H.J. Jones’ Jonestown: An American Family Tragedy is the kind of book that I have been wanting for quite some time. Rather than being the typical book about Jonestown that rehashes Jim Jones’ life and the rise and fall of Peoples Temple, this book is primarily a glimpse into one family’s story of losing loved ones at Jonestown. (Note that in this review, I will refer to the author as H.J. to differentiate her from Jim Jones, to whom H.J. is not related.)
The author is an older sister of Mary Beth Wotherspoon (known as Mary, Sr. within the Temple). As a young adult, Mary was a political and social activist. She met Peter Wotherspoon in Chicago, protesting at the historical Democratic National Convention in August of 1968. In a whirlwind of life changes, Mary and Peter moved to California, got married, brought their daughter, Mary Margaret Wotherspoon (aka, Mary, Jr.), into the world, and joined Peoples Temple.
But H.J. starts earlier in their lives and provides the reader with a family history, beginning with her parents who were Dutch immigrants. While there were six children in the family, much of the narrative is devoted to the stories of H.J. and Mary, the fourth and fifth children in the sequence. I won’t reveal many details of the family in this review, as this new information is exactly the reason why people should be reading the book. Suffice it to say that there were hardships along the way, and this background information is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, these are the kind of experiences that many people endure, so it makes Mary and H.J.’s lives very relatable to others. While their hardships are uniquely their own, we can nonetheless empathize. Additionally, one cannot help but wonder if these early experiences influenced Mary in a way that would make her more likely to join Peoples Temple.
There is, of course, a recounting of Temple history, along with life and death in Jonestown. Anyone reading this review is likely well familiar with much of this information, including details of the events surrounding November 18, 1978. However, some background details are critical, should someone completely unfamiliar with the tragedy pick up the book. H.J. recognizes both the good and the bad deeds of the Temple, although the bad clearly outweighs the good in H.J.’s mind. I can see why that’s the case.
I had a couple of moments of concern regarding a statement—made in more than one place in the book—that Mary told H.J. about “White Nights”. This is information that Mary purportedly shared when H.J. was visiting Mary, Peter, and Mary Jr. This is a departure from the traditional understanding about the Temple, in that all other reports about “White Nights” locate those experiences specifically in Jonestown and not California. (The event that comes the closest in the U.S. was the “poisoned wine” incident that took place during a Planning Commission meeting on a New Year’s Eve, but this was not a true “White Night” as they occurred in Jonestown.) If you get this far into H.J.’s narrative and are taken aback by the statement, don’t give up on her book over this inconsistency: she is fully aware that her statement is at odds with what is considered established knowledge. She addresses this issue towards the end of the book, providing explanation for her inclusion of this detail. While I am not convinced that Mary divulged “White Night” information to her sister, I respect H.J. for being forthright about the inconsistency, rather than leaving the reader to wonder about this and perhaps even question H.J.’s knowledge and credibility on the subject. This was the only piece of information in the book that gave me pause.
Unsurprisingly, H.J. provides markedly less information about Peter and Mary Jr. compared to Mary Sr. Because the Wotherspoons lived in California and H.J. in the Midwest, she only interacted with Peter and Mary Jr. on occasional visits. Nonetheless, you will likely learn a bit more about Peter from reading this book than you knew previously.
I may be predisposed to like H.J.’s book because it was the people of the Temple who drew me into studying Jonestown in the first place. In many ways, the lives of hundreds of people have been overshadowed by Jim Jones’ life and death—and yet these hundreds of people were a part of his life and death. I’ve often wondered how individuals within the Temple managed to find themselves there. We have histories from several Temple survivors, but it’s rare that non-Temple family members to step into the light and tell their stories. Thus, I appreciated reading about what Mary was like in her youth and early adulthood.
Ultimately, the book represents H.J.’s reckoning with her family members’ deaths at Jonestown, as one of the later chapters provides her assessment of why Peoples Temple would have appealed to her sister, given Mary’s childhood experiences. I had spent time reflecting on Mary’s early life only to get towards the end of the book and find the author thinking along with me. I imagine that all family members of Jonestown’s victims grapple with how and why the deaths occurred; as humans, we try to make sense of what otherwise seems senseless to process what happened. In this book, we are given H.J.’s understanding of the tragedy. I find this perspective to be valuable.
I think an important message from H.J. is captured in a quote from page 4: “Tragedies don’t end.” The tragedy never ended for Temple survivors, but it also never ended for the loved ones of those who perished. Moreover, on a larger scale, there are many people drawn to the Jonestown story because they are shaken by the tragedy; this interest in Jonestown gets renewed in younger generations as they learn about Peoples Temple. Truly, this tragedy never ends. Our job is to learn from the tragedy and honor those lost. This book teaches about three specific individuals lost. I would encourage those interested in learning more about Jonestown to read H.J.’s book.
I want to commend the author for writing this story. It took H.J. decades to get to the point of sharing it. Besides the emotional anguish from losing Mary Sr., Mary Jr., and Peter, it has taken a long time to really process what happened and to come to an understanding of how and why Jonestown unfolded. The author seems almost apologetic about how long it took to produce the book. I think the delay is understandable. Given the complexity of the tragedy, the magnitude of the loss, and the stigma attached to Jonestown, it shouldn’t surprise us that family members of those lost have remained silent.
Finally, I want to thank H.J. for the book: it provided me insight into some of the individuals lost at Jonestown who would otherwise seem all but anonymous. I feel like I got to know Mary because of the book. I hope other people who lost family members or friends will consider telling their stories to add to the body of knowledge about the Temple and Jonestown. At this point, we aren’t going to learn much (if any) new information about Jim Jones. There are hundreds of people whose names are known but whose stories remain untold. Telling their stories humanizes them. When it comes to a book like Jonestown: An American Family Tragedy I say, more of this, please.
(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and is a regular contributor to this website. Her complete collection of articles is here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)