Sunday, August 13, 2017

Richard Tropp's Last Letter

I wonder how many thoughts flit through our heads in a single day? Tonight, I found myself thinking about a document which has haunted me ever since I read it, a few years ago.

It's this document-- a statement (or letter) written by somebody who participated in the mass-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, as it was happening.

The writer of the document is unknown. The website (which is an archive of material related to Jonestown) attributes it, tentatively, to Richard Tropp, a teacher who was quite prominent in the commune. (It was more a commune than a cult.) Like most of the members, he was highly idealistic. (But it may have been written by someone else.)

I became fascinated by Jonestown a few years ago, and spent a week or two (or maybe more) compulsively reading this archive. (And listening to it, too-- many audio recordings survive of the commune, including a recording of the mass suicide.) I became a bit obsessed with it. It seemed to me a unique moment in human history, to give a unique insight into how people behaved under certain extreme conditions. And what that revealed about human nature greatly disturbed me.

Another thing that fascinates me about Jonestown is its evidence that normality is a social construct. You only have to  listen to the "death tape" to realize that many of the commune members were enthusiastically in favour of the suicide. Indeed, it could hardly have happened otherwise. The question that suggests to me is: how far does this principle extend? My fascination with political correctness has a lot to do with this question-- the observable fact that a particular standard can be normalized, a taboo or a belief can be imposed, and can quickly come to seem natural to thousands, millions, tens of millions. (Or, at least, they are willing to go along with it.)

Several things fascinate me about the letter itself. One is that the writer, in between the beginning of the letter and the end (and it's fairly short), moves from urging the reader to investigate the Jonestown story, to finally declaring that it doesn't matter if nobody ever understands. That contrast has come into my head over and over again, on many different occasions. I very often wonder what matters in the end-- however you construe "the end". The things I hold onto so passionately-- will they matter when I am facing my own death? Will the things one generation so carefully transmits to the next matter a few generations down the line?
I am haunted by its last words: "Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth".

The fascination of the past in general is that it can never be replayed, never be reconstructed. This is true of all history, but it's especially true of one-off and unique events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the last stand in the GPO during the 1916 Rising, or the last night in Jonestown.

The period in which Jonestown lived and died is also fascinated to me. I don't know why, but the seventies as a whole, and the last few years of the seventies in particular, cast a kind of spell over me. It seems both ephemeral and timeless at once-- there's a sort of vertigo to it. it's the vertigo I experience whenever I find myself facing, in a particularly heightened way, the brick wall of the contingent-- and realizing that I can't even understand the contingent without the concept of the eternal. I can't explain it any better than that.


  1. No doubt there'll always be cults of some sort somewhere. Possibly the 60s/70s produced a more fertile ground for these than had existed ever before. Interesting that actress Angela Lansbury moved to the south of Ireland during the 7Os because her son, Anthony, was on heroin in California and daughter Deidre was getting involved with followers of Charles Manson. The 91 year old still holds Irish citizenship. Could a similar refuge be found in co. Cork today?
    Looked at from a distance,all eras can perhaps be seen as historically pivotal. During the late 70s the cold war, the murder of Aldo Moro (which probably expedited the death of Paul VI) and eventual succession of John Paul II were very important. And perhaps the hippy culture was unraveling then also.
    One wonders what will be seen as pivotal when people look back on us some day?

    1. Jonestown was especially interesting because it was a left-wing political cult; they called themselves socialists and Marxists, and renounced Christianity (it started out as Christian).

  2. It's not connected, but, believe it or not, a group of Australians led by dame Mary Gilmore went to Paraguay in the 1890s to found a socialist state which they were calling New Australia. I'm not sure if that would have been (had it worked) the first socialist country, but it lasted less than ten years.