(Author’s note: The following piece details my journey of discovery toward depicting, to the best of my ability, an accurate recounting of the history of Peoples Temple. As such, it focuses on my own experience. I am writing this primarily for any former Temple members curious about my endeavor, that they may become more familiar with my efforts. I hope anyone from the Temple with whom I have not spoken will consider this both as an invitation to contact me and as a pledge to do your story justice. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In 1970 my family moved from Los Angeles to Virginia, to live communally with other members of a spiritual organization called Subud. We called the commune, a former children’s summer camp, Skymont. Subud members came from all over the United States, and in the case of one family, Indonesia.
Skymont was a drastic change from life in Los Angeles. Suddenly we were living in a rural setting, largely isolated from the rest of the world. While we were surrounded by like-minded individuals in a community that shared a common culture, we were bused to schools in nearby towns, where many locals regarded us as strange and alien.
Life there could be difficult. Most of our parents were unable to get much work. Several, including my father, were of an artistic bent and unfamiliar with the sort of jobs available locally. It was extremely cold in winter, and the cabins and houses in which we lived were mostly uninsulated, as it had originally been built only to serve as a summer camp. As the money dried up, things got tougher. We received our clothing through charitable donations, boxes and boxes which we dug through to find our individual sizes. Food was first communal, until even that was discontinued. Families began assembling kitchens, at first no more than hot plates and small camping refrigerators kept cool with plastic ice packs that were refrozen in large communal freezers. We received “commodities,” state-issued food that was rather unpalatable and which came in easily identifiable packaging that I hid when other kids came over.
Eventually the experiment dwindled. One by one, families and individuals left the commune to return to the cities and resume their old lives. My family lasted for almost five years before moving to Chicago, and by 1977, we were back in Los Angeles, in the only home our parents ever bought.
It was in that house that I first became aware of Peoples Temple. My parents did not subscribe to magazines, but for some reason a certain periodical – New West Magazine – began to arrive at our home. I was fourteen at that time and just becoming interested in the world outside my own life. I read the Los Angeles Times every day and added New West to my sources of information. The August 1977 issue included an extensive piece by Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers on the Temple, and I read the entire article several times. The Los Angeles Times also began printing AP articles about the Temple, and I followed with growing interest. I remember seeing a television report on the Temple centered around a boy my age whose family was hoping to get him sent back from Guyana. I related what I was reading back to my years at Skymont and the similarities I could infer.
When the news of November 18, 1978 broke, I was horrified. I felt it personally, and thought of the kids there, kids my age. I found the changing numbers of those who had died, and the explanations given, confusing and inadequate. So much was printed about what was wrong with the Temple that I couldn’t understand how anyone would have remained in it. The entire story seemed a mystery, and the explanations that I read and watched didn’t make it any clearer to my young mind. I was left with the conclusion that there was much more that I didn’t understand.
My interest was reawakened when I saw a series of documentaries which were aired thirty years after the tragedy. With the growth of the Internet, I read a little more about the Temple and Jonestown. I visited this website many times. As I saw the different documentaries, though, I began to wonder why a narrative film had never been made. All of my own questions were reawakened, along with others. What had become of the people who had lived, who had lost loved ones? What was it like to live through such a terrible tragedy, such loss?
I began researching the subject anew, ordering every book I could get my hands on. I came back to this site again and again. I took it upon myself to begin transcribing tapes that had been recovered in Jonestown. The more I studied, the bigger the story seemed to get. I started noticing discrepancies in the many different accounts that I read. I began composing timelines, in order to better understand and to ascertain what was accurate.
But with each new resource, each new tape, each new survivor’s account, the more I saw the difficulties of making a film. It was just too massive. I thought about a miniseries, but by then there were already so many details that I couldn’t get my head around it. I continued to study, however, because I still had questions and because I felt compelled to understand. I consoled myself with the thought that, even if I didn’t do anything else, I could contribute to the public record with my transcriptions and perhaps even with my timelines and other notes.
