Jonestown, 30 years later: "Father Cares," NPR radio documentary from 1981 (audio)

Thirty years ago this week, nearly a thousand adults and children lost their lives in Jonestown, Guyana. The settlement was also known as "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project", and was formed by followers of the Reverend Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.

Today, some refer to the mass deaths as suicide, others murder. We still don't really know all the facts of what happened, or how, or exactly why. Autopsies were botched, records and forensic evidence were mis-handled, and many of the US government's documents remain classified, out of reach of FOIA requests.

But we do understand that most of the people who died on November 18, 1978 drank fruit-flavored Flavor-Aid laced with a variety of intoxicants and poisons: Valium, chloral hydrate, and cyanide. The victims included hundreds of children. Many of the corpses, including children, bore puncture wounds indicating they received lethal cyanide injections. Adults who resisted were injected with cyanide or killed by gushot.

Jones' followers had moved from their Northern California base to the South American jungle the year before. The promise: they'd build a utopian, agrarian, interracial community in Guyana, which had a Socialist goverment at the time. Jonestown was to be free from racism, sexism, and ageism, and founded on communist principles. Jones told his followers to think of him as a living incarnation of Jesus Christ, and God.

Over the past 30 years, many documentaries, books, and articles have been produced about Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. I'll be blogging pointers to some of them today.

I want to start with the one I've returned to again and again -- a radio documentary from 1981 that for me, also defines what radio journalism can achieve. "Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown," was co-written by my NPR colleague Noah Adams. Here's a snip from the original introduction on

In the months preceding the tragedy, Jim Jones and his People’s Temple followers recorded their tho ughts, their problems and their aspirations. The hundreds of hours of audio tape form the basis of [this] NPR documentary (...) written by James Reston, Jr and Noah Adams, and produced by Deborah Amos. It was based on the tapes Reston acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, and won most major broadcast awards including the Dupont Col umbia Award, the National Headliner Award and the Prix Italia.

Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown recaptures the final months for the People’s Temple cult. After problems arose for the group in San Francisco, they moved to the South American jungle during the 1970's. In 1978, reports of an increasingly hostile and controlling atmosphere by Jones led to a Congressional fact-finding mission into the cult. As the group, led by Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.), was preparing to leave they were ambushed. Ryan, three American journalists and a Peoples Temple defector were killed. A dozen other people were injured. The incident was just hours prior to the deaths of the cult members.

Here's the web page for Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown, with audio links. Here is the direct *.ram link for the complete 90 minute program (requires Real Audio). The website for this related NPR feature, produced in 2003, also includes 3 direct audio urls for "Father Cares," broken into 45 minute chunks (requires Real Audio or Windows Media Player). Another powerful, related NPR piece: Noah Adams talks with Deborah Layton, author of Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple.

Here is more on producer Deborah Amos. Here is James Reston's website.

You may also want to obtain a copy of Reston's book, for which this radio work was, in part, preparatory research: Our Father, Who Art In Hell.

I stayed up all night last Saturday listening to Father Cares in entirety. I really hope you listen to it. It is a profound example of the power of radio as a storytelling medium. It captures the souls of those who died, and those who survived, with a sense of lasting respect and sorrow.

Boing Boing posts on Jim Jones, Jonestown and People's Temple:

- Jonestown, 30 years Later: Inside People's Temple, the 1977 exposé.
- Jonestown, 30 years later: original audio recordings from People's Temple and Guyana.
- Jonestown, 30 years later: Life and Death of People's Temple (PBS video).
- Jonestown, 30 years later: interview with a survivor (video)
- Jonestown, 30 years later: From Silver Lake To Suicide
- Jonestown, 30 years later: "Father Cares," NPR documentary from 1981
- Raven: The Untold Story of The Reverend Jim Jones and His People
- Andrew Brandou on his Jonestown paintings


  1. I actually went to Jim Jones’ house in Indianapolis. It wasn’t so eerie. What WAS eerie was that some six-flags-over-jesus church bought the house and used it as community outreach.

    Talk about irony…

  2. Xeni, why “We still don’t really know all the facts of what happened”? Almost everyone died, so there went a lot of the information. Hundreds of bodies, festering in the tropical weather, which were difficult to access… not great for autopsy. Read “Raven” from the previous post. We know enough, except for when will it happen again?

    1. @Anonymous, many documents, recordings, and chunks of material that help us understand how this happened are lost, destroyed, or otherwise inaccessible.

      We know enough, except for when will it happen again?

      Enough? Who decides that? You? Me? I don’t think so.

      I’m not implying there’s some yet-undiscovered conspiracy theory that would explain everything in some radically different context.

      But I’m pointing out the fact we have only a partial understanding of this recent and tragic episode in history, because we have only partial access to the facts of that history.

      I believe that understanding history helps us create the future, and maybe helps us understand what might cause something like this to happen again. The unknown parts of this story, including Jones’ political connections, stories of rape and sexual abuse used as a religious practice inside the church, questions about whether/how the CIA or other government entities were involved, however tangentially that may be — all of that is fascinating to me.

      I was a child when Jonestown happened. So it’s always seemed mythical to me. Facts reveal what’s real in myth.

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