Review Essay: Tim Stoen, Peoples Temple, the Concerned Relatives, and Jonestown

Copyright © John R. Hall 2016

tosMarked for Death: My War with Jim Jones the Devil of Jonestown, by Timothy Oliver Stoen. North Charleston, S.C.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015 (first printing, received December 18, 2015). xxiii + 299pp. + acknowledgements, notes, and index. npl. isbn 978-1-5117-5743-0. (Page references without author citations are to the book under review.)

[Editor’s note: This book was reissued with a new cover, amplifications, new photographs, and back-cover endorsements, under the title Love Them to Death in March 2017.]

Almost 40 years after the murders and mass suicide in Guyana, one of the principle figures in the events leading up to the tragedy, Timothy Stoen, has published a memoir. Mr. Stoen, an attorney who graduated from Stanford Law School, served Peoples Temple and its leader, the Reverend Jim Jones, in a legal capacity after he became associated with the group in 1970. However, following the 1977 mass exodus of Temple members from California to Jonestown, Guyana, Tim Stoen joined forces with his by-then estranged wife Grace Stoen in a battle against Jim Jones and Peoples Temple for the custody of their legal son John Victor Stoen, who – Rev. Jones and Mr. Stoen agreed at the time of his birth – had been fathered by the Temple leader. With John Victor living in Jonestown, frustratingly far from the reach of courts in California, Grace and Tim made common cause with other emerging opponents of Peoples Temple, who came to call themselves the Concerned Relatives. At the initiation of this oppositional group, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan undertook his ill-fated journey to Jonestown that precipitated the murders and mass suicide set in motion by Jim Jones on November 18, 1978.

Whatever the facts concerning the biological paternity of John Victor Stoen, and the legal and social contestations about principles of custody to one side, we should all have great sympathy for Mr. Stoen, who – like thousands of other people who lost family and loved ones in the Jonestown debacle – has endured great suffering, in his case, amplified by feelings of “guilt” (xxx, 275, 280). And it is understandable that Mr. Stoen would want to avoid any self-incrimination, legal or otherwise, that might stem from fully airing what he did while active in Peoples Temple and, later, the Concerned Relatives. Yet sympathy for Mr. Stoen ought not deflect others from trying to arrive at objective understandings of what happened and why.

For my part, as the author of Gone from the Promised Land, an analytic history of Peoples Temple, I am especially interested in whether Mr. Stoen gives an account that changes the basic narrative of events as I understand them. Given that he was centrally involved in the activities of both Peoples Temple and its opponents, people might expect his memoir to offer striking new information about what happened and why. For the most part, such expectations would be disappointed. Nevertheless, a careful reading yields some clarifications and deepened understandings.

To begin, I am sorry to report that Marked for Death is a poorly written book, filled with hyperbole – e.g., Jonestown as a “fortress” (xx) – and laced with paranoia, the sheer volume of which seems like rhetorical excess, even granting the incredibly tense conflict between Mr. Stoen and Rev. Jones (138, 147, 153-54, 183, 211, 228). The logic and accuracy of certain claims in the book seem flawed. Adjectives sometimes operate as mere labels and chapter divisions follow an arbitrary scheme with the thread of the narrative moving right across them as though they were mere paragraph transitions. In short, Marked for Death suffers the limitations of a self-published book that could have used some thoughtful guidance of an editor and the keen eye of a copyeditor. Indeed, apparently self-publishing makes it possible for an author to introduce textual changes rather easily, and Marked for Death already has undergone at least two cycles of alterations, although they do not seem to have been indicated on the publishing information page.

