My Friend Teresa King: From the Avenue of the Fleas to Jonestown
Before the Beginning
My friend Teresa was born in Plainview, Texas on January 11, 1947. While she was still a small child, her hard working parents moved to Tucson, Arizona where she grew up, the eldest of four sisters and one brother. She continued to feel responsible and devoted to all of them however far she might move from their more conventional zones of reality.
There are others who can speak and write with much greater authority, based on memory, about those years they shared with her, than I can; and so what I write here is necessarily brief, based as it is on the recall of what she told me between thirty and thirty five years ago, most of which I recorded the year following her death as part of a much longer, still in process, memoir. What is critical to note is that she learned early the value and inevitability of hard disciplined work, passed on by parents for whom memories of the Great Depression were still vivid and who, according to her, continued to sweat it out only a few paychecks from dire straits much of the time while she was growing up. The severe pressure under which her father worked to provide for a growing family led to abuse of alcohol and consequential blind rages in which, according to Teresa, he would torment his wife and beat the kids, including her. Not until Teresa had grown up and left the family residence did Ethel, her mom, finally leave him. Only as Teresa slowly came to understand his sense of impotence and consequent rage, the entrapment he must have felt as a wage slave with too many dependents, did she begin to forgive him even if she could never forget how his behavior had scarred her and those she loved for the duration of their lives.
The application of a very high down-to-earth intelligence enabled her to excel as a student. She made her way through the public school system in which she had the unusual opportunity to learn Hebrew. On Sundays she often attended a local Methodist church which reinforced the ethics instilled by her mom’s example. Her pursuit of scholarship enabled her to do well at the University of Arizona until she became overwhelmed by the need to make a living and by the requirements of her first long term relationship. The context was a hallucinatory, if not revolutionary, counterculture out of which her own feminism was slowly but emphatically emerging. Nonetheless, when her man, a fellow student, Stephen Laberge, subsequently known for his landmark work in lucid dreaming, snagged a fellowship in chemistry at Stanford, she dropped out of school and followed him to the strange house on the Avenue of the Fleas.
Surviving the Counterculture
By diligence and luck she found what turned out to be a stable, though emotionally tumultuous, fulltime job at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, the first paperback bookstore on the west coast and the institution where Ira Sandperl – Socrates to Joan Baez – and many other of my peers, preached non-violence with gentle humor from behind the safety of the cash register. There she also met my childhood best friend and lover of sorts, Gerry Masteller, a fellow clerk. Following his rental of a room in the house she shared with an increasingly distant Stephen, they became lovers of sorts too. Thereafter her life became increasingly complicated – much too complicated for everybody involved – until she decided to separate herself decisively from the tangle of flesh and take herself to the nunnery of Peoples Temple.
Whatever might be happening around or inside her, Teresa persevered. Not long before we met she had finally secured a BA in English after several years commuting to and from San Jose State by train on which she probably did most of her studying. She began writing poems only two years before we met, but by the time I’d entered her life, she was writing as if her life depended on the outcome of their strikingly vivid and resonant images, poems which she shared with those of her loved ones who might appreciate the scent, the flavor, the touch of her words.
The circumstances under which we first encountered each other were not what any of those involved would have pre-selected. She had the bad luck to discover me one morning towards the end of July, 1972 when she came down to the basement bedroom of the home she shared. Gerry did his unsuccessful best to disguise me under the sheets. She gasped and ran quickly upstairs.
A few weeks later, shortly before noon, I stopped by the rambling mansion where they lived. Casually dressed in jeans and blouse, Teresa walked slowly down the stairs and into the living room where I was waiting. The figure she presented was austere but strikingly beautiful. If she had not been wearing clothes, one might have seen the ribs. It was apparent that she was almost flat chested, boyish enough to appeal to many basically gay men. Her thick black hair, parted in the middle of her silver widow’s peak and tightly braided, spiraled down each shoulder. Her pale skin had acquired a tan from the trip she’d taken to Mexico earlier that year with one of Gerry’s old college buddies, Jeffrey Shurtleff. Her dark eyes for the first time directly addressed me. We were for the moment absolutely alone. There was no look of accusation which I’d been expecting, just anxiety, perhaps a sense of foreboding too. We observed each other, not knowing what to say until Gerry came down the stairs, relaxed and smiling broadly from recent love making, glad that we weren’t fighting over him quite yet.
Teresa and I crossed paths briefly a few weeks later when I arrived near closing time at the bookstore, ostensibly to pick up my boyfriend but actually in hope of seeing her again. As I came through the door, she was preparing to lock up but didn’t attempt to keep me out. She merely averted her eyes. Mission accomplished, she proceeded to lie down horizontally on the counter next to the cash register while both of us waited for lover boy to finish his closing chores. Later she described her position as “corpse yoga,” truly a hopeless one. The effect, in any case, was unspeakably dramatic and vaguely Kahloesque. Her body, encased in a red on black, hand woven Guatemalan dress, intensified my feeling that I was examining a human sacrifice, waiting for a heart to be cut out even on this altar to Gandhi. As we were leaving, I tried to make friendly conversation but she would have none of my getting-to-know-you small talk.
Poetry and Peoples Temple
Despite the inauspicious beginning of our relationship and her subsequent insistence, which she disregarded in my own case as in that of Jim Jones, that no sane person should trust anyone s/he hadn’t known for at least ten years, particularly somebody who was sleeping with one of her boyfriends, she warmed up to me with amazing alacrity. I sensed her integrity from the outset, also a vulnerability that she ineffectively camouflaged with suspicion or anger. Perhaps she sensed mine.
From the outset of our friendship she evinced a deep curiosity about PT and Jim Jones. A pamphlet addressed to Stephen first whetted her appetite. He and Gerry had already attended a meeting from which they had walked out angered. The pamphlet was followed by a copy of “The Living Word,” the Temple’s first publication of which I had been editor before defecting in order to be with Gerry. Though she had little if any interest in organized religion or the sorts of alternative spirituality which were fascinating her peers and significant others, she was all ears regarding this strikingly different movement which made social justice its religion and up to that point at least regarded my sexual slumming as a victimless crime. Two months after our first encounter she invited me to a Halloween party that Gerry seemed to prefer I not attend.
No opportunity arose to spend significant time together until the following April, 1973. In the meantime, Gerry and I had found a hideaway on the coast to celebrate either an extended honeymoon or the end of a delayed adolescence. After protracted diplomatic negotiations, conducted largely by letter as we had no phone, had established the appropriate time and rules of behavior, Teresa took a Greyhound bus to Mendocino, and then hitched rides south until she located our log cabin, perched on a heavily forested hillside that overlooked the Pacific eight miles below Point Arena. Its cape protected us from only the fierceness of nature’s storms.
Shortly before her arrival, accompanying the last of her letters, was a poem. I include it here not merely because it’s a work of art but because it helps to explain more vividly than anything I can write why she made her inevitable way via me, a self-imposed exile, to Jim Jones’ Promised Land.
A BLASPHEMOUS REVELATION OF ROMANTIC MYTHS
A woman has lots of choice in this existence
Whore or nun
A man asks for the use of your body & services
Religion asks for the use of your soul & services
Our price is to be taken care of
If you care for me
I will wash your feet
And then place my soul on your path
Security requires some form of prostitution
The spirit is bent
The horse is tamed
Kate learns to serve
Wildness leads to early death in our civilization
Margret my witch I am confused
You fought for young boys’ lives
And then destroyed your own as I have longed for my own death
Barbara, my rival, where have you run to?
Yes, Love, it’s tempting, give me some of that old-time religion
I also wanted to be a nun, to find such purity
Why is the cost of bravery so extreme?
Why is the cost of living dying?
I rebel against the tragedy of it all.
I pray for sublimation as my gut churns at the thought of
And I find myself crying for help.
Our common boyfriend had already promised to accompany her on a trip to Hawaii later that summer; she wanted to make damn sure that he kept his word. However, she told me as an aside not to worry. That trip, she predicted, would inevitably end in disaster. When she got back, she’d lick her wounds, then join Peoples Temple, finally do something really productive with her life. She just needed a little sugar. I understood all too well.
For the short time that Teresa stayed with us, the skies were blue and the days were warm. They were among the happiest I recall from the months I spent on the coast.
I think our mutual decision to eliminate sex for the duration enabled each of us to relax with a certain dignity. We walked, talked, and really seemed to listen to each other. Sitting out on Havens Neck, hearing the surf pound the headland, she and I shared poems, some freshly minted. Gerry smiled and listened, encouraging us in any way he could to bond. She read hers from a spiral notebook, each executed in idiosyncratic calligraphy with décor in a rainbow of colors. She had prepared copies for us in advance. I shared some lyrics which she said she liked a lot. We talked about the use of astrology, its metaphorical language by which we might better understand ourselves, each other and this world. We examined and compared our natal charts and wondered if we might be compatible antagonists. She also lent me her copy of a book of Aztec poetry, translated from the Nahuatl by Stephen Berg.
Without even trying I succeeded with Teresa. She listened to my stories about life in Peoples Temple and the aspirations of its savior not with the polite disbelief to which I’d grown accustomed when trying to communicate with most of my own and Gerry’s friends but as if hypnotized, clinging on to each new story as fresh evidence that there might be some real way out of her troubles, that there might be a social/economic breakthrough on the planet under the leadership of this messiah of these last days. To Teresa, a working class woman with few expectations and emotional suffering that was raw, what I described offered something to live for and ultimately to die for too. She couldn’t believe that I’d defected from such good news for the sake of Gerry’s warm flesh, but she also understood all too well. Watching me waste my energy trying to keep my man tied down to one partner reminded her of how she was wasting her own life on men who didn’t need her, feeling mostly pain and depression as a result, briefly numbed by marijuana, poetry, liquor and sex.
Peoples Temple: First Try, Near Miss, Not Ready Yet
The morning of her departure we all got up late. After a bumpy drive over the first wave of coastal mountains, we missed the bus connection in Boonville that would have taken her directly back to San Francisco. On a whim I phoned my friend, Liz Forman (now Schwartz), at her workplace, Trinity School in Ukiah, whose director was soon to lose his daughter Maria to Jim Jones. While an active member of the Temple and loyal follower of Jim, Liz in no way regarded me as an enemy just because I had once again voluntarily left heaven. Without hesitation and in entire violation of the rules by which Peoples Temple kept “outsiders” at bay, she invited all three of us to join her on the school grounds during her lunchtime.
