A New Book About Jonestown, the West Coast Cult That Led to a Massacre

Reverend Jim Jones
Reverend Jim Jones
Illustration by Knight-Ridder Tribune/Juancho Cruz

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the infamous Jonestown murder-suicides orchestrated by Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana. More than 900 people lost their lives.

While Jones' Peoples Temple is inherently a Bay Area story — that of an Indianapolis preacher who, in 1965, moved his followers to Ukiah and later San Francisco, where they became a political force — the church branched out to L.A. and attracted thousands of local congregants. In her new book, Stories From Jonestown (University of Minnesota Press), author Leigh Fondakowski interviews more than 40 survivors, former cult members, relatives of the deceased and various experts, giving voice to some of the Angelenos who were part of the largest mass killing in American history.

Fondakowski was one of the creators of the play and subsequent HBO movie The Laramie Project, about murdered gay student Matthew Shepard. In 2001, she was commissioned by San Francisco's Z Space Studio to write a play about Jonestown. She spent three years interviewing subjects from San Diego to Eugene, Ore. After the play was staged in 2005, Fondakowski used the transcripts to put together a book.

"It was a slow process of earning people's trust and assuring them that we weren't just going to focus on the most sensational aspects of the story," Fondakowski says during a recent phone conversation from her home in Brooklyn. "Most of the time when people think about Jonestown, they think about the Kool-Aid or exclusively Jim Jones. Our intention was to take the focus off of those two things and ask them what was important."

The playwright doesn't completely ignore the tawdry details of how a man of the cloth became a megalomaniac consumed by sex, drugs, greed and paranoia. Still, Fondakowski is more concerned with the complex, first-person accounts she obtained from members, who even today cling to the belief that Peoples Temple was as much about a racially integrated social revolution as it was about religion.

Fondakowski spoke to several former members with L.A. connections. The book begins with a 2001 memorial in Oakland presided over by Jynona Norwood, a minister from Inglewood. Norwood is the niece of Fred Lewis, who lost 27 relatives in the jungle, "the largest loss of any single family."

And Hue Fortson Jr. was the first African-American survivor to go on the record for the author. A pastor in East L.A., Fortson recalls seeing Jones preach for the first time at the Embassy Auditorium downtown. Fortson was one of only 80 survivors in Guyana that November day but saw his wife and son perish.

Claire Janaro, originally from Sherman Oaks, lost her two children.

Nell Smart, too, lost four children, her mother and her uncle. Smart was not only a member but also a counselor at the local branch, which she called a "huge moneymaker for the church."

The L.A. Temple — which opened in 1972 at 1336 S. Alvarado St. and is now a Seventh-Day Adventist church — generated upward of $25,000 a week. Jones became not only one of the most powerful clergymen on the West Coast but also a notable figure in left-wing politics. He was even named "Humanitarian of the Year" by the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in 1976.

After the exodus to the jungle began in the late '70s, the Temple's facilities started to dissolve.

"The churches in L.A. and San Francisco weren't really functioning after Jonestown," Fondakowski says. "Once they moved most of the people to Guyana, they were minimally staffed in both places. Eventually, everyone was gonna move to Guyana. They were keeping the buildings open, but they weren't functioning with the same number of people they had before."

Unlike The Laramie Project, Fondakowski says she has no plans to turn her book into a movie. She mentions Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, a 1980 CBS miniseries, which was the first Hollywood treatment of Jonestown. It starred Powers Boothe (Deadwood), who won an Emmy for his performance as Jones.

Fondakowski wants to shift the focus from the charismatic minister to the people who believed in him: "I hope that, if there's ever a film made about Jonestown, that I'd be part of making it, because I feel like it would need to be made with many people's voices and not just the story of one person or composite characters."

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