Letters from Jonestown

News Summary: "From Silver Lake to Suicide: One Family's Secret History of the Jonestown Massacre" LA Weekly October 22, 2008 by Barry Isaacson

November 6, 2008

On November 18, 1978 912 followers of cult leader Jim Jones died in an isolated jungle compound known as "Jonestown" in Guyana. Some cult members were murdered, but most willingly ingested a lethal dose of poison, participating in what their leader labeled an act of "revolutionary suicide."

1,200 people, members of the "Peoples Temple" lived in Jonestown; two-thirds were either elderly or children.

Early this year in a home within the tranquil middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake a writer Barry Isaacson stumbled across a discarded briefcase in his basement. It was filled with press clippings and personal correspondences concerning Jonestown.

The previous homeowners, Herbert and Freda Alexander left behind the historical collection of memorabilia Isaacson found. The Alexanders were the parents of a Phyllis Chaikin, their only child, who died at Jonestown at the age of 39 along with her husband Gene and two teenage children Gail and David.

In a letter on April 15, 1978 to her parents, only a few months before her death Phyllis Chaikin wrote:

"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."

A letter from the Alexanders to their daughter read:

"Now, something like four months have passed, and we have received no communication whatsoever from you. We do not know where you [are] and what you are doing. From what we have read in [San Francisco] Chronicle, the Peoples Temple is in trouble. Indirectly we hear that David is in Guyana. Now if you choose not to communicate any more with us, let us know. If Rev. Jones and the Peoples Temple are against the commandment 'Honor thy father and mother' unless they are members of the Peoples Temple, it is your choice whether to break off all contacts with your kin forever. However, it is our right to know of this alienation. Your refusal to reply to this letter will be evidence enough that you have abandoned us."

Phyllis and husband Gene Chaikin were prominent followers of Jim Jones.

FBI files about Jonestown included letters written by the Chaikins at the time both their marriage and the group were falling apart. These letters reveal the struggle of Gene Chaikin, who came to understand that Jim Jones was a madman and his wife Phyllis, who remained what many would consider a "brainwashed" cult member, largely disconnected from reality.

Phyllis Alexander was 21 when she married Eugene Chaikin, another Silver Lake resident. They became followers of Jim Jones in the early 1970s. At that time they had been married for 12 years, had two young children and were living in Encino. The Chaikins seemed happy, though Phyllis was devoted to Transcendental Meditation, another purported "cult" founded by Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

In July 1972 Gene and Phyllis Chaikin were invited by their neighbors to visit Ukiah, in Northern California, to meet Jim Jones. Within weeks of meeting the man who was once an ordained minister with the Disciples of Christ denomination, the Chaikins quit their jobs, sold their house and possessions.

Gene was a lawyer working as a deputy county counsel for Shasta County, but left that position to become an attorney for Jim Jones. In a newspaper interview he explained, "It seems to me the concept of living a life where one gives to others and shares with others is more worthwhile than living a life where one by himself is concerned primarily with his own needs." He claimed to work "on a nonremunerative basis for people who cannot afford counsel." This included doing the legal legwork for whatever Jones needed such guardianship agreements and arrangements for Social Security payments, which provided the cult with income.

Gene Chaikin reportedly was Jim Jones' "consigliere."

Jones expected his followers to work hard for him, move into group housing and consent to his extraordinary control over their lives.

Phyllis became a "counselor," which meant watching and reporting about other members. She was someone who informed "Dad," as Jones followers called him; whatever opinion and behavior might potentially challenge his ultimate and absolute authority.

Gene and Phyllis were both members of the "Planning Commission," a kind of "inner circle" of core members that included about 100 of the cult's most diehard devotees. They were the group elite, though they didn't get much sleep, private time and independent thinking was explicitly discouraged. Jones kept his commission so busy they were often in a state of exhaustion.

Jones exercised the powers of suggestion, persuasion and manipulation to create a kind of alternative social universe amongst his followers. By 1975 the Chaikins and others were conditioned to accept without question public punishment and humiliation at group meetings.

Jones persuaded Phyllis to study nursing and she eventually helped at his care facilities for the elderly.

Jones also began to break the Chaikins apart. Gene was supposedly "paternalistic," a thought-terminating cliché used by the group and considered a grave offense.

Jones' dismissed the nuclear family as "noxious" and did everything possible to undermine traditional family ties. There could be only one "Dad" for everyone.

Teenage daughter Gail Chaikin became severely anorexic, but when Gene and Phyllis sought permission to take her to a doctor, Jones refused.

