From Silver Lake to Suicide: One Family's Secret History of the Jonestown Massacre
For all photographs, view the corresponding Jonestown slideshow here.
“Dear Folks,” the letter begins, “I think of you when I hear a Beethoven symphony or the words of a childhood hero repeated and more beautiful as I approach my forties. The strength and principles you planted into me at an early age, though inconsistent with the larger culture I grew up in, is now flowering in fertile soil. I see your faces in my mind and remember the courage both of you demonstrated during the McCarthy period when you were alone. How fortunate that Gail and David can grow up in a community that supports their ideals — it shows — they are so strong and independent, you would be proud. I work hard. I’m the administrator of the medical system in Jonestown. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. There is a song we sing that begins, ‘It feels good to rise with the morning sun,’ and ends, ‘It feels good to see all the work we’ve done and to know the future is now,’ it sums up my feelings about my life here. I am thousands of miles from you, the electronic communications are limited between us, but I am more your daughter than I’ve ever been before.”
The letter, signed simply “Phyllis,” is written to her parents, Herbert and Freda Alexander, who raised their only child in the hills above the Silver Lake reservoir. It is dated April 15, 1978, when Phyllis Chaikin was 39 years old, her husband, Gene, 45, and their children, Gail and David, 17 and 15. Six months later, on the night of November 18, 1978, Phyllis, Gene, Gail and David would die — along with more than 900 others — in the most infamous religious mass suicide in American history.
UCLA Men's Soccer v Oregon State & UCLA Women's Soccer v Stanford
TicketsThu., Oct. 26, 4:30pm
CSUN Womens Soccer
TicketsThu., Oct. 26, 7:00pm
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Toronto Raptors
TicketsFri., Oct. 27, 7:30pm
UCLA Women's Soccer v California & UCLA Men's Soccer v Washington
TicketsSun., Oct. 29, 1:00pm
South Bay Lakers vs. Northern Arizona Suns
TicketsSun., Oct. 29, 7:00pm
Phyllis and her family were dead for more than a decade by the time her elderly parents moved out of their house in Silver Lake in 1992. Architectural real estate agents had to bring the exquisite midcentury modern on Micheltorena Street back from the brink of decrepitude before selling it to my wife, Jenny, and me. Handing over the keys, they told us that, according to neighborhood folklore, the Alexanders might have left behind a concealed suitcase containing correspondence from their long-dead daughter and grandchildren. We looked but found nothing, and having been made aware of the circumstances of this family’s demise, we felt reluctant to intrude on an almost unimaginable grief. But this past February, 10 years after we started to raise a family of our own where the Alexanders had raised theirs, a handyman working on our house emerged from the basement carrying a dusty vinyl briefcase. Inside was an extensive collection of press clippings, evidence of an almost obsessive attempt by the Alexanders to make sense of their daughter’s fatal acts of bad judgment.
In a separate envelope were letters written by Phyllis from San Francisco and later from Jonestown, Guyana, where she and her husband had moved with their children in 1975. There were fond letters to their grandparents from Gail and David. The most moving document in the cache was a carbon copy of a painful valediction from Dr. Alexander to Phyllis, written on an old manual typewriter on September 21, 1977. Tenderly, but with eloquent firmness, he reprimands her, perplexed and offended by her embrace of Jim Jones, the deviant cuckoo who had flown into the Alexanders’ nest and whom Phyllis and her fellow Peoples Temple members called “Dad”:
Now, something like four months have passed, and we have received no communication whatsoever from you. We do not know where you [are] and what you are doing. From what we have read in S.F. Chronicle, the Peoples Temple is in trouble. Indirectly we hear that David is in Guyana. Now if you choose not to communicate any more with us, let us know. If Rev. Jones and the Peoples Temple are against the commandment ‘Honor thy father and mother’ unless they are members of the Peoples Temple, it is your choice whether to break off all contacts with your kin forever. However, it is our right to know of this alienation. Your refusal to reply to this letter will be evidence enough that you have abandoned us.
After reading the entire contents of the briefcase, I decided to learn what I could about Jim Jones, his Peoples Temple movement and Jonestown, so that I might understand how a middle-class Silver Lake family not unlike ours had fallen down a rabbit hole. I trawled the Web for long-out-of-print books and made contact with survivors, temple defectors and victims’ families. I showed the letters to Peoples Temple scholars Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore. Dr. Moore, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, lost both of her sisters in Jonestown: Annie Moore was Jones’ nurse, and Carolyn Moore Layton was his lover and most devoted lieutenant. McGehee and Moore told me that Phyllis and Gene Chaikin had been prominent within the church hierarchy, and they presented me with a copy of the long-withheld FBI evidence files on Peoples Temple. The files contained additional correspondence relating to the Chaikins, which was both more shocking and more revealing than anything to come out of the briefcase.
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.
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.
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.