Tim Stoen is a lawyer, and Marked for Death displays a lawyerly care in wordings that sometimes seem to obscure more than they reveal. In this light, it is not surprising that in the 1970s both Rev. Jones and his leadership group and Mr. Stoen’s own family wondered whether the lawyer was hiding connections to the CIA (1, 137). Especially problematic, the book sometimes offers accounts of events that are decidedly incomplete or inaccurate, and that Mr. Stoen ought to know better than to put forward. For example, Marked for Death (33) provides only the briefest account of the “tax crisis” (Hall 2004: 197-207) and reduces the mass migration to Jonestown as the product of “paranoia” (37). Such obviously distorted accounts draw into question the trustworthiness of the narrative, and readers will want to approach the book with both the charity due any author and a healthy streak of skepticism. Understandably, Mr. Stoen offers only his side of the story. The book does not really tell it like it was for Mr. Stoen, but how he wants it to appear to have been. One important remedy would be for him to donate his complete set of diaries, calendars, and documents to the Peoples Temple archive at the California Historical Society, so that others can have access to the raw materials of history, and Mr. Stoen is to be commended for having promised to do so (307).

Certainly Marked for Death offers a welter of new details about Mr. Stoen’s life and actions. Indeed, the book is not exactly a memoir, if that term is taken to mean an author’s personal reflection on experiences and memories. It draws extensively on newspaper articles, other books, and publically available documents and tape recordings (e.g., from the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown” website and the California Historical Society archive). But Marked for Death relies most heavily on Tim Stoen’s diaries and journals, often quoting them directly with little further elaboration or reflection. The narrative is typically structured as a sequential reading of his calendar, often treating all events on the calendar, great and small, with nearly equivalent importance rather than a tracing of connected events. Flashbacks might have been used to make for a more coherent thematic account of this or that series of events, but they instead seem to function as distractions that generate confusion.

Nevertheless, there is an overall arc of Marked for Death. It is a parable, recounting the story of a man who, pulled by the radical political currents of the 1960s, drifted away from his bourgeois and Christian origins and landed in Peoples Temple. Under the sway of the charismatic leader Jim Jones, Mr. Stoen recounts, he did “stupid,” “naïve,” and “idiotic” things, made “untrue” statements, and rationalized the shortcomings of Jones, a “devil” he characterizes as “selling out” to Satan (xxii, 85, 86, 110, 115, 116, 275). Eventually, however, choosing to side with his estranged wife Grace, Tim threw himself into in a wider struggle that ended only with the murders and mass suicide. In the aftermath, he tells how he sought and found redemption in family, friends, love, legal colleagues, a renaissance of connection with Grace, and the prodigal son’s return to Christ and His forgiveness (292-93).

If Marked for Death has the overall structure of a parable of redemption after falling, that structure provides a basis for observations and claims that thicken the historical record and inform interpretive issues that remain at stake. Nevertheless, the book leaves ample work for people of a deconstructionist persuasion to identify the silences, what has been obscured, left out, or left implicit. There are whole swaths of Mr. Stoen’s activities that barely get mentioned and any number of developments for which he could have provided much more informative detail, but unfortunately did not.

The most important additional information, in my view, concerns the vexed issue of the biological paternity of Tim’s legal son, John Victor Stoen, born to Grace on January 25, 1972. As Tim rightly notes, under the law in California, where the child was born, the legal husband of a woman who gives birth is presumed to be the legitimate father. Yet this legal clarity was, and remains, caught up in a web of social complexities. Tim and Grace raised John Victor together for the first two years of his life. But Tim reports that before their wedding on June 27, 1970, they had agreed to an open marriage and that subsequently he had sexual relations with other women.

About a week before the birth of John Victor Stoen, Jim Jones made a claim that he was the biological father. Shortly after the birth Tim signed what he describes in Marked for Death as an “untrue” witnessed declaration, what he calls his “paternity promise,” to the effect that “in April, 1971, I entreated my beloved pastor, James W. Jones, to sire a child with my wife” (85-86; Hall 2004: 127). Tim strongly implies that in 1972 he assumed Jones to be the father, but he also states unambiguously, “At no time did I discuss the matter with Grace” (86). In the preface (xx), he affirms that he believed Jones to be the father through November 1977 but by December of that year he “came to realize that I, in fact, was the biological father.” Apparently this remark refers to a “new belief” recounted later in Marked for Death: “I, not Jim Jones, was John Victor’s biological father – based on the bonding between us, and the fact that John would regularly leave Jones for me” (151). Beyond these observations, Mr. Stoen does not provide any additional evidence.

