By the spring of 1978, a number of outside forces were combining to precipitate crisis conditions within Jonestown. These included: the pressures – by then, six months in duration – created by the child custody battle over John Victor Stoen; the ongoing US federal government’s threats to the community’s finances, communications and supplies; and the petition of the Concerned Relatives brought with elaborate fanfare against Jim Jones in mid-April. If there is a watershed moment that spring, however, from which Jonestown’s descent became precipitous and likely irreversible, it would have been May 13.
That was the day the Jonestown community learned of the defection of longtime trusted aide, financial secretary and confidante Debbie Layton Blakey. While perhaps not quite rivaling the departure of Tim Stoen nine months earlier – which itself was drawn out over several months when people didn’t know where Stoen was – the Blakey defection was a significant betrayal of the Temple: she had been in on many of the leadership planning sessions for Jonestown, she knew of the Temple’s contacts with foreign governments, and she knew where many of the foreign bank accounts were.
May 13 was also Jim Jones’ 47th birthday.
The White Night that was held that night in Jonestown ended up being more than a community meeting during which Jones poured out expressions of anger and self-pity in equal measure. It was also a time that everyone in the community was asked to express their loyalty to the cause and their leader, expressions that were put in writing.
The documents to emerge from the meeting comprises a typed summary of people’s remarks extending over 114 pages, which itself was a compilation of hundreds of pages of handwritten – sometimes illegible – notes. In addition, on several occasions, the text notes that a page or a continuation of remarks is missing. The notes apparently responded to a specific list of questions, since the replies follow the subjects under discussion in roughly the same order, but – aside from one or two replies that write out some of those questions – copies of this list have not been located either.
These transcriptions were made a significant time later – there are several references to July – and, given the document’s several different formats, on different occasions. Jann Gurvich is the only identified typist (her name appears several times), although there may have been others.
The questions people answered were variations on how 18-year-old Chuckie Henderson began his answer:
- Is Father an atheist;
- Does Father believe the mind goes on after death;
- Does Father believe in healing power;
- what did Father say about his birthday and why did he say it;
- what did he say about knowing himself and what he said to John Victor Stoen;
- What part of Jim Jones’ character – is it pro-Soviet and Chinese;
- Is there any better communist than Dad;
- What are the high points of Dad’s character;
- What did Dick Tropp say about his own intellectualism and elitism?
There is some evidence to suggest that the leadership not only catalogued the responses, it identified those who didn’t reply immediately, and gave them a second opportunity to fulfill the assignment. This is reflected in the fact that the answers in the last 30 pages of the second document below are substantially shorter and less detailed, with some subjects skipped altogether.
It should be noted that the Blakey defection coincided with the visit of John and Barbara Moore – the parents of two women in the Jonestown leadership – to the community. On November 26, 1978 – six months after their visit, and at the end of the first week after the deaths – John Moore preached a sermon that made the first attempt to humanize the people who had died in Jonestown. In it, he confesses that he had seen more idolatry of Jones during that visit than he ever had seen in the US. Nevertheless, neither of the two visitors were in attendance during, or even aware of, the White Night of May 13, 1978.