Barry Isaacson

The secret letters of the Jonestown death cult

Thirty years after the mass suicides and murders in Guyana, Barry Isaacson unveils a cache of letters he found in his LA home, mapping the pain of one of the families

In 1993, my wife Jenny and I bought a small, beautiful, mid-century modern architectural house in the hills of Silver Lake, an enclave of East Los Angeles. We became aware that the previous owners, Dr Herbert and Mrs Freda Alexander, had lived for the previous 15 years with an awful family secret: their daughter Phyllis, son-in-law Gene Chaikin and two teenage grandchildren had died with 914 other members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple movement in the infamous Jonestown mass-murder/suicides of 18 November 1978. In an orderly manner, the Jonestown community, which included 250 children, had ingested a cocktail consisting of fruit punch, cyanide and sedatives. Infants, children and others unwilling to drink the liquid had it forced down their throats by syringe. Our estate agent mentioned that a cache of correspondence might have been left somewhere in the house by the Alexanders; we looked but found nothing until, earlier this year, a handy- man emerged from the foundations with a battered vinyl briefcase. In the briefcase were letters written to her parents from Phyllis in Jonestown. These and documents I found in the FBI evidence files chart Phyllis Chaikin’s strange descent from contented middle-class family life to fanaticism and infanticide.

Phyllis Alexander was born in 1939, the same year her parents commissioned the house from the architect Harwell H. Harris. Herbert and Freda Alexander were socialist intellectuals, part of a Silver Lake clique that included members of the blacklisted ‘Hollywood Ten’. There is no indication that Phyllis’s childhood was anything but happy, and her letters to her parents are full of respect and affection. After attending the University of California and studying history under her father at Los Angeles City College, Phyllis married Eugene Chaikin, another ‘red diaper baby’ whose family had been under scrutiny by the FBI for suspected communist sympathies.

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