If John Victor’s legal parenthood is clear and his biological paternity remains murky, the child’s social relationships with Grace, Tim, and Jim Jones brought forth pitched conflicts. According to Tim, he and Grace raised the child until his second birthday, January 25, 1974, when the couple agreed to let him be raised communally with other Peoples Temple children (90). But with John Victor out of their household, Tim and Grace drifted apart. During the time following Grace’s December 1974 visit to Jonestown, Tim writes, she had become close with Walter Jones, the man who helped her defect from Peoples Temple in July 1976. Grace ended up marrying Walter in the 1980s, following her divorce from Tim in 1979 (91, 110, 125, 266).

Already by the time of Grace’s defection, in the wake of a June 1975 confrontation, Tim Stoen had become alienated from Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. The Temple leader had asked Stoen, “Are you not, like all other men, a homosexual?” to which the lawyer replied, “I am not.” Thereupon, Mr. Stoen sought to reframe his relationship: “I could still keep my paternity promise, and could still work for a utopian society, but from a friendly stance outside of Peoples Temple.” He considered the possibility of a “loyal exit” (114-15). Various efforts in this direction, however, proved unsuccessful. Notably, with the July 1976 defection of Grace, Tim asserts, “my plans to defect were ruined” (126), and he remained working closely with the Temple for almost a year thereafter.

According to Marked for Death, in the wake of her defection, after “getting her head together,” Grace intended to “return to get John” (125). The book also makes it abundantly clear that Tim cared deeply about his legal son. Nevertheless, remarks scattered across the book as well as other evidence suggest that Tim was conflicted about who should have custody over John Victor. In the fall of 1976, he signed a notarized power of attorney appointing Jim Jones and other Temple members “to take all steps, exercise all powers and rights, that I might do in connection with” John Victor (Hall 2004: 180-81), and he consented to the child “temporarily being sent to Guyana,” which he calls a “terrible decision” (127). Around late 1976, he was calculating the impact of his failure to bring John Victor back from Guyana if Grace filed for divorce (134).

Subsequently, in the spring of 1977, Tim Stoen had a fraught visit to Jonestown, interspersed with a journey that took him to the Caribbean and London, finally leaving Guyana again on June 12, without the boy (13-36, passim, 135; cf. Hall 2004: 199-201, 211-13). In the summer of 1977, he reports, “I wanted to stop Grace” from participating in the New West exposé of Peoples Temple, saying he believed that her “going public would ruin the possibility of a negotiated truce concerning the custody of John.” But Grace did participate in the exposé, and on the legal front, on July 13, 1977, her documents concerning custody of John Victor were served on Tim in Colorado, even though the boy was 3500 miles away in Jonestown (137). However, according to Tim’s account, he still believed Jim Jones to be the father, and “could not directly turn on Jones if I were to keep my promise to protect his paternal access to John” (138).

Acting independently of Tim, Grace sought, and on August 26, 1977, was granted, legal custody of John Victor by the San Francisco Superior Court of California, which subsequently ordered Jim Jones to “appear before this court” on November 18, 1977 (139-40). In the spring of 1977, under the sway of Jones in Guyana, Tim had drafted a statement declaring himself to be the legal father and raising questions about whether Grace was a fit mother, pointing out that she “ran off with another man” (Hall 2004: 203). By that fall, however, he had reversed field. On November 6, 1977, Grace told him (143-44) that she was being maligned as a mother, which led Tim to come to a momentous decision: “Instead of being a half-fledged enemy allowing Jones six months’ custody, I would have to become full-fledged and allow him no custody” (xx, 144).

