After nearly 35 years, it feels as if the horrible tale of the Jonestown tragedy has been told from every perspective. As new book Stories from Jonestown shows us though, there are some voices that have remained unheard through all of this time. Through a series of interviews with survivors, author Leigh Fondakowski presents a compelling account of life with Jim Jones in Guyana. Along the way, she illuminates the numerous falsehoods which have been accepted as fact over the years as well.
Stories from Jonestown sets the record straight on much of this, but there is more to the book than just getting the facts right. For the many people who were members of the People’s Temple in November 1978, but not present at the compound at the time, the legacy of Jonestown is one they will never leave behind. For many of them, this is the first time their stories have been told.
The original impetus behind the book was to gather information for a play about Jonestown. Fondakowski spent three years traveling the United States interviewing survivors, many of whom had never spoken publicly before. What emerges is a much more complex picture than that of the “mass-suicide” we had previously been sold. Some members did commit suicide, others were killed, and a huge number of them suffer from survivor’s guilt. The explanation that the people at Jonestown voluntarily “drank the Kool-Aid” may have satisfied the public’s need for a simple answer. But the reality was far more complicated.
Fondakowski collected over 200 hours of interviews for the book, and the transcripts reveal a fascinating group of people. Many had joined the People’s Temple with a wide-eyed sense of optimism. Jim Jones preached a gospel of racial and social justice which some found appealing after the turmoil of the ‘60s. Although there were signs of unusual behavior on the part of Jones, nobody could have predicted the end-game.
The author weaves the history of her efforts to secure the interviews and put the play together in with the survivor‘s stories. This gives the narrative a sense of forward motion, and helps us to experience with her the cumulative impact of it all. What Stories from Jonestown does best is to put a human face on this terrible event.
While there have been plenty of accounts of the tragedy over the years, I have yet to read something as personal as Stories from Jonestown. In Fondakowski’s interviews, the people come alive, and are not the freaky cultists of the popular imagination. Each had their own reasons for joining; again–many were idealistic, and signed on because of the tolerance the People’s Temple was known for. What a sad irony that this idealism would lead to such a horrible finale. Most of all, Stories from Jonestown presents ordinary people whose lives have been irrevocably altered by tragic events. It is a remarkable book.