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Stories from Jonestown

Stories from Jonestown

Leigh Fondakowski
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 312
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt24ht8z
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  • Book Info
    Stories from Jonestown
    Book Description:

    The saga of Jonestown didn't end on the day in November 1978 when more than nine hundred Americans died in a mass murder-suicide in the Guyanese jungle. While only a handful of people present at the agricultural project survived that day in Jonestown, more than eighty members of Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, were elsewhere in Guyana on that day, and thousands more members of the movement still lived in California. Emmy-nominated writer Leigh Fondakowski, who is best known for her work on the play and HBO filmThe Laramie Project, spent three years traveling the United States to interview these survivors, many of whom have never talked publicly about the tragedy. Using more than two hundred hours of interview material, Fondakowski creates intimate portraits of these survivors as they tell their unforgettable stories.

    Collectively this is a record of ordinary people, stigmatized as cultists, who after the Jonestown massacre were left to deal with their grief, reassemble their lives, and try to make sense of how a movement born in a gospel of racial and social justice could have gone so horrifically wrong-taking with it the lives of their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters. As these survivors look back, we learn what led them to join the Peoples Temple movement, what life in the church was like, and how the trauma of Jonestown's end still affects their lives decades later.

    What emerges are portrayals both haunting and hopeful-of unimaginable sadness, guilt, and shame but also resilience and redemption. Weaving her own artistic journey of discovery throughout the book in a compelling historical context, Fondakowski delivers, with both empathy and clarity, one of the most gripping, moving, and humanizing accounts of Jonestown ever written.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8173-0
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Two Days in November
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Lost Voices
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. List of Interviews INCLUDED IN STORIES FROM JONESTOWN
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  6. Part I. Collect All the Tapes, All the Writing, All the History

    • Nobody Was Paying Attention
      (pp. 3-7)

      The project begins. It is the twenty-third anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy. I fly in from New York. The memorial service at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Men in dark suits unload a tent and white wooden chairs from a small Ryder truck parked on the side of the road. The groundskeeper, a red bandana in his back pocket and a blue one wrapped around his head, appears over the back of the hill, pushing a lawnmower, preparing the grounds for the ceremony. It is a windy day, the air is crisp and the...

    • I Was His Son
      (pp. 8-15)

      Stephan Jones drives up in an old white Volvo station wagon with his pit bull pup Kali and a cardboard box full of old photos and photo albums. Dressed in a cotton shirt and running pants, Stephan looks like he just took Kali for a nice long walk in Tilden Park to clear his head before we talk.

      We have arranged to conduct a series of interviews for two weeks in March—mostly with people we met at the memorial service back in November, but a few names we have found online—and to visit the archive in San Francisco....

    • My Button Was Fear
      (pp. 16-21)

      The next person on our interview list is almost as iconic as Stephan. Ex–Temple member and Jonestown defector Debby Layton is the author ofSeductive Poison, the most well-known Jonestown memoir of its period. Greg and I meet Debby at a coffee shop on College Avenue in the Rockridge section of Oakland. It’s a neighborhood of ethnic restaurants and quaint cafés, a friendly enclave for commuters to the city of San Francisco.

      Debby arrives at Peaberry’s Coffee ready to talk shop, letting us know she wants to be a paid consultant on the project. Greg explains to her that...

    • Jonestown Vortex
      (pp. 22-30)

      The timing is good for our next interview. We are to meet Rebecca Moore and her husband, Fielding “Mac” McGehee, in San Diego. Mac and Becky have been studying Jonestown longer than anybody. We hope that they can shed some light, offer some direction, and connect us with other possible interviewees.

      Rebecca is a tenured professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, and Mac is an editor and writer. He prepares dinner for us, a dish he calls “Pasta Pierotti” in our honor. Rebecca tells us to call her Becky, and we all laugh awkwardly when she jokes...

