B. Alethia Orsot was a committed member of Peoples Temple who lived in Jonestown. She happened to be in Georgetown, the capital, at the time of the Jonestown deaths. This essay represents an analysis of her experiences as part of Peoples Temple. It originally appeared in The Need For A Second Look At Jonestown, ed. Rebecca Moore and Fielding M. McGehee III (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989).
On September 30, 1926, I was born to Antonio and Alethia Kay Orsot. My father was professor of architecture on the campus of my birth, Georgia State College, as it was called at the time. When I was two years old my mother died of cancer after an extended illness. For many years I wondered, as I sometimes do now, what life would have been like had she lived.
I hated Mother’s Day, the only day of the year I would be singled out to wear a white rose, the symbol of motherlessness. I didn’t need or want to be reminded of the pain. I wasn’t thrilled about birthdays either. I wished I had never been born, or maybe born a turtle instead of a little girl. I could shrink into my shell and never come out. Now, with additional sorrow associated with being a mother, I still feel alienated on Mother’s Day.
But I was proud to have a father as intelligent as mine. It wasn’t every day of the year that a little girl could ride her bike on pavements that led to buildings designed by her father. His work was his life, and it now shows in a building named after him at Savannah State College.
When distinguished guests were invited to the college, they stayed at our house. And though I took it for granted at the time, this was a privilege to meet the great black personalities of our time. They included Langston Hughes, my favorite poet; Congressman Adam Clayton Powell; Hazel Scott, the vocalist and pianist; Dr. Charles Drew, a scientist in blood plasma; Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and president of Bethune-Cookman College; Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, physician and President of the National Newspaper Publishers Association; and many, many others whose names read like a roster of Who’s Who in Negro America.
During the Depression of the early 1930s, I faintly remember soup lines and old men standing around a fire trying to warm their frozen hands. I recall the children with holes in their shoes, and a piece of bread and a carrot stick in their lunch bags. I remember the other children too, the ones with fancy metal lunch boxes loaded with more than enough food for one child. It seemed I spent more time being aware of them than I was of what the teacher was saying, and I found myself often standing in the corner for doing so.
I can never remember a time when I didn’t feel that I belonged with the poorest children instead of where I was. I was always more comfortable around children and people who had the least. They made me feel free to be me. My family wasn’t rich, but we ate well and were fortunate enough to have the necessities and comforts of life.
I challenged my teachers. When we said the pledge of allegiance I asked, “With liberty and justice for all of whom?” The other children giggled, teased and called me “justice wagon.” After school, feeling more tormented and very much alone, I searched for one of the children who appeared to have less than others. Ellen and I were always secretly close, and the children who thought they knew me well, didn’t know me at all. When other classmates teased Ellen about her ragged clothes, I felt they were cruel. She had been in a fire and all the hair was burned off the back of her head.
By 1943, I had attended two private boarding schools for “colored”: Mather School for Girls in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Palmer Memorial Institute, in Sedalia, North Carolina. At the age of eleven I was the youngest student enrolled in Mather School. Other youngsters teased me for being too young to listen to their jokes. I thought the iron bars that divided us were those of the prison that I was in, since where they were was full of smiles and laughter. Always on the outside looking in, I felt like being outside was prison, and inside must have been freedom.
The iron bar of division was everywhere. Blacks, colored people, Negroes, by whatever name white America called us, we were all automatically associated with communists, radicals, criminals. Evil. Bad.
I thought these things through my years at Mather, but they did not originate there, nor did they end there. I was eleven summers and a thousand years old when I entered Mather, and already life had forced me to be an independent thinker. My person may have been segregated with the others of my color, but my mind was free.
As an industrial school, Mather taught me how to be a worker. I learned more about life in those three years than many people learn in a lifetime. I acquired the knowledge of being actively responsible for my well-being, appearance and environment. A dormitory matron inspected our rooms daily, checking on who was naughty and who was nice. If one received five demerits for non-conformance to order, it meant packing your bags; you were expelled. Later in life I learned to understand the importance of order.
Palmer Memorial Institute was quite different and was looked upon as a finishing school of high learning and black culture, good taste, proper table manners and etiquette for black students whose parents could afford the steep tuition. I learned how to say the proper thing at the proper time, how to hold a knife and fork in the correct manner, how to place a napkin just so, and by all means, how to sit, walk, speak and act like a lady. Personally I was more concerned about the quality of human life than ruffles and lace, table manners, and elitist attitudes and conversation. I received my high school diploma on May 23, 1943. I had earned it.
By September 1943, I had enrolled at Georgia State College with a major in Business Administration. Business subjects bored me and left me feeling cold and empty. I was more interested in learning why people treated each other so cruelly, and why the world was at war.
In 1946, I transferred to West Virginia State College, in Institute, West Virginia. Having moved from what was then an unaccredited college to one of accreditation, I found myself completely immersed in a boisterous sea of insecurity. My first challenge was to prepare for a comprehensive examination that embraced four years of study at a college I had just enrolled in. “I can’t do it,” I said. Statistics, Money and Banking, and Business Law were uninteresting, but I managed it all with a B+ average. My grades qualified me for the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and on August 15, 1947, I graduated with a B.S. degree in Business Administration.
