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Reliving Jonestown

Controversy accompanies many attempts, particularly by outsiders, to write about Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and my article, “From Silver Lake to Suicide,” was no exception. Precious few witnesses to the final apocalypse in Guyana remain, and many differing, often incompatible points of view among historians, survivors, defectors and relatives have to be reconciled. Or not! Family members, still baffled and sometimes defensive about their long-dead relatives’ involvement with this infamous “cult,” resented certain implications they found in my article that cast their kinsfolk in an unflattering light. I am deeply sorry to have added to the burden of grief borne by these families for 30 years but this issue goes to the very heart of any attempt to revisit Jonestown in order to counter the overwhelming impression, created in the media, that the victims were dupes or fools, placidly led to their deaths by a madman. If we are to restore to these people their dignity, their humanity and their moral agency, we must also acknowledge the role of personal responsibility in what transpired. A humane approach to the plight of the victims of Jonestown has to allow for the existence of individual free will, as this enables these people to be considered as something other, something more, than victims. However, I may never be able to convince family members that the letter to Jim Jones from Phyllis Chaikin in the FBI files was written without any coercion by Jones but was the product of free will. Such are the moral complications of examining these extraordinary events.

In writing the article, I became intrigued by the apparent link between “new religion” of the 1970s and “Red” political activism in the 1950s. High school friends of Chaikin, the woman whose letters from Jonestown I found in the basement of my house and who perished in Guyana with her husband and two teenagers, contacted me after the story was published, to express their sadness — and often their surprise — at her fate. Chaikin, like many of her contemporaries, had been immersed in socialist values from birth; her parents were dedicated progressives. One of her classmates informed me that Chaikin’s father, Herbert Alexander, could not have been, as I wrote, a member of the Communist Party of the USA while working as an educator within the federal or state system, but that he, like all the others, considered Communism not to be a blueprint for revolutionary change as much as a necessary moral response to institutional racism, the suppression of organized labor and the ugly specter of McCarthy. To belabor the causal connection between Chaikin and her husband Gene Chaikin’s ideological upbringing and their subsequent attraction to Jim Jones and his communist god is somewhat glib, however. My original intuition, now reinforced by many subsequent conversations, is that the key to this mystery will be found in family pathology rather than politics, or at least in some combination of both. Jonestown represents a unique historical collision between race, religion and politics in modern American history, yet, for me, the significance of this family’s tragic narrative is personal, intimate. For the past 30 years America has placed Jonestown beyond the boundaries of both rational and empathetic understanding, yet, if I have learned anything from the letters, from my researches and from the response to my piece, these “victims” of Jonestown were more like us than we have been raised to believe.

[Editor’s note: Isaacson’s story has received more than 73,000 page views at laweekly.com, and was chosen as the “notable narrative” for December by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.]

From “From Silver Lake to Suicide: One Family’s Secret History of the Jonestown Massacre” by Barry Isaacson

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. Seven 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.


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