Timothy Stoen would become the church’s most dangerous apostate; he was articulate, resourceful, well versed in media and a credible witness to the worst excesses of Jones’ conduct. For Jones, the issue was deeply symbolic; within Peoples Temple, John-Victor assumed the status of a God-child, and the battle about to take place over his status represented the movement’s ultimate, defiant renunciation of the world it had left behind.
With the population of Jonestown now at 1,200, and supplies failing to meet the demand, Gene Chaikin’s idealistic vision of agricultural self-sufficiency was in ruins. Two-thirds of the residents were elderly or minors, so an overworked group of physically capable adults had to bear all responsibility for subsistence farming. Jones’ obsession with the Stoens’ custody case created difficulties for Gene, who had to orchestrate a relentless legal counterattack while keeping his reservations to himself. The case had become a rallying point for the temple’s enemies in the U.S., including both the press and a newly formed protest group organized by Timothy and Grace Stoen, called the Concerned Relatives.
Meanwhile, the Jonestown community was stockpiling pharmaceuticals, and its leader’s mental health was becoming increasingly precarious, his behavior erratic. When the Stoens attempted to press their case through the courts in Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown, Guyanese bailiffs appearing at the compound with summonses were chased off by security personnel armed with rifles and machetes. Jones began to fear that his host, the socialist government of Guyana, was about to deliver him to the CIA, and that the entire community would be repatriated in shame.
One night in August 1977, Jones fired gunshots into the jungle and, claiming to have narrowly escaped a sniper’s bullet, roused from sleep the entire population. Ranting maniacally over the public address system, as was his habit, he gathered everybody in the pavilion to announce that the CIA, backed by Guyanese paramilitary forces, was on its way. Jones declared another “White Night,” but this time it was not an exercise in psychodrama restricted to a core group of devoted ideologues in Northern California. This time, Gene Chaikin watched his children stand quietly in a jungle clearing, lining up with their friends to drink fruit punch that Jones announced was spiked with a lethal dose of cyanide.
When Jones finally sent everyone back to their cabins, Gene had seen enough. As a trusted member of Jones’ inner circle, he was one of the few in the community who still possessed his passport and a dispensation from Jones to travel outside the compound. Once again, Gene needed to get away from Jones and his madness, to gather his thoughts and possibly seek help back home. He had become convinced that Jones was mentally deranged and that the lives of his children were in danger.
Gene Chaikin flew to San Francisco. There he may have unburdened himself to his brother Ray and to other family members, who, like the Alexanders in Los Angeles, were anxiously monitoring the situation, hesitant to lend their support to the Concerned Relatives in case it provoked Jones to more extreme measures. Gene spent time in the temple’s legal office in the Geary Street church and imprudently confided his suspicions about Jones’ deteriorating sanity to the staff. Panic-stricken messages were relayed by ham radio directly to Jones in Guyana, who reacted in fury to Gene’s allegations. Temple loyalists in America scrambled to distance themselves from Gene’s blasphemy.
Impolitic by nature, Gene now shared with Marceline Jones his misgivings about her husband’s mental state. Finally, he huddled with Charles Garry, the legendary left-wing attorney who had defended Huey Newton and who had now been retained by Jones to manage the temple’s increasingly paranoid retaliation against its enemies in the media. The two lawyers had become friends. Garry was receptive to Gene’s message, but once again, Gene had been indiscreet. Marceline, known as “Mother,” was furious, and Jim Jones sat at the radio in Jonestown raging over what had now become known as “the Chaikin crisis.”
Jones summoned Gene to return immediately to Jonestown, but Gene held out, diverting instead to Trinidad, where he made a last stand. He mailed Jones a long, principled letter of dissent, explaining his misgivings about the minister’s mental state and challenging his judgment. This letter, included in the FBI evidence files, is the boldest and most eloquent statement of dissent on record against Jones. “Jim,” he wrote:
I left because I am no longer willing to live in a situation of anxiety or bi-weekly crisis ... for several reasons: 1) my nerves just won’t take it any more, I’m too beat, 2) it is impossible to build anything in that sort of atmosphere because building requires lots of planning and continuity of effort and application — the continuity is destroyed by the crisis mentality, 3) because I feel that the crisis environment is to some extent created and maintained by your state of mind ... I think you suffer from a lack of balance, both of perspective and behavior. I detest being lied to and manipulated. You have, over the years, done a lot of both ...
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 after this 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.
There were more White Nights, more defections of high-level staff and more dire threats of imminent destruction. Jones’ final nemesis turned out to be California Representative Leo Ryan, a Democrat from the Bay Area’s 11th Congressional District, who, spurred on by the Concerned Relatives and surrounded by camera crews, flew to Guyana on November 14, 1978. The Jonestown choir sang for the congressman, who sat down to a pork dinner in the pavilion. When a small group of disaffected community members passed to Ryan notes asking that he take them out with him, the congressman confronted Jones on their behalf. Jones said little and watched impassively as, moments later, a follower assaulted Ryan with a knife, drawing blood before he was pulled away.
