Letter from Barry Isaacson

Dear Mr. Haulman,

When Fielding McGehee informed me of the current state of affairs regarding the Jonestown Memorial, I accepted his invitation to contribute a personal statement with enthusiasm, as my involvement with the community of survivors, families and scholars associated with Peoples Temple has been nothing but a positive one.

It all started when I discovered a briefcase containing letters from a member of the Jonestown community in the basement of my house in Los Angeles.  Like many people, I knew something about the macabre elements of this famous tragedy, but only though researching the subject did I learn of the enormous cultural significance of the event and the timely lessons it can teach us about tolerance, racial equality and the importance of idealism in a materialistic world.

The specific significance of a memorial to the dead of Jonestown is worth emphasizing, I think, for the following reason:  Such was the stigma attached to the mass murder/suicides, so powerful was the reaction against what America saw as a deviant act committed by an outlaw group, that the humane resonances of the phenomenon, which were, and remain, tremendously valuable, were buried in the rush to ostracize both the dead and their families.

Only by giving the dead of Jonestown an appropriate and dignified memorial can we erase the stigma and enable a discussion of the cultural, social and religious importance of this group and what it stood for to be removed from under the shadow of that stigma.  Of course the actions taken at Jonestown were misguided on an almost cosmic scale, but the scale of the subsequent, willful misunderstanding of the idealism that underpinned this community’s passion for a humane cause is equally great, and almost as misguided, for it prevents us from understanding what this attempt to forge a better society than that which existed for most Americans at the time, especially those of color, can teach us today.

Regardless of the need for a memorial to erase the stigmatization of Peoples Temple, the denial of it reflects badly on the rest of us by perpetuating what is essentially a grudge that needs to be laid to rest to the benefit of all people.

Finally, it is time that the families of those who died be able to mourn in an atmosphere that promotes respect for the dead and the rehabilitation of both their souls and their reputations.  Surely this is what any civilized society grants to the bereaved in all circumstances and with no exceptions that I can think of, apart from this one…until now.

Thank you for all your efforts to put right a great historical wrong.

Yours,

Barry Isaacson

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 9th, 2013.
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