It began as a favor to an old friend.
“She heard there were some documents about her family at the California Historical Society, and asked me to see what I could find,” says Denice Stephenson.
Nearly four years later, the volunteer archivist from San Francisco has organized tens of thousands of documents and photographs of the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple — 170 boxes of haunting remnants of a social movement that ended tragically in the jungles of Guyana more than 26 years ago.
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“It wasn’t like I set out to do this,” Stephenson says. “At first, I said, ‘I gotta fix Becky’s papers.’ But when the survivors started to come in, I really got hooked.”
Stephenson has recently edited “Dear People: Remembering Jonestown,” a selection of letters and poems, documents, government records, transcripts and commentary about Peoples Temple, all drawn from the collection. Published by the society and Berkeley’s Heyday Books, it is being released in time for Wednesday’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre world premiere of “The People’s Temple.”
Stephenson’s archival odyssey began decades ago when she and her husband, David Dower, were attending college with Rebecca Moore, whose two sisters, Carolyn Moore Layton and Annie Moore, died at Jonestown, along with Carolyn Moore’s son, Kimo, believed to be Jim Jones’ son.
“We stayed friends all these years,” says Stephenson of Rebecca Moore, now a San Diego State professor of religious studies.
When Moore asked her to check out the documents at the society, she didn’t hesitate. Soon she moved on to the mountain of boxes from Jonestown.
“I had to build up my tolerance. It isn’t easy material to go through,” says Stephenson. “But I found a lot of comfort in organizing everything. Like the 10,000 photographs of people I put in albums and labeled with names.”
Stephenson’s husband, the artistic director at Z Space Studio in San Francisco, had commissioned the Berkeley Rep production around the same time she was doing her research. Quite naturally, the archival materials became deeply woven into the play as well as the book.
The 171-page “Dear People” spans the 50-year history of the temple, with entries ranging from mundane to chilling.
A note from Maria Katsaris advises temple members what to bring to Jonestown:
“It would be helpful if things like moth balls, needles, thread, buttons, zippers, diapers, toilet paper, powdered Isomil or Soylac, hangers, office supplies, could be stashed in each person’s bags.”
An unsigned note found by American Embassy officials was written during the mass poisonings:
“TO WHOMEVER FINDS THIS NOTE: Collect all the tapes, all the writing all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over …Words fail … there is quiet as we leave this world. The sky is gray. People file (by) us slowly and take the somewhat bitter drink … This is the last day of our lives.”
As hard as it is to read at times, Stephenson says the book offers “a look at the papers that were left behind by a group of people whose collective death has long overwhelmed their individual stories.
“For the most part, we remember that a lot of people died. We do not remember — we may never have known — how they lived.”