Liz met us radiant with expectation and delight at the door of her classroom. After a brief tour of the school, she led us outside to share a lunch of fruit, cheese, bread and juice and to get to know each other in the shade of a live oak. After lunch she invited us to come inside so that Teresa could demonstrate T’ai Chi to her class of interracial students, most from disadvantaged backgrounds. Normally a wallflower, Teresa miraculously bloomed under the trusting attention of Liz and the admiring children. Before we left, Liz let Teresa know that there was a job opening for the position of live-in counselor at the school and that she would have a place to stay if she came north for an interview. While Teresa felt duly flattered, particularly at an opportunity to work with kids in such a progressive environment so close to PT’s own Mother Church, she didn’t know if she was ready to pursue such an opportunity quite yet. There was still too much unfinished business in her life. We spent no more than an hour and a half together, possibly less, but Teresa emerged from the encounter with rare enthusiasm. Liz and she had bonded on a fundamental level and looked forward to seeing each other again on the inside of the Temple, part of the family of God. Liz whispered to me as we left that Teresa was ideal Temple material, a real nugget of gold.
In fact, Teresa did apply for the job and followed it up with an interview at Trinity School. As promised, Liz provided her with a place to stay overnight and passed her off to the other Temple members in the house as a cousin who was thinking of joining the church. Teresa told me later that she was particularly impressed by the smoothness with which the household ran, by the lack of acrimony among individuals from radically divergent backgrounds; one a black intellectual from LA named Jim McElvane
who would achieve notoriety as the chief of Temple security, responsible for the execution of the final “White Night.” Back home Teresa prepared for another short trip, this one a solo to Death Valley where she could meditate on what little she might really have to lose by joining such a regenerative force as Peoples Temple. As luck would have it, somebody else got the job, but she had in the process made up her mind to help create a socialist paradise in which the least, among whom she included herself, would be able to contribute their very best.
Making the Big Decision
The following month brought Teresa a big emotional setback. The woman who had been her closest female friend since childhood, the only woman she’d ever sexually propositioned, betrayed her, no doubt from fear. Anyway that’s how Teresa registered what transpired. This damsel, who had met Gerry through Teresa, arrived in heat one afternoon, pounding at our door. While passing through the Bay Area from Tucson, she had phoned her old friend Teresa – not to set aside time and place to meet but to track down my then current lover. Hurt, shamed and – most of all – disgusted, Teresa had nevertheless shared our address. I registered Teresa’s cooperation as a small personal betrayal, intended to show me what sexual addiction to my childhood buddy would lead to. She was right. The consequences depressed everybody involved. I found the woman a predator and totally lost my temper at the whole lot of them. Teresa determined in part as a result that her sexual urges would not ever again subjugate her decision making.
Truth be told, her relationship with Stephen was winding down. After seven years together they were each moving on to very different, likely incompatible sorts of lives. He came to visit us on the coast as well, accompanied by another woman. While he was gone, Teresa prepared to move out of the roomy mansion she had shared with him since arriving in the SF Bay Area, for the time being into a stuffy garage loaned by two friends from Tucson only a block from Gerry’s mother. On my first visit down from the Mendocino coast, Teresa brought out a half consumed bottle of bourbon which we drank in gulps between unpacked crates. She offered an apology for sending her former friend to make my life more miserable than it already was. And so, in such a strange yet natural way, we became allies, even co-conspirators as we analyzed the common enemy, Gerry, whom we somehow believed we loved, and imagined ways in which we might outmaneuver and pin him down. Truth be told, even though a gay man I knew I’d been falling in love with her since we first met. The shadow she cast on my life was a beautiful and desperate one that I couldn’t resist.
Accompanied by my sister Ginny, Teresa was able to dispense with Greyhound and drive north one last time that spring to visit us in our cabin whose brief lease was about to expire. Teresa pumped my sister for everything she could learn. While my sister had left the Temple for much the same reasons that I had, an inability to accept the increasingly stringent discipline, she nonetheless venerated the vision which Jim Jones seemed to incarnate and let Teresa know she couldn’t go wrong by joining.
Like me she might well have followed the teachings of Gandhi rather than those of Lenin. They certainly seemed to be more fashionable within the privileged radius of Stanford University. Not without reason was Roy Kepler, her employer, a man held in respect by many in the community who did not necessarily agree with his beliefs and practices. He had served time as a conscientious objector during “The Good War,” World War Two. I, for one, found him modest – even somewhat retiring. Teresa, however repeatedly expressed contempt for what she considered his hypocrisy. According to her, he paid low wages and broke the attempt at unionization that she’d helped organize, daring to use as rationalization the supposed sacrifices he had made for “the Movement.” All she could see were the entitlements his children received taken out of her wages. Given her angry attitude, it didn’t surprise me – or others who knew her – that however hard she worked promotions invariably went to more compliant individuals. The pacifism she witnessed only pissed her off. From her perspective it served as convenient camouflage for those like Kepler, Sandperl and Baez who had too much capital investment in the existing system to risk a real revolution such as that promised by Rev. Jones. As a working class woman whose family station gave had given her no perceptible advantage, she really did understand class struggle and had little regard for what she regarded with angry condescension as a passive solution that would keep the ruling elites in power forever. Her employer, however he might describe himself, belonged to the category of enemy in her already closed book. Kepler’s hold on her remained powerful, nonetheless; but it remained purely economic.
Message from a Goat on the Loose
During this summer of 1973 Teresa introduced me to the critical thinking of the radical wing of women’s liberation, especially that of Shulamith Firestone, whose “Dialectics of Sex” had become her bible. Its argument enabled her to connect her own exploitation with that of hundreds of millions of women around the world, their common experience of unpaid domestic labor, plus underpayment on the job. I knew that my own mother had been beaten on at least one occasion by my dad, but it was Teresa who made me aware of the commonness of physical abuse of women and kids perceived as unwilling to submit to dominant males. In any case, she was glad to be living by herself for a change, not to be expected to clean up after anybody else. Having my own problems as a gay man with patriarchy, I was honored to be taken into her confidence and considered redeemable. She empathized with my predicament as a tormented gay man struggling to emerge into the light. Though not yet actively bisexual, she began to describe herself as a “political lesbian.” At first I didn’t believe her when she told me that lack of opportunity was the only impediment that prevented her from coming out of the closet. Wasn’t it clear, after all, that she’d wanted to have an affair with her best female friend? She knew that Peoples Temple was “gay friendly.” What I didn’t tell her, perhaps because I didn’t yet recognize, was that PT and its master practiced what Herbert Marcuse, writing during that period, described as “repressive tolerance.”
My life, normally precarious, had become a real mess. Our lover, having escaped to the Colorado Rockies, was seeking the guidance of a drunken Chogyam Trungpa, leading light of the Naropa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. I moved back down to the Bay Area where I found a mildly dilapidated single home by the side of the Bayshore Freeway to share with two witches who spent most of their nights dropping LSD and the days sleeping. When capable of anything other than insomnia, I did volunteer work for the budding local chapter of Amnesty International, being organized by Ginetta Sagan and Joan Baez, and hung out in the vicinity of Ira Sandperl and the sad shell that remained of the once promising Institute for the Study of Non-Violence. Teresa continued to work at the store and wait, hoping. She wrote more poetry, wondering what was in store.
Gerry did keep his promise, though he didn’t show up in time for them to leave together for Hawaii, entirely missing the going away party she’d planned down to the smallest detail, which took place without him and was a resounding success. As a result, each flew separately to Honolulu early in August. I stayed up with her the night before she left; we talked while she packed everything into one underwhelming backpack. When I got too tired to stay awake, she accompanied me out to my car parked on an oak lined Palo Alto street. As I was about to turn on the ignition, a snow white goat, magically escaped from who knows where, came leaping down the street, veering first one way, then another, pawing the asphalt, neighing with crazy passion. It turned silver in the almost full moon in Capricorn light as it raced past both of us down to an almost deserted El Camino Real. We each took this otherworldly encounter as some sort of message: perhaps a blessing, certainly an acknowledgement of her own passion about to be consummated but perhaps more of which she had not even a hint. She said she saw fear in its eyes – even terror. Born under Capricorn herself, she identified strongly with this ruler of her sun sign, the mountain goat, and took this omen as I did with awed seriousness. She didn’t want to lose her precarious footing in the real world as she made her way into the uncharted fantasy that beckoned her. I will never forget this strange encounter, fraught with the power of myth, which had emerged as if from dreamtime.
She wrote me; they each wrote me from what they called “the islands,” which, in their case, meant Kauai before its monopolization by well-heeled tourists, before the big storm that subsequently devastated much of the island. They backpacked for a month, read, swam, made love, sometimes even talked, and picked psilocybin mushrooms they preserved themselves, using primitive but effective means, in kumquat jam. She brought back a jar of it as a birthday present. Enclosed with each letter was some of the most sensuous poetry I’d read yet. As I devoured her words, I could hear the waterfalls, smell the scents, and wish I were there, drenched in pleasurable sweat.
Wearing an outlandish straw hat bedecked with leis, she stopped by my place on her way home from San Francisco’s international airport. The lei she put around my neck still smelled fresh. Teresa had a special request. I asked her what it was. Could she possibly stay with me until she could find something more permanent than the garage that was no longer available? The witches who had never approved of her had already moved out. I agreed after the mildest hesitation. Why not? What remained of her worldly possessions had already been stored in my garage. We began sleeping together in my bed in a situation that couldn’t help but become sexual, but she exacted a solemn promise from me not to tell Gerry. It was a foolish one I lived to regret. She didn’t want to give him ammunition to fuel self-pity and rage.
The trip to Hawaii, in any case, provided the fix she needed. Though she’d had a great time overall, nothing permanent had worked out between them. Gerry wanted to continue beachcombing for a few more months while he also sorted out his life and prepared openly to enter the gay world. Now she was ready as she’d promised or predicted that spring to make her way to Peoples Temple, a project preferably accomplished before Gerry’s return. Her decision didn’t amaze me. I knew the power of God to bring to socialist salvation those whose souls were dying in the competitive greed-obsessed world of capitalist exploitation. I wasn’t quite ready, however, to go back myself and do the daunting hard work that real socialist re-education required, especially of bourgeois intellectuals like myself during an increasingly Maoist phase of Jones’ political evolution. I still dreamed of settling down with Gerry and perhaps opening a bookstore together, a plan my parents and his mother quietly encouraged, that could still make exemplary, though eccentric bourgeois, out of both of us.
