Until the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the mass suicides-massacre at Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978 represented the largest number of man-caused civilian deaths in a single event in modern American history. Over nine hundred people died. The atrocity triggered an avalanche of newspaper and magazine articles, television news stories and specials, and a number of books.
As those accounts poured off the press and over the tube, I found myself in a unique situation. A cultural anthropologist who had conducted three years of field research in Guyana in the 1970s, most of that time in Arawak and Carib villages a hundred miles or so from the site of Jonestown, I brought a singular perspective to the tragedy. And what I read and saw in those reports struck me as deeply flawed. The most glaring problem? The American commentariat, as always, took a blatantly ethnocentric approach to the event: although the Jonestown suicides and killings occurred thousands of miles from our shores, in a country few Americans could locate on a map (Guinea? New Guinea? Ghana? Gabon?), it was distinctly American. It was about us.
In an otherwise sound book, Our Father Who Art in Hell, the noted writer James Reston Jr describes Jonestown as “uniquely an American story” (1981: ix) and characterizes the reaction of students on his own university campus: “As the generation that felt rather than intellectualized, they felt their own susceptibility to the Joneses of their decade.” That susceptibility of a purported “feeling generation,” of course, was to a phenomenon that whets the American appetite: cults. An appetite the commentariat was happy to satisfy with a wide variety of accounts, from serious to sensationalist, of recent cults: Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, Charlie Manson’s Family, Elbert Spriggs’s Twelve Tribes, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, David Koresh’s Branch Dravidians, and, most recently, Marshall Applewhite’s and Bonnie Nettles’ Heaven’s Gate.
Sadly, a minor contribution to that burgeoning corpus, focusing on Jonestown itself, was a letter to the New York Times, “No End of Messiahs,” by the renowned anthropologist and public intellectual Marvin Harris (1978). The piece is a glaring example of that ethnocentrism I spoke of, anthropology’s version of original sin, and here committed by one of its luminaries. For Harris, and for virtually all writers on the subject, Jonestown was, again, an American tragedy. Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple followers were Americans who established their community in Indiana before relocating to California and from there to Guyana. For its chroniclers, including Harris, the fact that the Peoples Temple was located in Guyana was little more than an exotic backdrop.
Harris’ piece was a harangue against cults and, he argued, the deplorable American educational system that facilitated their formation. This is the very opposite of true ethnography, an arrogant travesty that insists on framing everything, even something as bizarre as Jonestown, in terms familiar to an American audience.
The truth is that lumping Jonestown with the cults mentioned above and proceeding to “analyze” them with a torrent of psychobabble comes up against several embarrassing facts. For much of his career, before his descent into nightmarish depths of paranoia, Jim Jones was a respected public figure active in civil rights, poverty relief, and urban renewal programs. Notables like Rosalynn Carter, Walter Mondale, Jerry Brown and others were ardent supporters. Not quite the company kept by Charlie Manson or David Koresh.
In my essay, “Jonestown: An Ethnographic Essay” in Heading for the Scene of the Crash: The Cultural Analysis of America (Berghahn Books 2018), I adopt a contrary perspective: that the jungle tragedy be treated as a lens through which to view the social and historical context of Jonestown. The event of Jonestown is complex, incorporating matters as diverse as American politics and race relations, corruption within the Guyanese government, Guyanese land development programs, Caribbean reggae, Georgetown (Guyana) street gossip, and even an eerily similar millenarian cult that flourished among Amerindians of the Guyanese interior some 135 years before Jonestown. The essay thus argues that ethnography—anthropology’s stock in trade—consists in identifying a host of discrepant meanings and puzzling out their possible interconnections. And, most important, in that quest the ethnographer does not have any sort of authoritative voice; his puzzling over things is of a piece with that of the “natives.” We are all conflicted, just struggling to find our way.
The coming days will doubtless see any number of media pieces on the Jonestown “cult,” buttressed by a legion of psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists. Amidst that clamor, let me issue one caution: things are complicated.
This post was submitted by Lee Drummond, Director, Center for Peripheral Studies
Palm Springs, California www.peripheralstudies.org