Voices of the Dead Haunt Pages of Dear People

It’s the voices that get you. Most of the speakers may have been gone for decades, yet in the pages of Dear People: Remembering Jonestown, the voices of the dead as well as the living ring as though they’re looking over your shoulder, acting out their long ago hopes and dreams right in front of you.

Denice Stephenson, the special project archivist for the California Historical Society’s Peoples Temple collection, shows she not only has a mind for organizing the artifacts and papers left after November 18, 1978, but also an ear for the music that the voices of the Temple’s members sang when they tried to make Jim Jones’ dream of a utopian society their own. The result is an opera in which the people show, in their own clear words, why they attracted to Jim Jones and why they were willing to give up all they had to follow him, even up to death.

The book is drawn from the letters, remembrances, interviews, newsletters, clippings and other documents among the CHS collection that outlines the story of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, from Jim and Marceline’s first days in Indiana to the recollections of survivors and family members put down in 2003.

And while Jones’ sermons, letters, and memos form a good part of the book, it is the voices of the people that jump off the page with an immediacy not usually found in a collection of historical documents.

“I hadn’t been going to church for about ten years when I saw Jim on TV,” begins Hyacinth Thrash, who joined Jones’s church in Indiana and survived Jonestown by hiding under a bed. This passage and several others are taken from The Onliest One Alive: Surviving Jonestown, Guyana, her memoir that is included to marvelous effect here. “…We were impressed with Jim and the church. He invited us back. A month passed. The one day a flyer appeared on the doorstep. It said Jim and twelve of his members would be on our block Wednesday night, calling. Well, he came, held our hands and had a prayer. It was wonderful.”

One chilling entry is a letter written by Marceline to her husband after he began an affair with Carolyn Layton. It was written just before the couple celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary: “At times I don’t know what is best for you. But – I do know you care. Regardless of who else you might care for, thank you for including me.” The next entry in the book is Marceline’s will, dated four years later, before Carolyn Layton gave birth to Jim’s child: “In the event of my death, I, Marceline M. Jones, would like for Carolyn Layton to take over the mothering responsibilities of my children. I would, in fact, hope she could move into the house and fill any void my absence might leave.”

But be warned. This book, while excellent, is capable of evincing the rawest of emotions in its readers. This is largely because Stephenson, with characteristic reserve and lack of judgmentalism, introduces each document with a brief description of what led to its composition. When you know what happens to the writers, these descriptions strike to the quick.

Dear People brings something to the Jonestown canon that has been, if not entirely missing, then under-represented – the true, clear voices of those who were there and wanted to tell us what they saw and why they did what they did. When the last page is turned, those voices do not go still, but stay and echo and remind us that we could have been there with them, too.

(Kimberly Winston is a religion reporter and writer who recently won the American Academy of Religion’s 2005 award for in-depth reporting on religion for large news outlets or on the web. Ms. Winston also wrote A Search for Post-Tragedy Experiences Begins for this edition of the jonestown report. She may be reached at kjwinston@comcast.net or www.kimberlywinston.com.)