By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
On the three FBI disks were two quite intimate letters, written independently of each other by Phyllis and Gene and addressed to Jim Jones at a moment when both the Jonestown community and the Chaikins’ relationship were beginning to unravel in the jungles of Guyana. These letters witness the moral destruction of a married couple shortly before Jones brought about their physical annihilation. Above all, they reveal two very different responses to his influence, as half of this couple advocates genocide and the other attempts in vain to defy the minister at the eleventh hour and to save their children’s lives.
Herbert and Freda Alexander were, like Jim Jones, communists. Like Jones, Herbert came from the Midwest, settling in Los Angeles in the 1920s. He taught history at Los Angeles City College from 1929 to mid-1980 and participated enthusiastically in the intellectual and social life of a political salon that met in Silver Lake modernist houses and in an obscure corner of Fellowship Park still known as “Red Hill.” Phyllis was born in 1939, the same year her parents hired architect Harwell H. Harris to build their small, modernist house on a hill overlooking the city. Herbert had belonged to a union when it was inadvisable to do so; when the gloves came off after World War II, as McCarthyism reached even bohemian Silver Lake, he found himself before the Tenney Committee, a California Senate investigation of communist indoctrination in higher education. Only the intervention of a sympathetic department head enabled him to remain employed. As a teenager, Phyllis paid a heavy price for her parents’ politics and her lack of social grace.
“Phyllis was a friend of mine in High School — a very sweet, kind person,” writes Margaret Paul on McGehee and Moore’s Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Web site (http://jonestown.sdsu.edu). Paul attended nearby John Marshall High School with Phyllis in the late 1950s and remembers that her friend “always seemed to be a little lost, like she didn’t know where she belonged. I could always feel the longing in her for a place to stand. She was a unique individual, with the kind of uniqueness that doesn’t fit into a typical high school scene. On top of that, the kids found out that her father was a communist and so she was ostracized, which was horrible for her — one of the worst things that can happen to a kid in high school. High school kids can be so cruel, and they were. She essentially became an outcast.”
Phyllis was 21 when she married Eugene Chaikin, another Silver Lake “red diaper baby” six years older than she. Like Phyllis, Gene attended UCLA and, in spite of his family’s lifelong immersion in left-wing activism, became a corporate attorney representing insurance companies. By the time he and Phyllis joined Peoples Temple in the early ’70s, they had been happily married for 12 years and were living in Encino with two young children. Their lives together had been conventional and, by all accounts, happy. Gene Chaikin was intense by nature, a restless truth-seeker, rabbinical and a little unworldly; he and Phyllis, who taught kindergarten, had become fiercely devoted to transcendental meditation sometime before it was briefly popularized by the Beatles in the mid-’60s.
In July 1972, the Chaikins’ neighbors Claire and Richard Janaro invited Gene and Phyllis to travel to Ukiah, in Northern California, to meet a young activist cleric named Jim Jones, whose progressive teachings the Janaros admired. Jones had grown up dirt-poor in rural Indiana, where his father had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. An only child raised almost exclusively by his irreligious, doting mother, Jones developed a precocious interest in social justice at about the same time he discovered Pentecostal Christianity, with its emphasis on divine revelation and the social gospel. Jones toyed with both medicine and the law but, after a brief phase as an itinerant salesman of pet monkeys, discovered his true vocation in God’s work. Armed with good looks, a wholesome wife, his mother’s blessing and a spectacular gift for oratory, he founded the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ in Indianapolis in 1955. Among other causes, Jones was passionately devoted to racial integration; ominous early signs of a weakness for manipulative self-dramatization and chicanery could not fully obscure the sincerity of his beliefs.
In 1965, after reading that Northern California was the safest place to survive a nuclear attack, Jones moved his congregation to Ukiah. Sensing a unique historical opportunity, he began to recruit from the counterculture, attracting college-educated idealists like Gene and Phyllis Chaikin. Jones’ pitch soft-pedaled religion in favor of social activism, and it worked. Within weeks of meeting him, the Chaikins had quit their jobs, sold their house in the Valley, offloaded their possessions and moved north.
Peoples Temple’s nominal affiliation with the Disciples of Christ further solidified its reputation as a “black church.” Devout African-American families, recruited both in Indiana and California, were welcomed; many were already comfortable within Jones’ religious world. At this moment, however, the organization’s cultural center of gravity was about to undergo a radical shift reflecting Jones’ now apparent disillusionment with religion, a shift that would have been inconceivable without the professional and educational resources of a core group of atheist middle-class white liberals like Gene Chaikin, who were raised to address social injustice via secular activism rather than organized religion.
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