About a year later, I wrote to the editor of this website. He was living in San Diego at that time, and we agreed to meet halfway, on December 9, 2009. I liked Mac and how much he had dedicated to the people of the community, former Temple members, family members, others somehow connected. Here was a man who had devoted his life to others, a living oracle who knew so much about the very subject that had compelled me to spend night after night studying, updating timelines, transcribing tapes, making notes, learning.
I told him that I was interested in the idea of a film, that I couldn’t get my head around it, mentioned the possibility of a miniseries, but said that I wasn’t certain about it. I told him that I wanted to be careful before committing to anything because I knew that there were people who had suffered tremendously and who had lost so much. I didn’t want to do this unless I could be completely accurate and respectful, both of those still living and those who had passed away. And I told him that even if I decided against writing something, I would keep researching, and that hopefully my work would somehow add to the body of work that the website was amassing.
Not long afterwards, I met with the man who would become my producer. He was a director who had hired me as an actor seven times, a man whose integrity I knew, whom I could trust to understand and respect my need for accuracy and reverence. We had a three-hour lunch as he listened to me explain my research. I told him of the difficulties I was having in figuring out how to tell the story, of the difficulties with the time constraints and about my fear that the story was too big to tell, even for a miniseries. His advice was that I simply continue doing what I was doing: researching and digging deeper.
It took four years of additional research before I felt ready to commit myself. It would be a miniseries. During that time, I spoke with Mac regularly. When I booked a spot on a TV show shooting in San Diego, I had dinner at his home and met his wife Rebecca, whom I also liked right away. I began scouring newspapers, collecting more than 1500 articles and mentions of the Temple and incorporating the information into my growing timelines. Mac would stop at my home whenever he passed through LA. He has been an immense help to me.
On May 29, 2011, a memorial service was held at Evergreen Cemetery to unveil four granite stones with the names of all of those who had died in Guyana. That day, for the first time, I met former members of the Temple. As it was such a profound day for so many people, I did my best to maintain a low profile.
But my work was beginning to take its toll. I felt the research start to consume me. My health worsened. I began to develop back problems that would plague me for years, including adult scoliosis. I started to lose interest in acting, becoming more and more resentful of anything that pulled me away from my research.
I also quit the Peoples Temple project more than once. On one occasion I was so completely overwhelmed with something I learned that I put everything down and walked away. For a time I couldn’t conceive of going back to it.
I couldn’t stay away. For some reason I felt an obligation to tell the story in a way that did it justice. Everything out there seemed to focus either on the story of Jim Jones or the story of November 18, 1978. The story I was researching was so much more.
In November of 2013, I finally felt that I had done enough work, compiled enough information, and gotten a sound enough grasp of the subject matter that I could finally commit to embarking on the endeavor of actually writing the miniseries. I met with my producer again and announced my intention. I also told Mac, who began putting me in touch with former Temple members. I drove to the Bay Area, and on December 1, 2013, I interviewed former Temple member Garry Lambrev. He was engaging, open, honest, and forthcoming, and he seemed to appreciate my familiarity with the subject matter. We spoke well into the night, for more than ten hours. Like other members of the community later, Garry soon became a good friend of mine, and someone with whom I speak regularly.
I began meeting and interviewing more members of the community. I met with Claire Janaro and Liz Forman Schwartz who live here in Los Angeles. We began spending time together – dinner at one of their homes, at restaurants, at my home – and the contacts became much deeper and personal than mere Temple matters. Claire in particular felt very motherly to me, and I smiled when I realized that she shared the same birth year as my late mother. I found myself amused at my own feelings of possessiveness when I learned that many others regarded her as their mother figure, beginning with their days in the Temple and continuing into the present.