Two years later I was working as a secretary in the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C. Here I encountered my first on-the-job struggle against racial discrimination. Within a year I was well-known as a spitfire, fighting racism every step of the way. White secretaries with high school diplomas were promoted within months, while black secretaries with college degrees and ten years’ service remained at the lowest grade level.
After obtaining the cooperation of the victims, we petitioned for relief on the grounds of racial discrimination. With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we won our case. The white racist supervisor of the stenographic pool was removed and a black lady took over. We were told it was the first time in history. But there was a price to pay: the word “troublemaker” was placed in my personnel folder.
In 1949, I married and soon found another job with my husband at the Department of Justice. Again I said, “What justice, and for whom?” What else could I say when we couldn’t find a decent place to live? Even real estate newspaper ads were divided along color lines.
On August 16, 1952, I gave birth to our one and only son, Antonio A. Harvey. I gave him my father’s first name rather than my husband’s name of Woodrow because I refused to name him after a white American president. I wanted for our son a gift of honesty on this, his first day on earth.
By 1959 my husband and I had divorced because I wanted to be free of the boundaries that restricted my mind. Following the divorce, I was faced with rearing our son alone in an economy that fell short of meeting our needs. We just barely existed in a one-bedroom apartment.
The most compassionate person I knew during my eleven years of marriage was my mother-in-law, Victoria Harvey. I married my husband so I could have the mother, friend and sister of my choice, instead of someone else’s.
It was an unending struggle for survival on a secretary’s salary, even with the consistent financial help of his faithful father. Segregated neighborhoods were a part of life then, as they are now, in ghetto apartheid fashion. Poverty remains, as it shall always be, the worst form of tyranny.
Less than ten years later, my son and I moved from Washington, D.C. to California. One year and three months after that, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The bottom of my life fell out. This one man whom I had the pleasure of meeting personally in 1956, and joining with in the March on Washington in 1963, the one person who had done more than anyone else to further the cause of human rights and human dignity, was now dead at the age of 39. Who was going to represent our interests now? Who would be our leader?
The wicked have drawn their swords
And strung their bows
To bring low the poor and the needy
And to slaughter honest people
Their swords shall pierce their own hearts
And their bows shall be broken.
–Psalms 31:14, 15
I am not writing to judge or be judged, to prove or disprove, the actions of anyone in Peoples Temple, dead or alive. Nor is it my intention to bring pain to any living being by what I say. My only intent is to reflect what has been true for me and to show my indebtedness to the forgotten.
As in all wars, blood is shed, and people die. Peoples Temple, a political organization, was in a just war with capitalism. It was at war with a deceptive system of government which, by definition, cannot equalize the wealth of the governed. It was at war with the political compromises that rob us of those inalienable rights and democratic principles we in this country once fought a revolution over.
Indeed, I am saddened by the death of our Congressman and those wounded or killed on the Port Kaituma airstrip. Equally so, I am dejected by the deaths of 917 people, those jailed in connection with the tragedy and the need for the Jonestown community. It is extremely distressing for me to think that advocates of social change might have died in vain.
Now I am alone without Jim Jones, the master teacher of my life. He gave me the kind of family I never had before or since. His example of living principle was beyond imagination. He was a friend, my only one, at the time I met him in 1970. I am now a person with meaning to my life, because I knew him.
I was not brainwashed by Jim Jones and he certainly is not here to brainwash me now. But most assuredly, I was deprogrammed by Jim Jones from a capitalistic mentality to a socialistic viewpoint, which, fortunately, is one of high moral commitment that supersedes money, illusion and geographical boundaries, and that places people first. Now I see what Jim meant when he said, “The only sin is capitalism.” When people are taught and forced by the system to deceive, to assume superiority, and to exploit and delude others in order to survive, it’s wrong. If we do not recognize our responsibilities towards other members of the human race, we victimize everyone — including ourselves — in our high act of treason against truth.
I will never forget that electrifying moment on Saturday, April 11, 1970, when I saw Jim for the first time. He called me out from an audience of hundreds: “Bea Orsot from Savannah, Georgia, come up to the podium.” When I did, I noticed he had tears in his eyes as he looked down upon me with the words, “You’ve suffered long enough, my child.” When he told me the contents of a note I’d written to God 37 years earlier, I knew he wasn’t an ordinary man, and that I would be with him forever.
When I wrote to him about my faults, as he insisted we do, be appreciated and respected me regardless of the content. Who of us was not guilty, least of all me? From the beginning I loved him for that. When I offered a humble apology for insensitivity to others of less fortunate circumstances, he accepted and respected my written analysis, honesty and ability to see and correct my faults so that others could live in peace. Active empathy was the key. My personal struggle to admit my humanness played a vital role in building character. How could we win worldly peace if we couldn’t find peace within ourselves? World peace can never be won without the triumph of principle.
Jim Jones was the most understanding person I have ever known because he took the time to understand. Out of necessity to put himself in another’s unfortunate shoes he studied the ills of society that cause our sorrows, as does a doctor of psychology, political science, or world history. He was not an ignorant man. This is why it is extremely painful to realize that few give him the understanding he not only taught, but gave us every moment of his life. I shall not forget him, nor do I want to. His memory will always be the eternal flame by which I live.
