[Editor’s note: This book was reissued with a new cover, amplifications, new photographs, and back-cover endorsements, under the title Love Them to Death in March 2017. In 2018, Stoen published Surviving Utopia: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, which he described as more autobiographical and less academic than either of the first two works.]
Tim Stoen should need no introduction to Jonestown aficionados, but for uninitiated novices, a few words are in order: Stoen served close to a decade as the Peoples Temple attorney and was one of Jim Jones’ closest confidants. Less than two years before the Temple’s demise, he left under less-than-amicable terms to become one of the sharpest thorns in Jones’ side. He certainly had the largest litany of documented complaints against the group, most of them being legal brief variations of v. Peoples Temple as part of his protracted custody battle for little toddler John Victor Stoen. That paper trail tradition continues with Stoen’s autobiographical retelling of events, Marked for Death.
Marked for Death is Stoen selling the story of a loving father trying to rescue his wife’s son, John Victor Stoen, from the clutches of Jim Jones. An immediate irony is that he admits right from the start — literally on the first page — that John Victor was almost certainly not actually his own child: “Jones claimed that John Victor was his biological son, and I had always believed that claim” [p.1]. Physical paternity aside, Stoen goes out of his way to paint a portrait of his love for little John Victor, and then uses this to frame the subsequent struggle. He sells the premise, too: I have no doubt that Tim genuinely loved John and thought of him as his own son in spirit, even if not as the sperm donor.
Stoen spins his saga non-chronologically. He starts off using that tried-and-true literary technique of opening with a stressful situation, then back-filling with a non-linear rewind of “wow: how did I get here?” context exposition. Stoen’s tome opens in Jonestown 1977, when Jones confronts him with paranoid accusations that his close confidant/attorney was secretly an Agency Man Out To Get Him. Stoen wonders if this might be the right time to leave South America in general and Peoples Temple in particular. Then we get the back-story explaining wow: how he got there.
Stoen retrospectively paints a self-portrait of a young, idealistically wide-eyed attorney with extreme liberal leanings who happened to land in California hippie-ville at just that right time. He documents his initial encounters with Peoples Temple and how he became a convert to their (ostensibly) Marxist mission of social equality.
Flash forward to after Jones’ CIA-challenge, and Stoen chronicles the custody battle for the poor pawn, John Victor. Fair detail is played on that final trip to Guyana with Representative Ryan. Stoen was specifically prohibited from visiting Jonestown that fatal November weekend, and his being sidelined out of events to a Georgetown hotel unquestionably saved his life. Sadly, not so for John Victor.
The last quarter of the book is his dealing with the aftermath — both personally and professionally. The magnum opus ends with a coda claiming that he has both found God and found peace with the events, in large part thanks to a healthy daily dose of Vitamin Jesus.
Peppered throughout this narrative are awkward intervals where Stoen shifts from amateur historian to armchair psychologist: he offers the reader an analysis of Warning Signs he (post-mortemly) saw in Jim Jones. There are several such interludes of these Good Samaritan PSAs, and I came to think of them collectively as: “Is this your cult?!?” Sadly, I found such segments both jarring and ultimately unsatisfying. This could have been a goldmine of opportunity to explore something I have always found fascinating — the mental gymnastics people do to harmonize the cognitive dissonance of The Head Honcho’s doctrine versus the facts of objective reality — and Stoen missed it.
Then again, it took Stoen 300 pages to tell the basic story, so his filling in the interesting tidbits like cognitive dissonance cross-chatter and some off-the-cuff one-on-one chats with Jones would likely have doubled the page count. Plus (and please pardon the vulgarity here) Stoen shotguns so much trivial information at the reader, it becomes increasingly hard to tell the shit from the shinola. Don’t get me wrong: I love trivia! So: the etymology of the Jonestown boat Cudjoe? Sure! The name of the first violinist on some ambient recording playing as background during a transition scene? Not so much. Add to that such elements as a four-page digression into the Watergate scandal or a lengthy dissection of Peoples Temple-as-Molotov Cocktail (complete with a dictionary definition, then extended breakdown of the metaphor), and one is left with a complex codex that has a couple of diamond needles but is mostly rough haystack.
This sort of segues into my biggest complaint about Marked for Death: structural aesthetics. Sorry, but I didn’t dig Stoen’s writing style at all.
Stoen’s prose is a frenetic narrative written with excessive employment of nested sentences — hyphenated digressions frequently appear (though parenthetical asides are also popular) — as well as a heavy-handed stylistic seasoning of that lawyerly faux pas favorite of where passive voice is extensively used, combined with lengthy tangents of marginally-relevant arcana and speedbumping footnotes, all of which (when peppered with GRE-level vocabulary) mixes together to make a literary minefield that the reader must navigate with terpsichorean adroitness.
If the preceding paragraph didn’t make your head hurt, you’ll do fine with this book. Otherwise, grab some extra-strength Excedrin and use its cardboard box container as a bookmark. Either way: drop expectations if you actually expect to learn much new from all this. Don’t get me wrong: Stoen was a major player in Temple events, and his story should be heard. Then again, I say that about all the survivors’ sagas: read their story and then try to subtract the self-serving propaganda into a harmonized sum of The Truth™. Sadly, the trivia I wanted wasn’t found in these pages. Others might be less discerning.
As always: caveat lector.
(Matthew Thomas Farrell is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Exit Lane. His earlier writings for this site are collected here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)