Stories from Jonestown


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...

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Stories from Jonestown

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, including U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, died in Jonestown, Guyana, most of them members of the Peoples Temple who drank poisoned punch at the urging of their charismatic leader, Jim Jones. In this approach to the tragic and unsettling subject, Fondakowski, a playwright and former head writer for The Laramie Project, focuses not on Jones but on members of the Peoples Temple who were away from the compound and survived. Culled from hundreds of hours of interviews gathered for her play The People’s Temple, Fondakowski spoke both to people who have devoted their lives to trying to understand the tragedy and those who have kept their past connections with Jonestown a secret. She encounters wildly different views of life at Jonestown: for some, it was paradise. For others, it was hell in the jungle. Most wrenching are the reminiscences of those like Nell Smart, who struggles with the thought of her mother giving Nell’s four children the poisoned Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid, as is commonly believed). Fondakowski explores the beginnings of the Peoples Temple in Ukiah, Calif., and how it expanded—through cross-country bus trips—until Jones took his followers to Guyana in 1977. Fondakowski perfectly captures the rapturous hope surrounding Jonestown, which makes its demise all the more heartbreaking. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Fondakowski, head writer of The Laramie Project, an examination of the murder of Matthew Shepard, was invited to create a similar theatrical work by survivors of the People's Temple, engraved in our cultural memory because of the deaths of hundreds of followers in Jonestown, Guyana. This is the story of the work that went into developing the play, The People's Temple, presenting portions of interviews conducted by Fondakowski and her collaborators with surviving Temple members, family members of the dead, and others. The narrative of the interview process is combined with interview excerpts and selections from letters and memos from those who later died in Jonestown, all given context here. The movement began as a Christian church devoted to uplifting the poor and changed to a racially blind socialist experiment, then was transformed into a group whose membership and children were mostly killed. The book counters the image of suicidal cultists blindly following a bizarre leader. VERDICT This work presents a more complex picture of Jim Jones and his temple than that which currently holds sway and, as such, will be useful reading for all who are confused by the events of Jonestown.—Eric Norton, McMillan Memorial Lib., Wisconsin Rapids, WI
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816678082
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2013
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 999,953
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Leigh Fondakowski was the head writer of The Laramie Project and has been a member of the Tectonic Theatre Project since 1995. She is an Emmy-nominated coscreenwriter for the adaptation of The Laramie Project for HBO, and a cowriter of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Her play, The People’s Temple, created from the survivors’ interviews, has been performed under her direction at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Theatre Company, and the Guthrie Theatre.

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Table of Contents


Two Days in November

Lost Voices

List of Interviews

Part I: Collect All the Tapes, All the Writing, All the History

Nobody was Paying Attention

I was His Son

My Button was Fear

Jonestown Vortex

A Godly Life

A Man of His Word

The Air They Breathed

I’ve Been to the Shadows

Part II: Until We Meet Again

Take the City Today

Too Black

Homicide is Suicide

We All Participated

Sole Survivor

Hundreds of Kids

This is Big



The Dream

Part III: To Whom Much is Given

Sixty-seven Cents


We Were Rising

The Basis of a Book

Beyond Truth

It’s No Mystery

Part IV: The Promised Land

What a Place for Them


That’s Jonestown

The Revolution

Death is Real

Second Chance

Part V: The Ones Who Got Away

The Known Dead

My Children Are There


The Ones Who Got Away


Something to Gain


I Won’t Say Anniversary

A Bittersweet Gift


The 918 Deaths of November 18, 1978



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