It all began around 1999 during one of my trips to San Francisco. My son Michael was so excited about the book he was writing called, A Lavender Look at the Temple. I couldn’t understand why he picked that subject. I knew, of course, that he was gay and that the idea of writing a history of gays and lesbians within a political movement might appeal to him. But why Peoples Temple? Like many back in 1978, I had read of the mass murders and then gone on with my life, and figured he had too. I didn’t see why it would interest him, now, more than 20 years after the tragedy. He had never been a member of the Temple and – as far as I knew – never knew anyone who had even been to Jonestown. I was very careful not to express my feelings, though.
When he sent me another draft – which would turn out to be his final draft – I looked at it and thought, only Michael would pick this subject matter. But then I started to read the manuscript. I didn’t need to get past his Introduction before I understood why he was writing, and as a result, I started to change my own thoughts toward Peoples Temple. I came to realize why followers of the Temple needed a charismatic leader like Jim Jones. Recalling my own memories of back to the sixties and seventies with all the social movements; the civil rights movement, the peace movement and women’s rights, I could see why Jones was so attractive. And the church members themselves had worked to knock down every barrier to social discrimination. Everyone was equal!! We all want a better life and the members simply wanted that also.
I was still confused how some members loved Jim Jones and other hated him. Then I read “In Search of Truth,” one of Michael’s many articles for the jonestown report, in which he explains how he dealt with those differences.
The difference in accounts depends up the perspective of the speaker, the circumstance of their presence in Jonestown, their relationship with Jim Jones and other members, and their journey in intervening 26 years.
Even though we can verify and justify any number of the arguments, it is true that some people’s account of events differ and often times can be directly contradictory. That seems to be how human nature and history work. Instead of using one to negate the other, we have to record the difference. Many times an historian can reconstruct what has happened through the various accounts, understanding that they all differ … We need to focus every effort to record all of the feelings, stories and remembrances of Jonestown community – even when they seem to disagree – before they are lost in time.
Then the unthinkable happened: a disease that Michael had seemed to conquer took a rapid turn for the worst, and at 2:30 p.m., May 10, 2007 at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco, Michael died. No words can express how I felt losing Michael. During my month-long stay in San Francisco wrapping up his affairs, I met a number of his friends. They all said, “Dora, you must complete his book.” I froze inside every time I heard it: how could I do that?
But I did. I found a publisher and finished what Michael was not able to. A Lavender Look at the Temple was published about a year ago, in 2011, four years after his death.
I’m extremely proud of the book, but I am even more proud that Michael had the compassion and insight to put it all together and was able to separate the members from the leader.
The book has had modest sales. In Maine, where Michael lived before he went to San Francisco, I sold only a few books. The same is true where I live in Florida. Most of the people in those two places have never heard of Peoples Temple! In addition, the “Space” and several other clubs that sold medical marijuana in California were shut down by the feds last November! But regardless of the amount of books sold, I feel so happy that it was completed!
I have traveled a journey that would never have been possible if not for his work. Through phone calls, e-mails and letters, I have meet the most extraordinary individuals. That is Michael’s gift to me.
When November comes around, I circle the 18th day. Each time I reflect on the loss of lives and pray for the survivors.