SDSU religious studies professor Rebecca Moore.
What really happened in Jonestown?
What does “drinking the Kool-Aid” mean in cultural terms?
Was it mass suicide, murder or both?
Scholars, curiosity seekers and journalists with questions about the events of Nov. 18, 1978, inevitably wind up at the website http://jonestown.sdsu.edu, which is titled “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.”
Created by San Diego State University religious studies professor Rebecca Moore, it’s the ultimate resource to learn about the events of 32 years ago, when 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones died in the jungle of Guyana after drinking poison. But the website created by Moore, a California Faculty Association member, doesn’t provide easy answers about the tragedy that shocked the nation.
Instead, it offers diverse viewpoints and opinions about the Peoples Temple and the events resulting in the death of Congressman Leo Ryan, three news reporters and most members of the group. Sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, the site also offers documentation of the government investigations released under the Freedom of Information Act along with articles, tapes, letters, photographs and other items in the words of Peoples Temple members. There are also audiotapes transcribed by Moore’s husband, Fielding McGehee, recorded during Peoples Temple events — including the mass deaths.
“We hope that visitors to the site will come away with an understanding that the story of Jonestown did not start or end on Nov. 18, 1978,” says Moore. “These materials let readers make their own judgment about the group and its end.”
She expected that her website would attract scholars, journalists, students working on reports and those studying new religions. But she was surprised that others were drawn to the site.
“We found a surprising audience: family members who lost relatives in Jonestown and survivors themselves,” says Moore. “We did not anticipate it would also be a memorial for those who died, which has been something of a revelation during the past few years.”
Moore knows firsthand the pain felt by survivors; she lost two sisters and a nephew in Jonestown.
“It was a terrible shock for family members,” says Moore, who visited her relatives in the Redwood Valley Community, where she witnessed Peoples Temple members performing many charitable deeds. “There was rhetoric about being willing to die for the cause, but we never understood that as committing suicide or murder.”
The struggle to understand how such a horrific act could take place influenced her decision to study the history of religion in America with an emphasis on new religions. She discovered that Peoples Temple was similar to many communal utopian experiments — except for the ending.
On the 20th anniversary of Jonestown Moore created the website. The media, she says, usually rehashes the same story, and she hoped a website would offer a venue for updates and new insights.
“Since then, it has grown into an enormous project,” says Moore. “But the event was huge, and it’s very difficult for people to understand the ambiguity of good people doing terribly evil acts, and how something that began with high ideals ended in murder and suicide.”
Moore, who is the author of Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, published last year by Praeger, doesn’t know when her website will be finished.
“We want to collect as much information as we can before people involved in Jonestown die of old age,” she says. “We want to preserve this information for historians so that 50 or 100 years from now they can look back on the events in 1978. The more we learn about what happened, the more complex and complicated it becomes.”