Starting the Conversation on Jonestown

I have spent the better part of two years researching and writing, Spill: an American Tragedy, about the BP oil spill that ravaged the Gulf Coast. Then, last January, The Laramie Cycle ran in repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. The cycle consists of two plays I worked on – The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later – both based on interviews with the people of Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of the brutal beating and death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

And then there was continuing work on Jonestown. During those same two years, I researched, wrote and edited Stories from Jonestown, which was published this past February by University of Minnesota Press. The book – my first work of creative non-fiction – is an extension of the life of the play, The People’s Temple. It not only contains extensive excerpts from the interviews with survivors, but also documents our artistic process, and the relationship of art and artists to a tragedy of the scope of Jonestown. I am very proud of this book, and hope that it allows future generations to view the story of Peoples Temple with all of its complexity and contradictions.

I was recently asked in an interview if I ever grow tired of dealing with tragedies in my work. The question in a way was an obvious one, but when I heard it, I had to pause. What I remember about my time with any of these stories – particularly the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown – is the people, and my life has been filled with stories as a result of my work. So, yes, I had to answer that my artistic life continues to be filled with tragedy, but it is also filled with stories: beautiful, rich, and profound.

I also had to answer that the most powerful influence of my artistic life has been the time that I have spent with the story of Peoples Temple. Wrestling decades of history and a multitude of voices and perspectives into a coherent and compelling dramatic narrative remains the greatest challenge of my artistic life. When I get discouraged in my work, I literally think: “Well, if we can finish The People’s Temple, we can do anything.” The time that I spent in conversation with the survivor community will always stay with me, shape me, and inform my work. I have become both a better interviewer and a better human being as a result of my time with this story: I am more able to listen, less judgmental, more open and empathetic. Things are not always what they seem, and there are always commonalities, even among so-called “enemies.”

When I was asked to speak and read from Stories from Jonestown at Bucknell University last spring, it was on the heels of traveling in Louisiana interviewing people whose lives were devastated by the oil spill, and just after The Laramie Cycle opened in New York. Around that time, I heard journalist Chris Matthews say that there are certain words that end a conversation when you hear them. When I heard him say that, I wondered if “Jonestown” was one of those words: a topic too scary, too horrible to contemplate. The thing that struck me the most about my time at Bucknell was the students, a whole new generation for whom the subject of Jonestown was not “taboo.” The students were researching the lives of the people – both those who died and those who survived – as part of their class work. They had to choose the people they were drawn to and make them their focus. They took a deeply personal approach to the subject, and they were connecting and identifying with the people, rather than judging them. It was a very moving thing to see.

As I continue to try to make a life (and a living) as an artist in a society where art and art funding is continually being slashed, I sometimes wonder: where is our humanity? What will become of us as a species? When I think these thoughts or hear reports of growing poverty, the gross imbalance between the rich and the poor, I think of the Temple and the equality for which it was striving. I hope that for future generations the word “Jonestown” is a conversation starter, a point of entry into a rich and deep history that is both a triumph and a cautionary tale, not a conversation ender.

The publication of the book is the beginning of a cycle because it is just starting its life in the world. It is also the end of a cycle because all of my boxes of research are now packed and organized (almost) and ready to be donated to the California Historical Society. The greatest challenge of my artistic life is winding down. My colleagues and I – Greg Pierotti, Margo Hall, and Steve Wangh – will be working hard to bring the original play, The People’s Temple to New York City next year. We hope both the book and the play continue to have a life. But the time we spent with the people and the stories is part of our personal and artistic history now. On behalf of all of them, I thank you for the privilege to tell your stories.

(Leigh Fondakowski was a speaker during the Griot Institute of African Studies lecture series entitled Jonestown: 35 Years Later at Bucknell University; her presentation appears on this page (scroll down the videos).)