Stories from Jonestown Hardcover – 1 Feb 2013
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About the Author
Leigh Fondakowski was the head writer of "The Laramie Project" and has been a member of the Tectonic Theatre Project since 1995. She is an Emmy-nominated coscreenwriter for the adaptation of "The Laramie Project" for HBO, and a cowriter of "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later." Her play, "The People s Temple," created from the survivors interviews, has been performed under her direction at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Theatre Company, and the Guthrie Theatre."
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Last year, I heard that she had revisited our initial interviews and that she was creating a book. I was excited because I had already been impressed with her depth of understanding. I pre-ordered the book and received it this week. I have not been able to put the book down. I am so grateful that she created her book, mostly with exact quotes from the survivors. There is no better way to understand Peoples Temple - or our tangled feelings about Jonestown - than by reading her book.
On November 18, 1978, I was a five year old in New Jersey. On that day, 918 lives were lost in Jonestown, Guyana. The media had created a myth about Rev. Jim Jones and his people. Of course, it was a massacre and it wasn't suicide. People didn't willingly die but were pressured and forced to drink the cyanide. Everybody in the top hierarchy of Jim Jones had a careful plan to execute the unthinkable of murder-suicide.
Leigh and her team planned to develop a creative play in displaying the Peoples Temple to the public. Leigh would meet, interview, study, and examine the world of the Peoples Temple. She had survivors like Stephan Jones, Jim and Marceline's only natural son and Tim Carter. In reading their accounts, I began to understand why they are resistant to writing their own stories about Jonestown and the Peoples Temple. Stephan and Tim have a lot of guilt on their shoulders about what happened like a life sentence since 1978.
If you want to know about Jonestown, this book adds a level of humanity, compassion, and understanding to those who died and those who lived and remember a time and place long ago. The Peoples Temple provided more than just religious services. If you were poor, homeless, unemployed, hungry, and thirsty, you were fed, given a job, fed, and cared for. The Peoples Temple had counselors to help the members with job placement, training, and even rehab for drugs and alcohol. The Peoples Temple also provided medical services for it's members. There is a reason that the Peoples Temple attracted white liberals and African Americans of all ages.
Most of all, the Peoples Temple welcomed all and gave a sense of purpose for living to those who sought meaning like Tim Carter and others. In the end on November 18, 1978, the last person was Annie Moore who wrote "we died because you wouldn't let us live." If only things had been different, I think that's what we have to learn from Jonestown and the Peoples Temple in it's self-destruction. Like Leigh, I'm haunted by what happened in Jonestown to this day.
Congressman Leo J. Ryan (D-CA) was on a fact-finding tour, investigating claims that Peoples Temple members were being held against their will. When, on the 17th, several people asked him to help them escape, orders were given to stop the exodus.
On the afternoon of the 18th, as the congressman, his entourage, and several Peoples Temple members were boarding two planes, gunfire erupted at the airstrip. Ryan, three newsmen, and a defector were killed; several more were wounded, some severely.
By the end of the day, 914 people of all races, creeds, and ages lay dead. Some died voluntarily, by their own hand; some with a little ... assistance. And it wasn't only poison that took many of those lives.
But, that is not all there is to know.
More than a thousand people belonged to the Peoples Temple. On the day of the murder/suicide, some were in Georgetown on Temple business. Some had never left California. They are all survivors.
These are their stories.
The book starts with a brief history of Jonestown and of this project. It explains what is known of the time, of the origins of the Peoples Temple, and how Leigh Fondakowski came to be involved in 3-1/2 years of interviewing survivors.
A brief caveat: I received an uncorrected ebook for review. It is, therefore, entirely possible that the final, published product may vary from this version. With that said, this is an incredible book.
As I mentioned, I grew up around this story. I remember the news reports of the shooting at the airstrip. And watched with horror as the stories came in, complete with indescribable images.
We all bought into the 'mass suicide' and 'brainwashed cultists' labels prevalent in the media at the time. It was fascinating and educational, reading the stories of the people who were actually there. To learn why they joined Peoples Temple, what things were like in the beginning, and how life changed for many. If it did.
What struck me most, beyond the memories that it evoked, was the writing. There is an immediacy to the stories - from survivors, members' families, press, politicians, and community leaders - many of which have never been printed before. Time seems to travel backward, taking the reader along.
If you've never heard of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple, or you think you know what it was all about, I strongly recommend you read Stories from Jonestown. These are stories that needed to be told. And deserve to be shared.
About the Author
Leigh Fondakowski was the Head Writer of The Laramie Project and has been a member of Tectonic Theatre Project since 1995. She is an Emmy nominated co-screenwriter for the adaptation of The Laramie Project for HBO, and a co-writer of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Her play, The People's Temple, has been performed under her direction at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Theater Company and The Guthrie Theater, and received the Glickman Award for Best New Play in the Bay Area in 2005. Another original play, I Think I Like Girls, premiered at Encore Theater in San Francisco under her direction and was voted one of the top 10 plays of 2002 by The Advocate. Leigh is a 2007 recipient of the NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights and a 2009 Macdowell Colony Fellow. She is a visiting artist and an Imagine Fund fellow at the University of Minnesota, and has recently written a new play about 19th-century American actress Charlotte Cushman.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary electronic galley of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.com [...] professional readers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Jim Jones group began as a Christian church in Indiana. He moved to San Francisco in the 1960s. While the group began as a integrated group who wanted to help the community, it soon changed into a much less altruistic socialist experiment. But this book is not about Jim Jones. It is about the survivors. Some of them still think the Peoples Temple was wonderful, others wonder at their blindness to the warning signs that there were problems and Jones was no longer the man or leader they thought they were following.
There are already numerous accounts written about Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple murder/suicide. In Stories from Jonestown, author Fondakowski focus is on interviewing the survivors. She points out that only they "can truly know what it means to survive a tragedy of this magnitude. These are the stories of the survivors. It is a privilege to tell them." Fondakowski, a playwright, spent over three years interviewing survivors, reviewing documents, and collecting letters trying to compose a complete picture of what happened while gathering material in order to write a play about their experiences. The book is a compilation of the many interviews and stories she collected.
Very Highly Recommended - but not an easy book to read
Since Stories from Jonestown is composed of interviews and materials gathered for Fondakowski's play, "The Peoples Temple," this book does not include extensive research or a complete chronological record into all the details of Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple. Readers who don't have previous knowledge of Jim Jones and what happened in 1978 might want to look into some other works that cover that information. This book is about the survivors, what they remember and how they are handling dealing with those memories. Recommended books by those who know include: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown by Julia Scheeres; Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman; Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Netgalley for review purposes.
At times I found this book to be repetitive. It did not seem to be organized in any manner, other than relating Leigh's journey to interview these people. The stories were often similar, making it hard to remember the individual players. Instead of trying to include as many stories as possible, I wish the author had focused on showing divergent viewpoints. Overall, not a bad book, just one that could have used editing.