Anyone who first came to the Jonestown story in the past 27 years has an undeniable and almost insurmountable hurdle in understanding: they must first deal with the reality that they are looking through the lens of the mass murders-suicides of November 18, 1978. This impediment is so daunting that few will persist in a quest to learn who the people of Peoples Temple were. On the other hand, those who have been members or relatives of the Jonestown dead have always known that these “Dear People” did not choose to follow Jim Jones to die, but to live. They did not know the end of the road. Jim Jones so enlivened their hopes that they were willing to do anything to realize them. They took the first step of compromise with themselves – cut the first corner, made the first rationalization – and then the next and the next, until they took one step too far.
For all of these years, there has been no book – or any other mass media, for that matter – to bridge the gap between these groups, to allow outsiders and newcomers to learn what Peoples Temple was about. Until now. Dear People creates that bridge. The photographs and writings in the book personalize Peoples Temple. It allows the discerning reader to sense the intensity of the life of the Temple, and the bonds which bound its members together, bonds as great or greater than their bond with Jim Jones.
I like Dear People. Denice Stephenson has skillfully selected and edited materials from thousands of documents. Beginning on November 19, 1978, reporters told the story of the mass murders-suicides, and editors, clergy, columnists, psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists sought to understand what had happened. Some who had never heard of Peoples Temple offered with an air of authority instantaneous explanations of the event. But in Dear People, Ms. Stephenson gives readers the opportunity to hear members, including many who died, tell their own stories revealing something of “what they thought about faith, politics, race relations and social justice.” Her book offers glimpses of changes through the years in Jim Jones, his followers and the movement, it records disagreements of some with Jim Jones, and it refutes the notion of a monolithic organization blindly following its leadership.
In her preface Ms. Stephenson refers to documents “filled with complex ideologies and relationships, hard work and big dreams, and conflicts at all levels – between parents and children, members and leaders, husbands and wives, newspapers and readers, elected officials and constituents.” John Parriman Brown, scholar and Executive Director of the California Ecumenical Council in the Seventies, wrote that in living through this contemporary event, he understood for the first time a historical event with its multitude of witnesses and their varying testimonies. This book offers that understanding to the rest of us.
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Our family was divided. Two children – Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore – became Temple insiders. My wife Barbara, our third daughter Rebecca, and I were outsiders, but outsiders who maintained relationships with our family members, as well as with Jim Jones and some of his children, and our daughters’ friends in the Temple. Our relationships, while often stressful, did not break. What I write will reflect this reality.
In the days and weeks following Jonestown, we did several things. When every paper and TV was carrying pictures of the bodies in Jonestown, we affirmed the humanness of the members of Peoples Temple who were so much like the neighbors and friends that all of us have. We were determined to seek the truth. In a letter to us several weeks after November 18, our daughter Becky wrote hopefully of “the shelter of truth.” We have sought this shelter for more 27 years. The truth has been sad and deeply painful, but it has also given us occasions for joy and gratitude.
When Barbara expressed her wonder why Carolyn and Annie joined Peoples Temple, Becky replied, “Because they have fun, just as we had fun in our family. And they are working with others for social justice.” Barbara and I attended several Temple events, and it was obvious that the people were having a good time.
In the last 27 years, we have heard former members exclaim, “The best years of my life were in Peoples Temple.” They were the best years for those who went to Guyana to clear the ground and prepare Jonestown for those who were to follow. In 1977, Maria Katsaris wrote from Jonestown to a co-worker in San Francisco to say, “All business aside, you would not believe this place. Every time I come I can’t get over it… Just when you think that you can’t be any more impressed … you go down the piggery, cassava mill, and chicken houses and you can’t believe that all that has been done.” Pop Jackson and his wife were among the first to live in the new community. He said in his recorded history in 1978, “I’m telling you it was the best place what ever was. I had never been to any place like this.” The music of Peoples Temple in the States and of the Jonestown Express in Guyana captured this exuberance. This spirit was as much a part of Peoples Temple as the dark side of the last year and horror of the last day. And if Dear People has a shortcoming, in my opinion, it is that it does not speak as much to this aspect of life in Peoples Temple as it could have. Surviving members who feel this way could help others understand this in their writings.
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When Barbara and I went to Jonestown in May 1978, I anticipated seeing the same adulation of Jim which I had seen in California. There was none. I wondered whether the absence of adulation was because the community was removed from media coverage or whether Jim had instructed the people to squelch the adulation while we were visiting. I have no memory of seeing a “throne” or “chair” in the pavilion, nor did I hear the usual adulation of Jim which was constant in California.
I inwardly cheered whenever I read of someone arguing with Jim Jones. In 1977-78 Jim asked members “to write self-analyses and self-evaluations focused on their feelings about his responsibilities, living in Jonestown, their own commitment to socialism, sex, and other personal topics.” Harriet Sarah Tropp wrote to Jim, “I get hostile having to write notes like this… I still [quite unreasonably] consider it a gross invasion of my privacy… I get irritated when you give instructions…. This is totally unreasonable on my part.” You’ll note that she qualifies every criticism with excuses for Jim or blaming herself.
Another memo criticized what she called “the uglification of Jonestown.” Jim had insisted that Jonestown be made beautiful for a visit by a writer named Don Freed. The people did Jim’s bidding, but the result was the appearance of Jonestown was worse. “This highlights a problem…” Harriet wrote. “If you say you want something done, we ignore any advice and we go against our own judgment and go ahead… The essence of the problem, or at least one aspect of it, is that no one is willing to oppose your opinion in certain matters, and I frankly think that sometimes you are wrong, and no one is willing to say so.” Harriet wrote another memo in the fall of 1978 in which she listed five or six matters that irritated her, but again she qualified her criticisms.
We saw this deference to Jim through the years in California and when we were in Jonestown in May 1978. Jim, the Jonestown leadership, and Barbara and I were eating together in the pavilion. Jim said something which I felt needed to be challenged, but all who spoke agreed with him. When we returned to Reno, I wrote Carolyn expressing my concern that no one dared to disagree with Jim. I felt encouraged when I read in Dear People that Carolyn pointed out in a memo to Jim that if those who wanted to leave Jonestown were free to leave, those remaining might make the project viable. I admired Christine Miller’s passionate argument for life on the last day – even while some were giving poison to their children or taking it themselves – when she said, “I think that there were too few who left for twelve hundred people to give them their lives for those people of left… I look at the babies and I think they deserve to live, you know…” and “When we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated. We let them – the enemies – defeat us.” Christine persisted even when the crowd was applauding Jim’s responses.
Marceline Jones’ letters and memos reveal her to be a strong, compassionate, pained human being and an advocate for the people. On June 8, 1970, Marceline wrote a love letter to Jim in which she talks about the great joy and great pain she has known in their twenty years of marriage. A year earlier Carolyn Layton had replaced Marceline in Jim’s affections, but only in part. Our daughter knew that Marceline would always be first in the hearts of the people. Marceline concludes the letter with “Regardless of who else you might care for, thank you for including me… I don’t know about tomorrow but today I give thanks for each moment I share with you. Marcie.” Barbara loved Marceline. The last time we saw Marceline, Barbara gave her a big hug. She knew how much greater Marceline’s pain was than her own.
Marceline also wrote to Jim about issues affecting Jonestown. On August 15, 1977, she wrote, “We are getting so much publicity about corporal punishment being used… you must, I think, impress upon those in charge that they must be careful of the forms of discipline and isolation needed.” In an undated memo from the same period, she interceded on behalf of a little boy who wanted her to write Dad asking if their school could have the open house as planned. Jim had cancelled the open house so that everyone could see the film Z. Another memo spoke to more basic challenges within the community. “I know that every person alive has a saturation point,” Marceline wrote. “Some have left… [w]hich is unforgivable. But others of us handle these times in less damaging ways such as withdrawing, crying alone, doing exercises and etc. However, I think that if people could be encouraged rather than discouraged to verbalize their frustrations without feeling judged, we might be able to head off some of the treason and serious acting out.”
Treason? It’s true, that Jim and the community looked upon those who left the Temple as traitors. He considered the departure of 16 Jonestown residents with Congressman Ryan as “the betrayal of the century,” but Christine Miller was rational and reasonable when she contrasted that number to the “twelve hundred” who stayed. In this regard, though, Jim was no different from leaders of similar groups. Some leaders in powerful and respected movements cannot tolerate anyone who disagrees with their judgments. Even faithful subordinates of twenty years who disagree are out.
There were a number of defections from Peoples Temple in the United States. One of the most significant was that of the Eight Revolutionaries, a group of collee-age members of the church who wrote a letter to Jim explaining their reasons for leaving. They praise Jim as a great leader, but blast those who administer day-to-day affairs, most of whom were white and many of whom were women. Jim patterned his organization after that of Father Divine in which white women had top leadership roles. Their veneration of Jim blinded them to his responsibilities for choosing and supporting his subordinates, just as it blinded him to constructive dissent and alternative solutions to organizational setbacks.
Dear People also tells the story of the Concerned Relatives, Congressman Ryan’s visit and assassination, and of the last hours in Jonestown. It also follows the story after the deaths, with documents on the actions of both the American and Guyanese governments, media reporting, the burial of the children and unidentified in Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, the disposition of the Temple assets, and the trial of Larry Layton.
There were only two notes we know of which were written in Jonestown as people were dying. One is included in this volume. “To Whomever Finds This Note” – an unsigned statement attributed to Harriet Tropp’s brother Richard – reads in part, “We did not want this kind of ending – we wanted to live, to shine, to bring light to a world that is dying for a bit of love… How bitter that we did not, could not, that Jim Jones was crushed by a world that he didn’t make – how great the victory.”
Our daughter Annie also wrote a note, similar in tone to the unsigned statement, which was found near her body in Jones’ cabin. “I thought I should at least make some attempt to let the world know what Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple is – OR WAS – all about,” she begins. Four manuscript pages later, she ends, “We died because you would not let us live in peace.”
Dear People includes some documents of family members written in the aftermath of the tragedy. One resonates deeply within me. In a letter to the State Department demanding that death certificates for four lost children state homicide as the cause of their deaths, a woman named J. Brown writes, “We all must share the blame for this tragedy, and may God have mercy on our souls.”
Who is responsible? Krishnamurti, the Indian mystic, wrote, “The people first destroy their leader. Then the leader destroys them.” With J. Brown, I have always felt that I share responsibility, although I have not felt guilty. I have looked upon Jonestown as a tragedy with thousands of actors. Jim Jones, members of Peoples Temple, Concerned Relatives, Congressman Ryan, the media, government agencies, all played their parts. It is too simple and it is false to blame one person. Only living actors can decide what their own responsibility is, and with J. Brown cry, “May God have mercy on our souls.”
(John Moore is a retired Methodist minister who lives in Friday Harbor, Washington. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)