There would have been no need for Jonestown to exist if Jim Jones had not cared about the quality of life for the minority population in this country, those so-called misfits of society of whom I am one. Each day since the tragedy, I have remembered that this man created harmony and rhythm in the lives of thousands. I remember a note Jim wrote to me in 1970:
Thank you for making the quest towards a united mankind along with me and others who truly understand my administration of justice!
At last, without pain, ridicule or abuse, I had finally found someone who took the time to listen and with whom I could be honest and direct, someone who understood my motives. Heretofore, for the most part, the people in my life didn’t want the truth. They were more comfortable believing a lie on the inside rather than taking the time to accept the truth from the outside. They wanted to control and use me for their own purposes and a few of them finally admitted it. They wanted the center of attention and glorified flattery to enhance their starving egos. My perplexed life started preparing me long ago to be with Jim Jones. He let me be who I am without interference or desire for selfish gain or control. For that I will forever love him. Pure love never dies. Love is eternal.
Nonetheless, I can only say that if I had been in Jonestown that day, I would have proudly joined others who laid down their lives for what they, like me, believed to be right rather than surrender to the world the freedom and egalitarian model that we worked so hard to achieve. We wanted to demonstrate to the world that people of all races, color and ethnic backgrounds, age or circumstances, could live and work together harmoniously for a common cause. In the end, we made a decision to die, as the Jews did in Masada, rather than forsake the dream.
I miss the caring family Jim provided for me, the camaraderie we shared and the security of knowing that I would never grow old alone, with no one to understand and care for my needs. Now I’m a senior citizen without my family who toiled in the burning sun, who struggled, sacrificed and surrendered their egos to the greatest cause on earth. Who is to speak for them? Are they to lie there forgotten and thrown away behind exaggerations, distortions and misrepresentations?
Not a chance while I live, because the only peace for me is in the triumph of principle.
It is not easy to relive a story about a man whom the world has labeled as a madman. And though I don’t support his every action, write it I must because I hail him as master teacher of life, friend, savior, father, liberator, and peacemaker.
Although time has answered many questions for me since the tragedy, there still remain jagged pieces of the puzzle that do not fit. No doubt my life will end before all of the truth is known. There are so many possibilities. The tragedy has come and gone, and no one knows exactly what happened throughout the entirety of such a mysterious and complex cataclysm. Assumptions are not truth.
Whether the burden of telling this side of Peoples Temple is meant for me or whether I have chosen it, I cannot say. Probably both. As with many things in life, one’s work is dictated by a combination of God-given talents and fate.
In 1976, I received word from Jim through Gene Chaiken that I would be the writer for the Temple. At the time, I had no idea what he meant, because the only writing I was involved with was as Head of Letter Writing in the San Francisco Temple. Gene had a camera with him and took my picture, also at Jim’s request. After the tragedy, only one person I knew had a copy of the photograph, but she died before I thought to ask for it. The truth was, I didn’t remember the picture — or Jim’s message — until much later, when I started writing.
I know now what Jim meant, that the story of the Temple must live through my words. I must write what I feel, just as I began to do after the tragedy. Intense thoughts, jotted down from time to time and tucked away in an old shoe box have now become notebooks, drafts of manuscripts, letters and journals of ancient reflections as they have been moved from one hiding place to another in order to avoid painful rehearsals with broken hearts. It has taken the kind of courage I would have had on that last day of November 18 to force myself to review all the voluminous pages I’ve written, to reorganize again in an attempt to condense a lifetime into one essay, and to continue making my life matter in the face of an unpopular cataclysm. The world is against me, the same world we tried to save.
Few people in Jonestown or in the states had the opportunity of speaking personally with Jim Jones other than in public meetings. I was never in his presence where there were only two of us. If this had been allowed for all, he would not have had the time or the energy in one lifetime to talk to the thousands of people who came through the doors of Peoples Temple, people deprived of a fair chance, recognition, understanding, lasting friendship and love.
Jim Jones did not need or want this thankless, torturous responsibility. He got involved because no one else had. In the 1960s, leaders of the poor had been gunned down. Who was to care now? He filled the vacuum and gave the credit to socialism.
Contrary to what one heard or read, thousands of people sincerely loved and highly respected Jim Jones. We could not do otherwise. Only one who has experienced such love and compassion, unselfishness and pure motives can possibly know the indestructibility of that immortal truth. Any other illusion of love is simply another fantasy created by the glorified images we have of ourselves.
We in Peoples Temple were composed of a cross-section of all personalities nourished by the political system. Some, like myself, were fortunate enough to be formally educated, and to be able to think logically. As leaders and workers, we were not mindless robots, but intelligent human beings. We were made intellectual by life itself, not by words on a scroll presented on graduation day.
I learned more about human behavior in Peoples Temple than from all the books I’ve read and all the professors I’ve known. I’ve learned over the years what different personalities are capable of when pressured for commitment to an unpopular cause. Some sacrificed their personal desires in exchange for a greater, higher cause; it is to them I owe my allegiance. But then there’s also the other side of truth. Without it, I’d have no story with which to compare or further prove that all things work together for good.