Toward the end of 1975 Jones staged the first "White Night," which was a euphemism for rehearsing a mass suicide. The Planning Commission was required to drink wine they believed was poisoned.

Jones' followers became a voting bloc in San Francisco and helped elect Mayor George Moscone in 1976.

But the scandals that swirled around Jones made him a political liability as well as an asset. He was arrested for lewd conduct toward a male police officer in a movie theater in December 1973, but somehow managed to escape prosecution. Jones also sodomized some young male followers.

Former members also persistently began to complain about Jones bad behavior, increasingly in public through the press.

During 1973 Gene Chaikin went to Guyana, to begin setting up the compound that would eventually become the infamous Jonestown. Beginning in July 1977 onward, more than 1,000 Jones followers left America for Jonestown.

Phyllis Chaikin wrote her parents in late 1977 describing life within the cult compound:

"Have not heard from you - mail to interior is delayed. I wonder how you are doing. Would you believe it I am administering the entire medical health staff at Jonestown. We have a fine young doctor, 2 nurse practitioners and a number of RNs and LVNs. Bright young people the doctor and I are training are Health Care Workers. They are becoming integrated in the whole health process here. They go to every residence in Jonestown twice a day to make sure everyone is ok - they have been trained to do monthly breast exams. Two were La Maze coaches when the first baby was born at Jonestown, which was a highlight in my life - I was the circulating nurse. As you can imagine - it is very exciting and educational to oversee such a progressive system. I think of you frequently..."

Meanwhile investigative journalists in California exposed Jones; such as New West magazine, which would become part of Herbert Alexander's press clipping collection.

Jim Jones claimed to be the father of John-Victor Stoen, the son of Timothy and Grace Stoen. This became an increasingly strange delusional obsession, which went as far as demanding that Tim Stoen renounce his fatherhood in a sworn statement.

Stoen, a Stanford-educated attorney, once supervised Gene Chaikin's legal work for the group.

After the Stoen marriage collapsed Grace left the group, but Jones sent John-Victor to Guyana in order to frustrate any attempts to gain custody. Finally, on March 20, 1977 Tim Stoen also left the cult compound.

But Stoen's little boy remained behind becoming a "God-child" within the group. John-Victor would also ultimately die there in the 1978 mass murder/suicide.

Tim Stoen became an outspoken critic of Jim Jones after he left Jonestown. And the attorney formed a support group for families called "Concerned Relatives" in California. He also fought for custody of his son.

After Tim and Grace Stoen pursued their case through the courts in Guyana, bailiffs came to the cult compound with summonses, but they were chased off by security armed with guns and machetes.

One night in August 1977 Jones declared another "White Night." Gene Chaikin watched his children stand quietly in a jungle clearing, line up with their friends to drink fruit punch that Jones said contained cyanide.

Gene had finally seen enough. He was one of the few at Jonestown that still had his passport and permission from Jones to travel outside the compound. Gene was sure that Jones was insane and that the lives of his children were in danger.

Chaikin flew to San Francisco and met with his family. Jones became furious and considered his words of doubt "blasphemy." Within Jonestown the situation was called "the Chaikin crisis."

Jones summoned Gene to return to the compound. But the doubting devotee mailed his leader a long letter explaining his concerns instead.

That letter is within FBI files and states as follows:

"I left because I am no longer willing to live in a situation of anxiety or bi-weekly crisis ... for several reasons: 1) my nerves just won't take it any more, I'm too beat, 2) it is impossible to build anything in that sort of atmosphere because building requires lots of planning and continuity of effort and application - the continuity is destroyed by the crisis mentality, 3) because I feel that the crisis environment is to some extent created and maintained by your state of mind ... I think you suffer from a lack of balance, both of perspective and behavior. I detest being lied to and manipulated. You have, over the years, done a lot of both ... Even in the present situation when I asked for the children you lied to me, said you would send them out, but held off till Phyllis could get here so that you would have some basis for hanging on ... I would rather be told straight out than 'put on.' What I do at this juncture depends to a considerable extent on what you say ... You leave me very few choices. Phyllis will come in tonight and I suppose we will talk ... but I think you and I now have very little to say to each other..."

Gene Chaikin demanded the immediate release of his children. Jones appeared to consent but was actually lying, hoping to persuade the father to return to the compound, supposedly to talk things out.

Gene would not leave without his family, which became Jim Jones hook.

According to Jonestown survivor Tim Carter, Phyllis Chaikin was sent out to visit Gene. In a hotel room in Jamaica she refused the support her husband needed to remove their children from the group.

