On November 18, 1978, nine hundred and eighteen people perished at Jonestown — three journalists, U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan, and nine hundred and fourteen residents/members of the Peoples Temple. But more than eighty individuals survived the events of that fateful day, as well as countless Peoples Temple members who were away from the community at the time. “Stories from Jonestown” is their story, an attempt to explain why they, and others, joined the Peoples Temple and followed Jim Jones — and to clarify what transpired in Guyana in mid-November 1978.
Among the individuals interviewed for the book: Jim Jones’ son Stephan, who makes an effort to humanize his father, and also admits feeling guilty for not being able to save lives; Rebecca Moore, who lost her sisters at Jonestown and co-founded the Jonestown Institute (Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple), which rejects the idea that everyone at Jonestown was brainwashed; and Juanita Bogue, who survived the attack on Ryan and his entourage at Port Kaituma airstrip, and describes what transpired there.
Author Leigh Fondakowski — one of the creators of the Laramie Project — also gets the perspective of Patricia Ryan, Congressman Ryan’s daughter, who recounts hearing the news that her father had been shot, and recalls the time she met Stephan Jones face-to-face. Fondakowski also interviews Jim Jones Jr., who appears to have little patience for survivors who are unable to “move on” with their lives. “They want to go to a dark place, fine,” he says, “but let’s not blame Jim Jones on how your life is today.”
Along with “A Thousand Lives,” “Stories from Jonestown” is a way to get beyond the common perception that everyone at Jonestown “drank the Kool-Aid,” a phrase which has become a metaphor for blind acceptance. “I wish people could see the pain on the survivors’ faces when they hear that phrase,” says Fondakowski. “I truly believe if people understood the origin of that phrase, the utter devastation behind it, they wouldn’t use it in casual conversation.”