As the shaken politician and his entourage boarded their aircraft at the Port Kaituma airstrip, they were attacked by a group of armed temple members. Representative Ryan was shot dead. When Jones heard the news, he staged the final White Night. This time, there was cyanide in the fruit punch, brought out in vats and distributed by the nursing staff. Three accounts by eyewitnesses placed Phyllis Chaikin among the group that, under the supervision of Dr. Schacht, dispensed the lethal drink.
Attorney Charles Garry was in Jonestown on the last night. He had asked to see Gene but was refused. After the carnage began, Jones advised Garry to run for his life. He managed to escape into the jungle with Mark Lane, another lawyer on Jones’ payroll. Terrified, Garry and Lane tore through the undergrowth. Later, exhausted, they sat beneath a tree and tried to make sense of what they had just been through. In an interview with Robert Scheer in the Los Angeles Times on November 26, 1978, eight days after the catastrophe, Garry recalled, “I kept wanting to see Gene Chaikin. They kept telling me he was sick. And Mark kept telling me not to ask them anymore. He said, ‘They’re not going to let you, don’t ask anymore.’ And when we were in the jungle, I said, ‘Why did you keep telling me not to ask?’ Then he told me the whole story. He said, ‘Gene Chaikin is drugged, if he’s still alive.’ If I had known all of this, I would not have been a party to going [to Jonestown], I would not have asked anybody to go down there, and I would have gotten the hell off the case.”
In his Jonestown book The Strongest Poison, Mark Lane wrote that Gene’s brother Ray had convinced the U.S. consular official Richard Dwyer to visit Jonestown in order to ascertain the state of Gene’s health and to question him about his recent experiences there. This interview, which even Jim Jones was powerless to prevent, took place on the night before the mass murder/suicides, in the Extended Care Unit of the medical building, where Dwyer reported Gene had been confined. Lane believes Gene was murdered there shortly afterward while in a tranquilized and helpless state.
As far as I can determine, the remains of Gene Chaikin lie with those of Phyllis, Gail and David in a mass grave for the unclaimed dead of Jonestown in Dover, Delaware.
For many years after the death of their only child and her family, Herbert and Freda Alexander continued to live in the house they built. Neighbors still recall this “sweet” elderly couple weeping with joy when they won a Halloween pumpkin-carving prize at a local children’s party. By the early ’90s, a niece, who appears to have been their only surviving relative, persuaded the Alexanders, now infirm, to move into a residential home for retired academics, in Westwood, where they both died.
A few months ago, after my 9-year-old son, Nathan, and I talked about the contents of the briefcase found in our basement, Nathan knocked on the door of the principal’s office at his school, Ivanhoe Elementary, and, entirely of his own initiative, asked one of the assistants if Phyllis Alexander had ever attended. He told her what he knew about Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The assistant went through the files and confirmed that Phyllis had indeed attended Ivanhoe, as had Gene Chaikin. Nathan and his sister will follow Gene and Phyllis to Marshall High, where Phyllis was ostracized for being the daughter of a communist.
Over the Fourth of July holiday this year, our family was among the few privileged outsiders to be invited to a Peoples Temple commemoration picnic in San Diego. We sat with Claire Janaro, who had introduced the Chaikins to Jim Jones in Ukiah. Shortly after her own two teenage children died in Jonestown (neither she nor her husband, Richard, were in the compound on the night of November 18, 1978), Claire had attempted to return some of Phyllis’ belongings to the Alexanders, telephoning in advance, but Freda had screamed hysterically at her and slammed down the phone.
At the picnic we spoke to Tim Carter, the Vietnam veteran whose wife and infant had died in his arms before he escaped into the jungle; to Don Beck, who had helped Gene Chaikin to carve a community out of that jungle; and to Terri Buford, a defector who learned from Gene’s experience not to return to the community in a moment of loneliness. We also spent a little time with a lean, charismatic man named Stephan Jones, while our 7-year-old daughter, Lena, played in the grass with his little girl, Jaden Rose, Jim Jones’ strikingly beautiful granddaughter.
As the sun set, I donated the contents of the briefcase to a representative of the California Historical Society. I will keep the briefcase itself, and before Jenny and I depart our beautiful house for the last time, I will leave it in the basement, containing a manuscript of the book I intend to write about another family that once sat down to dinner together under our roof. The final words, however, will always belong to Herbert and Freda Alexander, who ended their letter of September 1977, their last known correspondence with Phyllis, this way:
We have at long last opened our hearts to you, expressing the sorrow and agony which we have restrained over six long years. Any time you express the wish to resume normal relations and exchange with us, the past will be forgotten. For after all we do love you and the children more than any other persons. We shall continue to cherish you to our last day on earth. The peerless joy of raising you from childhood to youth is a unique life experience, indeed.
Your father and mother
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.