Part I: The New Memorial
On November 21, 2010, I received notification that a new Jonestown memorial would be dedicated at Evergreen Cemetery within the next year, and certainly no later than November 18, 2011. Fielding McGehee let me know that a new fundraising drive would soon begin to pay for the memorial over thirty years delayed. The names of victims of Jonestown would finally, and literally, be set in stone.
There had been a “memorial” of sorts at the Oakland cemetery for most of that time. A lonely tombstone marked the grave for the hundreds of unidentified and unclaimed bodies – most of them children – on that sunny Oakland hillside overlooking the San Francisco Bay. This was simply not enough. The people that are buried there are not, nor have they ever been, unknown, but you would never know that from the marker. Friends and relatives know who of their loved ones are buried there. It was time for the un-named victims of Jonestown to receive a proper memorial. It was also time to say their names without the shame of history haunting them.
Having read more than thirty books on the subject of Jonestown – half of which remain in my library – and innumerable press accounts of the tragedy, I was no stranger to the people and the events in Jonestown. I was, however, a stranger to most of the members of Peoples Temple. I cannot even claim they have heard of my work. I was an unknown entity feeding off the story that captivates some of us and makes us delve into the darker side of humanity.
My six-year research project pushed me toward the American military involvement in the cleanup of Jonestown and even deeper into an obscure debate over the ownership of the Jonestown tractor used during the assassination of Congressman Ryan. Therefore, when I was asked in April to attend the unveiling of a completed memorial in May of this year, I had mixed feelings. I would be an outsider looking in, but not from afar. This was indeed personal. A historian should maintain a sense of objectivity, and this would threaten any attempt at remaining objective. That impartiality would soon be completely destroyed as I learned that a competing group was trying to abrogate the new memorial through legal action.
Legal action, as it turned out, was from another party whose actions over the last thirty years could be described as acquisitive and ambivalent. The competing group also claimed to represent the victims of Jonestown, including multiple family members buried on that sunny Oakland hillside. The stated goal was the same: honor those who have been forgotten by all but a few. The status of monies collected for this alternate memorial never achieved escape velocity. The campaign was terminally grounded while absorbing funds from the community for an endgame that never materialized. The farce, however, was only truly exposed when the new memorial fund achieved its financial goals within three weeks of launch. The perceived insult of fully funding another memorial in three weeks, while the earlier drive had languished for decades, prompted a gratuitous lawsuit against the cemetery embracing the new memorial. We can only surmise as to the true motives that would lead one to sue a group with the same goals once those goals were met. Would, for example, another non-profit sue a competing group if its goal were to feed the hungry or clothe the poor? Sadly, a combined and unified effort could have produced the desired results much sooner, although that would have required the slaughter of a sacred cash cow. Such a concession was not forthcoming.
The lawsuit claimed that Jim Jones’ name on the memorial was an affront to victims; or at least this was an issued raised publicly. This was an issue that I too had a concern, and I felt it should have been discussed, but not litigated. Jim Jones’ name on the memorial became, in my mind, a feint. As such, the lawsuit pushing for the inchoate memorial lost all credibility. Jim Jones also died in Jonestown, yet the claim that his name was akin to honoring Hitler along the victims of the Holocaust. This claim played to a logical fallacy commonly found on the internet known as Godwin’s Law, which states that any online discussion, given enough time, will degrade to the point where the other side is compared to Hitler. The “debate” regarding the inclusion of Jim Jones’ name appearing on the memorial plaque started at Godwin’s Law. In part, this also told me that the lawsuit’s case was vacuous. If the lawsuit had any merit, then it could have stood on the facts presented, contracts written, and/or the prior agreements made with all parties involved. Jim Jones’ name was a decision based on inclusion for historical comprehensiveness, and not one of praise. The lawsuit, it seemed, was not about Jones’; it was about money. In my mind, the plaintiffs lost the case 10 years after they failed to garner enough capital to pay for the memorial.
At this point, I had already made plans to attend the service, but I still felt a slight bit on consternation. “Who was I to meddle in the affairs of the survivors?” I thought. As it turns out, I was a perfect example of why the memorial should proceed. In mid-May, I was asked to write a letter for the defendants to present my point of view and to argue for the new memorial. No coaxing was necessary. I argued that it should be allowed to proceed in the face of a legal challenge because it was – for lack of a better term – overdue. How long should the survivors of any tragedy be asked to wait to memorialize their loved ones?
The court case was decided in favor of the defendants – the cemetery that had contracted with the backers of the new memorial – within days of the dedication and within hours of my flight out to California. Combined with the assiduous efforts of John Cobb, Jim Jones, Jr. and Fielding McGehee, the letters had ensured the campaign’s success. It should not go unstated that by this point, the nascent memorial was already in place.
Part II: California
My trip to California lay just ahead of me. I left the East Coast during the early morning hours of Thursday, May 26, with a copy of Laura Kohl’s new book, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look, in hand. With a single layover in Denver, I landed in Oakland by two in the afternoon. The next two days were spent exploring the cities of San Francisco and Oakland. I even had time to catch up with an old Navy friend from my days aboard a fast attack submarine. By Saturday night, I was able to catch up with several other researchers who also write for the jonestown report. It is an understatement to say that our conversation was light. Nowhere else could a group of unrelated and varied people have such a fantastic discussion about such an unusual topic without fear of being labeled “odd.”
The following morning we headed out to the cemetery in Oakland for the service. Arriving an hour early, we watched as the former members of Peoples Temple arrived. The rumors of a protest by the competing memorial group never materialized. Two police officers stood by as the crowd gathered, presumably as a precaution against any disruptions before or during the service. Walking past the main building of Evergreen Cemetery, I noticed Laura Kohl standing near a small table on the grassy expanse overlooking the memorial. The table contained copies of the jonestown report, a Service Dedication booklet, and a single photograph of the new memorial. Considering the occasion, and the location, Laura was as welcoming and as friendly as one could imagine.
My voyeuristic feelings soon gave way to a cathartic sense of relief. The ceremony was beautifully run and many thanks need to go to Ron Haulman of Evergreen Cemetery for all of his labors in creating a successful memorial. After the memorial service, everyone headed to the home of Jordan Vilchez for an after party where good food and conversation was in abundance. Again, I was able to meet up with Laura Kohl who graciously answered many of questions, even as she pulled on my heartstrings in telling me about her lost friends from Peoples Temple and her life. I am eternally grateful for her honesty and candor. As the evening took hold, the air cooled over Oakland and the efforts of so many had finally been rewarded, it was time to say goodbye.
In hindsight, I think the memorial symbolized true closure and a chance to live outside the shadow of Jonestown. There will always be an indelible mark upon those who were there for the rise and fall of Peoples Temple, but there will also be mark on those who stepped too close to the story, which after all, is a human story. If nothing else, the memorial brings home a tragedy that occurred in a distant land, in a distant time. Nevertheless, there is one caveat to the tragedy: Jonestown is no longer immutable. I witnessed a change in what I understood to be “Jonestown,” a change I can only describe as a shift from mass murder to a death in a family. The loss is no less horrendous, only it is much more personal. As varied and as different as they are, the members of Peoples Temple are one family, and the measure of the loss in that family is what I witnessed during the ceremony. Now, after 32 years, the surviving family can say goodbye.
(Chris Knight-Griffin is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other article in this edition is Government Stalls on Request for Military Records. His previous writings are collected here. He may be reached at email@example.com.)