Most people cannot be trusted to honor their word when the time for commitment to truth has come. They run, using lame excuses to avoid cooperative involvement, fearing the personal pain which is as much a part of life as joy is. For part of the truth is, unless one can feel pain, one cannot feel anything else. They cover for themselves. They desert, and then turn on the deserted like poisonous snakes when their personal comfort is threatened. They forsake the people, then lie, distort and misrepresent in order to make their irresponsible selves look good and right. They defend their positions perfectly, even when the good people die, and they never explain or defend the deaths. They cast them aside in shame, causing their sisters and brothers of the human family to be wounded, killed or jailed, tragic events that their earlier commitment to elevated human principles could have prevented. They refuse to accept constructive criticism and to discipline their lives to force themselves to grow up to the truth. They choose to label those who try to enlighten them as undesirable, difficult, brainwashed, and overly demanding. Having chosen the path of least resistance, they never recognize that those who enlighten may be the ones on the path of responsibility.
At approximately 3:30 a.m., November 14, 1978, Jim’s daughter, Agnes passed along a message from her father to prepare myself to board our boat, the Cudjoe, to keep a dental appointment in Georgetown on the 17th. I didn’t want to leave, because I was trying to help a 19-year-old black man from a San Francisco ghetto learn how to read, and I asked Agnes to express my feelings to Jim. She returned with another message. “No, my dear, you’ve had that toothache long enough, and enough is enough.” Along with his refusal for me to stay in Jonestown came a personal apology for having overlooked my dental request of long standing. In the midst of continual harassment and threats to our survival, either by concerned relatives, traitors, or sources unknown at this writing, I wondered how he found the time or energy to think about something so minor as my toothache. This was the Jim Jones I knew four days before the tragedy, not the insane, demonic personality portrayed by a defector-influenced media.
Now since November 18, 1978, the day of the tragedy, most who knew Jim Jones have forgotten the sense of justice and humanity he brought into their lives. Even now some of the survivors don’t appear actively to realize that what he taught was a way of life never to be forgotten. The majority no longer remember that Jim Jones is the same man who was once their only friend when concerned relatives and friends turned their backs by refusing to listen; the same man whose discipline oftentimes saved human beings from eventual capital punishment; the same man who freed them from jail for crimes no fault of their own; the same man who then developed, organized and redirected their skillful, hidden talents for service to their brothers and sisters.
It’s extremely difficult for me to understand how anyone can totally denounce the one person in their life who gave meaning to his or her being. Frequently I have asked myself, “How could they desert him in the last days of his illness when he made them well by giving them a reason to live?” Such questions have plagued me constantly since the tragedy. They allow his memory to lie deep in the gutter of scorn when it is they who caused him to fall.
At Jim’s insistence, then, I kept my dental appointment in Georgetown, Guyana, 125 miles away, on November 17, 1978, the day before the tragedy. The next day, November 18, I prepared a full-course dinner for more than 35 people. This was the last meal Sharon Amos and her three children would eat.
When all the dishes had been done and the kitchen was in order, I took a shower, dressed, and prepared myself for an evening out at the movies. I never saw the film, though, because as I waited in the living room for others to join me, someone walked in saying “God, my God, I don’t believe it!” Trying to find out what had happened wasn’t easy. People were dazed as they realized that Sharon and her children were bleeding to death in the bathroom with their throats slit.
As I watched Guyanese police carry their covered bodies past my horror-petrified face, I remember thinking that Jim would be devastated. It wasn’t until I returned to the States that I learned that Sharon had received an order from Jonestown for all to die. Then and now, I did not perceive Sharon’s act as one of insanity, or as the result of brainwashing, but as one of unmatched self-sacrificial courage, of which I am not capable.
On the morning of November 19th, the day after the tragedy, we were awakened by news flashes blitzing into our Georgetown headquarters. “Three hundred people have committed suicide in Jonestown.” In a flash, we were without family, homeless, friendless, and penniless in dead center of the eye of a hurricane that had shattered our lives. Trying to keep pace with conflicting media reports was torture. We were never certain of the truth. Here we were, without a fair trial, being judged by America, and the world, when we were the victims!
“It can’t be,” I cried. “Not without me, it can’t.” But it was. The end of our hope to change the world. The death of a political organization whose goal was to unite the world before we self destruct. The end of solidarity. And now it was over, all swept away and buried in the name of madness. “God, how can it be?” I wasn’t there to exercise my final commitment to ultimate principle for what I knew to be right. I was very angry: they had gone without me. A toothache had separated me forever from those I had loved so long. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted so much to be there, not left back here in hell in the struggle for survival, where people are not true friends but merely glorified performers on the stage of pretense, I wanted to share in that final moment of unity, and knew I had been robbed of the chance. My body shook, and my tear-filled eyes stared into empty spaces that had no places to go. I wanted to die.
Tears flowed into oceans of inner torture as I remembered the words of Dr. King with regard to ultimate principle: “We must develop the quiet courage of dying for a cause,” and I knew that nothing in my life had ever been worth dying for except in Peoples Temple. Now everything had gone wrong. Blood was shed, people hurt and killed. God, how could it have happened? The lies, exaggerations, distortions and outright deception had gotten out of hand. An impossible situation snowballed: people believed what they heard and came to help, never knowing what had caused them to be there. Over-reaction, misunderstanding, conflict of interests, invasion of privacy, violation of human rights, treachery!