The account of Marked for Death concerning John Victor Stoen’s paternity and the custody struggle elides many details already in the public record concerning Tim’s actions, but it brings the overall picture into stronger resolution on two fronts. In the first place, if the book’s scattered statements are true so far as they go, they leave open the question of biological paternity, and taken together, they suggest that Tim himself did not really know whether he was the biological father of John Victor. Certainly, he does not rule out the possibility that Grace had sexual relations with Jim Jones that might have resulted in a pregnancy. For years after the boy’s birth, he seems to have thought Jim Jones to be the father, and at various junctures, he refers to his “paternity promise” (1, 86, 138) to respect Jones’s rights as the biological father. Only in late 1977, after joining in Grace’s custody struggle, and on the basis of the child’s social interactions rather than any information from Grace or any biological evidence, does Tim assert that he came to believe he was John Victor’s father.

Second, Marked for Death seems to suggest, if only in sidelong remarks, that Tim initially regarded the issue of John Victor’s custody to be basically a matter for resolution between Grace and Jim Jones, with himself acting to negotiate an arrangement. This interpretation would seem congruent with his operational understanding through December 1977 that Jones was the biological father. These are only plausible inferences, of course, but if they are correct, they reinforce a narrative that shows the struggle between Peoples Temple and the Concerned Relatives to hinge in significant ways on Tim’s shift from ambivalent alliance with Peoples Temple to whole-hearted alliance with Grace and the Concerned Relatives. Yet try as I might to understand this shift, I do not find that Tim sheds much light on the sea change that he underwent in his commitments from the spring to the fall of 1977.

On a very different front, one issue receives quite detailed examination in the book. It concerns whether Tim Stoen somehow engaged in voter fraud in relation to the December 1975 election of the progressive candidate, George Moscone, as mayor of San Francisco, in a close runoff race over the conservative candidate, John Barbagelata. As is well known, Peoples Temple provided substantial help for getting out the Moscone vote on election day. Then, in October 1976, ten months after Moscone was elected, he appointed Jones to the commission overseeing the San Francisco Housing Authority. In December 1978, the month after the deaths in Jonestown, rumors, accusations, and news stories surfaced that Peoples Temple had engaged in voter fraud in Moscone’s election, perhaps with Stoen’s knowledge, and that Stoen had acted while serving in the San Francisco District Attorney’s voter fraud unit to cover up his own crime (249-51, 253-54, 259-61). On this matter, which concerns Stoen’s integrity as a lawyer, he met directly with John Barbagelata in 1987 and denied the accusations. Barbagelata accepted this denial (285-87), and indeed, two years later, engaged the services of Tim Stoen in legal matters (296). Yet for all that Tim Stoen refutes the charges against him, he offers little additional detail about what the Temple actually did in support of Moscone’s election.

Other events that might have been subjects for amplification of the record get even shorter shrift. Two major opportunities are passed over. First, toward the middle of the book, Tim Stoen reports almost in passing that, as chairman of the board of Peoples Temple in October 1973, he called a meeting of its seven members (himself, Jim Jones, Marceline Jones, Carolyn Moore Layton, Linda Sharon Amos, Archie Ijames, and Michael Prokes) to vote on a resolution about establishing a Temple mission in Guyana (101). Yet Stoen does not go into any detail concerning the memo he drew up prior to the board’s meeting for “’immediate action’ contingency plans” and “suggested long-range plans” concerning Peoples Temple’s potential departure from the U.S. (Hall 2004: 132-33). Indeed, Marked for Death is notably silent on Stoen’s actions as part of the leadership of Peoples Temple and in Jonestown (Hall, 2004: 89-103 passim, 198-201), not even relating when, how, and why he became chairman of its board. It also remains mute concerning the Temple leadership’s sense of its tax crisis, indeed, finessing the issue of whether Temple assets that Stoen helped to transfer to overseas bank accounts were subject to taxation, despite Temple leadership concerns at the time (118-20; cf. Hall, 2004: 197-98). Thus, those interested in understanding how Peoples Temple operated may be disappointed that someone with as detailed knowledge as any living person has passed on this opportunity to deepen the historical record.