    • A Godly Life
      (pp. 31-40)

      We travel back to northern California to meet Garry Lambrev, an ex–Temple member who works as a public library branch manager in East Oakland. He is on Mac’s list of contacts, but unlike so many others, Garry is willing—even eager—to talk. Garry is pensive with a permanently furrowed brow and a dimpled smile. A deliberate thinker, he takes the interview process seriously, willing to analyze every thread, examine every angle.

      “Speaking of drama . . .” He laughs. As a poet and writer, he had spent many years writing plays and directing theater inside the Temple. He...

    • A Man of His Word
      (pp. 41-46)

      With Garry’s talk of political intrigue fresh in our minds, we drive north to Sacramento to meet Patricia Ryan, Congressman Ryan’s daughter. I had introduced myself to Patricia at the memorial service at Evergreen Cemetery back in November, and she had agreed to talk. She invited us to her Sacramento home. When we arrive, she greets us at the door with a firm handshake. “Please, come in, and call me Pat.”

      Her father was fifty-three years old when he was shot and killed on the tiny Port Kaituma airstrip six miles from Jonestown. He was a member of the U.S....

    • The Air They Breathed
      (pp. 47-54)

      A short drive from Pat’s Sacramento home, we find Reverend John Moore and his wife, Barbara. Their daughter Becky, whom we interviewed a few days earlier with her husband, Mac, has arranged for us to meet her parents, now living in a newly constructed assisted living complex, a gated community designed to feel like a small town or neighborhood.

      Greg and I arrive at their cozy apartment, and Barbara greets us enthusiastically. The contents of their life and home seem oversized for this condo-style two-bedroom unit, yet the apartment has a feeling of warmth to it, with family pictures proudly...

    • Eternally Grateful
      (pp. 55-60)

      The next time we meet Stephan Jones, it’s on his turf. He lives in a wooded area of Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Rafael, in a small cabin-like house with fading green siding and a steep series of two-foot-wide staircases leading up to its perch at the top of a forested hill. There have to be at least ten staircases in all, linked together by a series of square decks. When I first get out of the car and look up, the house appears to be floating.

      Walking up the many levels of stairs feels...

  7. Part II. Until We Meet Again

    • Take the City Today
      (pp. 63-73)

      A month later, I drive from the Bay Area down to Los Angeles, a lonely six-hour stint on Interstate 5, a stretch of road that members of Peoples Temple knew quite well. As the Temple grew, it expanded its ministry from the Redwood Valley area in Ukiah (where many members had begun to live communally) to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Temple members would travel by bus to the cities for weekend services. Neva Sly was the first one to tell us about those bus trips. She was one of the regular bus drivers. “I don’t know how many stories...

    • Too Black
      (pp. 74-79)

      Vernon Gosney is a Jonestown survivor, although seriously wounded in the attack on the congressman and his entourage at the airstrip at Port Kaituma. He was twenty-five at the time and had been in and out of the Temple since he was nineteen. Vern features prominently in the story of the last two days in Jonestown. He was the one who passed a note on the day of the congressional visit: “Help us get out of Jonestown. Signed, Monica Bagby and Vernon Gosney.”

      It was this note to the congressman—the one NBC reporter Don Harris later thrust into Jones’s...

    • Homicide Is Suicide
      (pp. 80-85)

      A few weeks later, my colleague Steve Wangh flies in from New York to help with interviews. Steve is the oldest member of our collaborative team, closer to the age of most of the survivors. I had worked with him as a writer onThe Laramie Project, but I wanted him to be with us on the ground during the interview phase for this project.

      It’s late spring when Steve and I meet Melody Ermachild Chavis, a private investigator who was a member of the legal defense team for Larry Layton. (The others on the legal team were defense lawyers...

    • We All Participated
      (pp. 86-100)

      Melody drives a late-model Toyota station wagon. We pile into her car and head to Juanita’s place, passing block upon block of treeless streets, dilapidated buildings, and abandoned cars. Steve and I are both quiet in the car. “This is Ground Zero in Oakland,” Melody says, puncturing the silence. “Tons of crack around, and meth, ak-47s, the whole nine yards.”

