Initiating the Embrace

I don’t remember the first time Michael Bellefountaine contacted us a number of years ago – it’s strange how the beginnings of many of our significant friendships are lost in the flurry of everyday life – but I remember the project he was working on. He was writing a 700-word article for a San Francisco gay publication about contacts that slain city supervisor Harvey Milk had had with Jim Jones in 1977 and 1978, and he was looking for a little background about Peoples Temple.

I’m not sure if he ever finished the article. I never saw it if he did. But I realized from our first conversations that his ever-growing thirst for understanding – first of Harvey Milk, then of Jim Jones’ attitude towards Milk, then of Jones’ own attitudes towards gays, then of the gay members of Peoples Temple, then of the Temple itself – far exceeded 700 words. He began with a few tentative interviews of known gay survivors and former members, then built upon those relationships to elicit names and contact information of more private people with histories in the Temple.

He had several reasons for writing about the Temple. The most fundamental was his love for his adopted city of San Francisco, and, as his mother said shortly after his death, that meant he had to understand the people, the movements, and the institutions that made the city so attractive to him. And that meant he had to understand Peoples Temple. Indeed, that may have been the spark that led him to agree to write the 700-word article.

The spark swelled into a fire for another reason. The most popular biography of Harvey Milk downplayed – one might even say, dismissed – the relationship that the gay city councilman had with Jim Jones. Michael’s most basic research had led him to correspondence between the city official and the Temple leader. He had seen the letters of condolence which Temple members wrote following the death of Milk’s lover. The relationship was not inconsequential, and – in an effort to honor Milk as much as to understand the Temple – Michael decided to dig more deeply, to see what else the Milk biographer had omitted.

Within a year, he had produced a 70-page monograph entitled A Lavender Look at Peoples Temple.

The first draft, to be blunt, was a mess. Other people weighed in on its content, and judging from his rewrites, I could tell they had been as brutal in their criticisms as I had been in my copyediting. I remember wondering how he had ever picked up the assignment for the 700-word article, let alone where he had the idea he could write a longer piece. But Michael’s grace was, he could take the criticisms to heart without letting them get in the way of his relationships with the people themselves. His working theory seemed to be, even if these folks have trouble with my analysis or conclusions, as long as they keep talking to me, I can learn more and figure out where I need to go.

Michael wrote draft after draft (one version on his computer was labeled “Draft #7”), he conducted interview after interview, he dug more deeply into archives at places like the Peoples Temple collection at California Historical Society. He upset a couple of his Temple contacts along the way, but he always went back to them to try to understand the source of the distress, the parts he had misunderstood or misinterpreted. The passion he had for the subject – but more than that, the care he had for his contacts – turned the relationships into friendships.

As he worked, his research took him past the obvious places, his analysis became more nuanced, his articulation became more complex (the last edition was close to 200 pages, including numerous primary sources as appendices),  and certainly his writing improved tremendously. I’m not sure when I realized, Lavender Look had turned into an important well-written document. But it had, and it is.

Michael talked about finishing the Temple project one day, and then using the model to examine other groups in the Bay Area. I asked if he was going to franchise the name to go with his studies: A Lavender Look  at the Black PanthersA Lavender Look at the GreensA Lavender Look at the Mob. But actually, his first love was the Temple, and he stayed with it.

In between his drafts, he produced more work on non-gay aspects of the Temple, most of which appears on this website. He transcribed a number of the tapes which the FBI recovered from Jonestown. Together with Don Beck, he typed out the lengthy journals kept by Edith Roller, who died on November 18 (although Michael confessed to me, he secretly hoped to find some note to prove his belief that Edith was herself gay, in part to justify the amount of time he was putting into the work). And he wrote numerous articles for the jonestown report.

I could always count on four or five articles for each edition from Michael Bellefountaine. I could also guarantee that they would be the last four or five articles to arrive – always after deadline, always under threat of being left out of the report – but always provocative, either in the freshness of the subject matter or the direction he took a contentious subject. In the special section we ran last year on whether the deaths in Jonestown should be considered as murder or suicide, we let Michael have the final word, not because his long-promised article finally arrived as I was going to press, but because he articulated what others, including me, had been groping towards. This was his lead in The Limits of Language:

When confronted with the question of whether the deaths in Jonestown should be classified as murders or suicides, most people feel comfortable joining the two words into a phrase that covers both options. But it doesn’t quite fit. We are limited in expressing ourselves by the vocabulary we have. Indeed the words that comprise our vocabularies determine how we communicate our feelings and emotions. However some episodes might not be so easily described by the words we know.

The heart of his dilemma – for others as well – appears halfway through his piece, and bears reprinting:

Researchers and scholars generally agree that the children were murdered. But the doses of poison which the children ingested were administered by their parents or their grandparents. If the children’s deaths are murders, does that make their parents murderers?

According to eyewitness reports, the two women who first took the potion, Ruletta Paul and Michelle Wagner, gave their infant children a dose of the poison before taking their own. Although Jonestown is viewed as exceptional, the two women’s story is not so different from two women in Poland during World War II who drowned their babies and themselves, along with hundreds of their community, so they would not be taken to the concentration camps. An eyewitness account reads: “On June 23, 1944 Chaja Kubrzanska, twenty-eight years old, and Basia Binsztajn, twenty-six years old, both holding newborn babes, when they saw what was going on, they ran down to the pond, in order to drown themselves with their children.”

These four women’s experiences are quite similar. The Jewish women were under immediate threat, but the Jonestown community thought it was as well. A congressman was dead, and it was quite conceivable that the Guyana Defense Force or the American Army was going to come into the community. The main difference between these women is rooted in language. In Hebrew there is an expression – Kiddush Hashem – which is used when people are martyred (either through murder or suicide) for their beliefs. Because both murder and suicide are severe violations of Jewish law, it would not be appropriate to burden these women with such labels. But the English language is deficient in this area, so we struggle with inadequate words and loosely-defined definitions.

* * * * *

A week before Michael’s death – about the time we realized he was dying – the folks in the larger Peoples Temple community started talking about all the things he hadn’t finished, as though our own needs and our dependence upon his commitment could somehow make him better. As those people pointed out, he hasn’t finished the work on the Roller journals, he hasn’t published Lavender Look yet, he hasn’t done the research for the FOIA lawsuit against the FBI that he said he would do, he still has 25 tapes to transcribe… and only half of those people was me.

The truth is, I had plans for Michael Bellefountaine. The guy whose first draft of Lavender Look was covered in red correction marks, I was grooming for co-editorship of the jonestown report, with the idea he might take it over completely someday. But the other truth is, we all had plans for Michael, in large part because he was so willing to adopt them as his own.

And so Michael himself was adopted into the larger Peoples Temple community. We loved him, we embraced him, but we also remember, he was always the one to initiate the embrace.

(This remembrance is adapted from a eulogy given at Michael Bellefountaine’s memorial service.)