Judy Kutulas: What If My Relatives Were on the “Wrong” Side of History?

cover image for After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies, by Judy KutulasToday we welcome a guest post by Judy Kutulas, author of After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies. In this book, Kutulas complicates the common view that the 1970s were a time of counterrevolution against the radical activities and attitudes of the previous decade. Instead, she argues that the experiences and attitudes that were radical in the 1960s were becoming part of mainstream culture in the 1970s, as sexual freedom, gender equality, and more complex notions of identity, work, and family were normalized through popular culture—television, movies, music, political causes, and the emergence of new communities. Seemingly mundane things like watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, listening to Carole King songs, donning Birkenstock sandals, or reading Roots were actually critical in shaping Americans’ perceptions of themselves, their families, and their relation to authority.

One of the chapters in After Aquarius Dawned focuses on Jim Jones and the mass death at Jonestown. In today’s post Kutulas wrestles with learning more about her own family’s connection to Jonestown.

***

What If My Relatives Were on the “Wrong” Side of History?

I understand that Ben Affleck was unhappy to learn his ancestors owned slaves. I mention this because I was also unexpectedly side-swiped by history while researching a chapter for After Aquarius Dawned on the Peoples Temple and the Jonestown mass death.

As traditional authority, aka the Establishment, declined after the war in Vietnam and Watergate and all those liberation movements—sexual, gay, women’s, black—Americans practiced more freedom of choice, summarized by a women’s movement slogan, “the personal is political.” Since I was already looking into the Temple, I took a side jaunt into the story of my cousins who perished in Jonestown.

The last time we visited, Danny and Edie were already in the thrall of the Reverend Jim Jones and had adopted a son at Jones’s behest.
Danny Kutulas was my father’s first cousin. He and my father grew up in a close-knit Greek-American family in San Francisco during the Depression. Danny and his wife Edie moved to Redwood Valley, north of San Francisco, a community that would become the Peoples Temple’s home. I thought their rural lifestyle idyllic largely because they kept a horse. One of my more cherished childhood possessions was a photo of Danny on his horse.

The last time we visited, Danny and Edie were already in the thrall of the Reverend Jim Jones and had adopted a son at Jones’s behest. They later deeded their land to the Temple and relocated to Guyana, part of the white leadership cadre in a mostly black movement. They died at Jonestown along with more than 900 Americans in November of 1978, the largest mass death of Americans until 9/11, only this time the word used to describe what happened was “suicide.”

The contemporary press portrayed those who perished in Jonestown as victims who meant well, were brainwashed, and couldn’t escape the mass death, forced (and sometimes assisted) into suicide. That’s what I assumed happened to my cousins. My family, like most of the others, mourned them and denounced Jones as a madman.

Danny and Edie Kutulas, early 1950s. Photo courtesy of the author.

 
I suppose my faith wavered a little watching a PBS documentary one night, when I saw my cousin Edie participating in a fake Peoples Temple faith healing. Questioning my parents as I began researching, I learned a few more disquieting facts. And then, I started digging into the treasure trove of documents (Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple) maintained online by someone with a personal connection to Jonestown, San Diego State religion professor Rebecca Moore. She had lost two sisters and a nephew whose father was Jim Jones. Looking at personnel lists, diaries, and commentaries, I learned a shocking lot. Like Ben Affleck, I was disturbed by what I learned.

My cousin Danny was part of the Temple leadership. He was something of an enforcer for Jones, punishing those who violated stringent rules. Those punishments included physical beatings and sexual humiliations. At some point, he took up with a much younger woman, a practice Jones encouraged to weaken family bonds. This seems to have occurred before leaving for Guyana.

Everyone at Jonestown made moral compromises; some made more than others.
In Jonestown, Danny and Edie lived separately. According to a diary found there, the arrangement saddened Edie and made their adopted son so angry that he reverted to his birth name. Edie tended pigs at Jonestown and Danny was in charge of bananas; both remained active in the community and he in its leadership. On one tape, Edie participated in a community debate about punishment for a teenager who tried to escape. It was a profane conversation whose outcome was torture. My cousins willingly facilitated Jones’s cruelties and practiced personal cruelties as well. I used to think they “drank the Kool-Aid,” as the saying goes, because they had no other choice. Now I wonder if they not only drank it willingly, but also forced some others to drink it as well.

Moore notes that brainwashing is too easy an explanation for what happened at Jonestown, that we must accept that Jones’s followers “made bad choices.” The responsibility that my cousins must bear is hard for me to reconcile with someone I literally remember as a hero on horseback.

Everyone at Jonestown made moral compromises; some made more than others. As I considered the many ways that radical Sixties values found their ways into the daily lives of ordinary people, I had forgotten that the result of good initial impulses was not always liberation, but sometimes its opposite.

Judy Kutulas is professor of history and American studies at Saint Olaf College and author of After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies.