Barry Isaacson: Jonestown ... A cache of letters hidden in the basement brings to life a house, a family and the tragedy that would change everything

Roundup: Talking About History

“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.

In a separate envelope were letters written by Phyllis from San Francisco and later from Jonestown, Guyana, where she and her husband had moved with their children in 1975. There were fond letters to their grandparents from Gail and David. The most moving document in the cache was a carbon copy of a painful valediction from Dr. Alexander to Phyllis, written on an old manual typewriter on September 21, 1977. Tenderly, but with eloquent firmness, he reprimands her, perplexed and offended by her embrace of Jim Jones, the deviant cuckoo who had flown into the Alexanders’ nest and whom Phyllis and her fellow Peoples Temple members called “Dad”:...

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