True Believer or Charlatan, Committed Activist or Opportunist? Who Was the Real Mike Prokes?

by Ken White

I decided to write My Father’s House because I wanted to know how a young man very much like me, who wanted to make a difference in his world, somehow lost his way. I can’t possibly know why Mike Prokes did what he did. But, I can offer some perspective based on what I have learned and experienced, whom I’ve spoken with, and what I’ve researched. Hopefully, it will be of value.

While I was researching and writing the play, I asked friends, colleagues, and experts on the subject matter to review the various drafts. Some of those individuals didn’t agree with aspects of my portrayal of Mike, or the things I had him say or do in certain scenes. There were two primary issues that kept being raised. The first had to do with his relationship to Carolyn Moore Layton and Jim-Jon (Kimo) Prokes. The second concerned Mike’s relationship to Jim Jones and his commitment to the cause embodied by Jonestown.

In the play, I wrote a scene between Mike and Kimo, and throughout the play, I referred to various aspects of Mike and Kimo’s relationship, as well as Mike’s regret over the death of his wife and stepson. Some have taken issue with this portrayal, feeling it was not accurate.

The actual nature of their relationship has always been a bit mystifying to me. I want to think Mike was somewhat conflicted. He knew the marriage and adoption were staged and done for Jim Jones, but he had to have felt something for Carolyn and Kimo, if only because Kimo had his name and they were all part of a very small, mutually dependent community.

On the anniversary of the tragedy this past year, the Modesto Bee published an interview with Bee reporter Bob Bazemore, who knew Mike, who reported on Jonestown, who was at Mike’s final press conference, and who tried to save his life. The article included the following:  “‘I loved that child [Kimo],’ Prokes told Bazemore.  …  ‘It was a horrible experience  …  the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, to see [my son] and the others who gave up their lives,’ Prokes said.”

Of course, Mike could have just been saying that to appear sympathetic to the media, to law enforcement, and to his family – both in reality and in my play – but I believe there was more to it than that. In my view, it goes back to his being a true believer and being concerned about everyone who was part of the Temple family.

And that belief leads to the next issue that was raised. Was Mike a true believer, a character playing a character, a committed activist, an opportunist, or something else entirely? There are those who feel Mike was a true believer, that he thought what was going on in Jonestown that last day was – to use his own word – “beautiful,” that while he was devastated by the deaths, his faith in Jim Jones was never shaken. He would never refer to Jones as a charlatan, as I have him do in an early version of the play, because he couldn’t have; he would never refer to the people of Jonestown as slaves, because he couldn’t have; he would never view Jones as leading his people “straight to hell,” because he couldn’t have. The proof of that is, he couldn’t have committed suicide himself if he believed any of those things. All the deviations from the faith that he had in Peoples Temple beliefs, in Jonestown as a utopian experiment, and, most importantly, in Jones himself remained intact. They had to, because otherwise his suicide made no sense.

Although I agree that much of what Mike did qualified him as a true believer, it seems to me that there was a part of him that believed in the concept as much as the man, and that part of him would have liked to see it continue and see it succeed, with or without Jones in the picture.

As I’ve said a number of times, Mike really was a Picasso painting. I saw one image of him after speaking with those who knew him during his days with Peoples Temple and Jonestown. I got a somewhat different picture after talking with those who knew him in Modesto, before and after Guyana. Yet another version emerged after going through all the research, and still another after speaking to some of the experts on Jonestown.

Here’s another quote from Bazemore in the Modesto Bee article, talking about Mike’s press conference statement and subsequent suicide. “In retrospect, it was so shocking because he was so sold on Jones and the whole Peoples Temple.” The article continues:  “Bazemore agrees with author Julia Scheeres’ assessment of those who got hooked by Jones and later died for him: They weren’t dumb people following like sheep, but instead were often intelligent people with progressive ideals who found a visionary in their leader. ‘They were believers in both Jones and his cause,’ Bazemore said.”

And that’s the source of confusion – Mike’s and mine. I always meant to portray him as a man who started out believing and wanting to make a difference, and then who had second thoughts about the man (Jones) and his methods but not about the movement (Peoples Temple and Jonestown), and who finally killed himself as a way to bring attention to those who died and what they died for, as well as for the death of his beliefs. In his suicide note, he expressly talks about his death prompting a book about what happened, not specifically what happened to Jones, but what happened to Jonestown.

Ultimately, I do think he was confused, torn between his ideals and how those ideals were perverted by Jones. I may be wrong but, at some point as the author of this piece of fiction, I have to follow my instincts and present my perception of the reality.

There is also a part of me that wonders if maybe he was just playing a role in everything he did. Perhaps nobody ever saw or heard or knew the “real” Mike Prokes. That question is reflected in the current version of the play: it is a character playing someone who is playing a character.

In the very last scene of the play, I have the character of Doctor Guitar, who is the stage manager/Greek Chorus of the play, say the following:

“I don’t know why Mike did what he did. Nobody does. But him. I wish I did. I might have done something. To help him. Or, even stop him.

“People say I don’t get it. That I really didn’t know the Mike they knew. Well, maybe I did and didn’t. I guess we can never really know everything about anybody.

“Was Mike a true believer, or just putting on a show? Was he being honest, or playing a role for the camera and the historians? Did he do it for the truth, or the headlines?

“It’s a tragedy. But, so was Hamlet. We’re supposed to learn from tragedy. I hope we did. I guess for Mike, the real tragedy was that the dream got derailed and they got away with it.

“All I know is a friend of mine died trying to change things. Trying to do what he thought was right.

“The truly sad thing is, it was all in vain. What he hated  …  what he fought against  …  is still going on. Some things just never really change. But, I guess as long as there’s a safety net and corporations are people and old white guys are still running things, all those poor souls that get lost in the shuffle don’t have a thing to worry about. Because it will all work out, right?

“Mike’s heart was in the right place, but he made some mistakes. Don’t we all. We are only human, after all. We all fuck up. Everybody does. But, being able to forgive is what separates us from the rest of the animals. Forgiveness is hard, but it’s one of the easiest things we can ever do.

“‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’ Luke 6:37.

“I forgave Mike a long time ago. My sister died at Jonestown.”

Ultimately, this is a work of fiction and I, as its creator, need to decide which version of perceived reality I want to present. In the final analysis, I’m not as concerned about how I portray Mike and the events, as I am about how this story and his journey succeed as a cautionary tale about vigilance, humanity, and forgiveness.

(Ken White’s other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Production of My Father’s House Cancelled. He would like to hear whatever memories and perspectives anyone has on Mike Prokes. He may be reached at ken1white@aol.com.)

Originally posted on July 28th, 2013.

Last modified on November 14th, 2013.
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