Friday, February 1, 2013

Stories from Jonestown

Stories from Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski
University of Minnesota Press, 2/1/2013
Hardcover, 312 pages
ISBN-13: 9780816678082

The saga of Jonestown didn’t end on the day in November 1978 when more than nine hundred Americans died in a mass murder-suicide in the Guyanese jungle. While only a handful of people present at the agricultural project survived that day in Jonestown, more than eighty members of Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, were elsewhere in Guyana on that day, and thousands more members of the movement still lived in California. Emmy-nominated writer Leigh Fondakowski, who is best known for her work on the play and HBO film The Laramie Project, spent three years traveling the United States to interview these survivors, many of whom have never talked publicly about the tragedy. Using more than two hundred hours of interview material, Fondakowski creates intimate portraits of these survivors as they tell their unforgettable stories.
Collectively this is a record of ordinary people, stigmatized as cultists, who after the Jonestown massacre were left to deal with their grief, reassemble their lives, and try to make sense of how a movement born in a gospel of racial and social justice could have gone so horrifically wrong—taking with it the lives of their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters. As these survivors look back, we learn what led them to join the Peoples Temple movement, what life in the church was like, and how the trauma of Jonestown’s end still affects their lives decades later.
What emerges are portrayals both haunting and hopeful—of unimaginable sadness, guilt, and shame but also resilience and redemption. Weaving her own artistic journey of discovery throughout the book in a compelling historical context, Fondakowski delivers, with both empathy and clarity, one of the most gripping, moving, and humanizing accounts of Jonestown ever written.

My Thoughts:

With the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" part of our lexicon it behooves us to go back and look at where that phrase originated. In Stories from Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski we learn that it wasn't Kool-Aid, but was, in fact, poisoned Flavor-Aid that was used in the mass suicide/murder of over 900 followers of Jim Jones People's Temple agricultural project in Guyana on November 18, 1978. About half of those who died were children. Included in the 918 people who died were U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and three journalists who were accompanying Ryan on a fact-finding mission to Guyana.
Jim Jones group began as a Christian church in Indiana. He moved to San Francisco in the 1960s. While the group began as a integrated group who wanted to help the community, it soon changed into a much less altruistic socialist experiment. But this book is not about Jim Jones. It is about the survivors. Some of them still think the Peoples Temple was wonderful, others wonder at their blindness to the warning signs that there were problems and Jones was no longer the man or leader they thought they were following.
There are already numerous accounts written about Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple murder/suicide. In Stories from Jonestown, author Fondakowski focus is on interviewing the survivors. She points out that only they "can truly know what it means to survive a tragedy of this magnitude. These are the stories of the survivors. It is a privilege to tell them."  Fondakowski, a playwright, spent over three years interviewing survivors, reviewing documents, and collecting letters trying to compose a complete picture of what happened while gathering material in order to write a play about their experiences. The book is a compilation of the many interviews and stories she collected.
Very Highly Recommended - but not an easy book to read
Since Stories from Jonestown is composed of interviews and materials gathered for Fondakowski's play, "The Peoples Temple," this book does not include extensive research or a complete chronological record into all the details of Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple. Readers who don't have previous knowledge of Jim Jones and what happened in 1978 might want to look into some other works that cover that information. This book is about the survivors, what they remember and how they are handling dealing with those memories. Recommended books by those who know include: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown by Julia Scheere; Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman; Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of  Netgalley for review purposes. 

Since my copy was an uncorrected proof I am not including any quotes.

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