marking the 30th anniversary of jonestown

It’s been 30 years since cult leader Jim Jones and over 900 of his followers took their lives in the jungle of Guyana, and several publications have marked the occasion with special issues. The best story I’ve seen to date was in the LA Weekly. The article, written by a man who now lives in a house where a Peoples Temple member grew up, begins with the discovery of a letter from that woman – Phyllis Alexander – to her parents.

My favorite part of the story was the revelation that Jim Jones, before becoming a reverend, had another profession… Care to guess?

If you guessed, “itinerant salesman of pet monkeys,” you were right!

Yup. And that’s an exact quote. He wasn’t just a monkey salesman – he was an itinerant monkey salesman.

[If I ever decide to head back to Hollywood to try my hand at sitcom writing, you can bet your ass that I’ll incorporate this piece of knowledge somehow.]

And here’s another clip from the article:

“Dear Folks,” the letter begins, “I think of you when I hear a Beethoven symphony or the words of a childhood hero repeated and more beautiful as I approach my forties. The strength and principles you planted into me at an early age, though inconsistent with the larger culture I grew up in, is now flowering in fertile soil. I see your faces in my mind and remember the courage both of you demonstrated during the McCarthy period when you were alone. How fortunate that Gail and David can grow up in a community that supports their ideals — it shows — they are so strong and independent, you would be proud. I work hard. I’m the administrator of the medical system in Jonestown. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. There is a song we sing that begins, ‘It feels good to rise with the morning sun,’ and ends, ‘It feels good to see all the work we’ve done and to know the future is now,’ it sums up my feelings about my life here. I am thousands of miles from you, the electronic communications are limited between us, but I am more your daughter than I’ve ever been before.”

The letter, signed simply “Phyllis,” is written to her parents, Herbert and Freda Alexander, who raised their only child in the hills above the Silver Lake reservoir. It is dated April 15, 1978, when Phyllis Chaikin was 39 years old, her husband, Gene, 45, and their children, Gail and David, 17 and 15. Six months later, on the night of November 18, 1978, Phyllis, Gene, Gail and David would die — along with more than 900 others — in the most infamous religious mass suicide in American history.

Phyllis and her family were dead for more than a decade by the time her elderly parents moved out of their house in Silver Lake in 1992. Architectural real estate agents had to bring the exquisite midcentury modern on Micheltorena Street back from the brink of decrepitude before selling it to my wife, Jenny, and me. Handing over the keys, they told us that, according to neighborhood folklore, the Alexanders might have left behind a concealed suitcase containing correspondence from their long-dead daughter and grandchildren. We looked but found nothing, and having been made aware of the circumstances of this family’s demise, we felt reluctant to intrude on an almost unimaginable grief. But this past February, 10 years after we started to raise a family of our own where the Alexanders had raised theirs, a handyman working on our house emerged from the basement carrying a dusty vinyl briefcase. Inside was an extensive collection of press clippings, evidence of an almost obsessive attempt by the Alexanders to make sense of their daughter’s fatal acts of bad judgment…

And I don’t think I’m giving too much away if I tell you that Phyllis Alexander, her husband, and their two children were among those who died in Jonestown that night 30 years ago.

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3 Comments

  1. Paw
    Posted November 17, 2008 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    The next time I start to think that my parents suck, I’m going to remember this post.

    They may have left some psychological scars, but at least they didn’t drag me into the jungle with a bunch of lunatics and squirt poison into my mouth.

    Thank you mom and dad.

  2. Brackache
    Posted November 17, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    You’ll be singing a different tune when you get to the pearly gates and Jim Jones, David Koresh, and that creepy preacher from Poltergeist II are manning the trap door.

    Luckily, my parents FORCED me to go to charismatic leader cult camp every summer.

    The Snake Handling camp made me immune the other camps’ “graduation punch.”

  3. Posted November 20, 2008 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I belonged to a similar cult back in the early 90s which was headed by Jenny Jones. At one point she ordered us all to commit career suicide together, but several of us escaped.

    Seriously though, I’ve always been suspicious of the way the People’s Temple seemed to target a particular demographic. Looked like a social experiment to me.

    Philip Blakey, an aide to Jim Jones in Jonestown, also worked for the C.I.A. recruiting mercenaries to fight in the Angolan Civil War. Representative Leo Ryan, who was assassinated at the airstrip as he was preparing to depart Jonestown, just also happened to have been the strongest critic in the US Congress of the C.I.A.’s Angolan activities. The killing had all the characteristics of a military style hit, and the assassins have never been identified.

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