Stories Shows Nuances, Complexities of Telling Jonestown Stories

by Katherine Hill

After reading Leigh Fondakowski’s Stories from Jonestown, I wanted to write a one word review: “Wow!” But I knew readers of this report are entitled to a little more than that, so I will try to find the words to express how the book makes me feel.

The book is the story behind the creation of a play entitled The People’s Temple. The author and her collaborators spent hundreds of hours interviewing people associated with Peoples Temple: survivors, family members of those who perished at Jonestown/Port Kaituma, and others – reporters, politicians – associated with the Peoples Temple saga. The book also follows Fondakowski and her colleagues themselves through the process of conducting the interviews, going through documents from different archives and collections, and wrestling with the conflicting narratives they pick up along the way. It starts with her decision to take on a project – scarcely aware of the complexity of the subject they’re about to undertake – and ends after the reviews of the play’s premiere. This apparent labor of love was years in the making; it is powerful, poignant, and definitely worth the wait.

The book is a unique approach in that it is not a standard start-to-finish historical narrative of Peoples Temple, commencing with Jim Jones’ childhood and ending on November 18, 1978. Rather, several elements are skillfully interwoven throughout the text: the author’s quest for information, substantial portions of interviews, and factual narrative about Temple history, drawn upon documents gathered during their research.

This approach was very effective for me, and the work so well-written, that I could envision the interviews as if I were there when they took place. Most of all, I appreciated how the book was first and foremost about the people of the Temple, not the person who started Peoples Temple. Jim Jones is discussed in the book, but he’s not at the forefront of the story. Instead, he is simply one of the people. The people – black and white, old and young, men and women, survivors and deceased – shine through as the center of the story.

It is apparent from the book that Fondakowski and her colleagues struggled with exactly what to include in the play, and I suspect as much was true about her decisions regarding what to include in the book. To quote the author, “Our responsibility as artists is not to tell the history of an event, but to tell the things that move and inspire us, the stories that are the most dramatically compelling… We had to let the voices of the survivors speak for themselves; we had to trust the relevance of their story was there.” In light of this, it’s no surprise that Stories from Jonestown is at its most effective – both in the information conveyed and the emotions revealed – when it draws upon the interviews with Temple survivors. The relevance is there. Fondakowski and her colleagues recognize it, I recognize it, and many other readers will recognize it as well.

Perhaps this book worked so well for me because I relate to Fondakowski so easily. I’ve been studying Peoples Temple for a number of years, and from the beginning of my own quest, I was keenly interested in the families – the families who joined the Temple, as well as the non-Temple family members who lost their loved ones at Jonestown. I recognize the process she went through – the searching for final truths about Jonestown, which finally yields to an acceptance that (1) we’ll never have all of the answers and (2) irreconcilable contradictions exist (e.g., Jonestown was a beautiful place and Jonestown was a nightmare). Ultimately, we are forced to accept those contradictions as truth, that different realities existed for different Temple members, and none can be legitimately invalidated.

This may be one of the more esoteric books written on the subject of Peoples Temple. This isn’t so much a book about establishing objective “facts” about what exactly led up to and occurred on November 18, 1978 as it is about capturing feelings of those involved in the tragedy. For those new to the Peoples Temple story, they may want to read one of the more traditional accounts first, such as Moore’s Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Reiterman’s Raven, or Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives. Stories from Jonestown may have a greater appeal to those who are more familiar with the story and who have become sucked inextricably into what Fondakowski identifies – and what I’ve experienced myself – as the Jonestown vortex. I’m convinced that we’re trapped in the vortex because of the people of the Temple: we’re drawn to their humanity and to the indescribable tragedy that their deaths brought.

At one point in this book, Jonestown survivor Tim Carter tells Leigh Fondakowski that he wanted the lives of those lost at Jonestown to have meaning. This book goes a long way towards reaching that goal.

Simply put, wow.

(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She transcribes Peoples Temple audiotapes for the Jonestown Institute and is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous writings may be found here. She can be reached at hilltass@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 28th, 2013.

Last modified on July 24th, 2018.
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