      As we approach Juanita’s building, Melody tells us that Juanita is agoraphobic and as a result doesn’t get out much. She is intermittently clean and sober, and Melody is not sure in what condition she will be on that spectrum...

    • Sole Survivor
      (pp. 101-104)

      Melody is determined for us to meet Michael Briggs, who is among the children of Jonestown serving life in prison. Michael’s foster mother died in Jonestown, along with his biological siblings—Tony Linton and Donna Briggs—who were fostered together.

      “He was just kind of left behind,” Melody says. “He’s serving life without parole. He was sexually abused by Jim Jones and kicked out of the Temple. I think he would probably talk to you. I haven’t seen him for many years. I don’t know how many years, maybe five. I have thirty-four former clients on death row, and many...

    • Hundreds of Kids
      (pp. 105-117)

      The interviews with Melody and Juanita and the letter from Michael have added a new dimension to the story: the next generation of Jonestown survivors. My next interview is with Phil Tracy, a former reporter involved in the story early on, who is familiar with the foster kids in the Temple.

      In August 1977, fifteen months before the deaths in Jonestown,New Westmagazine published an exposé of Peoples Temple written by Phil Tracy and Marshall Kilduff. The cover story, “Inside Peoples Temple,” included the tagline, “Jim Jones is one of the state’s most politically potent leaders. But who is...

    • This Is Big
      (pp. 118-120)

      At Phil’s encouragement, I e-mail former reporter Julie Smith and speak to her on the phone. Phil was right: she is a famous detective novelist living in New Orleans now, but she has a more pointed view of what happened. “I found my reporter’s notebooks, which I will send to you,” she explains. I replay what Phil told me about her being stymied, but Julie is sensitive about the subject. She does not want to be portrayed as having been duped. She was a serious reporter at the time, and she wants me to know it. This was a story—...

    • Waylaid
      (pp. 121-126)

      My collaborator Margo Hall calls with good news. Her childhood friend Rod Hicks is willing to be interviewed. Their families were close, both fathers being well-known musicians in the Detroit area. The Hicks family lost two of their own in Jonestown—Marthea and Shirley— both musicians themselves.

      Rod Hicks was their brother, nearing sixty, with a smooth, deep voice, the epitome of cool. He is a bass player, a trombonist, and a poet.

      I didn’t meet Rod and only know him and his story through the interview Margo recorded with him. Yet so much of a person’s story can be...

    • Stigmata
      (pp. 127-137)

      Much of the summer we spend transcribing and editing interviews. In the fall I return to the Bay Area, having arranged to meet with Jack Palladino, a well-known investigator who once worked for the whistleblower whose story was the basis for the Russell Crowe filmThe Insider. Jack makes a cameo appearance in the movie. He is also a literary agent and counts former President Clinton among his clients.

      Jack has interviewed more than ten thousand people during a career spanning three decades. His cases included some of the most famous trials in American history: Sonny Barger of the Hells...

    • The Dream
      (pp. 138-140)

      The California Historical Society (CHS) is a library and museum in downtown San Francisco that houses the Peoples Temple collection. The museum and reading room are on the ground floor and in the basement are scores of collections, from the San Francisco earthquake to the Beat poets of the ’5os and Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love in the ’60s. All that remains of Peoples Temple is kept there, too.

      Denice Stephenson was in the process of cataloging and archiving many boxes of material that had been donated to the California Historical Society but had not yet been processed. She...

  8. Part III. To Whom Much Is Given

    • Sixty-seven Cents
      (pp. 143-150)

      A few days after Jack Palladino fills my head with stories from Jonestown, I meet Tim Carter for the first time. I fly to Portland, Oregon, from San Francisco and make the drive south on I-5 to the tiny liberal haven of Eugene. Tim Carter, like a few of our interviewees, is on Jonestown speaker’s bureau of the Jonestown Institute.

