By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Gene had been working as deputy county counsel for Shasta County but resigned once he had the opportunity to place his legal expertise entirely at the disposal of Jim Jones. In an interview for a local newspaper, he explained his position: “It seems to me the concept of living a life where one gives to others and shares with others is more worthwhile than living a life where one by himself is concerned primarily with his own needs.” Gene wanted to practice law “on a nonremunerative basis for people who cannot afford counsel”; this is what he did for Peoples Temple, negotiating guardianship agreements for wayward youth whose care (via Social Security payments) provided the organization with a valuable new source of income. In the process, Gene Chaikin would become Jim Jones’ consigliere.
By stepping into the void created by a lack of government-funded social services, the church developed a reputation for good works in the community. Peoples Temple benefited from tax advantages reserved for American religious organizations. Above all, this timely growth spurt enabled Jones to build a financial infrastructure while simultaneously turning the culture of the movement toward communalism; from this point, his followers’ devotion to the cause was measured by their willingness to forgo outside employment and private property in exchange for temple-sponsored jobs and accommodation in temple-owned properties. By submitting to communalism as an article of faith, the members of Peoples Temple also fully consented to an extraordinary level of social control by Jones.
As the temple outgrew its rural church, it moved into San Francisco and Los Angeles, buying large properties on Geary Street and Alvarado Boulevard, respectively. The Chaikins proselytized, leaving their children with Claire Janaro on a temple-owned ranch in Ukiah while the entire adult congregation piled into buses for biweekly recruiting drives in urban neighborhoods. Phyllis applied herself enthusiastically to “counseling,” which meant monitoring attendance at church services and mediating personal disputes among the church population, always ensuring that “Dad” was informed of opinions or behavior that might threaten or challenge his authority.
Gene and Phyllis were both members of the Planning Commission, a kind of Praetorian Guard consisting of about 100 of the movement’s most devoted adherents and a prime example of Jones’ manipulative genius. It provided his most enthusiastic disciples with a sense of belonging to a management elite, which only made them more tolerant of the unprecedented level of emotional and psychological control the minister was beginning, experimentally at first, to exert. Too much sleep, private time and independent thought were explicitly discouraged; Jones made sure the members of the commission were kept very busy and were often driven purposefully into a state of exhaustion.
Jones was beginning to use astonishing powers of suggestion, persuasion and manipulation to establish a kind of alternative social universe among his followers, and by the mid-’70s, liberal-minded individualists like the Chaikins and the Janaros had been conditioned to accept — without protest — punishment of adults by public spankings during temple meetings, as well as Jones’ practice of sodomizing young men in order to humiliate them into absolute loyalty. Jones had a keen sense of the power of transgression, and he realized that bondage could be successfully repackaged as freedom.
Jones persuaded Phyllis to study for a nursing qualification so that she could help to manage the temple’s care facilities for the elderly, an assignment she approached without much enthusiasm; as the letters to her father reveal, Phyllis craved validation and appears to have tethered her fragile self-esteem to the prospect of a more fulfilling role for herself in the Peoples Temple community. Meanwhile, observers pronounced Gene’s conduct toward Phyllis as “paternalistic,” a grave offense in these circles. Fissures in the marriage began to appear.
Jones’ hostility toward the conventional nuclear family was noxious; he did everything he could to undermine traditional family ties in order to eliminate this most potent source of opposition to his absolute primacy as “Dad.” Unlike other radical collectives in 1970s America, Peoples Temple placed women in positions of genuine influence and power, but Phyllis was not one of these women and, approaching her late 30s, with two teenage children and a husband prominent in the organization’s leadership, she chafed at her apparent lack of opportunity for self-fulfillment and distinguished service to the cause.
Meanwhile, the teenage Gail Chaikin was experiencing severe psychological difficulties and became so anorexic that congregants recall her running obsessively in place during church services to promote weight loss. When Gene and Phyllis sought permission to take her to a pediatric psychiatrist, Jones refused, advising them to send her to his wife, Marceline, whose qualifications were limited to a sympathetic ear.
Emboldened by the success of his experiments in social control, toward the end of 1975, Jones staged the first “White Night” in the temple’s San Francisco headquarters: This was a symbolic rehearsal of mass suicide as a rite of obedience in which members of the Planning Commission were required to drink wine they’d been told was laced with poison. Some of those present regarded the event as little more than a modish ’70s experiment in psychodrama designed to achieve a heightened level of group cohesion. Those of a more religious temper saw it as a kind of sacramental act. Jones’ eventual revelation that there was no poison in the wine inspired much laughter and an overwhelming sense of renewed purpose.