Enlisting in the Army of God
There was a hysterical desperation to Teresa’s very last fling, which took several forms but was never serious. One Saturday in late September we drove to Sausalito where she bought a sexy black satin laced bodice and a slinky black dress edged in shrieking red. When I asked what she intended to do with this stuff, she just laughed and pretended to dance even though there was no music. Twice we drove to the Renaissance Faire, held near Hamilton Air Force Base each year, which neither of us had ever attended. On the first occasion we were rained out; the second time Teresa brought with us her two youngest sisters, Marsha, who was in her mid-teens at the time, and prepubescent Sandy. While they didn’t say much, both seemed mesmerized by the exotic environment out of Merry Olde Elizabethan England transliterated to New Age Marin County.
Teresa marked All Saints Day, the day after Halloween, for her first PT meeting, an open one, to be held at Benjamin Franklin Jr. High School while the newly purchased building a block down Geary was being rebuilt following inexplicable arson. She convinced both Marsha and Sandy to join her in anticipation that they might be as enthralled as she – sight unseen – already was. Despite a recent admonition from the Master, relayed through my sister, that I should return before all hell broke out in my personal life, referring doubtless to the imminent return of Gerry, I refused Teresa’s repeated and urgent invitation to be part of the company. I preferred to remain safely at home, anxious to hear what happened but protected for the moment from responsibility.
Understanding without having to be told that the CIA must be trying to get rid of a man like Jones, she wasn’t too bothered by the idea of a body search at the entrance – only by its lack of professionalism. The guards, she reported back to me, had neither been gentle nor thorough. A real killer could easily have penetrated the building and gotten into position to pull the trigger. She told the uniformed greeters who interviewed her, Karen Layton and Harriett Tropp, that she was a friend of Ginny, my sister, who had recently revisited the temple and was at the time contemplating a return. Though the story begged credibility, the greeters didn’t preclude their entry. Teresa and her sisters, however, weren’t made particularly welcome. I have no doubt that they were carefully monitored. It didn’t help that she had and her siblings had the wrong skin color. It also didn’t help that Jim undoubtedly knew, given his miraculous powers of discernment, aided by special information collectors, that she was connected intimately to me and to our mutual lover. It’s worth noting that Teresa was, nevertheless, one of the last Caucasians to be allowed to join.
Disregarding the cool reception as best she could, feeling no less desperate to find salvation, Teresa found her spirits buoyed and her soul comforted by the revolutionary lyrics, delivered to driving black religious music that warmed up the meeting. Until then she had only heard my copy of the poor recording made by the Temple’s choir, He’s Able, released a few months earlier, which my sister had given me as a birthday present. It didn’t begin to do justice to the combined vocal chords of the blue robed participants which Teresa and her sisters heard that evening. Teresa told me later that she had been particularly impressed by the quality of the testimonies that followed, the evident integrity of those who believed themselves to have been healed of normally fatal diseases or saved from life threatening accidents. What seemed a smooth functioning organization also attracted her favorable notice. Most of the leftists she knew did little more than move their lips and advertise their competitive advantages just as capitalists did in the only game in town other than PT, the survival of the most ruthless. She seemed to have no suspicion whatsoever of guile. Perhaps her neediness prevented her from even imagining the obvious.
When the GodMan triumphantly appeared behind his podium, wearing a dark blue Mao cap, she jumped to her feet with everyone else except perhaps her sisters, clapping and shouting. What he had to say did not disappoint. It constituted the strongest indictment of the capitalist system she had ever heard anyone utter. Moreover, she totally believed his promise that he intended to do something to replace it with a system based on humane values that required only the hard work of faithful followers.
A hush fell over the congregation as He prepared to go into revelation and healings. As usual, Jim asked everyone to meditate with him to the low throb of music while he opened himself as a channel. Then he looked up and round, said something about a person in the room who lived on “The Avenue of the Fleas.” He shook his head and looked quickly in Teresa’s direction while, according to her, she tried her utmost to avoid his direct gaze. Even through dark glasses it felt formidable. But he didn’t say another word. She didn’t stand up either; she didn’t acknowledge in any way that she might be related to that location where we had first met. In spite of her desire to be given the attention she felt she’d been denied, another part of her, abnormally shy and fiercely private, wanted to remain anonymous. Shame, she said later, overwhelmed her. It was as if she were being judged and lacked any real defense against what she had so far done with her life. Jones was obviously not ready to pursue the matter until he knew that she was indeed ready. She wondered later what he might have said had she been willing to listen. If nothing else, it bothered her that he hadn’t even smiled.
Her sisters felt distinctly uncomfortable. Teresa wasn’t surprised that they expressed no desire to return. My dear friend, nevertheless, knew that she was ready to make the commitment for the long haul. I knew her deep concern about the welfare of those in her family she would have to leave behind. Lacking the prophetic guidance of Jim Jones and his church, they would, she felt certain, end up on the waste heap of a social system that cared about them only as resources to be exploited for profit, then cast off. She feared most of all for her mom, Ethel, finally divorced but lacking significant skills in a world of competitive males with years more experience in the work force. In those days, her mom worked long hours for much too little pay in order to raise a family in a trailer park near Half Moon Bay – light years from the upper middle class suburb in which her daughter worked and sometimes played. Knowing that she would not be able to assist, Teresa despaired that her mom might face old age without the savings that could assure dignity. It depressed Teresa that her mom and sisters might return to old time fundamentalist religion for spiritual sustenance, only to die in ignorance of the liberating socialist truth. Without Jim Jones their lives would come to predictably terrible ends. Just recently her brother Kenny had been tragically injured and scarred, perhaps for life, in an accident Jones might have prevented. She was sure, however, that Kenny would never even consider visiting. Teresa was at loose ends regarding the family she loved, including an aunt to whom she was devoted and a bunch of cousins, but knew that she would have to make the transition to socialism alone. However, as Jones apparently recognized, she did need more time to process what was happening much too rapidly in her much too emotionally complicated life.
Mixed Feelings but No Cold Feet
By the time he did return in mid-December, Teresa had committed herself to attending not only the open weekend meetings in San Francisco but also the “family” catharsis sessions held only at the Mother Church in Redwood Valley. While she had applied for membership at the very first opportunity, she did not receive her party card until the third successive meeting she had attended. This membership not only entitled but required her to attend the family meetings, each of which involved a difficult 300 mile round trip, demanding difficult transfers at inconvenient hours – think 5 AM – during the middle of her and most other people’s work week.
What she saw and heard at the first catharsis session began to sober her up. This was certainly no feel good amusement party that she had just joined. At first she didn’t know what to think as she witnessed one member after another confronted about a wide range of serious and not-so-serious offenses. She didn’t know how she would feel jumping to get in line to testify against one of her friends who had violated a rule, how she felt about kids testifying against their parents, wives against husbands. Would she turn me in herself? I wondered but didn’t’ ask. Of course, she understood the need for tight discipline, but a belt and one huge paddle terrified her as they were applied to bodies that obviously felt the pain while she watched silently and too many cheered. She shook her head. She knew she didn’t understand but trusted that there was justification for such extreme action in terms of the world crisis over oil that we were facing and the possibility that Nixon, facing Watergate, would opt for a coup d’etat and establish outright fascism as the only law of the land. She knew she didn’t have the mind of any god. She knew she couldn’t see what Jim, the Master, saw, but she wanted to believe that it must be love which was causing him to toughen us up. She would just have to steel herself for what he realized was necessary in the difficult and dangerous times to into which we were inevitably heading. He would certainly protect the faithful, his sheep.
New as she was, Teresa clearly realized that she should not be sharing what transpired in meetings with me, a defector, or with anybody else. Members were repeatedly instructed not to tell what took place even to other members who had for any reason been absent. But she needed somebody in whom to confide, who could offer useful feedback. Liz, her only Temple friend so far, lived in Ukiah which was too far away for solace. I was the only person close at hand with whom she felt comfortable sharing her fresh and often disconcerting experiences. I was the only person available who might help dispel fleeting thoughts that Peoples Temple might turn out, however inadvertently, to be a prison whose rules would be enforced by prison guards rather than by the power of individual conscience. She kept her eyes and ears open and reported back to me as Jones no doubt angrily assumed she would.
Neither of us in fact was quite ready to divorce ourselves from the realm of the senses. With Gerry soon back on the scene, we made a perfunctory attempt at a ménage a trois, which would have been laughable if the context hadn’t been tragic. In its wake our separate sexual relationships resumed. She castigated me for deserting her in favor of my boyfriend who seemed to prefer my body to hers. I made all sorts of lame excuses. She forgave me nevertheless, though for the time being we saw somewhat less of each other. She retreated to her cottage in preparation for much more serious work.
Commitment: The Lamb Speaks
That winter of 1974 I organized a weekly open poetry reading, held at Palo Alto’s “Chimaera” bookstore, which Teresa utilized as a forum in which to share a series of poetic broadsides, among them the following, written in the immediate aftermath of her conversion.
THE LAMB SPEAKS
the word cuts slowly between the ribs
until the cold steel melts the warm pulsing heart
opening the path for the blood to flow freely
come wash the sins off your hands
in the river of his Love
the savior teach us the fine distinction
between sacrifice and suicide
and commands us to give up our lives
not to take them.
It may be significant here that the only letter she capitalizes is the “L” in “Love.” “Sacrifice” – as she viewed it – constituted the only real alternative to some sort of “suicide,” the drowning in meaninglessness of a merely hedonistic existence. Except for me, none of those who listened to this and other of her evangelical poems even considered following her into Peoples Temple.
Teresa had almost given up hope that some of her friends, at least, might follow her on this pilgrimage. On the Saturday evening before New Year’s Day, 1974, Teresa made her one attempt, bringing with her to an open meeting at Benjamin Franklin Jr. High a party that included Gerry and Stephen, plus Jeffrey Shurtleff and his girlfriend Annie. They were met at the door by several councilors, including both Karen Layton and Tim Carter. Karen, never shy, asked Gerry directly if he knew me. Clearly she was aware of his identity as my sometimes lover. He didn’t try to hide our relationship. Tim then escorted the whole group up to the balcony where they were no doubt carefully monitored. Teresa reported back later that the music had been terrific that evening and that, for once, the healings didn’t waste too much time. God had reserved most of his energy to preach the revolutionary social gospel. But not even Teresa felt entirely comfortable with the presence of so many uniformed security guards. Though Jim might have impressed those of her friends who were first timers, none of them to my knowledge thought seriously of returning – much less joining up.
