Thank You, Leigh!

Stories from Jonestown. An amazing book! An engaging read!

As a Peoples Temple survivor, I found this work by Leigh Fondakowski clear and succinct, a telling of real stories in sharp contrast to the media’s yearly rehash of the Jonestown horror. Stories from Jonestown presents the humanity of Peoples Temple members, after — as well as before — November 1978.

In 2005, using interviews she had conducted over the previous five years with former Temple members, relatives, and others connected to the movement’s history, Leigh produced a play, The People’s Temple, with the actors on stage telling the Temple story through quotes from the interviews. Similarly, this process and the same interviews have been used now to compile the book Stories from Jonestown, with more focus on what has happened to survivors since 1978.

In her introduction, Leigh states she wanted to tell more than the rise and fall of Peoples Temple, which she does:

“Peoples Temple failed. But the story does not end there. The lives of the people who built the movement, and how they have survived, still bears examining.

“They were committed to one another. How they built their dream of an egalitarian society is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. …

“Perhaps with time and distance, these survivors will once again reclaim the thing many valued most: community. For only they can truly know what it means to survive a tragedy of this magnitude. These are the stories of the survivors. It is a privilege to tell them” (italics added).

Stories from Jonestown tells what each person saw, heard, and understood from their own perspective: best time of my life, worst time of my life, memories of a rainbow family, memories of deaths, and reflections on responsibility, community, hopes, and dreams. Their words also tell of life after November 1978: returning home, finding a place again, getting on with life, coming to terms with loss, moving on … or not.

The book format makes it easier to follow than the play, in that one can pause to re-read a page or section. The survivors’ stories are told in their own words, and Leigh adds observations, not interpretations. Readers hear the story of Peoples Temple first-hand, not a second-hand explanation.

Hearing their stories, knowing more of the people and the community, these are stories that continue still. In telling the story, Leigh comments towards the book’s end, “It is impossible to ever ‘finish’ with this story. … this story never leaves you.” And as one survivor said,

“But it’s the human condition … We asked Jim Jones to be something. We played into it. We asked him for something a person cannot be. And we can say we were disillusioned, but what is more useful is to recognize that human capacity to not take responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. It serves a need for us. Anyone who signed on had something to gain.

“If it was relief from your own personal confusion, Jim gave simple answers. … Everybody had something to gain, and everybody put these demands on him.”

So, the story goes on, as varied as survivors have found ways to take responsibility for themselves or not.

It is a most worthwhile and thoughtful book!

(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)

(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)