      Tim has talked a lot about Jonestown over the years. He is among the handful of people who were in Jonestown on November 18 and who lived to tell the world what they had seen. Tim has told his story...

    • Nefarious
      (pp. 151-158)

      Back in San Francisco, Margo had been working hard for months to pin down Jim Jones Jr. for an interview. She finally does. Jim wants to meet us on Geary Street in the Fillmore, a predominantly black neighborhood in San Francisco where the Peoples Temple church once stood, until it was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

      In contrast to his brother, Stephan Jones, who leads with his intellect, Jim Jones Jr. leads with his charm. Stephan is Jim and Marceline’s only biological son, and “Jimmy,” as he was—and sometimes still is—called, was one of the several...

    • We Were Rising
      (pp. 159-170)

      A month later our team reconvenes in the Bay Area for another round of interviews. We attend the twenty-fourth anniversary at Evergreen Cemetery on November 18. This is the second year of our project. The feeling at the cemetery is distinctly different. We are able to reconnect with many of our interviewees. We feel less like outsiders, more like we belong.

      Then Greg and I fly north to Portland to meet with Jean and Tim Clancey, two former Temple members now living a quiet rural life in Eugene, not too far from Tim Carter, who provides the introduction.

      We arrive...

    • The Basis of a Book
      (pp. 171-177)

      When I begin to dream about the play, Dick Tropp becomes an important character. I can see him in my mind’s eye in his cubby in San Francisco writing and rewriting articles, sending them to print. Or at a typewriter in his cottage in Jonestown, a simple wooden structure smelling of mildew and damp wood, built by hand by the people he loved.

      We deliver the manila envelope with the testimonies to the California Historical Society, and Denice Stephenson catalogs them by last name, first name, ethnicity, age in 1978, and any nickname or alias they might have had.

      As...

    • Beyond Truth
      (pp. 178-179)

      It was early in our process when we first spoke to former Temple member Garry Lambrev. The dramatic story of his departure from the Temple had left a strong impression, but it wasn’t until later that we felt the full weight of his words.

      Garry’s closest friend in the Temple—his “closest person in the world”—was Liz Forman (now Liz Forman Schwartz). She had left the Temple just after the first of August in 1976, and Garry was concerned about her. He described his thoughts at the time:

      “When Liz left, I could only think that, without the guiding...

    • It’s No Mystery
      (pp. 180-184)

      Laura Johnston Kohl suggests that I write to Janet Shular, a woman Laura refers to as “her sister,” who now lives with her husband, David, in Ohio. I craft an e-mail to Janet telling her about the struggles we are having finding black survivors, particularly women, who are willing to talk. On the same day I send the e-mail, President George W. Bush announces to the American people on national television that the war in Iraq is about to begin. Days later, Janet’s response arrives:

      I wanted to take the opportunity to provide you some initial information and insights as...

  9. Part IV. The Promised Land

    • What a Place for Them
      (pp. 187-192)

      When the commission for a play about Jonestown first came through in 2001, there was hope that we might complete it in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary in November 2003. It is now two years into our process, and we are not even close to reaching that goal. We are still establishing a basis of trust with the survivor community, still trying to diversify our list of interviewees. So far, our process has been one of listening and gathering, collecting stories and information, and recovering fragments of history from the archive. Our next step is to construct a cohesive narrative...

    • Exodus
      (pp. 193-203)

      Our project archivist, Denice Stephenson, is laying out the passport photos on the archive tables. The sheer volume of nine hundred photos is a striking thing to see. Denice has photocopied the passport images and put them together in binders. Most members of Peoples Temple had to surrender their passport once they were in Jonestown. Very few people were able to hold on to theirs.

      Greg has returned to the Bay Area, and we all gather at CHS to talk through some images and documents that we feel could be important to the play.