On her 27th birthday, Gerry and I took Teresa to a dimly lit supper club which boasted a microscopic dance floor. Despite the house band the place felt deathly quiet. Finally we got to our feet and tried to dance as a trio. Our movements were awkward. Others followed and soon the tiny stage was packed. But the outing still felt like a memorial to a very different sort of life she was leaving behind at a definitive if snail-like pace.
The sexual part of her relationships came to an abrupt halt soon thereafter. When Gerry accused us of conspiring against him by keeping our own minimally sexual relationship – which I had finally confessed to him – a secret, she decided that it was time to really learn her lesson. Henceforth, she would remain strictly celibate. She had a professional cut her hair stylishly short and not simply lopped off as often happened to those, typically young and white, accused of narcissism during catharsis sessions. Her previous hippie look quickly disappeared. No more funky dresses, too often black, usually striped with red, day packs and leather sandals that made her stand out like a wilted flower child and communicated the depression which had become habitual. Soon she was dressed in PT drone-like anonymity that fitted heaven’s worker bees and didn’t call attention to the fact that she was present and awake. She donated the fancy threads she’d bought in Sausalito to the Temple’s antique store, Relics and Things, for which I would later work until my final epiphany and exodus.
Save the abiding connections to her family that she would never entirely sever – even after the flight to Jonestown, our platonic relationship remained the last vital link she retained to the world outside the Temple. Had she not concluded that I would at some point be forced to return by the failed experiment of my life on the “outside,” she would probably have turned her back on me too. And, of course, her supposition proved correct. Towards the end of February, Joe Phillips, once Jones’ second-in-command, sensing that I longed for what only Peoples Temple could provide, asked me to accompany him on his own return visit to a Peoples Temple meeting, the first he’d made in several years. It was an invitation I dreaded but also one I couldn’t resist. My emotional life was in shambles. Trying to resist the appeal Peoples Temple was akin to fighting the laws of gravity.
On the eve of my return I stopped the use of my two drugs of choice, coffee and marijuana. Teresa, surprisingly, had not yet felt such a need. I invited her to take most of the rest of my stash which she smoked in privacy – not overly afraid that Jim might call her out as a blasphemer or worse. The sacrifice of sex was quite enough for the time being. She needed at least a few remaining vices to get her through the next ordeals. We both maintained our study of astrology which the Master officially derided but unofficially utilized himself under the sophisticated guidance of Tish Leroy.
An Angel in the Dog House
It made sense that Jim Jones didn’t appear overjoyed to see me again, but Teresa and I were both perplexed that neither he nor his wife would acknowledge even her presence – except in a negative manner. Marceline, she complained, looked purposely away from her, wouldn’t say “Hello” when they passed in the aisles. When she had handed Marceline, also a Capricorn, a poem, written specially for her birthday, the latter had taken it without a word of acknowledgement and kept on walking. Teresa, of course, felt crestfallen. What had she done that was so wrong? Her sense of justice was outraged; she wanted to know. Was she having to pay for my sins by being suspected of she knew not what? I couldn’t answer but knew she wouldn’t be rejected if she kept on persisting, what solar Capricorns do best. She attributed the shunning to a likely assumption that she was still romantically entangled with Gerry and me. Perhaps, after all, Marceline was even right.
Whatever the case, Jim continued to eye my friend darkly. During a Wednesday night catharsis session in May he first zapped her with what she described as a bolt of energy, then damned her for what he described as a pervasive negative attitude as he looked straight into her heart – or so she thought. As someone who came to know her very well and to love her dearly, I can testify that most of the time she did seem depressed. Smiling was never her forte, in fact, a trait she distrusted in others. She brooded a lot. Most of her friends knew her as hypercritical but no hypocrite. She sang and swayed her body at Temple meetings with enthusiasm as if she were in trance. Fortunately the man we were coming to call Father didn’t humiliate her by mentioning her by name. But she did know for sure that she remained a target of anger and distrust. She was being watched carefully. It would take some time for her to prove herself a true disciple. She cried all the way home next to me on the bus. There was nothing she could do right, she complained, having a little healthy pity on herself. I suggested that He was testing her commitment to the cause.
My membership was restored without any period of waiting as if it had never lapsed. Teresa and I traveled to the next Wednesday night “catharsis” meeting in Redwood Valley in the same “Greyhound-style” bus with already threadbare upholstery. At the end of an eight hour long declamation Our Risen Savior demanded that everyone in attendance pass by the podium and touch his white tee shirt, stained with blood from what he alleged was a recent failed attempt on his life. Like almost everyone else Teresa and I each left a mandatory donation in recognition of his bravery. He watched like a hawk as we placed our bills and coins right under his eyes where he could tally the amounts.
For the next six months Teresa provided my only steady emotional support as I made my way in deeply reluctant stages back to ground zero, the organization I’d left with my usual startling impetuosity less than two years before. Without her, I can’t imagine having survived the final breakup of my relationship with Gerry and the devastation that followed. She provided her nursing services free of charge but not without subjecting my behavior to well-deserved criticism.
On more than one occasion I overdosed on legal pharmaceuticals rather than face the frightening reality that a return entailed. The first time I overdosed she picked me up at home and drove me to the meeting at Benjamin Franklin Jr. High that I was trying to avoid. While I tried not to doze off in the balcony, Jones presented the Temple’s “Good Citizenship Award” to Dr. Carlton Goodlett, founding editor of the San Francisco Sun Reporter and in retrospect our most loyal outside friend. She did what she could to disguise my condition from prying eyes. After the meeting had concluded, she passed on a message to me, ostensibly from Jim but orchestrated by our friend Liz. I was welcome to move back to Ukiah anytime I wished. The sooner the better, she said. It was simultaneously the best and worst news I could imagine. Teresa expressed relief. In any event, she did all that she could to help me pack and move out of the house I’d rented with others but for the last few months lived in alone. She supported me in every way she knew how while I went through a devastating break-up with Gerry that took me briefly through a nearby mental hospital. This must have been very hard on her. I will always feel gratitude for her part in my psychic healing.
That summer Teresa and I traveled around the country in separate buses, bursting with human beings, as part of PT’s revival caravan. God intended to bring the good news to black folk in the hinterlands, to bring in new members and as much money as possible. First we swung through the deep south, stopping for a day or often – as in New Orleans – only a night at time, finally decamping at the King Center in Atlanta where Teresa and I had a chance to talk. When Jim arranged for us to pause for several days at our next to last stop, Chicago, the two of us managed, while nobody was noticing our absence, to escape for a whole afternoon. What a luxury it was! Wandering around a very small part of the metropolis, we bought and mailed postcards, purchased food with real protein in it, and shared what we thought we’d learned. Both of us realized that we suffered from hypoglycemia, a disease nurtured by the typical PT diet, overly rich in empty carbohydrates, especially the sort consumed on the road. Neither of our bodies was in very good shape by the time we got back home.
Shortly after our return to California, Jim left again, this time by plane, to inspect the work under way in Guyana. While he was out of the country, Marceline – or “Mother” as most of us now addressed her in public – took charge of meetings. At the first Wednesday night catharsis session in the Valley she stopped Teresa with an unfamiliar smile that passed no judgment, only sympathy as my friend passed by the podium, putting her donation in the basket once again. That little, non-verbal acknowledgement was all that Teresa seemed to need, at least for time being.
It seemed very unusual that God had not yet called Teresa out by name for healing or revelation. New members in particular could normally expect that sort of acknowledgement. Nothing more had been said by him or anyone else on his behalf about “The Avenue of the Fleas.” Not once had he sent one of his blue robed nurses to her during a meeting with one of the ubiquitous red satin prayer clothes, each with a special instruction to prevent accident, disease or other sort of injury, sometimes by witchcraft. Since my return, I’d received several red ribbons which I’d been instructed to pin on various parts of my clothing. Teresa didn’t try to hide her jealousy that I had unearned merit badges she felt that she much more amply deserved.
On October 17, one year to the day after renting the cottage behind her friend Susan’s house, Teresa was finally ready to take the next big step. Her new friend, Joyce Shaw, and the latter’s husband, Bob Houston, had found her a studio apartment down the hall from theirs at Fillmore and Haight, still the beating heart of black San Francisco, adjacent to the Haight and Castro. Teresa moved right in, expressing relief at the opportunity to physically separate herself from a painful past and grow closer to the burgeoning Temple community in the city of St. Francis. Before leaving the cottage, she smoked the last of her small remaining stash of dope.
However, the agony of disconnection from her previous life still cut like a knife. The need to bring in money forced her to keep the job at Kepler’s. For the duration of 1974 she still had to work side-by-side with Gerry and occasionally Stephen as well. Their propinquity didn’t seem to please anyone. Her move might have facilitated visits to Temple facilities but it added a fresh daily commute and probably subtracted several hours of sleep she needed each night. When she was too tired to take the bus or the train back to San Francisco, she spread her sleeping bag on the floor of the bookstore at night and slept for the most part peacefully.
With her tiny studio apartment as a base, she was able to reach out and begin to explore the various ways in which she might be of use to the San Francisco Temple. She began by spending more time with her new, extremely supportive neighbors, Joyce Shaw and Bob Houston. Both were intellectuals, thoughtful in their evaluations. Listening to their accounts, she felt grateful that she would not be alone, that there were others who tried to think for themselves.
She had immediately realized that Temple security needed all the help it could get. And it didn’t take her long to volunteer services which were hardly refused. But as a white person in an overwhelmingly black organization – certainly that part of it centered in San Francisco – she knew she needed to show that she could follow orders coming from black folk. An exuberant disposition might have helped; but, lacking that, consistent hard work predictably did succeed over time. But in the meantime, she developed a reputation as someone who knew how to give orders better than to take them, a back seat driver who was never satisfied with the way things had always been done. Her impatience brought charges that she was still too “white” in her attitudes.
What I still consider a real tragedy to literature took place just as she was settling into her new life. Teresa had entrusted me with a plump notebook of poems, copies of originals, containing almost everything she’d written and wished to keep up to that date. Asked by our friend Liz to teach a class in poetry at the newly formed Ukiah Free University, I brought with me to the first teachers’ meeting her unpublished collection of poems as an example of what I’d admired in contemporary poetry. When I got ready to leave, I realized that the bag containing the book of poems had disappeared and with it much of the evidence of Teresa’s prodigious talent.
