The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana
Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account
Hold Hands and Die!: The Incredibly True Story of the People’s Temple and the Reverend Jim Jones
Six Years With God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple
Any spectacle of human credulity is painful. Now, three months after the terrible deaths in Guyana, nearly two thirds of the bodies still lie unclaimed, unwanted, unburied, in some government depot under a Polynicean gloom of disapproval—in a mood, even, of unspoken anger that has stolen in upon the dismay and pity of the first days. Imagine parents who could kill their own children, people say now. We feel now that those people were fools, and fools could be us, and so we are anxious to know what happened, how it could happen. You can’t know the moral of a story until you know the whole plot.
Things that seemed as plain at first as the documentary film from the hand-held camera of the murdered newsman, or from the helicopter photos of the festive-looking dead, now seem obscure, the questions mostly remain unanswered, the moral issues unresolved, and criminal matters proliferate. A continuing frenzy of investigation and denunciation is presumably more than mere acrimony, scapegoating, face-saving, or even skin-saving, though elements of all these are present. We really want to know. In Washington, Senator Dole has begun an investigation of cults, which is objected to by Jewish and Christian leaders, and by leaders of other cults. Former members of the Peoples Temple are denouncing Jim Jones, one another, government inaction—by California and federal authorities who had been warned of Temple conditions—and government corruption—by Guyanese officials who took bribes and, in San Francisco, coverups by high officials who were compromised by their association with Jones. All these suspicions, accusations, appear to have foundation. Self-recrimination is notably absent all round.
Temperate press comment indicts abstractions: “society,” “poverty,” “ignorance,” “alienation.” Psychiatrists name “hunger for transcendence,” or even “la grande crise libidinale…le nouveau mal du siècle.” The rest of the country likes to think it’s California that brings out these weird crimes, and the foreign press blames America itself, or capitalism. The many lawyers are plausibly blaming each other; and other convincing denunciations come from black leaders, who are blaming white people.
It seems clear that the white and black faithful so piously associated in the Peoples Temple were infected with two distinct strains of credulity not equally lethal, to judge from the bright white faces of the Temple upper echelon—prudent lieutenants splitting in good time before the event, away playing basketball or stealing out of the jungle with bags of gold. Most of the Temple elite were white. Most of the people who died were black.
In early February a meeting in San Francisco of the National Conference of Black Churchmen and the Southern Christian Leadership Council took the persuasive view that “trusting blacks have been led down a path of deception to their own destruction by persons who stand outside the black experience,” and that Guyana was “a tragedy perpetrated upon the black masses by unscrupulous and unprincipled white leadership,” which is obviously true, as very often before. But in the interest of seeing …
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Cult Freedom September 27, 1979