I drove to San Diego and interviewed Laura Johnston Kohl and Don Beck, two more former members who lived there. I began taking regular trips to the Bay Area, stopping along the way at Buttonwillow, the rest stop at which the Temple regularly took breaks on their way to and from Los Angeles, and at Evergreen Cemetery. I met with more and more members of the community. I took Garry Lambrev to Ukiah where we met with Alan Swanson, another Temple member, and the two of them took me around to different locations, telling stories of their lives more than three decades before.
Each person I met was patient, generous, open and kind. I do not have a background interviewing people, it is not something I was trained to do, but I was driven by my desire to learn. At times my style of interviewing may have been frustrating to those with whom I spoke: I sometimes talked about my own life and how I related it to something they were telling me, things like living in Skymont, volunteering at a homeless pantry, living in jungles in Asia. I hope my excitement in speaking with them compensated for my shortcomings. I was eager to hear about the aspects of Temple life of which I had only previously read. I was interested in their entire history, including their lives before and after the Temple. It must have been as exhausting at times for them as it was for me, but I was – and remain – humbled and grateful as each new person chose to open up to me. I was struck again and again by the uniqueness of each person’s story.
My research broadened again, growing outward, in waves. I spent day after day poring through documents at the California Historical Society, the Mendocino Historical Society, the San Francisco Library. I flew to Indianapolis where I interviewed Juanell Smart, a former Temple member whose four children, mother and uncle died in Jonestown. I visited the Indiana Historical Society, the city library, the Indiana State Library, the Disciples of Christ’s library, studying documents and microfilms of local newspapers. I tracked down three women who had grown up with Jim Jones, a woman who remembered the free restaurant, and a man who had shared an office with Jones. I visited the former locations of the church and the location of one Temple that was no longer standing.
From Indianapolis I drove to Richmond, Indiana and met with Michael Klingman, a former member with whom I had previously only spoken over the phone. He told me his story as we sat in my hotel, and took me around to different relevant areas, including the library, Earlham College, the hospital where Jim and Marceline Jones first met, and the church in which they were wed. Once again, his story was unique and distinct from the others I had heard.
I next drove to Lynn, where Jim had spent most of his childhood, and from there to nearby Crete, where he was born. Returning to Indianapolis, I was struck by something one of Jim’s childhood friends had told me. When I asked her the population of Lynn, she replied without hesitation, “Nine hundred and thirty-six,” then explained, “I remember because the number was on the sign into town which I passed every day on the bus to school.” Jim Jones had grown up in a town of 936, and 918 people died on November 18, 1978. Intentional or not, Jim had created a town the size of the town of his youth, and then obliterated it.
At times it has seemed that people have been led to me. A childhood friend called from New York and told me that her brother was coming to LA, and asked if I would show him around. While talking with him he asked me what I was working on. I told him. “Oh, I can tell you about Peoples Temple,” he said. He had gone to school in San Francisco with several of the children of the Temple. Another time I was sitting on my porch working on my laptop when a woman conducting a survey on upcoming ballot initiatives approached me with her clipboard. I answered her questions and then we began talking. When I mentioned my project, she told me that she knew a man whose son and ex-girlfriend had been members of the Temple. She put us in touch and he consented to an interview over the phone.
I continued to contact former members and others, traveling by planes, buses, rental cars, and trains to meet and interview them, going to Oregon, New Jersey, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Others have met with me as they came through LA. I went to Havana, Cuba, and tried to enlist the assistance of a government official for information on Jones’ visits there and the interactions the Temple had with Cuban officials in Guyana. I have yet to make it to Guyana. Yet.
As I lurched along, my back screamed in pain. At night I lay on bags of ice or took long baths. It has been quite trying at times. Once at the California Historical Society I had to ask permission to lie on their floor and do exercises as my back had gone into spasm from sitting all day.
So far I have interviewed 38 former Temple members as well as many others, journalists, family members, friends, observers. Members of the community have stayed at my home and put me up in their own homes. When Rebecca and Mac moved to Washington state in 2015, I hosted a get-together at my house. People flew in from the Bay Area, San Diego, Arizona. My back went out the morning they were arriving but my guests jumped in, cooking, cleaning, taking care of everything. They left my home in better shape than it was when they had arrived. Whether or not they picked up this trait from their years in the Temple, I realized that if you are lucky enough to become friends with anyone from this community, you should consider yourself fortunate.