Arriving back in the United States was devastating. The mind-shattering nightmare deepened as responsible citizens of democratic principles and advocates of necessary social change were labeled by America as criminals of the insane. While waiting at New York’s Kennedy airport for a plane to California, I saw them for the first time: books for sale about a movement the writers knew nothing about; books that purported to know our final moments, when we didn’t know ourselves; books that professed to know us, when the authors had never been members; books that judged our leader insane, when the writers hadn’t even met him.
Newspapers all around shrieked with exaggerations, misrepresentations, concoctions of half-truths and outright lies; treated us like fugitives from justice when we were the victims. “Vultures,” I screamed, “capitalizing on the pains of shock victims who had lost as many as twenty relatives!” And the vultures were there themselves: reporters with tape recorders and microphones and cameras, wanting a glimpse at this sideshow of their self-created three-ring circus.
Pressured, loaded questions were thrown at us with the expectation of split-second answers. Questions set the stage for negative responses. Years of work, sweat, tears, sacrifice and struggle can never be expressed in mere news flashes.
The press had never been fair. It was unwilling, long before the tragedy, to write more about our many humanitarian works. Reporters gloated over minor distractions, such as sex and “false healings.” The healing of the mind, what Jim was really after, can never be false. The matter of sex is a private affair.
When we blindly believe what we read and hear to be truth, we are victimized by the real form of brainwashing, the most effective weapon of oppression, the opium that insures absence of knowledge.
The media attack began in August 1977 with a New West magazine article by Marshall Kilduff, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. Jim accurately prophesied the trouble Kilduff would cause. As a recording secretary for the Temple, I had written his words down: “Beware of a man with other than dark complexion who will be wearing thick-rimmed glasses. He’ll come to spy on good people and bring this place down.”
So when Marshall Kilduff finally came through our doors, I knew who he was. Kilduff directed his focus completely on sensationalist, distorted versions and false accusations made by disgruntled former Temple members.
After the Kilduff attack, others hurled themselves into the inferno. Frightful articles blazed up out of nowhere. It was more akin to a horror movie. Why did they focus their cameras and cutting words on the secure iron gates at the San Francisco Temple, instead of on the beautiful, secure, rent-free home it provided for us? Or upon the packing crates bound for Guyana, full of grain and dried beans, clothes, shoes, toys, dairy equipment, and everything else 1000 people needed? Why didn’t they write about the guards at Jonestown who protected us from outside threats to our survival, rather than about the guards who, according to them, kept people in Jonestown against their will?
The power of right-wing media chased us miles across this country and over the rough seas. They hounded, clamored, demanded, invaded, violated, discredited and destroyed us. They wouldn’t leave us alone to heal and try to enjoy the happiness we had earned. And they waited for us upon our return.
Some interviewers reported the facts as I gave them, but at the same time, they seasoned the interviews to make me look brainwashed, unbalanced, ridiculous, and without human dignity. Given another chance, I’d choose to speak to no one. The knowledge I gained from those encounters gave birth and strength to the realization that I would have to write my own story someday.
Out of all the reporters who questioned me, only one — somehow — understood what I was trying to say. Lidia Wasowitz of United Press International captured my perspective and wrote her piece under the headline: “Jonestown Survivor’s Regret — ‘I Missed the Final Moment of Unity.'”
She was the exception, though. I remember one reporter asking me, for example, if I thought life would ever be normal again. Life was never normal for me before. With all these jagged, deceptive pieces still outstanding, how the hell could life be normal ever? Bombarded with insurmountable questions, I wanted to scream, die, or both.
When traitors deserted socialism in the early 1970s, Jim knew that the rumors they would circulate would be a concoction of deceptive measures in defense of the glorified images they had of themselves. He talked about it then, and he talked about it in the end. He knew how people would misunderstand our disciplinary measures, for example, because our organization functioned on a different set of human values. We were at war with a system that divides the hearts of people one from another! So when traitors returned to the system, Jim wept, not for himself, but for humanity.
It’s important for me to say that not all the people who left the Temple were out to destroy us. I remember good people who left, and I remember why some of them left. It wasn’t because of Jim Jones, or because of discipline, but because of the anti-social human behavior patterns of some of the members: telling lies, exaggerating, misrepresenting, deceiving and discrediting the human dignity of people drove some from the church. I remember a time I nearly left for the same reason, but when I remembered my vow of loyalty to truth, I could not leave.
A few other good people left Jonestown on the last day. The tremendous and unimaginable pressure on every phase of life caused by constant outside threats to our survival was at the zenith every moment. Wanting to leave was clearly understandable, even though my own decision would have been to remain with my people.
I remember well when the first traitors left. Behind the podium he sat, twirling around in that big black chair of his, tears streaming down his face. For a long time, I stared as if there were only two of us. Yet the auditorium was filled with people. That day, that hour and moment, I decided “I’ll never leave him, even if there are only two of us left.”
The traitors’ work filtered throughout the media coverage, which focused on the unproven negative sides of Peoples Temple. They misrepresented the facts about themselves, describing “beatings,” “spankings,” and so-called “torture boxes” (a legitimate means of sensory deprivation in this country), to defend their egos. The fact is, drugs were a necessary means to calm the violent, those who were angry with capitalism, and those who were determined to continue their inhumane practices of child molestation and abuse on our children. Discipline was always warranted when disrespect for our seniors was shown. And for those who disrespected and violated the human rights of people by further expanding threats to our survival, drugs were necessary to preserve the lives of human beings; disciplinary measures to equal the offense to cause the offender to feel what it was like to experience the suffering one had caused for others. How else could they learn?
