I just finished reading Stories from Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski. I finished it while on vacation in a lovely relaxing spot, one of my favorite places to visit. It was pointed out to me more than once, that I was reading about a horrific tragedy while I was supposed to be “relaxing.” I would argue that reading what could be an uncomfortable book in an extremely comfortable location is exactly how it should be done. When things get too intense, you can glance up at your surroundings, re-ground yourself in the here-and-now, take a mental break, and then go back to your book when ready.
But I digress. I want to talk about Jonestown and specifically this wonderful collection of interviews and personal histories collected by Ms. Fondakowski and her colleagues. Where most of the books about Jonestown have usually focused on the “cult” of the Peoples Temple and the personality that was the Rev. Jim Jones, Stories from Jonestown is all about the survivors. Some choose to share how their lives have been since that day in November 1978. Some talk about the family members that they lost, who they were and what they believed in. Many tell about their experiences in the Peoples Temple, both before and after the move to Guyana. Every single story is riveting and emotional.
The general public has tended to blame the victims in the wake of the mass suicide at Jonestown. Even calling the tragedy a “mass suicide” puts the onus on them. The testimonies of those who participated in the practice “White Nights” and those who escaped that horrible day, tell a tale that resembles murder much more than it does suicide. All of the babies had the poison squirted into their mouths. They did not go willingly. Most of the elderly were injected with the poison. They did not go willingly either. Yes, there were people who “drank the Kool-Aid” of their own free will, but many others did so only because they had seen those who did not drink during the practice runs tortured and ostracized by their own community members. So much for forming the perfect society, free from prejudices and injustice.
The formation of this perfect society, where racism, classism, sexism, and all other –isms did not exist. Where people of all colors and backgrounds worked together for the betterment of each other and the greater society as a whole. This ideal was why most people chose to join the Peoples Temple. Many of their dreams were realized, but unfortunately the influence of Jim Jones ultimately turned their vision from triumphant to tragic. For those of you who want to hear more about this shyster, drug addict and man of God turned megalomaniac, there are interviews with two of his sons, one biological and one adopted. They are two very different men who handled the tragedy and legacy of their father two very different ways.
As one of the interviewees says, “We will never be seen as survivors. We will only be seen as the ones who got away.” As is so often the case, getting away does not mean getting away scott-free. Many have survivors-guilt and others have suffered from what can only be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Many, many lives were ruined that day in Guyana and not just for those who died. Parents lost children. Siblings lost brothers and sisters. Children lost parents. In some cases, entire families were wiped out.
Tragically, it took 30 years for all of the 918 people who died on November 18, 1978 to be named. Even that one final task was a monumental one. Stories from Jonestown ends, appropriately, with that list of names. Everyone there had value to someone and everyone there had a name. They all deserve to be remembered.
P.S. It was not Kool-Aid. It was Flavor Aid. Yet another phrase that has entered the common lexicon based on a fundamentally incorrect notion.