I began writing in earnest this year. With all the information I have it is no easy task, but the abundance of information also gives me confidence that I can tell this story with complete accuracy, without inventing anything. I will call it Peoples Temple: The Living Word – referencing one of the Temple’s publications –because that’s what it will be, the living word of the people who were there. It has become clear to me through this process that I will be telling the story of the people, but it also occurs to me that I intuitively understood that at that first meeting with my producer.
It has been a difficult year. When my sister Alexis became gravely ill, I put down the project to join our other siblings and family friends to tend to her in the hospital. It was incredibly painful as it became apparent that she would not recover. I refrained from telling most people in my life what was going on, but there were certain members of the Temple community with whom I regularly speak and in whom I felt safe confiding. They were of immense help. Jordan Vilchez felt moved to write something to Alexis that was so uplifting and heartening that I read it to Alexis and our sisters in the hospital. Alexis said, “God bless her, God bless her,” over and over. I was so grateful to have something to share that brought her solace. Tim Carter kept in touch with me daily, offering me much appreciated words of wisdom and compassion from his own experience. Jackie Colbert called by chance only a day before Alexis died. When he heard that I was at the hospital he generously drew on his own experience, the very loving wisdom that I needed at that moment.
Alexis passed away on September 11th of this year, surrounded by our remaining family and close friends. When the news broke, it broke big. Most people were quite kind but there was also the unfortunate byproduct of unkind “journalism” and internet comments. My friends who had been members of the Temple were among the many people who contacted me to offer their condolences and care. They could also offer their own experience in dealing with tragedy magnified by public attention. As much as anyone, they know what that’s like, and their insights were very helpful and much appreciated.
There have been several other film and television projects on the Temple which have been announced in the last year – including most recently, the HBO project based on Raven, Tim Reiterman’s book – but to a person, my Temple friends have told me not to give up. “You’re telling our story, no one has done the work that you’ve done.” A few community members have commented, “You know more about the Temple than we do.” It is in no way true. I have done an extensive amount of research but I was not there, and so I will rely on their memories to tell their story. I’m thankful for their support.
Along the way on my own journey, I have been blessed with moments of grace, moments when I have been shown a way that I may be of service to someone. I remember the day Claire called to tell me that she had some papers about the Temple that I may want to see. I took her to dinner that night and when I dropped her off she gave me a sheaf of papers in a plastic bag. The first few pages were printed pages from this site, articles that I had already read. I prepared for disappointment, but then I turned a page and there they were: letters from Jonestown, from her children who had passed there. I gasped, feeling the way I sometimes get when someone hands me an infant: “No! This is too precious! What if I screw up?” I called to ask if she realized what she had given me. She said she knew, that she trusted me, and gave me permission to scan her letters. When I got off the phone it was clear what I had to do.
The next day I went out and bought a notebook and protective sleeves. I scanned the letters and then organized them in chronological order. As it happened, her 75th birthday was coming up and I was able to give her back her own letters as a gift, now organized and protected. A week later she called me. “Richmond,” she said. “That was the best gift that anyone has ever given me. I haven’t looked at those letters in years because they were so disorganized, but I just reread every one. I can’t thank you enough.” I was humbled, and grateful for the clarity with which I had received what I was meant to do.
I don’t believe that I am a particularly noble person, I am full of human shortcomings, capable of immature outbursts and errors of judgment, but it is people like Claire and moments such as this one that sustain me, that allow me to feel somewhat decent. I feel that this journey has made me a better person. Through studying the lives and stories of others, I have been able to get out of myself and then get back into myself with greater wisdom, and clarity around who I am and who I intend to be. It is one of the many unexpected gifts that I have received by embarking on this adventure. I am thankful to all of the people who have spoken with me.