I didn’t see an “elite” inner circle at work. I saw the Planning Commission comprised of people whose formal education and natural talents rightfully qualified them for responsible positions. They did not receive favors. Instead, their work requirements caused them to get less sleep than anyone else. In my mind, the situation evened out.
Upon my return to the United States, close family members, with the exception of a precious few, wanted no part of my views. None had ever sought me out, or responded to my letters while I was living in Jonestown. After the tragedy, no one offered me money, or permanent shelter. No one called me in Georgetown with an offer of temporary shelter except for my son, who has never shown an interest in Peoples Temple.
Some labeled me “brainwashed imbecile of the insane.” Others wanted to separate me from “the rest.” I was “the rest” as I am now. Those who wanted to be seen by the camera’s eye — both family and Peoples Temple-related — didn’t miss their chance either to appear self-righteous and exalted.
My life began moving uncontrollably in reverse motion after the tragedy. In the twinkling of an eye I was an alien in my native land. Again, that is. I wasn’t at all happy about it because these same people who had used, abused, deceived, deserted and caused me to be in Peoples Temple in the first place were still here, and very much alive. Where was I going? I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward.
I was stuck in a land where people escaped scot-free after they used me as a pawn; where honesty is often ignored, unacceptable, and ridiculed, and where deceit is honored as dignity and a “character” reference; where a few rich, powerful, disguised slavemasters keep us in their yoke of bondage; and where men who kill people defending themselves are not sent to prison but awarded gold medals instead. And from their luxury-coated, egotistical, deceptive pedestals of insecurity they strip us of our dignity, and dictate what their definitions of justice are.
How could I rest when I saw the Temple’s teachings all buried with my people? How could I respond when children threw veiled hints of emotional blackmail at senior mothers, instead of respecting the caring and sincere nature of the sacrificial suffering they have endured for them?
How could I stop the turbulent sea of tears when denied a Christmas right to leave gifts for my son without making an appointment first? Who is married to whom, and who is mother? No one?
How could I find peace when people without children were not reprimanded but instead supported for disrespectfully dictating to mothers what justice is for mothers? A mother’s sacrifice, pain, hunger and love will forever survive for her only son.
For the first few months I barely lived through it. I attempted to convince myself, with little success, there must have been a good reason for my being alive. Preoccupied with death, I wanted to escape the imprisonment of this inequitable, unjust planet of hell; such lack of respect for one’s intelligence and integrity by those who claimed to love me; relatives saying they were related, when I knew that the majority of those who had demonstrated relativity were all dead; insensitive relatives cruelly saying, “I told you so. You are worse off because you knew Jim Jones.” But I knew, a fighter in the struggle for justice can never be worse off. They were determined to rob me — and themselves — of our black identity both as life-long victims and proud fighters in the struggle for human rights and human dignity, intent on destroying all I had left to survive.
My family forbade me to call anyone connected with the Temple, when the Temple, not they, had been my only friend. Stripped of the dignity of who I was and am, I was deprived of the few friends left, to heighten the despair. They wanted to strip me of all. Even the writing of one’s own life they would not allow. “Worse than death,” I cried. But trying to explain this to someone uneducated in truth is like talking to a dead man.
The previous eight and one-half years had liberated me. I was no longer as I once was. I was back now, facing the same people who love only themselves, the same deceptive tactics and undercover tyranny I thought I had left behind forever. Now I had to live it all over again. My oppressors, personal and impersonal, were staring me in the face. Now I had to worry about survival again.
I no longer wondered who the gangsters, murderers, deceivers and terrorists were. They weren’t all behind bars, that’s for sure. And some were behind bars because of the inequities in our society. And others, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, were behind bars for political reasons.
I pondered why some women continued to allow themselves to be controlled and used by chauvinistic personalities instead of being independent and free. How could I be calm when sons dishonored their mothers for speaking the truth, but glorified them for being submissive to tyranny? How could I be free when people were ridiculed and shunned because of the shabby clothes they wore, or because they associated with me? How could life be normal when no one understood the absolute need for a jungle community to have weapons? How were we supposed to defend ourselves? How could I rest when our attempts to establish conscientious eating habits through smaller portions and periodic fasting — and to understand to a small degree the hunger that most of the world feels every day — were deliberately misinterpreted as indicating we never had enough to eat?
Now that I’ve had ten years to think and place further facts in perspective, I can only lay the blame elsewhere. I can’t blame my relatives for being born into a deceptive system that creates their personalities. Nor can I judge them for attempting to protect me from the nonexistent hit squads.
Some attempted to coerce me into writing an instant book, solely as a profit-making venture. Only the society we live in can be blamed for that, not the individual pawns. Knowing my story would require years to unfold, I flatly refused. Therefore, in order to set the printed record straight and to insure that the contents of my mind will continue to live long after the planet earth has claimed my body, I’ve condensed my life’s work into these few pages, taking the time it requires and deserves. Ten years. My struggles in life against all odds have taught me that the jewels of pain can move mountains when properly channeled, and that each moment of suffering is worth a lifetime of wisdom.
