tragedy in Guyana is told through close examination of his life, often with a profound degree of sympathy. Jeff Guinn’s extensive history The Road to Jonestown chronicles Jones’s life from childhood to suicide. Raven, published in 1982 by Tim Reiterman, who was present during the Jonestown massacre, takes on a more prurient, almost fatalist tone, as if history were doomed to produce a person like Jim Jones. In true-crime podcasts, there’s no shortage of takes on what happened, but most of them revolve around the man, the myth, the legend. Narcissism, drugs, sex, abuse, manipulation, all under a veneer of altruism and nominally socialist ideals. His likeness—iconic sunglasses and sideburns—is almost cartoonish in its simplicity.
Beneath all of this lies what usually gets left out of the story: Jones’s peculiar fixation on and identification with black people, which metastasized to the point of delusion. Jones mythologized his childhood in terms of both anti-racist advocacy and black religious education. Growing up in rural Indiana, Jones came from a poor white family. His father, James Thurman Jones, who dealt with what reads as undiagnosed PTSD after serving in World War I, was often fashioned by Jim as the kind of originating antagonist that forms great heroes. During an interview recorded in the late Seventies, Jones said, “Feeling as an outcast, I’d early developed a sensitivity for the problems of blacks. I brought the only black young man in the town home … and my dad said that he could not come in and I said, ‘Then I shan’t,’ and I did not see my dad for many years.” This posturing, which contemporary writers have labeled that of a white savior, was complicated by Jones’s seemingly sincere affinity and concern for the black people he grew up with in pre-integration Indiana, in a region historically known for its politically active KKK chapters.
What makes Jones a complicated figure is that, from an early age up until Jonestown, he performed genuinely laudable actions, which began as simple deeds and later, under the increasing spotlight of the media and the unraveling of his own ego, were revealed to be driven by something much darker. In Guinn’s account of Jonestown, he describes multiple instances of Jones touting his superior morality to anyone who’d listen. He walked out of a barbershop after the barber made racist comments disparaging black people. He also claimed he was dismissed as a student pastor from the Methodist church for trying to integrate the congregation. As he started his ministry and began amassing a substantial following, the tenets of integration, radical acceptance and communal responsibility were further legitimized by Jones’s very public advocacy for the causes of black people: social services, elderly care, civic representation in local politics. Yet this outreach toward the marginalized soon turned into little more than public-facing performance. What’s most intriguing and disturbing about Jones’s radical politics is how easily they succeeded in buying public goodwill.
The early days of Peoples Temple were marked by opposition. An integrated church was one thing, but Jones was stubborn in his demands for total equality, which came well before the Civil Rights Act and thus put him ahead of the moral curve of the law. His outspoken support for the black community, wrapped as it was in narcissistic visions of salvation, garnered Jones considerable negative attention from contemporary racists, from neighbors to local government officials. But this only emboldened Jones to spread a message of both righteous holy duty and paranoid persecution. (During another conversation recorded in the Seventies, Jones admitted he never believed in God but merely used the church as a way to spread his brand of socialism.) The government, the devil, capitalism, racism—all of these were placed under an ever-growing umbrella of evil against which his church’s members had to fight. If I’m being attacked for supporting black people, he seemed to reason, imagine what it must be like to be black. Here, it seems, is how Jones found an unending source of attention and adoration from a marginalized community. Not only this, but he could use this altruism and his singular stature as a specifically white integrationist to embolden other well-meaning white people to join him.
Were he pulling this act today, Jim Jones would likely be a superstar, plastered on the covers of major publications, praised for his selflessness and his unflappable devotion to the cause of equality. White self-flagellation still holds considerable currency, as does the idea that intending to redress harm is the same as actually doing so. These figures no longer need to be white, although for the likes of Robin DiAngelo, it certainly doesn’t hurt. She and others like Shaun King are unlike Jim Jones insofar as only one of them committed murder, but they share Jones’s penchant for racial opportunism and fearmongering, and undertake similar quests for personal profit by way of self-aggrandizement disguised as anti-racist passion.
In our search for guidance about how to put an end to inequality and bigotry, we have tended to lionize singular persons of pedagogical interest. They can’t be waved away or easily deplatformed for being hacks because, annoyingly, they earnestly believe they’re helping, and their large audiences think so too. It is, of course, easier to praise them for their individual advocacy in lieu of working on issues that only larger groups and movements are capable of tackling. People like Jim Jones, today masked as would-be Black Lives Matter activists and self-help charlatans, are able to operate with relative freedom by catering to white liberals’ self-conception as progressives. Inclusion, diversity initiatives and representation politics in general don’t erase the fact that the public still loves prominent figures stooping down to extend a helping hand to the destitute.
