I returned to a remark that Stephenson had earlier made, about some things that surprised her while working in the archives. "Can you describe some of those?"
"Well, for one thing there are eight different collections that make up People's Temple."
"And you have them all?"
Stephenson nodded. "Yes. And the thing that struck me the most, though, were originals of letters written by people who were living in Jonestown, like from my friend Rebecca's sisters, Annie Moore and Carolyn Layton. There was just so much warmth and information and hope and anger and bitterness. Everything was in these letters."
"Was there a favorite?"
"A child who had just gotten to Jonestown, writing back to a friend, talked about the daily schedule, about all the fruit that they were eating and growing, and he ended his letter with a request: 'Please send me gum.' " She smiled. "It was this kind of story, the human aspect, that gives us a different perspective on the daily lives of the people who were involved in People's Temple and those living in Jonestown."
I suggested that ultimately it was the human story that resonates. "In a sense that is all that we have because do we really understand what happened, do we?"
"For me one of the greatest tragedies is that there weren't autopsies done on the bodies and that there are so many things that we can't know about how the people died there."
"Do we know the exact number of those who died?"
"Well," said Stephenson, "the death list is not complete yet."
I was stunned. "It has been more than 25 years!" I said. "Why isn't it complete yet?"
"None of the children were ever identified," she said. "They were actually shipped over, you know; shipped back to the United States and buried in a mass grave in Oakland. And then others, most of the older adults-- or, you know, young adults and older people -- were identified, but some of those were also 'unclaimed.' These are also buried in this mass grave."
I asked for particulars.
"So much was going on so quickly that the Guyanese and American officials and the Jonestown residents had a very difficult time actually trying to remember who was where and what -- you know, to be sure that that person actually died. And there were also some Guyanese children involved." Stephenson reminded me of something that is in the book and kind of tragedy within the tragedy. A number of Guyanese children often spent time at Jonestown, and some of those who were there that final day were killed. "Their parents were never able to claim their bodies," she said. "They were shipped to the U.S. and now lie in the mass grave in Oakland."
"What is the number usually agreed upon?"
"I'd say -- including Congressman Ryan's staff and the three journalists, all together on that day of tragedy, November 18, 1978 -- that 918 people died."
"How many survived?"
"About 80 people. They survived by running off into the jungle."
I said that Stephenson's book reminded me that these people were committed to changing society and their lives, that they weren't crazy. "They were in Guyana for a purpose, and they believed in Jim Jones."
Stephenson invites me down to the ground-floor library where are housed 900 tapes and close to 60 books on the People's Temple, plus 20 binders that include 10,000 individual and passport photographs with 5000 people represented. The library is a cozy place where a handful of men and women, some wearing white cotton gloves, handle photographs and rare documents from other archives.
"What do you hope for from the book and your work with the archives?"
Stephenson says that she has tried to make the materials more accessible to researchers in the future. Then suddenly her voice shakes, she blushes, and her eyes get teary. "Most people just remember the bloated bodies turned face down, and these photos in our archive, especially the membership photos and the passport photos, help to put a face on those bodies. So often the people who died in Jonestown are called 'cultists,' and people do not distinguish between the children who were there, the seniors who were there, or that people were killed there. They didn't just all line up to drink cyanide punch on one person's order.
"The photographs in our archives hopefully lead us to ask who were they, and how did they get involved, and what was going on at the time that they followed this man to Guyana. Many people died. They died and we don't know how they died, but certainly they did not all kill themselves. They were killed by people who also loved them. Sometimes the effort to getting to the point of asking the questions is almost more important than the answers we learn."
I ask to hear the tape made on that day, the 43-minute one in which Jones leads his followers into drinking the cyanide-laced drink. Stephenson invites me to sit at a small table where there is displayed the image used on the tape made by the People's Temple Gospel Choir. The tape, He's Able, borrows its title from an old gospel song and refers to divine intervention. Here, however, "he" is a reference to Jim Jones. Stephenson inserts the audiotape in the boombox and fixes the volume. I listen for a few moments, then stop the tape.
"Who is the woman who is asking for calm?" I ask.
"That's Christine Miller," she says and locates Miller's photo in one of the folders. I study the image of the only person who questioned Jones. Christine Miller was an attractive brown-skinned, middle-aged African-American woman. The shot may have been taken at one of the People's Temple's Sunday meetings as she is wearing a stylish go-to-church hat. Christine Miller unsuccessfully tried to ease tensions. She begged "Dad" (the name given Jim Jones) for a chance to explore other options that might save all their lives. Like the hundreds of others whose headshots are kept in the folder, this courageous woman is dead.