Two former teachers at a school attended by Peoples Temple members try to make sense of the Jonestown tragedy in this debut book.
In 1976, Opportunity II, a new alternative high school in San Francisco, got an unexpected influx of students as 120 teenagers from a church called Peoples Temple signed up for classes. The newcomers “looked more like well-scrubbed country kids than hardened urban teens,” the authors recall. Just over two years later, many of those students would perish in the mass suicide at Jonestown, the Guyana encampment where the Temple’s charismatic but paranoid founder, Jim Jones, had retreated with his followers. Bebelaar and Cabral have now delivered a book that functions more as an homage to their former students than a window into what drove them and so many others to perish in the South American jungle: “We would like to think that the teenagers we knew...can help make Jonestown more than...a tale often reduced to the dismissive phrase coined from the tragedy: ‘To drink the Kool-Aid.’ ” The Temple teens at Opportunity II included three of Jones’ sons—Stephan, Jimmy, and Tim—and while the pupils tended to keep to themselves, some of them contributed poems to Bebelaar’s creative writing class. “I do not like anybody to see / me talk to myself / because I might say / the wrong thing,” one student wrote eerily. There were glimpses of the darkness surrounding the church—Cabral noticed one girl “had bruises on both arms and a blackening eye”—but neither author was prepared for the controversy that erupted after New West Magazine reported abuse at the Temple in 1977. Bebelaar “couldn’t help thinking she and the other teachers should have asked more questions.” Much of the book’s latter part is an account of the church’s spiral into madness that relies heavily on secondary sources like Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives without adding much insight into the motivations and events that led to the tragedy. Still, the volume offers some haunting details. Bebelaar caught up with Stephan Jones, who was at a basketball tournament when the mass suicide occurred. “I believe that some of us had the means to stop the terrible things that happened,” he told her, “but we didn’t get it done.”
This account succeeds as a moving tribute to Temple students rather than as a key contribution to Jonestown history.