At one point, Stephan told me that he believed his father’s actions were the product of desperation, the desire and need to be seen and adored. “My father’s entire sense of self and well-being … resided entirely in his perception of other people’s perception of him.” That this perception was inextricably tied to Jones’s “care” for black people is the crux of the issue. The sincerity of Jim Jones’s white guilt, however real it may have been, was constantly trumped by his need for positive attention.
At one church service in 1975, Jones instructed all white Temple members to fast for five days so they could understand the hunger experienced by generations of black people. The Temple’s later years were marked by internal competition—private meetings amongst select members often involved physical punishment for perceived “nonsocialist” transgressions like smoking—and a culture of abuse, rationalized by Jones as a means of strengthening bonds and keeping people honest. “Everybody would try to win favor by turning each other in,” Stephan told me. “The Temple rule was: if anybody got in trouble, the first people that had to jump on them were the people closest to them, family and loved ones.”
Jones’s sexual predation, on both men and women, was one of the most divisive secrets within the Temple. But a pattern was clear to its black members. Juanell Smart, a black woman who was married to a white Temple member, once asked Jones, “Why do you only sleep with whites and never with blacks?” He apparently responded by explaining that white people needed more attention in order to reject their bourgeois attitudes, that sex with Jones helped them maintain socialist vigor. Black people didn’t seem to have this problem.
Indeed, Jones talked about black people as though they were cosmically ordained. During one of his many sermons, Jones said, “Black is a disposition. To act against evil. To do good.” This idea, that blackness is not only a sign of spiritual purity but also a marker of strength, evolved throughout Jones’s ministry. Still, he took it a step further. Tellingly, Jones chose to name one of his two black adoptees after himself, and a bizarre sermon from 1977 has him saying, “We who are black, we have seven times more blood pressure problems, six times more likelihood of getting heart disease, four times more likelihood of getting cancer. I wonder why?” The pernicious “we” in his speech echoes appeals to a monolithic community that typically accompany traumatic American incidents, but with an even more delusional identification.
Outlandish as this seems, it makes a kind of sense. At their most numerous, the black members of his congregation made up 70 percent of its population, and some of them had been with Jones from the very beginning. His childhood interest in the Pentecostal church and revival preaching circuit regularly put Jones in contact with poor black communities in Indiana. According to surviving Temple members interviewed for the PBS documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Jones had an uncanny talent for putting black people at ease and speaking as if he were one of them. This is cited as one of the most compelling reasons for his popularity within the black community. One of the shocking artifacts from Jones’s recruiting years is his use of black people as publicity. Elderly black women were photographed holding signs that read “I believe in Jim Jones”—a kind of targeted advertising that put forth the message that Jim Jones was different from other white men.
Ultimately, these people were used not only for their image, but also for their resources. Members’ Social Security funds were diverted to the church, along with proceeds from the sales of their houses. Physical labor, which would become a primary means of demonstrating loyalty and selflessness within Peoples Temple, was foisted upon the largely black congregation. The Temple’s denizens devoted long hours to a variety of chores as they moved west to California and, eventually, to the area of the Guyanese jungle that would become Jonestown.
In her book The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm observes that the very act of writing about the deceased is not only problematic but necessarily voyeuristic. “The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged,” she writes, “but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance … makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer … tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.” Indeed, this describes many written accounts of Jonestown, including those by surviving Temple members. After years and years of commentary and speculation, Jonestown survives because there is always the potential for further revelations, or simply rediscovery by younger generations.
With each new entry into the mythos, the accretion of previous narratives gives way to a homogeneous, almost algorithmically generated presentation of events. Various elements may be punched up: Jim Jones’s sexual abuse, the political atmosphere that allowed his movement to become so popular, his similarity to modern-day cult leaders. But the end result is always calculated outrage, outsize disgust and lurid fascination—the kinds of emotional responses that sell books on white guilt and are soothed by the promise of black inclusion in environment-annihilating corporations. The most abused or traumatized individuals tend to be cherry-picked to retell their stories. The rest recede back into raw numbers.
In June of 2021, NPR’s The Takeaway ran a short segment on the American mortality rate of COVID-19. The then-current statistic, over six hundred thousand dead, was mentioned, followed by the host saying, “Don’t rush past the number. Even though it’s almost too much to fully comprehend, or to emotionally bear, it’s important to remember that each person we have lost to this disease is indeed a person.” This tone, sentimental and slightly infantilizing, also prevails among progressive-minded true-crime enthusiasts who try to foreground humanity rather than submitting to sensationalism. But there are few instances of true consideration of the scale of the tragedy. Whose responsibility is it to engage thoughtfully with these metrics? What would that even look like? Over nine hundred people died in Jonestown, and yet there is the sense that this number is only of interest for symbolic reasons. That the majority of the deceased were black, that their neglect by the state and the world led them to trust a man who would ultimately force them to die isolated from their families and their homes—I’m not sure how to make sense of that.