Teresa came up to Redwood Valley in one of the big temple buses to celebrate what we both knew would be a very special celebration of the New Year’s, 1975. Not only did it provide the usual sad occasion for the handing out of meager presents to kids, purchased on sale during the after Christmas rush, but it offered the optimal opportunity for Father’s triumphant report back from the trip to Guyana from which he’d just returned, accompanied by a full plane load of counselors and staff, sun burned but ecstatic. Neither Teresa nor I escaped the contagion of high spirits, the cumulative effect of the stories the participants shared of their guided tour through heaven-in-the-making. I felt guilty and somewhat uncomfortable that the jungle didn’t charm me. Teresa didn’t show much reaction at all. Likely she was still evaluating, parsing the sentences of those she heard to extract whatever elusive meaning they held.
The next day I, who still owned a car of my own but rarely used it for any sort of pleasure, drove us both to the coast which neither had seen for at least a year. We walked around Mendocino Village dispiritedly. The place was thronged with tourists who reminded us of our former selves. Having gotten off to a late start, we’d forgotten to bring more than loose change. Fortunately we had just enough between us to buy a sandwich which we shared in the window seats of a fancy freak café. Something definitely felt wrong to both of us about this visit. The thrill was definitely gone. We knew better. The psychedelic counterculture no longer had anything to contribute to our growth. Vowing never to return, we headed uncomfortably back across the mountains. I dropped her off at the Ukiah bus station from which she headed south, expressing a steely commitment to what most Templars referred to as “The Cause.”
Almost as soon as she got home, Teresa found herself challenged by a fresh responsibility that was to prove by turns deeply rewarding and utterly frustrating. Mandated by Jim and the Planning Commission to set up a San Francisco commune expressly to meet the needs of kids whose parents were in no condition to take care of them, Joyce Shaw turned to Teresa for help. The latter was honored to be able to offer her services. Taking care of kids was something that as an older sister she knew how to do well. The reward to her, watching small kids who had been fucked up by the system, grow up healthy under her tutelage was boundless. She had been trained by childhood to take care of others.
Together with Joyce, Bob, four other adults and a gaggle of kids, Teresa moved into the roomy, multi-storied Victorian on San Bruno Street that always seemed to need a paint job but immediately felt like home to her. Since leaving Stephen and the rambling mansion on the Avenue of the Fleas, this was the first time she felt she really belonged. New kids always seemed to be arriving. More space needed to be found or created. In the meantime, Teresa acquired a formidable reputation as a stern enforcer of the rules that allowed so many to share so little space and finite food.
Prisoner or Prison Guard?
She had long since taught me how identify what she called “prison guards,” whom, she assured me with confidence, one could find in any institution. One just had to wait and watch. When housemate Bob Houston was called to the floor for the latest in an escalating pattern of infractions, it didn’t surprise me that the new Teresa quickly got in line to indict him. Such quick response was expected by The Office of all those who knew and worked with the accused. What surprised me was that Teresa actually jumped out of the waiting line of witnesses to scream at Bob. She denounced his behavior for intractable male chauvinism, said she wouldn’t put up with it anymore in the commune. Thanks to the example of our Socialist Father, she proclaimed, the kids in the house were now able to see through his avoidance of work around the commune. Jim asked her what was needed. Help was needed with the housework, she responded; the kids required male guidance and supervision. When she confronted him, she added, Bob only became belligerent and refused to listen because she was only a woman. Yeah, only a woman! Had she become a prison guard too? I ask that question three decades later not to indict her but to point out how our devotion to Jim Jones distorted our perceptions of reality and all too often turned us, myself included, into our own worst enemies and all too often into the worst enemies of our best friends.
Privately Teresa blamed Joyce Shaw, her superior in the hierarchy, the person responsible for the commune, answerable to Jim and the Planning Commission, for much of what didn’t work. I listened to her repeatedly kvetch that Joyce bribed the kids with favors and approving smiles while comfortably giving orders to subordinate adults like herself and avoiding real work herself. Envy definitely played a role here; Joyce worked her butt off as manager of so many individual lives, each with different and often conflicting needs, while working at a fulltime job herself. Fortunately Teresa recognized that she was in no position and take on her superior directly. She was certainly not in a position to replace her. With good reason she assumed that if she were to formally complain, the Planning Commission would protect Joyce as one of its own against a newcomer who was already becoming a troublemaker. My friend realized that she had to tread like a mountain goat. The political landscape as it might impact her was charged.
Tensions inside her household continued to mount. No matter how hard she worked, looking after the kids, helping with their homework, cooking too many meals, she eventually had to acknowledge that the kids didn’t appreciate her commitment any more than they did the health foods with which she stocked the pantry. But none of the adults – not even Joyce, who came to feel her as an irritant – questioned her utter devotion to the welfare of the household.
What rankled Teresa most was the apparent privilege granted a young black woman, whose name I forget, whom she believed to have formed a political alliance with Joyce against her, in order to evade responsibility around the house. The racial politics were tricky and Teresa, being politically savvy if not always wise, knew not to address the problem head-on. Instead she complained in a house meeting about the destruction or, at least, subversion of the excellent food system she had created single handedly. It turned out to make little difference that this other woman was responsible. Unfortunately for Teresa, she had picked the wrong issue. The kids had missed their cookies, candies and sodas and welcomed the return to a more familiar cuisine. As far as I know, the conflict was never really resolved, certainly not while they lived in the same house. But on that issue Teresa did grudgingly come to accept that she remained in a minority of one, a familiar role.
Healing Without a Miracle
That spring Teresa faced a new and frightening crisis that for the time being pushed everything else aside. Tests ordered by her female physician revealed cancer growing in her cervix. Though the physician advised her not to become unduly alarmed as it was a cancer that responded well to conventional treatments, Teresa recognized that her life was under threat. She needed to take at least a brief time to consider her options. Somehow Joyce Beam, PT’s magnificent chief nurse, found out. Alarmed that Teresa might be delaying treatment in hope of a miracle cure, Joyce passed her concern on to Jim Jones, a man who advertised a special gift to heal cancer.
Rather than expressing his love and/or healing her threatened body, our socialist savior confronted Teresa at the next catharsis session, calling her out for the first time by name. In front of the assembled membership and without warning, Jones accused her of delaying treatment in order to get his attention. She broke into convulsive sobs. Was she trying to commit suicide? He demanded to know. Her own life, he insisted, was a vehicle of socialism and she had no right to take it from all those who might benefit from her attention. She said nothing but continued to cry brokenly. Then He reminded her somewhat more gently that crying always amounted to self-pity. She had wanted to be called out for so long. Finally she was, but for not for the purpose of healing, only for further humiliation. At the very least, he should have been ashamed of himself. But our God knew no shame then or ever. For her, it was a familiar position to find herself in, doubly painful because her life had been threatened.
The operation took place in August, 1975 at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco. Her physicians removed the growth and tied her tubes. While Teresa was recovering, Joyce Shaw and others she knew from the Children’s Commune made time to visit. It was harder for Liz and I to spend time with her; both of us still lived and worked in Ukiah 110 miles to the north. Her mother and sisters drove down from Sonora in the Sierra foothills to show their support. Marceline, an experienced nurse, did once come to visit Teresa while she was recovering in the hospital. Though it saddens me to reflect that it took a life threatening illness to bring Teresa some of the favorable attention she craved, I know that she remained deeply grateful for everyone who took an interest in her survival. It was clear that she needed all the tender loving care she could get in order to make a full recovery. When Liz came down from Ukiah, she brought with her a potted green plant that she presented as a gift from Father, though in fact she had purchased it herself without instructions from anyone other than her own conscience. As far as I know, our great socialist savior never offered Teresa a single word of reassurance as she confronted possible death – much less help on the road to a renewed life. This man was simply never there for this woman who gave him everything, including eventually her life.
Teresa had the habit of throwing herself in front of potential father figures who would have preferred after a point to ignore her existence. No matter what she might do to please him, Jim Jones didn’t have any predisposition to trust her. It bothered him that she didn’t smile enough. Even though she swayed to the music at meetings, he questioned her unequivocal enthusiasm for his exalted “Office.” It must have seemed to him as it did to many others that she spent too much time brooding about what was going wrong, both with herself and in her immediate environment. Given his paranormal abilities, however atrophied they might have become through misuse, he might also have had good reason to suspect that someday she might focus her normal hypercritical faculty on what he was actually doing as opposed to the inflated promises of the conniving political actor he had become. Except for members of her blood family, nobody else was spared her rigorous and often devastating motivational analyses. Had she not needed to believe that Jim Jones was the physical representation of God on this planet, who had returned as a bodhisattva to rescue us from ourselves; her fine intellect would not have missed the salient clues of the monster he was becoming.
Challenges, Possibilities – and Change
Regardless of Jim’s lack of support, she returned to her normal life reinvigorated, feeling not only gratitude but the incredibly high spirits that only a “survivor” – and I use that word advisedly – can know. Finally, it seemed to me, Teresa was coming to accept herself, her role in the firmament of heaven. Somehow she knew that, having given herself to socialism, her real talents were going to be used in the best way they possibly could. Finally she felt able to relax long enough to begin to forget herself. She had turned herself over to the needs of others and felt inner peace. She smiled a lot more now. Her face glowed with hope. Sometimes she laughed giddily. I was glad for her.
That fall the communal food system in San Francisco was centralized, mainly to save funds or so we were told. For those like Teresa who had given most of what they had to the church and “gone communal,” this meant that meals were now all prepared and served at the new San Francisco Temple, rebuilt from the inside out after the previous year’s fire. Although Teresa wasn’t pleased by the decision because it entailed loss of intimacy with her housemates, she made a stupendous effort to accommodate the new regime. In fact, she proved so diligent that Rheviana Beam, chief not only of the kitchen but of food procurement, appointed Teresa her assistant. Teresa didn’t wince at Rheviana’s boast that she fed each person on 16 cents a day. Regardless of the scanty funds, Teresa made herself accountable that the meals were properly cooked and served on time. Typical breakfasts consisted of oatmeal with white sugar and non-fat dry milk washed down with one’s choice of water, weak tea, or the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted. During her period of authority she did her best to make sure that the feather weight brown bag lunches had some redeeming nutritive value.