Second, much the same could be said about the period after Tim Stoen threw in his lot with the Concerned Relatives. For these events, Stoen does note a series of already well-known key dates. He alludes to the crisis in Jonestown in September 1977, following the efforts of Grace Stoen’s attorney Jeffrey Haas to serve Jim Jones with an arrest order there; he describes his own, Grace’s, and Haas’s lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. in January 1978; and he identifies various lawsuits he filed on behalf of the Concerned Relatives seeking for Peoples Temple to pay damages in the tens of millions of dollars. He also suggests that he continued to want to mediate a solution, implicitly proposing to Jim Jones some sort of “exchange,” having another person quote him in a declaration to the effect that once Jones returned John Victor, Tim would “get off his back” (211-13). Stoen usefully documents how much Jones felt the pressure of the lawsuits, and he also shows that the leadership at Jonestown was concerned about how much the Guyanese government would tolerate Jonestown in the face of criticism coming from the U.S. (208, 211, 221, 227). Clearly, the plan to re-migrate from Jonestown to the Soviet Union – a plan that emerged after the issuance of the September 1977 arrest order for Jones – was itself precipitated by the various pressures being exerted by the Concerned Relatives (cf. Hall 2004: 218).

As evidenced by the book’s subtitle – My War with Jim Jones the Devil of Jonestown – Tim Stoen and the Concerned Relatives did not simply have a series of grievances for which they sought redress; they really saw themselves in a “war,” a view that Jones himself shared (193). Despite the pressure that Jones and his leadership group felt, they did not yield, and the Concerned Relatives became intensely frustrated that their various strategies failed to bring results. Already during his January 1978 visit to the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, Mr. Stoen was threatening that he would get “arrested as a political prisoner.” He strongly asserts that international law would have required Guyana to accept the custody order of the San Francisco Court. He clearly did not trust the legal process in Guyana, arguing that the Guyanese courts were biased in the custody struggle toward Jim Jones and pressured by members of Peoples Temple and perhaps by Guyana government officials. Stoen does not explicitly deny that his own side pressured the court too, instead deflecting the issue of possible influence by supporters by remarking, “as if we had any” (180-81; cf. Hall 2004: 218-19).

Stoen’s greatest disdain is reserved for the U.S. State Department for failing to take his side in the custody dispute (186-88). He calls the department “obdurate in its position promoting the status quo at Jonestown” (225), this despite various even-handed actions by the State Department as well as the U.S. Embassy, expression of concern in September 1977 about interference by Guyanese authorities (Hall 2004: 219). Unwilling to await the outcome of a seemingly endless legal process in Guyana, the month before Congressman Ryan’s ill-fated November 1978 expedition, Stoen told a State Department official that he might resort to extra-legal means for getting John Victor out of Jonestown, threatening to go in “with force” and “with mercenaries,” and asserting in a telegram to Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s office that he would retrieve the child “by any means necessary” (225-26).

The “war” escalated as each side took actions by the other side as a basis for its own stronger action. The most chilling threat came in a March 14, 1978, Temple letter to members of the U.S. Congress affirming “that it is better to die than to be constantly harassed from one continent to the next” (194). Stoen’s response? “I took it at face value”: “Now, it was John Victor’s life. This, therefore, would require a comprehensive attack: one calculated to force Jones to release John if he wanted to save both U.S. properties and Jonestown itself” (194). These statements show how both sides had come to connect custody with the very survival of Jonestown as a community.

Consulting with psychics in Los Angeles during the summer of 1978, Tim held out hope that John Victor would return to the U.S., but he concluded that one psychic’s predictions lacked validity. “So there was no alternative but to keep on, as before, with the trench warfare against Jones” (215). In a court declaration of October 3, 1978, he affirmed, “I do not wish Jim Jones or Peoples Temple destroyed. What I want … is the return of my beloved son, John Victor Stoen” (216, ellipsis in original).