In 1979, I moved away from the people who claimed to care in an attempt to re-establish myself and bring some stability into my life. To have remained would have been instant death, and complete surrender of my ideals. I moved in with another senior Peoples Temple survivor whose human values equaled mine. Thanks to the honorable character of Nettie Scheynayder, I found a highway out of hell in keeping with the teachings of Jim Jones: socialism.
I eventually began working as a secretary in Charles Garry’s office in San Francisco. He had been the Temple attorney for years. I remember his visit to Jonestown in 1977, when he came away calling our community a “paradise.” During that time I met Sally, a faithful comrade like none other. In ten years she’s never deserted me, or my cause, regardless of circumstances. With the exception of my roommate, she’s the only one who has demonstrated consistent interest and understanding of my writing.
During my time in Charles Garry’s office, I was interviewed by several people writing books about Peoples Temple. It seemed incredible to me, since none had been members. After one book was published, I noted that none of my words were used. Again I knew I would have to write my own story. Otherwise, too much truth would go unsaid and unrecorded.
I moved in with another Temple member that same year. A decade later we are still living together and are committed to each other for life in keeping with the teachings of socialism. We’ve been through many rough struggles together, trying to survive. In nine years we’ve moved four times because the houses we rented were sold. We never had these kinds of worries in Peoples Temple.
In 1981 I became disabled as a result of a chronic back condition. With all I was enduring, mostly alone, my body had to cry out in rebellion. For over two years I was confined to bed. I lay there, day and night, looking up at the ceiling all those months, remembering Jim’s words of assurance, “All things, including pain, work together for good.” I remembered too that there are others who suffer more, who have no sight, arms, or legs. Surely I was no more special than they. So I accepted the pain and inconvenience in a positive manner, as Jim Jones always advised. I assured myself that this was the interim period needed to properly portray my true perspective as to who I am and why I didn’t die on November 18, 1978, along with my real family of the human race.
My health began to improve by 1983. The possibility of writing became real. In certain positions I could sit down, walk, and stand briefly. Maybe now it would be possible for me to return to my roots in Georgia. Because it seemed important, I decided to take the drive across country before the pain returned.
I would drive alone, if need be, but my friends insisted that another Peoples Temple survivor come along with me as a traveling companion. His wife and daughter died in Jonestown. Such a trip offered him an experience he would not otherwise have been able to afford. Neither would I, had I not just received my share of what the courts awarded to Peoples Temple survivors.
On May 13th — Jim’s birthday — my traveling companion and I left California for the east coast. The trip had been planned long before in my mind. I wanted to feel the perspective of my roots as a fully mature, free-thinking person, to set the record straight in my mind.
Five days later we arrived in Savannah, Georgia. The trip across country had done wonders for my health, and one of my small dreams had materialized. Barely recognizable by night, Georgia State College had become the integrated Savannah State College. Eight buildings designed by my father, Antonio Orsot, now stood strong and proud. What a relief, now, after all these years to see black and white together walking side by side, the way it always should have been.
The next morning I phoned Dr. Joan Gordon, my sociology professor. She insisted we come right over. Before long, I pulled out a letter I had written to someone who had recently interviewed me about the possibility of creating a film about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. That letter read, in part:
No one can portray it in a single book, including the one I write daily. No one can write it all. Jim Jones was as ‘you’ saw him only. His wisdom-intelligence led you only to the brink of your own mind. So, therefore, no pages can contain everyone’s story, everyone’s truth. There can be no single movie, no single book, only what is! Hence, I cannot participate in or be involved in any movie, or anyone’s story in proper length, except that of my own, which I know to be true. It is I who have lived it, am living it, and write, as I live…
s/ Beatrice A. Orsot
A Jonestown Survivor
I gave the letter to Dr. Gordon to read. After reading it, she looked up from the page and said, “This letter is a book in itself. You shouldn’t stop writing.” The truth is, I never have. To cease writing would be to die.
During the next three years, being determined and intense, I typed the first draft of my manuscript in a standing-up position because the back pain returned. It didn’t matter, because writing truth is far more important than comfort.
In 1985 I presented the first part of my manuscript to a literary agent. He rejected it because the contents conflicted with an acceptable, published book written by ex-member Jeannie Mills, entitled, Six Years With God.
I have no interest in the news media, talk shows or classrooms. Nor do I have the strength or desire to appear on television to relive a nightmare. It’s not my intention to make war by cross-firing with anyone who was a member of Peoples Temple or an outsider. An eye for an eye simply further serves to divide the world in absolute, premature darkness. Nothing can be attained.
I am in my senior years now, faced with a far greater struggle to survive than before the tragedy. Except for times of temporary employment, I exist — barely — on a fixed annuity from the federal government after 27 years of service. How ironic that the annuity granted by the society which condemned the “madness” of Jonestown can’t begin to meet those needs that were automatically guaranteed there, such as dental and medical care, food, clothing, shelter and prolonged hospitalization. I work for temporary employment agencies to supplement the annuity, but my time is getting shorter and my body tires more often. If something should happen to my loyal roommate, I would rather choose death — as many seniors in this country have done — in order to avoid starvation, disrespect and an unearthing of my dignity by a generation uneducated in truth.
