Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. Denice Stephenson, editor. Heyday Books, Berkeley. 2005. $16.95.
FROM THE BACK COVER: "When we remember Jonestown, we usually think of the deaths of Jim Jones and his followers in a jungle far away from the United States. Some of us remember that a congressman and several journalists died there. Many of us simply remember that hundreds of people died. For the most part, we have responded to the horror of it -- mass deaths, parents dying with their children, an apparently blind allegiance to a flawed leader -- by denying and excluding; we characterize People's Temple as a cult, as if that word explains it all. We do not remember -- we may never have known--how the people of Jonestown lived. We have forgotten that they once lived among us as neighbors and friends, a community that won the praise and support of some of our most notable leaders.
Dear People: Remembering Jonestown presents letters, personal histories, reports, newsletter articles, and other documents, as well as photographs, from the People's Temple collection at the California Historical Society. These documents, many published here for the first time, provide an emotionally dense, vivid portrait of one of the most compelling social movements of the 20th Century, enlarging our understanding not just of Jonestown but of the strengths and fault lines of all humanity.
ABOUT THE EDITOR:
Denice Stephenson is a special project archivist for the People's Temple Collection at the California Historical Society. This collection is the repository of the most complete set of personal and official documents related to the subject. Stephenson has provided assistance to researchers and to family, scholarly, and media projects since 2000.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE EDITOR:
Denice Stephenson welcomes me at the door of the California Historical Society on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco. She has curly salt-and-pepper hair cut in a bob. Middle-aged but with a youthful enthusiasm that belies her years, Denice is slim and wears a bright top and blue-tinted glasses. She leads me down to the basement where most of the Jonestown archive is housed. The archive includes 170 boxes of personal documents, depositions, and government papers--most that are stored here in a floor-to-ceiling high-density storage system. There are six long steel bookcases, painted white, facing sideways and running 20 feet to the back of the room. I am invited to turn the crank handle of one shelf and then a second; each bookcase slides smoothly to the right, creating an aisle so that I may comfortably step forward to view the rows of boxes labeled "People's Temple" on the shelves. (With a motion-ratio of 1:6000, one pound of my effort displaces 6000 pounds of archival material--two full turns of the crank and I easily shift more than one million documents of the Jonestown archive. After viewing some of the material, we adjourn to the second -floor conference room. At the large oak table, I turn on the tape recorder.)
"Can you tell me a little bit about your history here at the California Historical Society and how you came to work with the Jonestown material?"
"Well," said Stephenson, "I got a call from a college friend of mine, Rebecca Moore. Her family lost two sisters and a nephew in Jonestown and donated their papers to the California Historical Society after the tenth anniversary of their deaths. Rebecca asked me to come down to the Historical Society to do some research for a film that was being made about People's Temple for a Canadian history television show. She also asked me to check to see what was happening with the papers."
"Then what happened?"
"After I finished the research project, the librarians asked if I wanted to get the Moore family papers in the proper boxes and archival folders, to create an online directory." She smiled. "The librarians were both friendly and helpful, and so I started volunteering just a couple of hours a week."
"When was that?"
"That was in 2000," she said, adding that over time her involvement built up. "I was surprised by what I found in the archive."
I was eager to know what was in the archive, but I first asked if Stephenson were a professional archivist or historian.
"No, I am a community organizer," she said. "I began this project for my friend, but eventually I found myself doing a lot of research because of a play that was commissioned by my husband based on the materials in the archive."
"A play about Jonestown?"
"I find it hard to imagine a play about such a tragedy."
"Yes, of course," she agreed. "But in 2001 my husband and I saw a production at Berkeley Rep Theater of The Laramie Project, about the brutal murder of the young gay student Matthew Shepherd. That was also a dark story, but it made a powerful play."
I'd seen the play on DVD. "It was certainly riveting," I said.
"I'd been working in the archives for a few months," she continued, "and my husband and I were struck by the type of storytelling, the interviews that were used to construct the play, and thought, 'What if a play about People's Temple...' I was just overwhelmed by how many of the voices were present even in the archives here."
Stephenson said that she wrote the book as a companion to the play. "When people see the play, if they want to know more they can find that some of the documents that are quoted are in the book."
(Stephenson's husband, David Dower, worked with Lee Vondekowsky -- a member of the writing team of The Laramie Project and head writer and director for this play -- and put the project together over three years. The play, The People's Temple, opened in April to rave reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle and is expected to travel.)
"Are there other ongoing projects related to the archives other than your book and the play?" I asked.
"People are writing books both fiction and nonfiction, and there's a new documentary that's supposed to air next spring for the PBS series American Experience. Meanwhile, the actual cataloging of the records goes on. We recently got 1000 new photographs and 800 cassette tapes related to People's Temple and another 15 cases of documents from the estate of psychologist Margaret Singer, who did a lot of work with cults and in particular Jonestown."