By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Gene criticized Jones’ hysterical overreaction to the maneuverings of the temple’s detractors in America, which, he felt, was jeopardizing the commune’s health and stability.
The standoff continued as the two men exchanged letters. Jones attempted to persuade Gene to return to the compound, while Gene demanded the immediate release of his children. Finally, Jones appeared to consent but hedged, insisting that Phyllis come out first, ostensibly so that she and Gene could discuss their future together.
Gene was fencing with Jones but was doing so from a position of weakness; it was not in his nature to blackmail the minister with what he knew about the temple’s inner workings. Yet, unlike Timothy Stoen, Gene could not face defecting without first removing his children. His only hope was that Phyllis might support him in his attempt to liberate Gail and David and reunite his family. Gene signed off his letter to Jones:
Even in the present situation when I asked for the children you lied to me, said you would send them out, but held off till Phyllis could get here so that you would have some basis for hanging on ... I would rather be told straight out than ‘put on.’ What I do at this juncture depends to a considerable extent on what you say ... You leave me very few choices. Phyllis will come in tonight and I suppose we will talk ... but I think you and I now have very little to say to each other.
If Phyllis were allowed out of Jonestown to talk to her husband about their situation, it would only have been because Jones expected her to toe the party line. According to Tim Carter, a Vietnam veteran who survived the approaching cataclysm in Jonestown, Phyllis did indeed leave the compound to visit Gene. In a hotel room in Jamaica, she confronted her husband of 17 years, ending his rebellion by denying him the support he needed to remove their children from the clutches of a madman. Phyllis had made her choice.
“Dear Grandma and Grandpa, How you doing?” wrote Gail Chaikin in an undated letter to the Alexanders. (Judging from the rounded printing of a young teenage girl, it was probably written not long after the Chaikins first arrived in Jonestown). “We’re doing real well and are very happy at our new home. We have many streams, trees, beautiful plants, & wild flowers growing all around are [sic] area plus the different crops we planted.”
In a later letter, written in a more mature script, Gail adds:
You can’t believe how beautiful it is here. The air is free from pollution, there’s only the pleasant scent of the abundant trees. We have fields upon fields of food. Mom, Dad and David (who is really growing up) are all doing fine, are healthier than ever before in their life and love it here.
Less than a year afterthis letter was written, when Gene returned to Jonestown, Jones immediately ordered that his food be spiked with the powerful sedative Thorazine, and that he be constantly observed. Temple members recall sandwiches being brought out for lunch, all of them cut on the square except Gene’s, which were cut diagonally and loaded with Thorazine. Gene spent much of what remained of his life heavily sedated and was for some of this time confined to the “Extended Care Unit,” which housed dissidents being “resocialized” — in the room next to where Phyllis worked as nurse administrator of the medical staff. In the most informative journal of daily life in Jonestown known to have survived, Edith Roller, an elderly English professor, notes: “Phyllis Chaikin said she wanted to change her name. She thinks she has been too dependent on Gene. Gene agreed with her.”
Gene was sufficiently compos mentis for some of the time to continue puttering in the Jonestown nursery and even to do legal work for Jones. The minister remained threatened by Gene’s capacity for independent expression, and when dignitaries, such as the Russian ambassador to Guyana, visited the compound, Gene was nowhere to be seen.
With her marriage no longer an obstacle, Phyllis was able to devote herself anew to the minister. As the end approached, she wrote the following in a letter to Jones, preserved in the FBI files:
... The very people who resist Revolutionary Suicide because they want to save their asses would make excellent captives for the enemy ... Though the strongest might kill themselves before being taken, the weakest — no matter what they might say in public meetings — would not kill themselves and would be the first to talk.
We prepare the people by reading the words of strong, assertive revolutionaries of the past who took this choice over the p.a. system ... We will meet in the pavilion surrounded with highly trusted security with guns. Names will be called off randomly. People will be escorted to a place of dying by a strong personality ... who is loving, supported [sic] but nonsympathetic. They are accompanied by two strong security men with guns. (I don’t trust people to arrange their own death ... but [it] can be arranged by outside pressure and no alternatives left open.) At the place of dying they are shot in the head and if Larry [Dr. Larry Schact] does not believe they are definitely dead, their throat is slit with a scalpel. I would be willing to help here if it is necessary. The bodies would be thrown in a ditch. It might be advisable to blindfold the people before going to the death place in that the blood and body remains on the ground might increase the agitation.
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