A collection of sympathetic interviews with members of the Peoples Temple and others who were connected with the mass suicide/murders of more than 900 people at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
Fondakowski, who shaped some 300 hours of taped interviews into the play The People’s Temple, expands the material into this full-length book. The author asked her interviewees to recollect their lives, tell her what they thought about Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of Peoples Temple, and, if they were members, how they were drawn to him, what they experienced as members of his church, and what their lives have been like in the aftermath of the tragedy. Their stories show how Jones created a mixed-race church focused at first on issues of racial equality and social justice. At some point, it became a radical cult, with Jones using harsh discipline and physical abuse to control every aspect of the members’ lives. A power in the political world of 1960s San Francisco, Jones seems to have become wildly paranoid in the ’70s, moving his followers out of the United States to the isolation of a South American jungle. Fondakowski also captures the words of politicians, community leaders, other journalists and investigators, but former members’ recollections, which are often contradictory, constitute the bulk of the narrative. Through the probing interviews, the author makes manifest their humanity and suffering, but Jones remains a mystery. We know that his movement failed and that he ordered the deaths of hundreds, but the how and why of the man and his mission remain murky.
Hours of taped and edited interviews do not add up to a satisfying book.