New Film Re-Examines Mass Suicide at Jonestown

Noland Walker, co-screenwriter of a new documentary called Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, talks about his examination of what led to mass suicide at Jonestown.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In November 1978, the world was shocked by the mass murder/suicide in the supposedly utopian community known as Jonestown. Over 900 members of the People's Temple died that day. More than two decades later, people still want to understand how such an event could possibly happen.

A new movies tries to fill in some of the blanks. It's called Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple. The story is told in large part through the voices of former members of the People's Temple. They remember the hope and optimism of the earliest days as well as the signs of what was to come, often with haunting detail.

Here long before Jonestown, former member Janet Shuler(ph) recalls being instructed to drink punch and then being told it was poison. Jim Jones called it a loyalty test.

(Soundbite of movie, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple”)

Ms. JANET SHULER (Former People's Temple Member): Well, it wasn't about our loyalty. Because we were demonstrating loyalty all the time. Coming there, being there in the meetings. Sitting, listening, you know, supporting, working. And I thought it had a lot more to do with Jim's sense of rehearsal. Did he feel like he was potent and omnipotent enough to really get people to kill themselves when he said so? And that frightened the hell out of me.

CONAN: If you have a story about Jonestown you want to share or a question about what happened and why, give us a call. The number is 800-989-2855, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address: talk@NPR.org.

Joining us now from the studios of Audio Post in Philadelphia is Nolan Walker. He's the co-producer and co-writer of the movie. Thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. NOLAN WALKER (Co-Producer, Co-Writer, Jonestown): Thank you, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: And we should start out by explaining your connection to the subject of the film. That woman we just heard from is your aunt.

Mr. WALKER: Yes. She's my aunt Janet. It's one of those kind of situations where Stanley Nelson called me up out of the blue. He's the director and producer of the project, and I'd known Stanley for a long time. But I mean we'd be friendly but certainly not close. And he called me and asked me if I wanted to work on a film about Jonestown. And I, you know, obviously I wanted to and tried to conceal from him how much I wanted to because little did he know at the time, I had an aunt, uncle and three cousins who were in People's Temple fro, 1971 to 1977, just before everyone went to Guyana.

CONAN: And they all left before Guyana?

Mr. WALKER: They all left before Guyana. There was a lot of communal living that went on in People's Temple, and my aunt and uncle were kind of conspiring to leave People's Temple as things became more and more unsettling for them. And they had a lot of children who lived in their home with them, as their own, and they surreptitiously were able to adopt three: two brothers and then an infant, who are my cousins. And the other children, they had to leave behind.

CONAN: Surreptitiously because this was a - by that time, people were describing it as pretty much of a paranoid organization led by a man who was obsessed.

Mr. WALKER: Absolutely. It was a paranoid - I mean, there was a lot of, there was a lot of compartmentalization, and everything, as I found out - I knew some of this through talking with my aunt and uncle over the years but definitely learned more when I began working on this project, was that everything was on a need-to-know basis. Jim Jones had a group of young people who were, you know, eager, enthusiastic and very dedicated.

There was always the talk of the cause, the cause. And one of the things that was very clear, I think one of the Jonestown survivors, actually, a man named Tim Carter, said to me - the first time I talked to him, he said the temple came out of the times. And you know, they were in Northern California, and there was a lot of kind of human rights, civil rights, revolutionary foment going on. They were friends with Angela Davis, they were friends with Dianne Feinstein, they were friends Harvey Milk, and there was all of this kind of possibility that people felt in the air, and so…

CONAN: There was one telling moment in the film. Somebody, and I forget the name of the person - I apologize - but saying this was after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and Malcolm X. There was a lot disillusionment in the air, but in the People's Temple, the dream was still alive.

Mr. WALKER: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. I think a lot of people who joined People's Temple were seekers and were looking, had been looking throughout their lives for something different, something other than what they had been raised to believe. But in terms - somewhat - I mean, People's Temple was a political organization, and it was one of those kind of things. My Aunt Janet said to me, when I interviewed her, she said it was whatever you needed it to be. It was like a kaleidoscope, and if you tap it just a little bit, the entire picture would change, and each person had their own kind of portal under what People's Temple was.

CONAN: We're going to play a montage of voices, former members of the People's Temple describing how they lived and worked. This is the time when the People's Temple was located in a remote, rural area in Northern California, in Ukiah.