The community of Jonestown, as it was when I lived there, is seldom beyond my mind’s reach. It required a basic willingness to subordinate personal desires for the greatest desire of all. At least we tried. I am unaware of any other American group who experimented with any greater degree of commitment. Some gave, and found their lives as they lived. Others did so as they died. As in all liberation struggles, people are always hurt, precious life is lost while still others are left behind with the blood of all the people on their hands. This is not my rationalization for wounded bodies, loss of life and dignity, but my strong protest against deceptive education in truth.
As one among many, I miss the secure, productive lifestyle we had in Peoples Temple because of Jim Jones. He was a friend to us all at one time or another. He has never ceased being the one person in all the world who cared about me more than any other.
The death of Peoples Temple also represents the loss of some of America’s greatest freedom fighters. I remember Jim saying in Jonestown, “America has no idea how much I have loved her.” He wasn’t referring to the politics that rule the day-to-day affairs of government, though. He meant the democratic principles upon which our country was founded.
Jim Jones never said he was perfect nor that he was a God in the sky, other than a struggling example of socialistic and democratic behavior on earth. He and his dedicated wife Marceline were the most perfect souls in principle of any two people I’ve known. Over and over, Jim said God is love. His exact words were:
Perfection should be seen as embodying and transcending all races or colors, for the spirit of love should serve to equalize and unify all humankind; not set one group above or against another by the insipid notion that God is a particular color or race.
Christianity was never based on the idea of an unknown God; I’m going to cause you to know that you are what Jesus was. Jesus said that every human being was a god. ‘It is written that ye are Gods.’ I’m a god and you’re a god. I’m going to stay a god until you recognize that you are a god. Then when you recognize that you are a god, I shall go back into principle and will not appear as a personality.
Peoples Temple was named for specific reasons by Jim Jones. First, he wanted a temple where all people could come without being locked out for any reason. He wore no color other than the color of justice. Second, he said, “Take up your own ‘T’ formation, actively balance the struggles within, not by reading the word of an illusionary image of God someone has placed in print for you to believe. The force of justice wears no ego.” Jim tried desperately to teach people how to understand this truth. It’s unlikely that I will forget since I spent long hours recording his words. Frequently meetings lasted ten hours or more. But some of us sat there on the edge of our privileged seats, thinking we had just arrived. I hear his voice now.
If anything happens to me, forget me as a personality because all that gives life meaning is principle. We’ve got to find a way to share the wealth of the world more equitably. It seems unless America learns this, she will meet as tormented an end as the multi-millionaires she has spawned.
I don’t want you to worship me. I want you to become what I am; I want you to enjoy the fearlessness that I have; the courage that I have; the firm and gentle compassion that I have; the love that I have; the all-encompassing mercy that I am. How much I have loved you. How much I’ve tried to give you a good life. This world is not our home.
By whatever means necessary to expose truth, he became all things to all people who listened attentively. Whatever one personally saw in him, one personally received. Under the mask of orthodox religion, he created a political organization whose ultimate goal was to unite the world by a living example.
The teachings of Jim Jones are indestructible. Therefore, they can never die. As this essay only minutely depicts, they are freedom stripped of false images and myths. When we liberate our minds from others’ expectations and concentrate on who we are, we define our own realm of freedom.
Today nothing has changed, and I am forced to let the dead bury the dead against my heart’s deepest desires. I can only rest my case with peace and love, because too many people have been hurt by their deeds and misdeeds, humiliated, victimized and used by questions that set the capitalistic stage for negative answers, deception, ridicule and profiteering.
My body grows weaker as my mind races on. I am finished with exposing the human dignity I’ve rightfully earned to deceptive wildwinds and committing suicide slowly when the direction of my soul is within. I struggle to be compassionate and have no hostility for anyone personally. My hostility remains strong towards the hypocritical systems of government which use people as pawns, and value money, personal esteem and greed more than human beings. In so doing, those governments enslave their people, denying them an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to which we are all entitled.
We as individuals, and nations, are responsible to remove the images we have of our faulty selves. If we do not, our planet will blow up while we are arguing who is right and who is wrong.
Personalities begin and end, but the mind of principle is an endless circle. What Jim Jones and I still have between us is the divine marriage of eternal revolutionary principle, the highest form of love there is.
I want to crawl inside the center of my soul. It’s peaceful, friendly and triumphant there. People are loyal, honest, united and finally free there.
Together we stood, divided we fell. But if we had remained honestly united to truth, there would have been no tragedy, for anyone.
In the words of the great American philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This essay could not have been written without an acknowledgment of the contributions made by the following people, to whom I dedicate its publication:
To the truth and memory of all the people who died and their surviving relatives;
To all those who were wounded physically and emotionally;
To all survivors of Peoples Temple whose persecuted lives have been a constant reminder to them of who they are and what they stood for;
To all those who have personally persecuted me, because they have unwittingly provided the necessary pain that has motivated my determination to write;
To Dr. Joan L. Gordon, retired sociologist, Savannah State College, Savannah, Georgia, whose sincere understanding encouraged me beyond measure;
To Lidia Wasowitz-Pringle, a United Press International reporter, for her courageous persistence and sensitive reporting after the tragedy;
To my faithful friend, Sally Sweet, with enduring love, gratitude and distinguished respect for her personal encouragement and struggle for world solidarity;
To my beloved son, Antonio A. Harvey, for his enlightenment; and
To all oppressed peoples of the world whose suffering has caused this essay to be.