Opera and Novel Describe Jonestown Visionary Dream

by Susan Yankowitz

A father loses a daughter. The daughter finds a spiritual home and never looks back. But the father can’t let go…

A nurse dedicates her life to healing the sick and to her horror ends up using her knowledge to bring about death…

A black man builds a new life in an integrated society and to his sorrow discovers that integration is not enough…

A woman gives birth and sets in motion a custody battle that spawns a spiral of betrayals, revenge, hatred and murder…

A charismatic minister spends a life-time creating a utopian community and ultimately causes its destruction…

These characters and situations might suggest a melodrama, but they are the basic elements of the true heartbreaking event known to the world as the Jonestown Massacre or Jonestown Suicides or Jonestown Tragedy. I’ve been immersed in this material for about ten years – and am still working on it, in two simultaneous projects, both incomplete at this point: a gospel-and-blues opera with music by Taj Mahal, and a novel. Most of my research was done at the California Historical Society and through various books about Peoples Temple. In both cases, my creative goal has been to unfetter my imagination from the literal record and write something that captures the spirit of the community in all its complexity. But whichever form I use, be it drama or fiction, I am committed to challenging the prevailing reductive view of the Jonestown people as mindless sheep in thrall to an insane megalomaniac.

Perhaps I am especially attracted to this story because I grew up in the 60s, probably the most idealistic period America has known, when large numbers of disaffected people were drawn to the promise of communal experiments and lives that were an antidote to racism, poverty, prejudice and social injustice. Given our current struggles with religious fanaticism and the gradual erosion of the civil liberties on which this country was founded, we need more than ever to understand the failings in our society and the human needs, unfulfilled to this day, that led to the Jonestown tragedy. What went wrong in Peoples Temple provides a cautionary tale for us as individuals and as citizens – but the utopian dream that inspired its creation and its followers, a vision still unappreciated by the public at large, is perhaps even more powerful.

(Susan Yankowitz can be reached at Syankowitz@aol.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 11th, 2014.
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