What is left? To parse both the available documents and materials, but also one’s bias, one’s agenda. People rarely accomplish the latter, even when they give lip service to their racial blind spots, as in the case of a true-crime podcaster offering a disclaimer about her own whiteness while reporting on a story involving people of color. As I went about my research for this piece, I repeatedly experienced the stymying sense that I was just one person in a long line of do-gooders trying to shed light on the “truth” of Jonestown. The truth of this pursuit can only yield revelations of process and thought on the part of the writer. The truth of the event? Beyond some broad lessons about corruption and manipulation, what I kept returning to was the enormity of any one life, to say nothing of nine hundred lives.
One of the maddening necessities of biography is the swift disposal of seemingly unimportant or normal characters. In Guinn’s book, he recounts the experience of the Collett family, who visited the Temple out of curiosity. After they were interrogated as part of the Temple’s recruitment efforts, the family was allowed to spectate during a church service. Shortly after they sat down, one of their interrogators, a white man, said that they should prepare “to be niggerized.” “What we really have is two churches,” the man went on. There were the politically adept, the ones who seemed to have a basic awareness of the country’s goings-on, and the elderly who “won’t take a shit unless they’re read[ing] the Bible, but they’re the backbone of the church.”
Many Jonestown narratives acknowledge these people, but the gravity always shifts back to Jones. Seemingly innocuous passersby like the Colletts all contribute to the true size and bearing of a historical inflection point like Jonestown. They describe an atmosphere, a sliver of truth that can only be partially glimpsed.
Whether or not Jones actually believed in socialism and racial equality, what he said and what he did were enough for people to extend him the benefit of the doubt, one that only served to reinforce his whiteness. He did enough to alleviate white guilt perhaps, allowing his followers, along with spectators who visited the Temple or read about it in the newspaper, to rest easy knowing someone like him was out there. Those black families that were torn apart by his crusade were little more than props. It’s not a stretch to imagine how black members of a modern Peoples Temple might similarly be used today. As publicity, yes, but also as ambassadors of generational forgiveness, as sources of social capital, as evidence of interracial love, as harbingers of future hope.
When I last spoke to Stephan, in June of last year, I asked him about his relationship with Jim Jones, Jr., his adopted black brother. Stephan said they were as close as ever, that they still talked and saw each other when they could. Both sons have led the strange life that comes to those caught in the blast radius of fame and tragedy, punctuated by requests for interviews and guest-speaker appearances. The anthropological curiosity of students and writers, much like my own, tends to begin with macabre curiosity. How unfathomable to have survived, to have seen the bodies, to be able to sleep at night.
In a perverse way, this is how Jim Jones described the world: full of people who had witnessed the unthinkable and still managed to live. But for Jones, this was an accusation of neglect and prejudice. And that thought still resonates. Increasingly, as our environments burn and our leaders drag their feet to address our compounding health and ecological crises, the desperate plea that someone must do something rings out. Black people today live, arguably, in hardly better circumstances than they did during the mid-twentieth century—only their marginalization and generational history are increasingly fetishized. The health and lifespan disparities that are the direct results of slavery and displacement continue to cut black lives short.
Stephan maintains that, had he and his fellow basketball teammates been present in Jonestown the day of the massacre, things would have gone differently. “If we truly thought Dad was going to do what he did, there’s no way we would have left. Should we have known? I still don’t know.” It’s too easy to speculate. To me, Jones succeeded not because of his intellect, his charisma or any kind of Wile E. Coyote cleverness, but because of his understanding that, with the right image and the right group of people, no one will care what you’re doing, or where. Out of sight and so on. In the years following the massacre at Jonestown, the idea seems quaint that so little attention was paid to what was going on there, given how much attention has since been paid. The point is not that people didn’t wonder what was happening at the time but that once they thought to do something about it, it was too late.
In 2020, during the protests against George Floyd’s murder, there was a sentiment that activist violence was counterproductive to change. Really, the reverse was true. Violence was an expression of impatience and rage, direct in its messaging and lasting in its significance. For a time, there was no calm white veneer to control the narrative or negotiate peaceful terms with (a burnt-down police station will see to that)—a state of affairs that produced a rare optimism. That was before the how-to books started selling, before Democrats kneeling in kente cloths became the least of anyone’s worries. The unfortunate truth is a mundane one: the people with a vested interest in monopolizing the movement were the ones who successfully reframed its meaning for the broader public. It is among the foremost reasons that Jones and people like him are still relevant, not as bygone historical disasters but as present dangers.