Rheviana’s choice of Teresa was apt, but it displeased certain others who felt that Teresa’s advancement had been much too rapid and that Rheviana, in any case, was much too arbitrary in her decision making. Jim listened to those who were offended or suspicious, most of them counselors who sat on the Planning Commission, and decided to make some changes. In December Rheviana and Teresa were dethroned and replaced by a succession of squabbling counselors, placed under the jurisdiction of Helen Swinney, always anxious to advance her area of direct control. All of them failed to save the money that Rheviana, aided by Teresa, had managed with careful planning and efficient execution. More stale Hostess cupcakes and the like, donated by bakeries anxious to curry favor with so dynamic an organization, substituted for food with nutritional value. The sugar content of meals increased, Teresa reported to me indignantly, now that she had lost her brief blast of authority.
In any case, Teresa didn’t bridle much at what she accurately surmised was only a temporary setback, which had afforded her the first taste of recognition, if not by Jim himself, at least by the mass of ordinary Temple members who had “gone communal” and had most or all of their meals at the San Francisco Temple, the only real living room that our interracial family had. Instead she decided to prove her mettle by volunteering to double the number of hours she put in as a security guard at the front door. Dressed in a suitably uncomfortable and unattractive ground length black uniform, she insured that the handbags and body parts of mostly heavy and sweating black sisters were searched thoroughly but with the gentleness that was due their age and presumable dedication. I don’t know if any of those with evil intentions were stopped. It’s clear, however that doing things her own way earned only fresh resentment.
The long daily trips to and from the distant kitchen came to a sudden and unexpected end. At the start of 1976 Jones decreed that the Children’s Commune must quickly move from the capacious Victorian with a view on much too distant Potrero Hill to a location nearer the church. Joyce found a dimly lit ground floor railroad flat on Sutter Street which required only a short walk to the church facility. A desire to save money doubtless played the primary role in Jones’ decision, but the ability to keep what he viewed as a group of anarchists on a tighter leash played a supporting secondary role. Teresa put up no resistance whatsoever to God’s command. She had learned the hard way not to antagonize him.
Quite another development buoyed her spirits. In the wake of her demotion from the central kitchen, she was offered the opportunity to work fulltime preparing the new commune and taking care of kids. As she had already gone communal, this offer included a promise of full financial support out of Temple funds. Finally she was able to leave the hated job at Kepler’s, her last painfully regular contact with a way of life she’d long since discarded. It certainly relieved her to leave behind a thirty mile bus commute each way every day. No longer would she be forced to rub shoulders with the spoiled brats of the counter culture who from her impassioned perspective contributed little except attitudes of bourgeois entitlement. When Gerry invited her out for a going-away lunch, she told him that they had already related more than enough in this lifetime. In her pilgrimage towards what she spoke of as “freedom,” her departure from Kepler’s represented an important milestone which she interpreted as an opportunity for further growth – much of which she knew in advance would not be easy.
When I arrived in San Francisco in late April, 1976, tasked with the relocation of “Relics and Things,” the Temple’s antique store that recycled the most saleable of our belongings and brought in considerable revenue, Teresa and the other members of her household were preoccupied with moving into the dismal Sutter Street flat. The attention that she had bestowed on the central kitchen she now lavished on cleaning the filthy insect-infested flat with its low ceilings and tiny rooms. In spite of their unanimous dislike of the place, the members of the household, working together, managed to transform it into a facsimile of home. I became a frequent visitor, invited to drop by pretty much whenever I could. Soon I felt almost a member of the household myself.
Shock was my first reaction when I heard Teresa of all people rationalize a food regimen that lacked redeeming nutritive value. Though she no longer had control over the central kitchen, her new attitude represented a complete and uncharacteristic about face. Since I’d first known her, she’d been committed to healthy foods. Having been communalized in Redwood Valley, I was painfully aware of the poverty of our diet in which protein was often as hard to find as a needle in a haystack. In a heated conversation with me she argued that Jim’s logic was entirely correct and reflected economic necessity. No real amelioration of our condition would be possible until we’d carved out space in the jungle of Guyana and could grow our own food. Until then, she protested too much, it made no sense to let some eat relatively well in communes that were well stocked while others suffered what was essentially malnutrition. She begged the question which was not about quantity of food but lack of quality. Concern for her own physical well being did not play as significant a role for her as it did many of her housemates; she had always been a stoic. But I did sense a newfound political canniness guiding her words as much as her actions. She had been burned too many times since she’d entered heaven to take serious chances alienating the powers that presided over her destiny. It was time to accommodate. I knew that the Temple needed to save for the great transition to Guyana, but I still didn’t like to hear such words coming out of her mouth.
Now that she was working full-time for the Temple organization, she had room in her life for a wide variety of projects. While many still related to the Children’s Commune where she lived, most involved working in the nearby church building which served as the Vatican of the small PT universe. Her commitment to security, which had already intensified in at least two stages, ratcheted up another notch. More responsibility, however, did not translate into easy comradeship with the other security staff – most of them black. Some of her colleagues complained about her to those in authority. At the weekly security meetings, they claimed, she had trouble meeting others half way. She knew how to give orders but didn’t like to follow unless she was free to criticize everything. In short, her attitude was “white.”
As a strong white woman with brains and education, she felt at a profound disadvantage and in consequence isolated. Her recent failure in the Church kitchen still stung and must have been actively recalled by other security staff who had been involved in or knowledgeable of that power struggle. Never one to acknowledge defeat, she had plunged ahead rather than collapse in the self-pity of tears. In spite of all her setbacks, she reminded me, she’d never been happier in her life. Healing from cancer coupled with departure from Kepler’s energized every activity into which she poured herself with an indefatigable optimism and sense of purpose that manifested occasionally as over confidence.
Seeing a lot more of Teresa certainly buoyed my spirits too – even when we disagreed. Despite the physical distance of the previous year and a half, our sense of intimacy remained. Neither of us had reason to fear that one might turn in the other for anything short out outright treason. Our encounters took place not only at meetings but at meals in the Temple kitchen and sometimes late in the evening at either or our communes which were barely a mile apart. Occasionally we hiked up to Pacific Heights where we looked out over the lights of the city and shared our thinking about the future, especially plans to move most of the temple family to Guyana. The prospect of hot humid weather and the opportunities afforded by isolation in the jungle intrigued her. For the first time we would be able to protect ourselves from the destructive influences of consumer culture. Personally I hated hot humid weather, dreaded snakes, and would have preferred to fly over what was still basically a construction site on my way to a more urbane environment, preferably cuddling the slopes of mountains like the ones I’d known growing up in the SF Bay Area, a place where one could access foreign newspapers and acquire perspective.
The majority of her waking hours continued to be occupied by the care of kids – whether in some part of the temple building or at her commune. Having just lost the capacity to bring a child of her own into the world, she returned to her engagement with the very young with renewed vigor. A more or less collective leadership was already emerging among the half dozen women and the single male, Vern Gosney, responsible for the care of the children residing in any and all of the San Francisco communes who were too young to attend public school. Though most of the other caretakers were mothers themselves, Teresa felt welcomed as an invaluable ally and not as a competitor. Her success in this gentler environment served to counteract the disapproval and consequent isolation she had experienced in the central kitchen and which she continued to endure as part of security operations.
Regardless of what was happening Teresa found time and inspiration to write poems: long ones, short ones, usually ecstatic, occasionally dispirited and dispiriting. Some were near perfect, others – like those of most poets – are best forgotten. The sharing of recently written ones constituted a core part of our friendship. Shortly after her departure from the bookstore she wrote one in which she remarked with admirable constraint upon each of her fellow workers. As it has little redeeming artistic value, I will refrain from quoting it here. Instead I append another, written for me, using the pseudonym Mayakovsky, the Soviet poet much admired by Stalin as well as by much of the revolutionary intelligentsia. I cherish it, despite its theme, as a precious gift.
Hello my dear-old friend, Depression
So you’ve returned
as surely as the winter of despair that
hung over the rotting Russian Empire
bringing with you
the cold sheets of lovers caught on
different sides of the war
the fierce anger of African women
marching in military formation
behind the marching Portuguese Imperialists
the black moonless nights that guerillas
in the eternal fight for freedom
the heavy leaden sleep that suicidal poets
seek to ease their personal pain
So you’ve come once again
to rain upon me, saturating me to the bone
with your blue-grey gloom
to leave me empty as the space between the stars
the hollow ache
that fills with quiet dread
that screams unheard into
You’re as familiar as the raised veins in my wrists
& never further away than the blood
that cries to be spilled
to indulge a moaning vanity
There is no escape
(T’is not the pity we imagined
Face the challenge)
It disappointed her that the poem ended with a familiar frustration. She felt obliged to add the Victorian piety I include in brackets because it was not part of her original. Among other things she was trying to remind me that there was no escape even here in the makings of paradise.
A Cycle of Treason: The Bicentennial Summer that Changed Everything
Then came the bicentennial summer that changed everything, certainly for Teresa and me. It began with the usual anti-vacation bus trip around the country similar to the nightmare caravan in which both of us had participated two years before. As usual Jones warned those who might think of staying behind that we would be lowering our vibratory rates, thus rendering ourselves vulnerable to negative influences from which he might not be able – even in his capacity as Savior – to protect us. Cycles in his parlance were always bad, though sometimes fairly exciting, especially for maniacs like me who get bored with the habitual quickly. The cycle we were about to enter was one of “treason,” or so He informed us before leaving. Teresa and I – both for reasons related to our work assignments – were among those granted the dispensation to remain behind. I was personally quite relieved at the thought of three weeks with looser discipline and God-in-the-Body removed from the equation of much of my daily life. Teresa now had responsibility for only those few kids who had remained behind, some of whom she and I both helped to tutor during the long afternoons. Despite her steadily deepening commitment, she didn’t really try to hide the joy she felt in anticipation of unstructured time in which she could write, read and dream – much of it in my company. Neither of us would miss the increasingly brutal public catharsis sessions which ceased while the Man was out of town.
During those few and precious weeks when Father and the packed buses were on the road, Teresa and I spent significant parts of each day/night together. Even if we failed to cross paths at meals, we usually managed to connect right after the brief but mandatory evening meeting intended by Jim to keep up morale and tighten discipline. Having already managed to wind up most of our work assignments, we would then jog through the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, sometimes in the company of friends, including Joyce Shaw, who had also manage to escape the descent into hell that the bus trip represented. Memories of those leisurely jogs, full of high spirited play, are among the most indelible I have of that last sustained period in which some of us, at least, felt overjoyed to be free as clouds.