Unidentified Woman #1: My week kind of ran like this. I'd work my regular job on Mondays, you know, of 8 to 5. Then I'd work on file…

Unidentified Woman #2: There were people who ran rest homes, there were animals to be taken care of, there were the publications. Everybody had a job.

Unidentified Woman #1: Wednesday night we'd have a meeting in Redwood Valley, and I'd go to the meeting for it until probably 10 or 10:30…

Unidentified Man #1: We turned our paychecks over, every time we got paid, and then we got an allowance: $5 a week.

Unidentified Woman #1: And Friday, I'd go to work, and I'd get off of work, and I'd hop on the bus or drive the bus to San Francisco…

Unidentified Man #2: It if I had to go to the doctor, it was taken care of. If I had to dentist, it was taken care of. If I needed clothes, that was taken care of.

Unidentified Woman #1: And often, on Saturday night, we'd have Planning Commission meetings until two or three in the morning.

Unidentified Man #3: We would always try to let each other know, the next day, well, how long did you sleep? Oh, I slept two hours. You only slept two? Well, I slept an hour and a half.

Unidentified Woman #1: And then Sunday, we'd have a Sunday morning service, and then around 1:00 hop on the busses, drive up, drop people off in San Francisco and drive up to Redwood Valley.

Unidentified Woman #2: The longest I ever stayed awake was six days, and that's with no coffee, no nothing.

Unidentified Woman #1: It changed over the years, but it was always busy.

Unidentified MAN #4: Being in an environment where you're constantly up, you're constantly busy, and you're made to feel guilty if you take too many luxuries like sleeping, you tend to not really think for yourself, and I did allow Jones to think for me because I figured that he had the better plan. I gave my rights up to him, as many others did.

CONAN: And Nolan Walker, that last point, I think, is absolutely critical to understand what was going on.

Mr. WALKER: Yes, absolutely. You know, the thing - one of the things to remember about People's Temple is that most of the members were young. My Aunt Janet and Uncle David were among some of the older - not the older in terms of - there were plenty of senior citizens. But they were in their 30s, and they were kind of seen as this kind of sage couple in a lot of ways or, you know, especially in the early days. People were in their 20s, and they had a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, and Jim Jones knew how to figure out - and this is from my understanding, you know - Jim Jones knew how to figure out who you were, what you wanted, what you needed and how to channel that and just put people on the path and…

CONAN: And as we heard, people sort of understood it or didn't complain when it turned out to be, first of all, financial extortion and later, sexual exploitation.

Mr. WALKER: Right. Well, the thing that was key was that everything was incremental, and that was one of the things that we really wanted to emphasize in this film, was kind of - in addition to talking about who the people of People's Temple were, what they wanted, how they saw themselves - we wanted to talk about how quickly, you know, a large group of people can get moved one step at a time towards a very bad place.

CONAN: We're speaking with Nolan Walker, talking about the new documentary, The Life and Death of People's Temple. Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Braxton(ph), Braxton joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

BRAXTON (Caller): Hi, yes. I was calling in earlier because when I was growing up, I used to have a friend who was a security guard at a grocery store my mother worked at, and he was one of the people that had to go up there after Jonestown and clean it up, and he would tell me about all the stuff that would go on, you know, with the bodies, how they would react and stuff like that. And I was wondering if in the film they interviewed people that had to do with the aftermath, not just the people that were there.

CONAN: Nolan Walker?

Mr. WALKER: Yeah, we talked about that a lot but ended up not interview - I actually went to Indianapolis - and I'm not remembering the gentleman's name right now, and I apologize - but he was in the Army, and he was part of the Army Air Corp that went down there are evacuated, I mean, or was part of the cleanup, and he was clearly very traumatized by that.

BRAXTON: Oh yeah. My friend would tell me that the bodies would sit up and scream. He had so much trouble talking about it, but he just wanted to impart of the story out to me to let me know, you know?

CONAN: Braxton, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

BRAXTON: Thank you.

CONAN: Nolan, was it difficult to get these people to come after all these years and talk about their experiences?

Mr. WALKER: Well, you know, for making films as well as everything else in life, time is everything. And we had the benefit of the fact that a playwright named Leigh Fondakowski, who had written The Laramie Project, was in the process of doing interviews over the years with a lot of members of the People's Temple. In fact, they had spoken to my aunt and uncle.