Overall, Stoen himself seems to see the survival of Jonestown linked to custody of John Victor, but not to mass suicide, the threat of which only led him to redouble his efforts. Yet despite hints that Stoen regarded the tradeoff as one in which winning the custody struggle was equated with saving Jonestown, Marked for Death does not detail what Stoen envisioned if he and Grace did not win custody. Instead, reflecting later on the murders and mass suicide, Stoen makes the claim that “Jim Jones was planning to orchestrate the suicides at least since that March 14, 1978, letter to Congress – no matter what” (253).

In my view, this statement calls for counterfactual analysis. For Stoen to argue that the mass suicide was inevitable is to take the view that the actions of the Concerned Relatives – what he describes as war – had no effect on decisions taken by Jim Jones, his leadership, and those among residents of Jonestown who backed him. Yet his own account affirms that actions taken by Jones and his associates affected what Stoen and other The Concerned Relatives did themselves. Why there would be asymmetric effects of action rather than an interactive process is not clear.

Counterfactual analysis is tricky. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh 2000: 38-42), we have enough specific information, coupled with general understandings of apocalyptic religious movements, to come to a basic conclusion: the murders and mass suicide were triggered by Leo Ryan’s expedition to Jonestown, and they are extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of the protracted conflict between the Concerned Relatives and Jim Jones and his followers. As I wrote, “the opponents’ own actions helped to precipitate a course of events that presumably led to the fulfillment of their own worst fears” (Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh 2000: 42). I stand by that analysis. To put it in Mr. Stoen’s terms, Jim Jones was a devil, but even the Devil takes opportunities as they present themselves. Stoen acknowledges as much, wondering in a December 1978 diary entry, “Did I push Jones too hard on JOHN?” (246).

Marked for Death paints a picture of a relentless and escalating campaign against Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. But I cannot help but think that Tim Stoen knows much more about the efforts of the Concerned Relatives than he describes, and it would be a great service to historians and the general public if he would say more about what the relationships of various participants in the Concerned Relatives were to the broader anti-cult movement, how they developed specific strategies, and how they coordinated with government agencies, Congressman Ryan, and the journalists who undertook the expedition to Jonestown. For example, in Marked for Death, Stoen first mentions Leo Ryan in the context of his and Grace Stoen’s visit to Washington, D.C. in January 1978 (185), whereas already in December 1977, Congressman Ryan had written a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State requesting that the State Department “investigate what action might be taken” in relation to Jim Jones “to obtain his presence here in this country before courts which may wish to question him” (Hall 2004: 220). It would have been helpful to have much more detail about how the connection between Congressman Ryan and participants in the Concerned Relatives developed.

Mr. Stoen has a “backstage” understanding of his own and the Concerned Relatives’ strategies. But somehow we never learn what they expected to be the results of their various actions. Even on November 17, 1978, as Congressman Ryan, a representative group of the Concerned Relatives, and the journalists left Georgetown to go the airport en route to Jonestown, Tim Stoen and two other Concerned Relatives met with the deputy commissioner of police and belatedly requested “armed police” to make the trip with them: “There is going to be bloodshed. Lives will be lost if you do not help” (234). If this was indeed their understanding, it begs the question of whether and how they had anticipated that possibility and how exactly they expected to avoid it. This seems a far cry from a congressional fact-finding mission.

In the years since Jonestown, there have been a number of confrontations between apocalyptic religious and political movements and representatives of the established social order. Some, like the Branch Davidian standoff, ended disastrously. In other cases, such as the recent incident at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, violence was minimized. Unfortunately, the conflict between Peoples Temple and the Concerned Relatives came at a time when such face-offs were virtually unprecedented in the contemporary historical era. In the future, we can only hope, such episodes will be handled very differently and with the strong engagement of professionals steeped in knowledge about strategic interaction and conflict mediation. Lessons have been learned from Jonestown and subsequent debacles, unfortunately, at great cost.