      We begin the day by flipping...

    • That’s Jonestown
      (pp. 204-234)

      In my first interview with Tim Carter, he is adamant about showing me a video of Jonestown. “When I tell people the story, it helps me to show them this,” he says, holding up a VHS tape. The tape is a copy of the NBC raw news footage taken on Congressman Leo J. Ryan’s investigative trip into Jonestown.

      Tim is right. The tape—and Tim’s accompanying narration—are essential to understanding how the last two days unfolded in Jonestown.

      Tim does not remember how he acquired the tape, nor does he know how anyone can get it now. “Apparently, you...

    • Perfect Religion
      (pp. 235-243)

      Survivor Eugene Smith has never talked publicly about his history in Peoples Temple. After hearing about the vast collection at the California Historical Society, he begins to come regularly to look at photographs. He spends hours at CHS studying his personal history, looking for clues to his past. Denice Stephenson helps him track down photos of his family lost in Jonestown—his mother, Mattie, his wife, Ollie, his baby son, his two adopted children—and he in turn helps her identify the people in the photos. He had forgotten a lot of the names and faces, but the work helps...

    • Trapped
      (pp. 244-251)

      “Death is real and it comes without warning. This body will be a corpse,” Greg tells me over salted peanuts and melting ice on our last flight to Oregon. Greg is becoming a serious Buddhist practitioner now, and part of his practice entails studying death in a more intimate way. He has recently taken his Bodhisattva vow, which is a deepening of compassion. The vow means that he is now committed to reincarnating again and again until every sentient being is relieved of their suffering.

      He is sharing his Buddhist wisdom with me, what he is learning about death, the...

    • Second Chance
      (pp. 252-256)

      After saying good-bye to Tim Carter, the next day we visit with Jean and Tim Clancey. We tell them about the night before, how hard it was to witness Tim’s pain and to feel like we caused him more suffering in the retelling of it.

      Holding her eyeglasses in one hand, Jean nods her head. She neither agrees nor disagrees with us; she is simply listening. “Those last hours are very painful for anyone who survived,” she says. Her voice is steady and calm.

      “The last day we were at the short wave radio at headquarters in San Francisco. We...

  10. Part V. Those Who Got Away

    • The Known Dead
      (pp. 259-264)

      The entire world would learn about what happened on Saturday, November 18, on the nightly news. For anyone who was alive in 1978 and saw those first images coming from Guyana, it is a moment that they will never forget.

      Initial news reports were of a shooting at the remote South American airstrip, which resulted in the death of a U.S. congressman. Following confirmation of Leo Ryan’s assassination came the rumors—then the reports, then the images—of what was termed a “mass suicide” in Jonestown. Aerial photos showed the bodies—mostly of Americans—lying facedown in an area surrounding...

    • My Children Are There
      (pp. 265-277)

      Survivor Claire Janaro lives in the Los Angeles area. When Liz Forman Schwartz said, “Claire’s children are dead,” she was referring to Claire Janaro.

      Many of our interviewees remained close to Claire and hoped that she could tell her story. We try to meet with her several times, but she is still emotionally fragile when it comes to Jonestown. She is willing to participate but isn’t sure if she can handle the conversation.

      It is three years into our process when Claire calls to tell Greg that she wants to meet. We finally sit down with her in her condo...

    • Conspiracist
      (pp. 278-283)

      One of the last interviews we conduct in the Bay Area is with Reverend Arnold Townsend, a community activist and organizer. Many of the people who died in Jonestown—particularly within the African American community—hailed from a neighborhood in San Francisco called the Fillmore. Reverend Townsend is familiar with the history of the Fillmore. He said at one time it was “the heart and soul of the progressive Left in America.”

      Coincidentally, it is the week that gay couples are getting married at San Francisco’s City Hall when Margo and I arrange to meet Reverend Townsend. Mayor Gavin Newsom...

