Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Stories from Jonestown

I finished reading Leigh Fondakowski's Stories from Jonestown a few weeks ago, but it has stuck with me.

I was a child when the mass deaths occurred, and I understood little of the story at the time, but I will never forget the images that appeared on the news: hundreds and hundreds of bodies lying in the jungle. Nor can I forget the stories about the poisoned fruit-flavored drink that killed most of them (which Fondakowski reminds us was not Kool-Aid, but Flavor-Aid, although the phrase "they drank the Kool-Aid" has been part of our language ever since).

It did not occur to me until I was an adult to wonder: who were the people who tried to build a paradise in Guyana? What did they see in leader Jim Jones? What could push them to assassinate a Congressman and then kill their children, their elderly, and themselves in a mass ritual? What were they seeking?

Jonestown was only a part of the Peoples Temple movement started by Jim Jones. Fondakowski was able to interview many of its former members who were not in Jonestown that day, as well as some of the handful who survived Jonestown. The result was a stage production along the lines of The Laramie Project (which Fondakowski also worked on) and this book.

Fondakowski enables the interviewees to tell their own stories in their own words, and the result is a book that tells of heart-breaking hope and faith, and unimaginable loss. For most of them, Peoples Temple began in a search for social justice. It was about music and love and equality. It was a place where people of different races came together on equal terms and worked for a better world. Somewhere along the way, the dream turned into a nightmare. For many of them, that did not happen until the very end, and they still cherish the memories of the work they did together and the people they befriended. For others, the nightmare began earlier; they were alienated much sooner by the increasing rigidity of the society and the increasingly erratic behavior of Jones.

Fondakowski wisely refrains from trying to impose an authoritative conclusion or definitive interpretation on the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Rather, she lets its survivors speak and acknowledges that the record is, and will always be, incomplete.

One interesting thing she says is that the popular expression "they drank the Kool-Aid" makes her cringe, since she now understands like never before how deep a tragedy it refers to, what a monumental loss that overused idiom represents. She thinks that if more people delved into the story of Jonestown, they would not use the expression so casually.

For me, this was a haunting book, but one that I'm glad I read. Because the tragedy of Jonestown was real, a reminder that people's grandest plans sometimes take very wrong turns.

source of recommended read: library

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