Sneak Preview: “Nobody joins a cult”

Stories from Jonestown, by Leigh Fondakowski, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, 334 pages)

Some of the children of Jonestown– “…the good intentions ended in such a horrific way.” Image: California Digital Library (

The deaths of more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 have been addressed before in this venue (See “November 18, 1978: The Horror of Jonestown,” posted November 15, 2012). Shortly thereafter, I received from the University of Minnesota Press an advanced reading copy (ARC)  of Stories from Jonestown, a book which–after reading it–I believe will become the capstone for the literature on this topic.

Why? This book is a collection of interviews with the actual survivors and other participants. This is important because most people, when they hear of Jonestown, or the Branch-Davidians, or any of the various headline-grabbing “cults” adopt a myopic view. These people are all “wackos,” “religious nuts,” people who are so far from the mainstream of humanity so as not to deserve consideration. Stories from Jonestown reveals the true picture of this tragedy, one for which those who entered into the bargain with the devil have to claim some responsibility but one in which most of the members were decent, intelligent human beings who just wanted to create a better world.

“Nobody joins a cult; nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them” intoned Debbie Layton (who escaped Jonestown 7 months before the end) in the opening scenes of Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006), and this book by playwright Leigh Fondakowski drives home that point quite clearly.

Yes, I said “playwright.” Fondakowski’s claim to fame is as one of a dozen or so members of the Tectonic Theater Project that produced “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming. The play drew on hundreds of interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyoming and the surrounding area, news reports, and other sources. The play was also produced as a movie for HBO.

Stories from Jonestown is a compilation of interviews conducted for a similar project involving Jonestown, a play called “The People’s Temple, which was eventually performed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Theatre Company, and the Guthrie Theater.

Whether you are interested in a play about this topic or not, if you want to understand the horror that was Jonestown with all of its human dimensions, you will want to read this book. Here you encounter first-person accounts of survivors, escapees, and members of Congressman Leo Ryan’s entourage whose visit to the jungle precipitated the violence that led to 918 deaths. Here you will meet men and women whose lives were initially made better by their participation in the temple, at least in the early days. Men and women of intelligence, vigor, and dedication. Most of them were decent human beings who just happened to think they had finally found a way for all people, black, white, or whatever, to live together in peace. They just had the misfortune to hitch their star to a man who eventually became unhinged.

To accuse them of having been “brainwashed” is too easy, according to one survivor:

“Brainwashing lets them off the hook morally. But it also takes away their humanity. They they are just robots, as if it was just a matter of mind control. To me, it is much more meaningful and humanizing to say: they made choices and they made bad choices.”

Among the most quoted in this book is Stephan Jones, the only full-blooded son of Jim and Marceline Jones. I tended to vacillate in my opinion of Stephan, who was feared by many in Jonestown as being one of his father’s ‘enforcers’ (although this is downplayed in his interviews). Jones was in Georgetown with the basketball team the night the lights went out in Jonestown, having refused to follow his father’s order to return. His mother begged him to, but he still refused. He has been conflicted ever since, wondering if he might have been able to prevent disaster. Later, he recounts how his father’s voice can be heard saying, “Mother, don’t do this.” I had always been of the impression that Jones was talking to some mother who objected to killing her child. Stephan reveals that Jones was talking to Marceline, the only person he called “mother,” who was trying to stop the killing but was restrained by Jones’ thugs. Somehow, that made me feel a little better about this woman who married a lunatic. Unfortunately, her protestations were useless.

The road that let to Jonestown was paved by the culture of the sixties, a culture in which people were questioning our fundamental attitudes–especially racism. The dream of a world in which black and white could live together in love was very real, and the social gospel preached by this Indiana-born preacher struck a chord in the hearts of many who had lost their way in life. There were many good things about the People’s Temple in the beginning, and this comes out in many of these interviews. These people were bonded, were very close, and were–at least at first–very happy. What, exactly, led it to go so wrong?

“We were going to convert the world to brotherhood. And that was it,” says one survivor. “That was the dream. That’s why it’s been so hard for me to talk or speak about People’s Temple, because the good intentions ended in such a horrific way. That’s why I don’t like to talk. I don’t like to talk, and I never could. How could I tell a fantasyland story with that ending?”

If anything is to be learned from Jonestown, it is that ideologies matter. I cite this horrific occurrence to educate my students in World Religions not to take seriously the attacks made on religion because of James Warren Jones. Jones did not preach religion, he hijacked it in order to preach his gospel of socialism. The Peoples Temple was perhaps the last bastion of the ‘social gospel’ movement that began in the early 20th century, but by the time Jones died he was a self-proclaimed Marxist-Communist who worshipped Chairman Mao and who sought his last refuge in Russia (they wouldn’t touch him).  He had long ago abandoned faith in God, if in fact he ever really had it.

In the end, Jones was cremated and his ashes scattered over the ocean from an airplane. No one will ever be able to create a shrine out of the last resting place of a man who sold hope but delivered insanity.

Stories from Jonestown is scheduled for release February 1, 2013.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris