My name is Julia Scheeres and I’m working on a book about Jonestown. Before you groan – not another one – let me explain. This book will fill a sorry void in the Peoples Temple canon: a comprehensive history of Jonestown.
My interest in this project derives from my personal background. In 2005, I published a memoir called Jesus Land that dealt with my relationship with my adopted Black brother, David. We were the same age – he was adopted when we were 3 – and were raised in a fundamentalist Christian household in Indiana. When we were 17, after some fairly typical teenage problems, our parents sent us to Escuela Caribe, a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic.
One of the themes of Jesus Land is our longing to find a place where people didn’t judge us by our skin color, where we could live – a white sister and a black brother – without people ostracizing us, harassing us, or otherwise getting into our business. Where we could walk down the street together in peace.
I am therefore attracted to Peoples Temple, whose stated objective was to eliminate racism, sexism, ageism and all the other evil -isms. Although the experiment failed, the goals were still laudable, and the photographs of the great rainbow family are heart-wrenching in their beauty.
I believe racism is a learned behavior, based on ignorance. I believe my fellow-Hoosier, Jim Jones, once recognized this too. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that gilded appearances often hide shameful realities, and that the biggest zealots are the worst hypocrites.
Before David and I were shipped off to Escuela Caribe, we were shown photographs of smiling teens at the beach and read about excursions to the jungle and coffee plantations. We couldn’t help but feel excited. The reality of the school, or course, was shockingly different than the glossy brochures.
There are many commonalities between Jonestown and Escuela Caribe. Both programs were based on Synanon-type techniques, which used public confrontation and humiliation (otherwise known as “attack therapy”), isolation, censorship and a narking system to discouraged any solidarity between residents – as well as potential mutinies. At Escuela Caribe, our mail was read, our phone calls overheard, our conversations with peers monitored. We were punished for saying anything negative about the staff or program. Public boxing matches were staged between staff and students. Runaways’ heads were shaved. Kids were forced to wear humiliating signs, such as “I am a bed-wetter.” We were isolated in the central highlands of the island, surrounded by a fence, patrolled by a Dominican with a machete and a German Shepard. We were weren’t allowed to communicate with the locals. All our news was filtered through the administration, and we were graded on everything we said and did, from our attitude to our job performance.
Does any of this sound familiar?
I’m especially interested in the teenagers of Jonestown – those children who didn’t choose to join Peoples Temple, but who were brought in by their parents. The adolescents who may have questioned the status quo. Kids like 15-year-old Vincent Lopez, who seemed to be in constant trouble, or Brian David, the 16-year-old who tried to run away and was caught. I’m sure there were many others, and I’d love to hear their stories.
There have been many sensational, salacious books about Jim Jones’ sex life or the last 48 hours in Guyana. None have told the complete story of the individuals who moved to Jonestown believing they were partaking in an important movement, only to find themselves trapped in a brutal jungle camp. The signature image Americans took away from Jonestown was 914 bodies sprawled the jungle. The dead were dismissed as freaks, suckers, cultists. They “drank the Kool-Aid.” I hope that by profiling some of the rank-and-file members of Peoples Temple, I can give them back their humanity, and change this misperception.
I want to tell the story of Jonestown – from the first settlers who carved out a space in the jungle, to last body airlifted home – through the individuals who lived there. I would love to hear from anyone who lived in or visited Jonestown. I’m especially interested in talking to people who were teenagers in Jonestown, or who knew the following members:
• Larry Schacht
• Christine Miller
• Kay Nelson
• James MacElvane
• The Smart siblings (Teri, Alfred, Scott) and Tinetra La Dese Fain
• Paula Adams
• Edith Roller
I’ve started with these members because there is an abundance of primary source documents referencing their time in Jonestown – or in the case of the Smart family, because Juanell Smart has graciously shared information about her relatives with me, including letters and photographs.
A bit about my professional background: I’ve worked as a journalist for 15 years, writing for Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Wired, among other outlets. I live in San Francisco with my husband and baby daughter.
I look forward to hearing from more former PT members. If you’d like to speak to me, but not have your name in the book, I’m willing to work under this condition as well. It’s my hope to speak to as many people as possible in order to give as accurate an account as possible of life in Jonestown. My email is email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.