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
A period of rapid growth for the temple in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles had turned Jim Jones into an unlikely public figure capable of wielding genuine political influence; for example, he produced from among his followers a large bloc of votes to help elect George Moscone as mayor of San Francisco in 1976. However, Jones’ dissolute behavior was becoming a liability that had started to attract media attention. He was arrested for lewd conduct toward a male police officer in a San Francisco movie theater in December 1973 but managed to escape prosecution. A dissident group of younger followers left the church in the spring of that year and continued to question publicly their leader’s political integrity and personal ethics.
These ethical lapses — previously evident in elaborately faked faith healings that preyed upon the religious elderly — became institutionalized, as the core group of dedicated young idealists surrounding Jones struggled to accommodate his corruption as the only alternative to condemning it. The movement began to turn inward, as the glare of publicity exposed its increasingly bizarre, authoritarian social mores to liberal condescension directed at them from the outside world. This dialectical relationship only enhanced the minister’s power within his church and cemented its reputation as a cult.
Like Voltaire’s Candide, Gene Chaikin was temperamentally ill-equipped to adapt to religious hypocrisy on this scale and sought refuge from it in horticulture, a lifelong hobby. In mid-1973, he welcomed the opportunity to exchange his legal pad for a machete and went to South America, where Chaikin supervised the planting of an extraordinary, self-sustaining agricultural commune in the inhospitable jungles of Guyana, which would become known as Jonestown. Chaikin was there for two years, away from his family and living with a small group of pioneers, relatively free of Jones’ direct control before the mass exodus to Jonestown began in earnest.
It was the happiest time of Chaikin’s life. He oversaw the planting of crops in the challenging topsoil and functioned, in the words of fellow pioneer Don Beck as “a gentleman farmer.” From July 1977 onward, more than 1,000 Jones followers left America for a better life in Jonestown, intending never to return. It was in Jonestown where Phyllis Chaikin finally discovered a role for herself, one that corresponded with her commitment to the cause. At last, her nursing credential had won her the more elevated place she sought in the community and in the esteem of its leader. “Dear Folks,” she writes in an undated letter probably from late 1977:
Have not heard from you — mail to interior is delayed. I wonder how you are doing. Would you believe it I am administering the entire medical health staff at Jonestown. We have a fine young doctor, 2 nurse practitioners and a number of RNs and LVNs. Bright young people the doctor and I are training are Health Care Workers. They are becoming integrated in the whole health process here. They go to every residence in Jonestown twice a day to make sure everyone is ok — they have been trained to do monthly breast exams. Two were La Maze coaches when the first baby was born at Jonestown which was a highlight in my life — I was the circulating nurse. As you can imagine — it is very exciting and educational to oversee such a progressive system.
I think of you frequently —
Jonestown’s purpose-built medical center was Phyllis’ new domain. From there she administered a revolutionary program of socialized health care available not only to the temple populace but also to the outlying community of Amerindian tribes. She also supervised the Jonestown pharmacy.
As Phyllis blossomed, Gene began to wither. Jones had arrived in the jungle beset with crises, grudges and obsessions. He had tried and failed to suppress two hostile pieces of investigative journalism that appeared in New West magazine, several copies of which were picked up by Herbert Alexander, later to be placed in the briefcase we found in our basement. Jones claimed to have sired a baby boy, John-Victor, by an attractive devotee named Grace Stoen, whose husband, Timothy Stoen, had been a fervent Jones disciple since the early days in Ukiah. Jones decided to raise the boy in his own household and even persuaded Stoen — a Stanford-educated attorney who supervised Gene’s legal work for the temple — to renounce in a sworn statement all claims to patrimony.
When the Stoens’ marriage inevitably collapsed and Grace left the temple, Jones sent John-Victor ahead to Guyana in order to thwart her attempts to gain custody, a strategy temporarily reinforced by Timothy Stoen’s residency in Jonestown from mid-February 1977. A month later, however, on March 20, Stoen defected, leaving his infant son behind. Putting aside their marital differences, the Stoens reunited in California to pursue custody of the boy, and the stage was set for a public confrontation that would pose the ultimate challenge to Jones’ internal authority, as well as to his already battered reputation in the world outside Peoples Temple.
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