Complicating Matters

by Annie Dawid

“This book is an extension of the life of the play, another way to reach an audience beyond the final black out in the theater,” writes Leigh Fondakowski in her new book, Stories from Jonestown (University of Minnesota Press, Spring 2013). Fondakowski’s play, “The People’s Temple,” which debuted in 2005, resulted from hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors, of which only ten percent, she estimates, made it into the play. Some of the remaining ninety percent appears in this book of over 300 pages, which follows Fondakowski and her collaborators’ journey through the forging of human connections made during that five year period. What stirred Peoples Temple members to create the utopian vision and promise of Jonestown? What led to its violent demise? These are among the questions she attempts to puzzle through.

Readers of the jonestown report – survivors and non-survivors alike – will be familiar with much of what is presented here. For lay readers, minds will be blown as PT history is revealed in powerful, personal details, both in the hopes of Temple members during the early days for profound political change, and the devastating downfall revealed in all its awful particulars, from Dr. Larry Schacht’s discussion of the benefits and detriments of cyanide, to the heartrending words written by Dick Tropp on the last day of Jonestown:

“As I write these words, people are silently amassed, taking a quick potion, inducing sleep, relief. We are a long and suffering people. I wish I had time to put it all together—the meaning of a people—a struggle, to find the symbolic and eternal in this moment—I wish that I had done it. I did not do it. I failed.”

Perhaps addressing Tropp’s unfulfilled mandate, Fondakowski brings previously unheard voices into the decades’ long history project which is the legacy of Jonestown. Most affecting among these is Eugene Smith, an African-American man whose wife and child died in Jonestown; two children he helped parent, Martin and Christa Amos, were killed by their adoptive mother, Sharon Amos, in Lamaha Gardens in the only murders which took place outside of Jonestown and Port Kaituma on the day of the massacre. Smith was working in Georgetown on November 18, 1978, and for most of the following 30+ years, remained silent about what he experienced.

Upon meeting with Fondakowski and her collaborator Margo Hall, the African-American member of the team of four interviewers, Smith tells them, “I have real problems with Caucasian men. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in an environment where I work with engineers every day, so naturally there are white men. But in my personal life, ‘You can’t be my friend, I’m sorry.’ It’s one of those fallacies of that whole incident, one of the shortcomings, one of my weaknesses, one of the things I just can’t seem to shake. Just really distrusting in that sense. And I’ve just dealt with it the best I can.”

Smith was adopted by 53-year-old Mattie Gibson and joined PT in 1973. His picture of the early years shows why so many were attracted to the Temple, to its practices and results in California.

“Not only are you somebody, but somebody cares enough for you to help you get an education, give you clothing, pay your tuition, put you in college, and all you have to do is just be there. And that’s where a lot of people were at. They saw the breakfast program, they saw the community gardens, they saw the kids make these emotional 180s from being a complete introvert, attention deficit child to being somebody who’s now, not only able to speak to adults and look you in your eye, but they actually laugh and play. And to see these kids turn around—that drew people.

“So what happens is you find that Jim Jones is on the periphery,” he explains. “You’re there because of these people. My influence came from the people. Jones was a threat. If you messed up, you’re gonna be in front of him. But Jones became background for me.”

Smith’s new testimony seems to reaffirm what so many have emphasized: the only thing wrong with Jonestown was Jones.

But this simplification, which lays all blame at the foot of Jim Jones, does not ultimately stand up to the test of time. Fondakowski eschews neat “answers” to what went wrong in Jonestown in favor of the messy, sometimes unpalatable complications of multiple truths.

Another fresh voice here is that of Jean Brown Clancey, a member of the Planning Committee who was at San Francisco headquarters on November 18, 1978, along with Tim Clancey, whom she would later marry.

An anecdote Jean relates of her bus-driving days when the group often traveled between San Francisco and Los Angeles, offers a chilling example of what it was like to be in the charismatic, mind-numbing aura of Jim Jones:

“I’m driving along this highway, which has since been widened, but for a while it was head-on kind of traffic, lots of curves, around the Russian River. Jones came up behind me and he said, ‘Pass that car.’ I said, ‘It’s a blind curve.’ He said, ‘Pass that car.’ So here’s my big test, what am I going to do? I’ve got a bus full of people. And so I passed the car on a blind curve,” she admits. “That’s how far it could go. I mean, because I believed he was super natural or something.”

Clancey warns Fondakowski it won’t wash to conclude that all these good people were duped by the evil Jones.

“We asked Jim Jones to be something. We played into it. We asked him for something a person cannot be. And we can say we were disillusioned, but what is more useful is to recognize that human capacity to not take responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. It serves a need for us. Anyone who signed on had something to gain.

“If it was relief from your own personal confusion, Jim gave simple answers. If it was your ennui, he gave a reason and a purpose to engage and exist. If you were in a ghetto and you were scared to death your kids were gonna go to jail, this man will give my kids a job and an education. Everybody had something to gain, and everybody put these demands on him.”

Professor Rebecca Moore, author of multiple books on Peoples Temple and sister to Carolyn Moore Layton and Ann Moore, aunt of “Kimo,” the child of Carolyn and Jim Jones, all of whom died at Jonestown, also complicates the blame for the massacre:

“There’s pretty clear evidence that my sisters were involved in planning some sort of mass death. I have a letter from my younger sister Annie describing killing people. Somebody had to order the poison, somebody had to mix the poison, somebody had to administer it, and it wasn’t Jim Jones. People had agency, and I would say they had free will. I think the brainwashing explanation is much more dehumanizing than to say, ‘You know these were good people who did a terrible thing—an evil thing.’ Brainwashing lets them off the hook morally. But it also takes away their humanity. Then they are just robots, as if it was just a matter of mind control. To me, it is much more meaningful and humanizing to say: they made choices and they made bad choices.”

Even for readers who believe they already know most everything there is to know about what happened in Jonestown, Stories from Jonestown adds powerful details and new voices which have not been published elsewhere. What you find here will haunt you.

(Annie Dawid, an author of three volumes of fiction, has completed a fourth, Paradise Undone: A Novel of Jonestown, which currently seeks a publisher. Her previous articles in the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at annie@anniedawid.com.)

Last modified on May 21st, 2014.
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