Tuesday, November 25, 2008


It passed unmentioned here, but last week was the thirtieth anniversary of the mass suicide at Jonestown.

It passed unmentioned because, well, quite frankly, I was a little sheepish about mentioning my memories of this great tragedy. As a kid on a farm, I tended not to read newspapers, and in that pre-internet world, information was not poured into our lives constantly. So the first time I ever heard of the People's Temple compound in Guyana was on a brief news break during the local PBS affiliate's broadcast of The Maltese Falcon. This news break was simply a reporter reciting headlines, including a brief mention of the murders of Leo Ryan and several others at an airstrip in Guyana, blandly delivered over a nondescript graphic.

Would I even remember this if it weren't for the movie? I mean, The Maltese Falcon! What a great movie, and it was the first time I'd ever seen it, so the circumstances surrounding that viewing--my mom making fun of Mary Astor's hair and mannerisms, my dad repeatedly muttering "Shweetheart"--burned themselves into my brain. Possibly any newscast would have lingered as some sort of memory of that seminal film-viewing experience.

Whatever the newscasts talked about the next morning was lost on me, since the only thing mattering to my brother and me was driving to Des Moines to see the heavily-advertised Japanese Star Wars knockoff, Message From Space. The theater was packed, and we laughed uproariously as the spectacle unfolded. All the way home, we traded impressions of Vic Morrow struggling with his English-as-second-language dialogue and rehashed the highlights. ("Walnuts? They gather an army by sending out walnuts?" "Well, yeah, but they were glowing space walnuts.")

By the time we got home that Sunday night, The NBC Nightly News was already on, broadcasting the bodies on the airstrip and some of the 909 corpses resulting from Jim Jones' "revolutionary suicide." Sickening, of course, but part of me wondered why we were watching the NBC news instead of CBS. Presumably a ball game ran late on CBS, and we always ate supper to the evening news, so NBC it was.

But why do I remember that? Why do I remember the small details more than the big picture? Surely the events at Jonestown were a defining moment in American history, and I remember being shaken, sickened even, as I learned more about them, but as it all unfolded, the mundane activities of daily life seemed infinitely more important, so important I remember them to this day.

Have the circumstances surrounding that viewing of two very different movies stuck with me because they are bound inseparably to terrifying revelations of mass fanaticism? Or is it the other way around? And what does it say about me that in my mind there is no difference?