Ezra Schacht: A Remembrance

Ezra Schacht, the father of Jonestown’s doctor Larry Schacht, was killed in an automobile accident in Texas on June 18, 2010. He was 91.

From the earliest days after Jonestown, Ezra Schacht was at the forefront in efforts to demand accountability and information from the U.S. government on what happened in Jonestown. As did two other families whose children died in Jonestown, he requested that the government conduct an autopsy on his son. His personal investigation into the possible roles of U.S. government agencies into the tragedy led to the creation of a triptych display, showing timelines of the development of Jonestown and the involvement  – he would say “interference” – of those agencies in Guyana’s government. The triptych eventually made its way to the California Historical Society, where – if it is considered at all – it is viewed as a curiosity, perhaps even a source of amusement. We didn’t agree with all the parallels that Ezra drew between CIA presence in Guyana and the arrival of Peoples Temple there, but we tried to honor it for what it was: one man’s solitary effort to make sense of the nonsensical, to come to grips with a child’s death, to find something that would help another parent to avert what happened to his son.

That same motivation led him to spearhead his next crusade, to collect documents and information from the government that might show what really happened on November 18, 1978. He also thought the effort to petition various governmental bodies – Congress, the FBI, the CIA, etc (and there was a lot of “etc.”) – would be more effective if it were backed by an organization made up of other relatives of the Jonestown dead, Peoples Temple survivors, former members and critics. It would be hard for anyone in Washington to dismiss such a coalition, he argued. It would also start the process of bringing those branches of the larger Temple community back together, to try to understand each other.

He called it The Committee for Justice on Jonestown. He proposed it to us when he came to visit us on several occasions in the 1980s when we were living in Bozeman, Montana. We saw the value of such a group, and volunteered to help. We still have a few sheets of the stationary we printed for the campaign.

It was a failure in some respects. We sent out a score of invitations for folks to get on board, and received no replies. Like other things Ezra did, the proposal for the organization was impetuous, impatient, premature. Emotions were still too raw, divisions still too wide, ownership of narratives still too-deeply felt. Nevertheless, we learned a lot from the effort, and in many ways, there is a direct connection from that ill-fated venture and the launching of this website 15 years later. It was an idea whose idea had finally come.

We remember Ezra’s seafarer’s cap, his overcoat (did we still call them car coats back then?), and his kind and gentle ways. We recall his generosity too. We were pretty broke back then, and he took us out to eat several times during his stay in Bozeman. We have a vivid memory of eating a sumptuous dinner at the Black Angus. It was the first time we had ever eaten a “mud pie,” now a staple of most high-end restaurants.

We know that Ezra deeply grieved over the death of his son Larry, and the idea of justice for Jonestown was always aimed at achieving some measure of resolution and reconciliation for the tragedy that occurred there. There were so many questions and issues that remained unresolved at the time, and remain so today. Ezra’s attempt to pursue a measure of justice for those who died in Jonestown remains unfulfilled, but is nevertheless a measure of his compassion and concern for those who are weak and vulnerable.