Navigating the Shoals of a Jonestown Story

Controversy accompanies many attempts, particularly by outsiders, to write about Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and an article I wrote for the LA Weekly was no exception. Precious few witnesses to the final apocalypse in Guyana remain, and many differing – often incompatible – points of view among historians, survivors, defectors and relatives have to be reconciled. Or not! Family members, still baffled and sometimes defensive about their long-dead relatives’ involvement with this infamous “cult,” resented certain implications they found in my article that cast their kinsfolk in an unflattering light. I am deeply sorry to have added to the burden of grief borne by these families for thirty years, but this issue goes to the very heart of any attempt to revisit Jonestown in order to counter the overwhelming impression, created in the media, that the victims were dupes or fools, placidly led to their deaths by a madman. If we are to restore to these people their dignity, their humanity and their moral agency, we must begin by acknowledging the role of personal responsibility in what transpired. A humane approach to the victims of Jonestown has to allow for the existence of individual free will, as this enables these individuals to be considered as something other – something more – than victims. At the same time, I may not have succeeded in convincing relatives of Phyllis Chaikin that the passionate, articulate, chilling letter she wrote to Jones advocating “assisted” suicide on a mass scale was as likely to have been the product of free will as an example of his coercion. The more I get to know and like these family members, who still feel the sting of bereavement thirty years later, the less inclined I am to impose any immutable notion of “the truth.” Such are the moral complications of examining these extraordinary events.

In general, however, the response to the article was very positive indeed, and I am grateful for all the kind words expressed on the LA Weekly’s web site and elsewhere. There is even some interest in adapting the piece into a movie. I have always felt that this extraordinary story essentially writes itself and that it was my job merely to get out of its way, but I was honored nevertheless to receive a “Notable Narrative” award from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and a nomination for the Alt-Weekly national award for best feature story. “From Silver Lake to Suicide” was beautifully presented by the Weekly and deftly edited by Tom Christie. It “went viral” after being linked at various news and discussion hubs on the web including the Nieman site, which showcased it throughout December. The result has been many hits for the piece and a series of lively, often thoughtful, discussions that have reminded me of the manifold blessings of Internet culture at its best. I’m very grateful to all who have participated and proud to have been able to do something which resonated, as it has become clear to me that there has been very little Jonestown writing thus far to have had at its core a personal, individual or emotional narrative. For this I am grateful above all else to the Chaikin and Alexander families. May their relatives rest in peace.

(Barry Isaacson has written about his discovery for several publications. His article, “The Secret Letters of the Jonestown Death Cult,” appeared in the May 14, 2008 Spectator Magazine in London. His article in last year’s edition of the jonestown report was “Living With Ghosts”. His follow-up piece to “From Silver Lake to Suicide” in the LA Weekly was “Reliving Jonestown,” published on December 31, 2008. He may be reached at