My uncle died not long after I began working on this project, so we never interviewed him. But they had talked to a lot of people and kind of, the inevitability of that play coming out and the fact that it was a documentary play where people's faces weren't going to be seen but their stories were going to be told. And even at that time, my aunt went under an assumed name during the play. You know, she was Janet Williamson instead of Janet Schuler. You know, I think that began to move people towards the idea of it. Maybe people are able to hear the story and think wow, that could've been my neighbor, that could've been my friend, that could've been my brother, my aunt, my sister or maybe even - I believe in some of those things - that could've been me.

So those things had a lot to do with it. But at the same time, you know, as a interview process, there was a lot of trust-building that went on. And I spent a lot of time - you know, I'm on the East Coast, and a large number of People's Temple members are still on the West Coast - and so there were a lot of late-night telephone calls where people were really, you know. I would feel bad because I was asking them to come home from work and tap into this reservoir of loss and sorrow that they had spent years trying to kind of come to grips with. But… And you know, but we would be on the telephone for hours. And then, you know, I would call somebody else and they would say oh, I heard you spoke with Gary last night.

So that was the other thing to - I didn't know - I wasn't aware of, you know, so clearly, but there are a lot of people in People's Temple who are - it's no longer an organization, but those people are bound by experience for life. And so how we approached one person was, you know, very quickly disseminated. And you know, if you talked to one person, the word got out on the line about you, quickly.

CONAN: In a video at npr.org you can hear Jim Jones talk about growing up in Indiana, and his childhood friends recall his obsession with religion and death. We have a clip from the documentary at npr.org/talk, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Elaine on the line. Elaine's calling us from Vacaville in California.

ELAINE (Caller): Yes, good morning. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ELAINE: At the time of the People's Temple, I was a visiting nurse in San Francisco, and I visited people of all ethnic groups, and I was amazed to find out how many different people were sending Jim Jones money. And I can think of one person in particular who was an elderly white female. And this lady when she finally died had a mattress filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars that she was sending to Jim Jones on a regular basis because she saw only one part of this man. And that was the part she thought was good, and she wanted to support that part. And I think a lot of people were sucked in that same way.

CONAN: Yes. There's a clip from the movie I wanted to play. This is people talking about Jim Jones with a mix of love and fear. This is Hugh Forsten, Jr.(ph), People's Temple member.

(Soundbite of film, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple”)

Mr. HUGH FORSTEN, JR. (Member, People's Temple): And he said what you need to believe in is what you can see. He said if you see me as your friend, I'll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I'll be your father, for those of you that don't have a father. He said if you see me as your savior, I'll be your savior. He said even so, if you see me as your god, I'll be your god.

CONAN: I'll be your god, Nolan Walker.

Mr. WALKER: Well, Jim Jones came out of Indiana. We actually went to the town Lynn, Indiana, where Jones grew up, and it's a little town on either side of a two-lane highway, and with a lot of churches in it. And Jim Jones was always searching for a place to belong. They say he did it at almost every church in town, and there was something about, you know, Pentecostalism and the emotionalism of it that he was able to tap into and able to make work. And when you listen to his - you know, as a kid, throughout the time my aunt was in People's Temple, she and my mother have always been close and they remained in contact, which was not always the case with People's Temple members.

But we went out on, you know, summer-vacation trips to California, and I remember going to People's Temple. And I at that time had not gone to a lot of formal church in my life. And all I remember was it was loud and it was long, you know?

You know, it - and now, looking back, you know, it was time for everybody, no matter what your thing was, he was going to bring it up and whip you up about it. So you know, Jim Jones also knew how to, you know, play to the outside world, as well. Ronald Reagan, very early on, had given him a citation for citizenship and community great works. You know, he was a darling on the political establishment. Rosalyn Carter, you know, visited him and went on a tour with him during the campaign of 1976. Jim Jones was clearly intelligent and could be charming, and he was also clearly very troubled and complicated, as well.

CONAN: Nolan Walker is the co-producer and co-writer of Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple. The film is being released in selected cities. In April, it will be broadcast as part of the PBS series American Experience. Nolan Walker, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. WALKER: Thank you.

CONAN: Nolan Walker with us today from Philadelphia. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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