After one of such jogs, the group of us went back to the antique store where I lived and worked. Somebody turned on the radio to a rock and roll station. Teresa began to dance by herself in the aisles between the tables. Nobody else joined her. I marveled at the grace and ingenuity of her movements in such a restricted space. I think of the dancing in retrospect as an apt metaphor for how she tried to live her life.
In regard to his most recent prophecy of impending “treason,” Jim Jones was proven correct. During his lengthy absence, “treasonous” plots were indeed hatched by some of those who remained behind both in Redwood Valley and San Francisco. All of them came to fruition shortly after his return. Grace Stoen was the first the defect. She did so with her boyfriend/long since husband Walter on the cusp of the July 4th weekend. Teresa and I were equally stunned; at least until we both began thinking. But if somebody had told me that I would have left Peoples Temple for the very last time within two months, I would have thought them crazy at best and probably reported them to Jim or the Planning Commission for planting “treasonous” thoughts in my mind. I felt healthier than I’d felt in years both physically and psychically. I could breathe freely. I took no drugs legal or illegal. I’d found my balance as part of a high flying act heading out towards the sun just waiting to be scorched.
On July 16, fewer than two weeks after the return of our Father and his busloads of sheep, Joyce Shaw slipped out of the Children’s Commune after months of discreet planning, leaving Teresa’s household in chaos and panic from which it never – to my knowledge – fully recovered. Despite a strong suspicion that her fellow Capricorn was no longer abiding by what we called “the program,” that her superior’s ego’s needs had taken precedence over the requirements of a socialist life, Teresa was visibly upset at what felt like another abandonment by somebody important in her life. For several weeks thereafter other commune members – even some counselors – assured her that Joyce, no coward, would return to face the charges of “capitalist mentality.” At very least Teresa would be able to convene a household meeting that had been postponed for weeks at which charges might be brought against her superior for dereliction of duty. The children had adored Joyce and there was no one person who could replace her in the commune. Truth be told, Teresa looked up to Joyce for leadership herself. Joyce had provided her with an immediate role model, against whom she could always measure her own success or failure. There was this competitive edge to my friend. She didn’t taste victory in this case until there was nobody left but herself and the multitude of still unfilled needs.
In the unlikely event that Joyce dared return, Teresa was working on the list of charges that she had already submitted to God and the Planning Commission for approval. Feeling herself supported by most of the other adults in the commune, Teresa emphatically reiterated to anyone who would hear her earlier allegations related to Joyce’s alleged abuse of executive power. She decried what she insisted was an unfair distribution of favors in what she believed to be a concerted attempt by her superior to avoid real work in the commune which at the time had only six resident adults, all of them burdened by other responsibilities, who needed relief. She heatedly resented the free lodging Joyce had apparently offered her parents while visiting. Teresa refused to be less equal than others under a form of socialism in which she worked very hard. In Teresa’s judgment there was, I think, both self-pity and envy – not the most attractive of human traits but ones that exist even in those who are otherwise on their way to sainthood. It says much about the integrity of her character, however, that she expected leaders to rule by example of hard work and sacrifice.
Joyce, of course, never did return. Unsurprisingly Teresa rose to the demands of the crisis. As part of the collective leadership of remaining adults, she first calmed the children, then restored order and so helped to maintain continuity. Fewer than three months later Joyce’s husband, Bob Houston, another key member of the commune, died while on the nightshift at the Southern Pacific rail yards. The nature of his death remains a mystery. In the meantime, first Liz, then I escaped for the final time. In the process, Teresa lost all but one of her closest friends in the Temple. As a consequence she found herself more on her own than she’d been at any time since she had entered the strange world of Apostolic Socialism, ruled over by its Living God. The cumulative effect of all these shocks must have felt dizzyingly unreal, painfully absurd, impossible to easily explain without some real time to reflect.
What enabled Teresa to overcome the experience of so much abandonment was the rapid budding of her first sexual relationship with another woman, one of the few close friends who didn’t disappear from her life. The prospective girlfriend, Diane Lundquist, was a woman of mixed race, born and brought up in Berkeley as part of an old Bolshevik tribe. She had followed Liz, her older friend and mentor, into the Temple with a husband she was already preparing to divorce and two tiny sons. Diane and I had gotten to know each other fairly well, living and working in the antique store which constituted a commune of its own with only three very eccentric members who easily accommodated each other’s idiosyncrasies.
I watched the budding of their relationship, initiated by Diane, the more experienced, who had been intrigued by Teresa for some time, at close hand. Now that they had been tasked by the Planning Commission to co-direct a fresh childcare project, focusing on early childhood education, they had ample opportunity to spend time together. Nobody should have been surprised at their mutual infatuation. For Teresa the opportunity represented the fallout of successive failed relationships with men who might, in her opinion, have lost some of their male privilege if they had taken her needs seriously. Jim Jones and his emissaries did nothing to discourage the relationship while I was still a witness. My boss, Bev Livingston, herself a counselor, suspected that Jones realized the strategic value of their relationship and would tolerate it until both women had healed from the loss of Liz. Then, she predicted, he would cause it self-destruct. I speculated that Jones would work to turn each of them against the other, divide and conquer. Teresa said nothing to me about her expectations of the future but she did seem particularly radiant. I knew that He still controlled the terrain on which their game of love would be played out.
The defection of Liz disappointed Teresa more than that of Joyce but it surprised her even less. Both of us had observed her increasingly frequent absence from meetings. Her excuses seemed flimsy. We both sensed her uneasiness, camouflaged by smiles and business. Before I disappeared as well, Teresa never indicated that she might be worried about my loyalty too. I gave no sign of being disaffected even though I was seriously disturbed by the escalation of public torture. I still believed quite sincerely that the psychological and spiritual healing which had transformed my life since my final return had taken place only because of the discipline of Peoples Temple and the leadership of Jim Jones. Ironically, it was as the result of my bungled attempt to convince Liz to return that I discovered the practice of torture carried out in private or in front of the Planning Commission. Once realizing that Jim Jones had lost the gifts that mattered, the most fundamental what I still consider to be respect for human life, I knew I had to escape to safety before exploding in anger and in so doing making myself a target of his potentially dangerous wrath.
On the evening of August 16, 1976, I stopped by the still leaderless Children’s Commune to ask Teresa to join me soliciting funds for the church – aluminum cup in hand. She had asked me to take her along the next time I went out on the streets. She knew she would never be able to do that alone. I wanted company and needed to talk. Answering my ring, somebody else opened the door to the flat. I found Teresa sitting at a table in her tiny room; pen in hand, fidgeting; her journal sat open facing her. She asked me if wanted to hear her latest poem inspired by Liz’ defection. Though I had no choice, I was quite curious. She delivered this jeremiad with righteous indignation that packed power into a quite a few long violent sentences that accused her former friend of being not so much a traitor as a “chicken” who led others on to places where she was afraid to go herself. What the poem lacked in simple intelligence was compensated for by the obvious genius of its creator whose use of metaphor and sensitivity to music took it to a level where politics and personal relationships are irrelevant and psychological insight is everything. She believed – as it turned out, erroneously – that Liz was about to come into a sizeable inheritance she was too greedy and fearful to share with her socialist family.
To my suggestion that a little panhandling might stabilize her mood, she looked at me as if I were certifiably crazy. No, she was definitely not interested, certainly not this particular night. Her eyebrows furrowed. She said she had too much else to do to keep her failing home together. I could tell that Teresa was feeling jealous and depressed. I needed to move on, beyond the reach of her frustrated rage that depressed me too. It was contagious. I couldn’t afford to be immobilized when there was work to do that she, had she not been preoccupied, might have guessed at.
After leaving her commune, I panhandled on Union Street alone but didn’t exude the optimism necessary to make enough spare change for bus fare. Rather than return as usual to my own commune when done, I took a long thoughtful walk along the ridge of Pacific Heights during which I debated the wisdom to phoning Liz and trying to persuade her to return. Minutes before midnight I dialed her number from a pay phone on the edge of the financial district. Perhaps she would listen to common sense from me. Though she answered the phone as if on cue, she brushed off my arguments which were hardly new, at least to her. What she unloaded comprises another story which I won’t try to tell except to note that it involved multiple incidents of torture which as a member of the Planning Commission she had witnessed. One of the recent victims was a particularly good friend with whom I spent a part of most days tutoring. Liz promised to fill me in on the details. We arranged to rendezvous in person for the following night.
Reality was spinning so rapidly I felt I was looking through a kaleidoscope. Was Liz simply demented and looking for excuses? Where did reality lie? I wanted to tell Teresa all that Liz had shared with me, plus my quickly forming plans for final departure but didn’t dare. Even in retrospect, I suspect that she would have immediately “written me up” and turned me in for plotting “treason” plus the added crime of attempting to take her with me. Suddenly made aware of the degree of Jones’ violence, I wanted to avoid whatever punishments he might inflict to keep me inside his prison: the beatings and interrogations, possibly to be followed by attempted deportation to Jonestown, his new gulag. I was just beginning to imagine how pathological a creature he might indeed have become.
Following my security shift at the gate of the Temple’s parking lot the following evening, just as I was preparing to drive the antique store’s van through the gate on my way to rendezvous with Liz, Teresa suddenly appeared out of the darkness with a group of kids and asked me to drop them all of them off at their commune. She appeared even more agitated than the previous evening. Just as the tightly packed van began moving again, Carol Stahl, a counselor, shouted for us to stop. She was holding a child who had been injured playing in the lot behind the Temple edifice and needed to be taken to the hospital right away. If I were to perform ambulance service, the scheduled meeting with Liz would not be able to take place. Fortunately Bob Houston, just off work, arrived at that moment and took the child in his vehicle. I dropped Teresa and the other kids off at their long thin railroad flat which had suddenly become history to me. I was soon, very soon, finally going to be free.