At about that time Gail Chaikin seemingly oblivious wrote in a letter to her grandparents in California:

"We're doing real well and are very happy at our new home. We have many streams, trees, beautiful plants, & wild flowers growing all around are [sic] area plus the different crops we planted. You can't believe how beautiful it is here. The air is free from pollution; there's only the pleasant scent of the abundant trees. We have fields upon fields of food. Mom, Dad and David (who is really growing up) are all doing fine, are healthier than ever before in their life and love it here."

Gene ultimately returned to Jonestown and Jones immediately ordered that a powerful sedative Thorazine be added to his food and that he be under constant watch. Chaikin reportedly spent most of the rest of his life sedated and confined to the compound "Extended Care Unit," where those labeled as "dissidents" were to be "resocialized."

In a personal journal recovered from Jonestown it said, "Phyllis Chaikin said she wanted to change her name. She thinks she has been too dependent on Gene. Gene agreed with her."

As the end approached, Phyllis wrote the following in a letter to Jones, preserved in the FBI files:

"Dad...The very people who resist Revolutionary Suicide because they want to save their asses would make excellent captives for the enemy ...Though the strongest might kill themselves before being taken, the weakest - no matter what they might say in public meetings - would not kill themselves and would be the first to talk...We prepare the people by reading the words of strong, assertive revolutionaries of the past who took this choice over the p.a. system ... We will meet in the pavilion surrounded with highly trusted security with guns. Names will be called off randomly. People will be escorted to a place of dying by a strong personality ... who is loving, supported [sic] but non-sympathetic. They are accompanied by two strong security men with guns. (I don't trust people to arrange their own death ... but [it] can be arranged by outside pressure and no alternatives left open.) At the place of dying they are shot in the head and if Larry [Dr. Larry Schact] does not believe they are definitely dead, their throat is slit with a scalpel. I would be willing to help here if it is necessary. The bodies would be thrown in a ditch. It might be advisable to blindfold the people before going to the death place in that the blood and body remains on the ground might increase the agitation."

There were more White Nights as more members left Jonestown; finally California Congressman Leo Ryan came to Jonestown to investigate due to concerns expressed by his constituents. Ryan arrived on November 14, 1978. Some Jonestown residents passed Ryan notes asking that he take them out with him. Ryan then asked Jones on their behalf. At one point, one of Jones ardent followers assaulted Ryan with a knife, drawing blood before he was pulled away.

When Congressman Ryan's group attempted to board their aircraft at an isolated landing strip they were attacked by a group of Jones' armed followers. Ryan was shot dead. Upon receiving news of that the planned killings had been accomplished Jones launched his final White Night. Only this time cyanide was in the fruit punch, brought out in tubs by the nursing staff.

Phyllis Chaikin, under the supervision of Dr. Larry Schact, dispensed the poison.

Attorney Charles Garry was in Jonestown on the last night. He had asked to see Gene Chaikin, but was refused. After the mass murder/suicide began, Jones reportedly told Garry to run away. He managed to escape into the jungle with Mark Lane, another lawyer on Jones' payroll.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on November 26, 1978, eight days after the tragedy at Jonestown Garry recalled, "I kept wanting to see Gene Chaikin. They kept telling me he was sick. And Mark kept telling me not to ask them anymore. He said, 'They're not going to let you, don't ask anymore.' And when we were in the jungle, I said, 'Why did you keep telling me not to ask?' Then he told me the whole story. He said, 'Gene Chaikin is drugged, if he's still alive...'"

Mark Lane believes that Gene was ultimately murdered in the Extended Care Unit, while tranquilized and helpless.

The remains of Gene Chaikin most probably lie with Phyllis, Gail and David Chaikin in a mass grave for the unclaimed dead of Jonestown in Dover, Delaware.

For many years after the death of their only child and her family, Herbert and Freda Alexander continued to live in the house they built at Silver Lake. Neighbors said they were a "sweet" elderly couple. By the early 1990s, a niece, who apparently was their only surviving relative, persuaded them to move into a retirement home where they both died.

In 1977 Herbert and Freda Alexander wrote their daughter for the last time:

"We have at long last opened our hearts to you, expressing the sorrow and agony which we have restrained over six long years. Any time you express the wish to resume normal relations and exchange with us, the past will be forgotten. For after all we do love you and the children more than any other persons. We shall continue to cherish you to our last day on earth. The peerless joy of raising you from childhood to youth is a unique life experience, indeed...Your father and mother."

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