In grade four, the year after the old school had been torn down, we all started up in the brand new Chester Elementary School. In contrast to the high-ceilinged Victorian eminence - it even had a bell tower in my memory to call students to class, although that may be my imagination doing some setdec on my memory - this school was low, long and done up in greys and slates on the outside. The hallways were all cinderblock painted over in the usual institutional colours - those hideous pinks and greens that work equally well on criminals, lunatics and children. But all that was forgivable, because off the library there was an a/v room, which was no small thing for a rural elementary school in 1980.
The teachers never dreamed for one moment of giving us genuine access to the room, with its television monitors and mixing board and beta machines, topped off by a shiny video camera on a tripod (how the hell did our school afford all that?). We were, however, permitted to work on projects in strictly supervised conditions. Which meant that we couldn't touch anything. Ever. We could watch Mr. MacLean and another teacher touch things, which was fucking boffo, thank you very much.* Our participation extended to acting out ideas of what teachers thought would be funny and appropriate for nine and ten year olds.
To parents, there is nothing funnier than watching small children dress up and act out adult roles. For some reason, the human comedy is never more uproarious than when performed by homunculi in slightly oversize sport coats. Therefore our class got the opportunity to do a regular news broadcast on the doin's and transpirin's of Chester Elementary. We came up with news stories, conducted interviews, and acted out a genuine news broadcast every month or so. I was an anchorman. I came with a navy blazer and a clip-on tie.
Several of us wrote the scripts and played roles for the shows. There was Affable Bryce, Skipped-A-Grade Calvin, Filthy Mouthed Dwayne, No-Smell Jill, Literal Brian, Middle-Part Sheila, Kelly, Denise and a whole crop of others. In the free marketplace of ideas** it was hard for my ideas to get any play. My brain was addled from my habit of staying up late on Saturdays to watch SCTV, so my idea of funny was Neil Simon's Nutcracker Suite and Farm Film Report. It didn't translate too well from a hyperactive stuttering ten year old who forgot to provide backstory for his unsolicited spittle-flecked comedy. I didn't care about news, actualities, information, or any goings-on that had any relevance to anyone. I cared about introducing subplots involving out of control robots who terrorized the news studio.***
The student who came up with the most tasteless joke for the program was Non-Nerd Trevor, who decided that the news program needed a sponsor, and that the sponsor should be Jim Jones Brand Kool Aid. Since this was 1980-81 (the years before the internet, decent hair cuts and even Live Aid) and the Jonestown Massacre had happened in November 1978, it did not make the cut. We were admonished for being disrespectful but forgiven on account of the natural tendency of all children to mock the very notion of empathy. But I think that Trevor was the only one of us who even knew who Jim Jones was, or what the Kool Aid reference meant.
I asked my father about the Jonestown Massacre. He told me in a few terse sentences that a group of people had committed mass suicide under the influence of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, and that the instrument of their death was a vat of cyanide-laced Kool Aid. And that was the sum of my knowledge to carry me through adolescence and beyond.
The other night I finally watched Stanley Nelson's documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple, which told me far more about Jim Jones than I'd ever imagined. I didn't know that there were surviving People's Temple members, for instance. And I had had no idea of who Jones was, why the Temple was so successful in the sixties and seventies, and how the movement had progressed from a multiracial church with an emphasis on social action to a politically powerful cult that eventually set up a totalitarian utopia in the jungle. There are plenty of people who claim that the Jonestown documentary doesn't give you the whole story (for example, see the incredibly angry blog of Tom Kinsolving, in which Stanley Nelson is repeatedly excoriated for implying that the People's Temple was something other than an all-devouring murder machine from day one of its existence), but it gave me enough story to feel nauseated and horrified by the haywire explosion of death that marked its end.
Nelson tells the story almost exclusively through interviews with people who are connected with Jones and the Temple in some way - old neighbours, family, reporters and former Temple members. No narrator shows up with a grave voice to frame the events for us, and no expert is supplied to natter on about the psychology of cults. The effect is to give us a complex and multifaceted view of the People's Temple - a Pentecostal-style progressive church with an interracial mandate that also happened to be a brutal cult that used its influence to wield political power in Bay Area California.
Through the interviews, Nelson allows us to see all the qualities of the church that made it compelling to so many people. Jones didn't care if you were a young white middle-class college student or a black senior citizen - everyone was equal and welcome to take part in the Temple's extensive program of good works. But then, after you watch footage of a miraculous healing, with crowds screaming and crying and dancing as a crippled woman runs back and forth in renewed legs, you find out that the entire event is staged - and then all the unsavory details about Jones are released in a flood.
Beatings, ritual humiliations and sleeplessness, bizarre sexual manipulation and the entire bag of cult tricks were employed by Jones to keep his followers pliable. In Jonestown, speaker systems blasted out Jones' voice twenty-four hours a day. By the time the survivors of the mass suicide begin recounting the experience of having their families die frothing and convulsing in their arms, it's almost unbearable to watch. After 90 minutes of listening to these likeable and gregarious people, it's impossible to believe that they managed to survive the deaths of their friends and families and have any kind of life afterwards. Particularly when you consider that they probably participated in some of the beatings and humiliations that Jones encouraged as a means of group discipline.
Nobody joins a cult, says former Temple member Deborah Layton. Nobody joins something that they think is going to hurt them. I would argue that this idea applies to almost every ridiculous thing that people do. Nobody learns to drive so they can die in a whirlwind of metal and plastic and glass, but damned if that doesn't happen ridiculously often. Nobody goes into the hospital to catch strong-like-bull viruses, but catch them we do. And nobody buys paper products so that huge swaths of forest can be transformed into brutalized dead ground and rivers turned into a stinking froth of chemicals, but so it goes.
Ultimately, the film ends with another film's worth of questions to be answered. You never learn about the inner circle of the People's Temple. You never learn how the survivors managed to escape Jonestown and make their way back to the States. Also, you never find out how Jones became a monkey salesman in the 1950s. Seriously - the guy sold monkeys. Would you join a church run by an ex-monkey salesman?
*The a/v room also contained a mimeograph machine, which always smelled of that alcoholic purple ink. Once we used it for some project or other after receiving permission from a teacher. In mid-mimeograph Mr. MacLean strode in and lost it. Completely lost it on us, with this tight-lipped snappishness that betrayed a deep and violent petulance. We were so stunned at his anger that we didn't even leave. Instead we told him that a teacher had given us permission to use the machine. He snapped out "If the cops gave you permission would you speed?" He said it several times, probably because we continued to stand there and repeat ourselves. To a group of ten year olds, analogies involving traffic laws didn't really impress his point; for all we knew, cops were the arbiters of speed limits. We weren't so dumb as to think we could operate the video equipment without a teacher in the room, but the mimeograph didn't seem to fall into the same category. Some years later I realized that Mr. MacLean considered the a/v room as his area of expertise and authority, and that his anger had more to do with the teacher who had flouted his authority than with us. Now that I think about it, it seems pretty obvious, as is the case with so many teachers, that years of dealing with ten year olds had gnawed away like mad little beavers at his self-respect.
**Ah ha. Ah hahahahahaaaa.
***The rebellious robot theme never made it into the news programs. I shoehorned the robot plot into a school assembly play in grade seven, to complete incomprehension from the audience. The robots had become suicidal vehicles that fell on the doomed young protagonists.