Toward the end of Marked for Death, Tim Stoen quotes Rebecca Moore, who became a religious studies scholar after her two sisters died in Jonestown: “‘The fight between Jim Jones and disillusioned ex-member Tim Stoen,’ she wrote, ‘was not over the custody of a child,’ but ‘was, instead, a power struggle between two men and two ideologies’.” Stoen labels Moore’s statement as an attack that is “untrue,” and insists that his fight came out of “love” (252). For my part, I do not question Mr. Stoen’s love for John Victor (and indeed, his frustrated and mercurial love relationship with Grace, which surfaces frequently in his memoir). Yet Marked for Death provides a good deal of evidence about the larger context of Mr. Stoen’s struggle that is the subject of Professor Moore’s statement.

Stoen clearly and at multiple junctures found himself torn between conflicting commitments. He was the product of a bourgeois Christian family; he had a Stanford law degree and the legitimacy and professional connections that come with it; he fancied driving a Porsche and buying clothes at San Francisco’s upscale Cable Car Clothiers (“San Francisco’s British goods store since 1939”); he enjoyed getting together on his brother’s 65’ yacht; he was at ease with world travel by jet, at one point hopping over to Paris to chill out in a sister-in-law’s brother’s apartment (137); and he describes how, in the years he was associated with People Temple, he longed for and sought out greater engagement with the arts. In the aftermath of the Jonestown debacle, he worked for a while as the attorney for his brothers, entrepreneurs seeking to develop oil production in the South Pacific and elsewhere (266). And in the early 1980s, his brother Tom tried to buy him a property in the elite Sea Ranch community on the coast of northern California, commenting, “I just wanted the former chairman of the Peoples Temple to be living in the home of the former chairman of the Bank of America” (270-71). It is difficult for me to imagine Mr. Stoen’s family as anything other than very solid supporters of the (at least pre-Trump) Republican Party.

Yet Tim Stoen was also a product of ‘60s California, steeped in the events of the Civil Rights and Peace movements and the broader countercultural currents of the day. He became aware of poverty, perhaps building a bridge from his evangelical Christian roots through the radically egalitarian Puritan movements of sixteenth-century England to issues of social inequality and racial justice in the United States (44, 52, 59). Gradually, he nurtured a concern for helping the poor and the racially oppressed. For a while he did legal work for the Black Panther Party, no doubt cutting something of a jarring figure, wearing a pinstriped suit and sporting a leather Brooks Brothers briefcase. Drawn to the good life, he nevertheless experienced “cognitive dissonance,” sold his Porsche, and eventually gravitated increasingly into the fold of Peoples Temple (52ff., 61, 77).

The more Tim Stoen became involved with Peoples Temple, the more he really operated within two worlds, each with its own ethos, its own sense of honor, its own rules of the game. From the outset, when he was beginning his job as the Mendocino County assistant district attorney, Stoen was clear about the duality of his identity: “As much as I was taken by the Temple and was willing to take heat for identifying with it, I had no willingness to sacrifice my career for it” (74). He reminds me a bit of a member of Heaven’s Gate who held kept his piano-tuning tools in the trunk of his car in case he should need them back in the wider world (Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh 2000: 165). Stoen always kept one foot firmly planted outside Peoples Temple. Among his greatest anxieties, it seems, was the possibility that he really would become completely enveloped within Peoples Temple. When Jones confronted Stoen over the discovery of his private bank account, he recounts his response, “‘I don’t want,’ came the cliché, ‘all my eggs in one basket’” (1, 17).