    • Target Practice
      (pp. 284-289)

      Eugene Smith describes coming back to the States after Jonestown as the hardest part of his journey in Peoples Temple. This is quite a statement given that he had lost his wife, his newborn son, his mother, and two adopted kids he helped to raise.

      He left Georgetown, Guyana, on December 29, 1978, on a flight with other Temple members to John F. Kennedy airport. They were accompanied by sky marshals.

      “When we left Guyana it was 90 degrees,” he describes, “100 percent humidity. I’m at JFK in New York City with a safari jacket, and it’s 23 degrees and...

    • Undetermined
      (pp. 290-295)

      Rebecca Moore described how her family, along with other surviving families, was left to piece together what little history could tell them about what happened to their loved ones in Jonestown on the last day, a process that took several years and many sources: news accounts, Freedom of Information Act documents, personal interviews, even a trip to Guyana she and her husband, Mac McGehee, took in 1979. In spite of all of this, Becky Moore’s conclusion remains true: “This story will always be a mixture of fact and hypotheses.”

      At the California Historical Society, our project archivist, Denice Stephenson, shows...

    • Something to Gain
      (pp. 296-299)

      On our last trip to Eugene, Tim Carter has an idea. He knows that I am a sports fan, so he suggests that we go for a walk together. He wants to show Greg and me the memorial to the Oregon long distance running hero Steve Prefontaine. There is a memorial on the rural winding road where the twenty-four-year-old “Pre” died in a car accident. Jean and Tim Clancey live nearby, so we all plan to go.

      We walk together, stopping briefly in front of the bronze memorial. We stand around for a few minutes in silence. Then we begin...

    • Legacy
      (pp. 300-304)

      Margo hands me a cassette tape at the Starbucks on West Grand Avenue in Oakland. She has just interviewed Donneter Lane, an African American civic and community leader and head of the Council of San Francisco Churches in 1978, whose leadership was instrumental in getting the unclaimed bodies buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland.

      I take the tape home and transcribe it. Ms. Lane speaks slowly, a slight shake in her voice, reflective of her age, but her words are stoic and strong.

      “The San Francisco Council of Churches got involved right away, and we organized the Guyana Emergency Relief...

    • I Won’t Say Anniversary
      (pp. 305-309)

      I walk up the now-familiar hill at Evergreen Cemetery. Another year has passed, another anniversary, this one three years after our journey began. I notice Stephan Jones sitting cross-legged on the edge of the grass, separate from the main event. We share a smile, a wave.

      I watch as others arrive and greet Stephan, some shaking his hand, some embracing him.

      An image comes to mind of the young Danny Curtin, coming back for the twentieth anniversary after not seeing or talking to anyone in the Temple for that length of time, making his way up that hill, unsure of...

    • A Bittersweet Gift
      (pp. 310-313)

      In our last interview with Stephan Jones—the last of ten interviews over the course of two years—he reflects:

      “Your memory is a bittersweet gift. Because what comes back to you, when you’re in that kind of grief, is all those things you took for granted about them. Those are the things that jump out at you, out on the street: the smells and the subtle mannerisms, and the carriage and style and dress and the quality of voice and laugh that you hear everywhere. They’re everywhere. And those are the things you take for granted when people are...

    • After
      (pp. 314-322)

      When our playThe People’s Templefinally opens in Berkeley, California, the survivors and their families are in the audience. They come from as far away as Indiana to see what we have done with their stories.

      The play begins with a song. The actor portraying Stephan Jones walks onto the stage and pulls an archive box from a shelf. The box contains a choir robe. As Stephan holds up the robe, a woman appears as if conjured by both the robe and his willingness to remember, and she performs a cappella “He’s Able,” a gospel song featured on the...

  11. The 918 Deaths of November 18, 1978
    (pp. 323-332)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 333-334)
  13. Index
    (pp. 335-352)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 353-354)