The value of revisiting history (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

Plenty of books have changed my mind, or at least my viewpoint. One example that comes to mind is Leigh Fondakowski’s Stories from Jonestown, a book that weaves together scores of interviews from the survivors of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple.

The story I was initially told—that many of us were told—was that Jones was a charismatic cult leader who led hundreds of trusting people sheeplike into a mass suicide. It’s the event from which the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” springs, although the lethal drink at Jonestown was cyanide-spiked Flavor-Aid.

Fondakowski’s book explored how Peoples Temple started out with messages of love, equality, and brotherhood. Jones’s followers, especially early on, were not so much lured by charisma as drawn by this universal positive message. As Jones grew more powerful and paranoid, not everyone continued to believe in his leadership. There was resistance, both before and during that final fatal night, and there are strong questions about just how many of those who died were truly willing participants.

I’ve recently read Steve Olson’s Eruption, an account of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in which dozens died. One point Olson makes is that “blaming the dead misrepresents the facts,” carefully building his case to counter the persistent narrative that most of those who died had ignored official warnings or defied orders to be where they were. Olson’s account of how people came to be near the mountain on that fateful morning tells a quite different story.

I have not yet read Dave Cullen’s Columbine, but I have heard that it is also a book that questions many aspects of the stories we all think we know about the school shooting there.

One thing it surprised me to learn as I grew out of childhooed was that history isn’t one set of immutable facts. That the stories we were told in school left out a lot, and in some cases were later proven false. That the stories we are told on the news leave out a lot, and in some cases will later be proven false.

We look at events through filters; we fill in the blanks with assumptions. Not everyone gets equal access to the microphones or the megaphones. It’s good to reexamine what we think we know.

And so we uncover the past again and again, learning new things each time.


  1. Great post, Jenn! I majored in history in undergrad and read a lot of it for research. It's always astonishing to me how little of any given story the general public knows (and I include myself in that), how much of what we think we know is invented or misinterpreted, and how people (especially today) twist it to fit their own worldview.

    1. As a young child, I thought of history as dusty and settled. The older I get, the more I see how fluid and mysterious it can be!

  2. Wow--"We look at events through filters; we fill in the blanks with assumptions." Spot-on.


Post a Comment