In effect, the personal conflict between Tim Stoen and Jim Jones over custody of John Victor Stoen mapped onto a larger matrix of deep cultural differences that separate the ethos of the nuclear family as an institution from the ethos of Peoples Temple as a communal society, between U.S. laws concerning paternity within marriage and Tim Stoen’s “paternity promise” acknowledging Jim Jones as the biological father of John Victor Stoen, and between the conventional ideology of parenting in U.S. society and the communal ideology of parenting in Peoples Temple. Already by the time Grace defected without her child in 1976, John Victor had been raised communally longer than he had been raised by her and her husband. Tim’s view of how the boy should be raised and by whom shifted over the years: first when Grace and he allowed the boy to be raised communally and themselves drifted apart in 1974; later when Grace – having left the Temple – sought custody and Tim pursued an arrangement that would split custody between her and Jones; and finally, when he and Grace joined forces against Jim Jones in pursuit of custody as the legal parents under U.S. law. This struggle aligned with, and became central to, the wider struggle of the Concerned Relatives against Peoples Temple – a struggle that not only concerned custody of children who were minors, but also issues of non-Temple family members’ relationships with their adult relatives at Jonestown, the thorny claims of “brainwashing” versus self-determination, and questions concerning private versus communal property. John Victor Stoen’s fate became enveloped within the broader “war” between the Concerned Relatives and Peoples Temple. And that struggle itself took inspiration from the broader anti-cult movement of its day.

The story of Peoples Temple and the Concerned Relatives is simultaneously one of immense personal tragedy and of radically opposed and asymmetric constructions of social reality – one, firmly within the established social order, the other, apocalyptically framed in radical opposition to it. From the vantage point of the Concerned Relatives, as they repeatedly stated, Peoples Temple seemed beyond the reach of law, beyond public accountability, despite their efforts to raise the alarm with the media and a variety of government agencies. On the other side, Jones and his followers at Jonestown understood the fragility of their own collective existence: they had little reason to expect any support beyond their own milieu, even from their allies in the government of Guyana, much less the U.S. government and media. The result was an apocalyptic “war” that everyone lost.

By the end of Marked for Death, I did not find that I understood Tim Stoen in a much deeper way, just that I knew more about the events of his life that formed him. Stoen carefully traces a variety of emotional moments in the twists and turns of his fraught relationship with Grace, which he characterizes as an “addiction” (263), a series of other romantic relationships, and especially, his times with young John Victor Stoen. But he has somehow managed to write a rather impersonal, emotionally flat account about highly personal and obviously emotional matters. Exactly in this way, Marked for Death offers an oddly revealing portrait of a man who does not seem to have changed a great deal over the years, even if his commitments have.

Reading his book, I am struck that Tim Stoen approximates what Eric Hoffer called a “true believer,” but one who vacillated about what and whom he believed. At least in his account, Stoen’s commitments could dramatically shift on the basis of what book he read, whom he met, what someone said to him. In his writing and his description of his life, Stoen displays simplicity, naiveté, gullibility, awe of charisma, and quest for authoritative guidance – whether from philosophical and religious texts or from a father figure. He leaps from thin reeds of logic to big conclusions, quoting philosophers and the Bible, setting off to read new books that reveal new truths to him, checking in with Hollywood psychics, and trafficking in everything from evangelical Christianity to the Black Power ideology of the Black Panther Party, Peoples Temple’s politically communistic communalism, Jungian psychology, and the embrace of a Presbyterian church. Anyone who has ever felt the powerful appeal of a radical political movement or a charismatic leader must recognize that the reality constructed in countercultural milieux can be all-encompassing to the point where exiting can be fraught with challenges: politics, social commitments, self-interest, law, ethics, and personal relationships pull in multiple directions at once. Marked for Death offers up the tragic story of how one person failed miserably in his efforts to navigate these rough waters and found his redemption in Christ.

References

Hall, John R. 2004 (1987). Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History, 2nd ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 2004.

Hall, John R., Philip D. Schuyler, and Sylvaine Trinh. 2000. Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe, and Japan. London: Routledge.

(John R. Hall, author of Gone from the Promised Land, is a Research Professor of Sociology, University of California – Davis. He may be reached at jrhall@ucdavis.edu.)

Last modified on May 23rd, 2017.
Skip to main content