Different Realities Meet Face to Face
Teresa made no attempt to follow me out. Knowing where her heart was, the fierce passion for justice that had so far enabled her healing from cancer, I had no desire to destroy the dream which might be keeping her alive by attempting to pry her loose. In any case, I respected her choice. It didn’t occur to me that she would meet her death a mere twenty eight months later in a trap that had already been set. At the time I only knew that Teresa had nowhere psychologically safe to which to retreat other than her mother’s already crowded mobile home. Though some of her old friends might have welcomed her return to sanity and have offered at least emotional support, pride would have kept her from taking their assistance. I had little to offer, in any event, other than the company of someone dear with whom to deconstruct the last several years of her adventure. Even without the explicit support of Jim Jones, Teresa felt she had all she needed in the community of Peoples Temple to survive on planet earth.
Nevertheless, we did have an opportunity to talk. On August 23, five days after my final escape, I drove to San Francisco from the hiding place in Marin County I was sharing with Liz in preparation for the release of my few belongings from Temple custody. As Teresa was emerging from a laundromat on upper Fillmore, I happened to be driving quite slowly down the street, checking out the neighborhood as I approached the Temple’s environs. Seeing her struggling with an unwieldy basket of clothes, knowing she must be on her way back to the commune, I pulled right over to the sidewalk and honked once. Then I called her name through the open window. She froze for a split second, then turned my way and deliberately, without any sign of indecisiveness, walked right up the window. Her face remained expressionless, but her eyes implored. She asked me in a voice that was barely more than a whisper if I would drive her back to her place. I told her to get in. First she ran back to pick up the basket she’d left in consternation on the sidewalk. She placed it on her lap as she got in next to me. I knew I had little time to present my argument.
Teresa immediately asked me what was going on. Her eyes were anxious, perhaps frightened, but inquisitive too. Was it true? There were a lot of rumors going around, she said. Diane had told her I’d left but wouldn’t tell her why. No doubt, her new girlfriend was under orders not to talk.
I took the risk, though with trepidation, of answering her honestly. I told her that people were being tortured inside PT – not just in the form of the public boxing matches we’d both witnessed but much nastier stuff that took place in private or in front of the Planning Commission. Did she want to know what had been done to our friend, Peter Wotherspoon?
The role of Liz, I reminded her, entirely missed the point. Her accusations were right on target. The Jim Jones whom we’d both believed to rank above all the saints had become a torturer and was on his way to becoming a monster as well.
Teresa said quietly she didn’t want to hear any more. She pursed her lips and shook her head. I reminded her that Liz, a member of the Planning Commission, could and would back me up. Teresa said she felt sorry for both of us. We were missing the only opportunities we’d ever have to grow up. If she changed her mind, I invited her to contact me through my folks. In the meantime, I advised her not to believe everything she heard about “traitors.” After all the terrible things that had happened to me each time I left, she didn’t understand how I could turn my back once again on my only chance.
Then I took a risk which, in retrospect, I wished I hadn’t, the result of habitual impulsiveness and a desire, becoming desperate, to get through to her. Not only did I tell my friend that Jim had lost his paranormal gifts, including that of healing, but I blurted out that Liz had faked one of them herself.
If Teresa felt any shock at what I’d said, she didn’t show it. She appraised me with her eyes, then quietly accused me of throwing away my “passport to paradise” (AKA: Peoples Temple membership card that was bright red). According to her, Jonestown remained our only hope of salvation on this desperate planet. It wasn’t too late, she urged me, to reconsider. Hardly anybody knew yet that I’d left and Jones hadn’t said a word publicly. I had not yet been declared a “traitor.” I could still come back.
It was much too late for that. I told her that I had no desire to move to a concentration camp deep in a jungle. There was nothing more to say. Teresa lamely assured me that Jim Jones loved me as nobody else could.
We were talking past each other from different realities; but there was no hostility, only frustration, in either of our voices. While we talked, failing to communicate, I turned the corner onto Sutter and began to slow down. The children’s commune, part of a yellow Victorian, was in the next block on the left hand side of the street. Neither of us said anything more to influence the other. The car came to a slow stop. We said goodbye quietly with deep sadness. I passed her the laundry after she’d gotten out. She quickly disappeared behind a side gate that closed after her without a bang.
I saw her briefly half an hour later at “Relics and Things” where I’d stopped to confirm the rendezvous that evening to pick up my remaining belongings. This was the second accident in a series. She was coming into the store just as I was leaving. Both of us felt startled but quickly moved on. I had reason to assume that she was on her way to compare notes with Diane. Our lives together were over. There’s still a lump in my throat.
Teresa came into my life indirectly but with a vengeance when I called Sharon Amos, to arrange the actual turnover of my belongings, a few hours later. Comrade Amos accused me of breaking an unnamed and slightly Kafkaesque agreement never to initiate contact with another Temple member again. I told her that I hadn’t signed any such agreement and lived in a democracy once again in which freedom of speech was privileged. Eventually she sought out a higher power for help. After some dithering God Almighty picked up the phone, saying to somebody “Let me have him!”
“What’s this,” my former savior intoned pompously into the receiver. He scolded me for leaving but agreed that I could do whatever I wished so long as I didn’t try to harm his sheep. What did I mean telling Teresa King that Jonestown was a concentration camp? Was it that devil woman, Liz Forman, who put those ideas in my head? His voice had risen to a prolonged screech. I assured him that I no longer required his permission to think for myself.
He wanted me to know that Teresa, whose welfare I professed to care so much about, was sitting right by his side as we spoke. She had told him herself the slanderous things I’d said about his intentions. If I really cared about her, he challenged me, I’d leave her alone, go on my way and learn to shut my dangerously loud mouth.
I let him know that I hadn’t tried to track Teresa down or pursue her. I’d done what any friend would have done in my place. And she was the one, I informed him, who had requested the ride home.
No doubt I should have asked to speak with her. Then I would have known if she had been physically present. If she was by his side, Jones clearly didn’t trust her enough to let her speak on his behalf – much less for herself. At least I spared her further embarrassment in what must have been a painful conflict of divided loyalties.
Predictably, soon after Liz and I left, both Teresa and Diane were kicked upstairs to the Planning Commission. If they’d both lost their best friends, at least they might have the privilege of living right under the master’s nose from which place he could scrutinize them closely, assess their utility as well as the potential dangers they might represent. If my guess is right, Teresa rose to the challenge of greater responsibility, dedication and service. Diane, much more laid back by nature, raising two kids, most probably did not, a dynamic that may have caused some friction, given the outcome of their relationship in a breakup, the details I still know nothing about except that it happened after they had already arrived in Jonestown.
A final chance meeting
Teresa and I did see each other one last time, again by accident, the third in the series, at “Modern Times,” a Marxist bookstore in the Castro, the first or second Saturday of July, 1977. She was sitting by herself at a long table with a pile of books and magazines to her side as I entered. A tome on socialist child-rearing practices seemed to absorb her attention. She didn’t seem to notice me until I quickly sat down opposite her. It was hopeful that she made no effort to get up and move away as a loyal Templar should have, body language that by itself invited dialogue. She told me that a friend had just dropped her off for an hour while taking care of some sort of business. It went without saying that she didn’t have many free moments like this. While remaining cautious, she wanted me to know she had found true happiness in the Temple, though not of the sexual kind. I sensed that she wanted to talk more intimately but both of us knew she couldn’t. Instead she told me about her evolution of her work with children. She said she had come to the bookstore, in fact, to do some of the research necessary for one of the educational programs she was preparing. It seemed clear that Jones and the Planning Commission were entrusting her with significant responsibility. Large group settings, she confessed, still intimidated her. She didn’t tell me that she’d already organized the Temple’s San Francisco library.
Neither of us made accusations or cast aspersions. Nor did we ask many questions either but waited for the other to volunteer. She did ask me about Stephen, the boyfriend with whom she’d spent so many years and for whom she continued to care. I didn’t know much except what she already must have known – that he had married and settled down. Though she didn’t ask about Gerry, I volunteered that he had found another new boyfriend. There were a few awkward silences. I didn’t want to get into trouble with Jim Jones again – even if he had retreated to The Promised Land. There was no point, moreover, in argument. Teresa and I had made different choices, come down on different sides of a protective fence for those who need prison walls to feel safe.
Without anything specific being said, both of us clearly understood that this was probably the last time we’d ever see each other in these bodies. As we spoke, preparations were being made for imminent mass flight as a direct consequence of the article just about to appear in the Murdoch owned “New West” to one of whose reporters, Phil Tracy, I’d recently spoken off-the-record. The appearance of it would soon set off a media chain reaction that would focus national attention on Peoples Temple as it had never been focused before. Having been alerted of the charges he might be facing, Jim Jones had already departed when Teresa and I met. Within a month she herself would arrive in a brand new, amazingly strange jungle environment. She would spend the all too brief remainder of her life among those who shared her values enough to donate their lives to a dangerous experiment and its guiding hand. At the end of the hour, Debbie, a heavyset woman from the Temple who couldn’t see me from where I sat, picked Teresa up out front. I watched the vehicle drive away, turn the corner. Teresa had now except in memory, altogether disappeared from my life.
A Librarian in the Holy Land
Before leaving for Guyana, I understand, Teresa asked permission to bring some of my poetry with her. I’m impressed and honored that she had the chutzpah. Permission, of course, was denied. I don’t know if any of her own poetry has survived in the archives of some government agency. What little remains is mostly in my possession and that of Gerry Masteller. Perhaps Stephen Laberge has some too. Publication of her extant work is certainly in order, though it may not represent the full range of her creative mind.
Even after reaching the holy land, Teresa kept in touch with her mother and siblings by regular letters that were doubtless expertly phrased and carefully monitored. Her mother, referred to in PT code as Mrs. Webb, told me later that the letters had an uncomfortable quality about them that remained elusive. In any case, her eldest daughter did seem happy and productive. She tried not to worry too much.
I tried not to worry too much either. I hoped that she and Diane, freed from pressures of consumer culture, were really beginning to enjoy their lives, watching the kids grow up around them like jungle flowers. Diane, in fact, did take overall responsibility for toddlers. I didn’t know but could have guessed that Teresa would become Jonestown’s premier bibliophile, the one who organized and took charge of the Book Depository and Library, a much more serious enterprise than the one she’d undertaken for the San Francisco Temple. I hope she was able to use some of the thousand or more books I donated to the church, a few of which may have made their way to Jonestown. It’s my guess that she did all the cataloging herself. Having worked for a quarter of a century as a librarian, I know that she would have made an excellent professional. She had a mind for detail, an ability for focused attention, a respect for books and the wealth they can convey and a deep sensitivity to people who have historically lacked advantage, though she could more than occasionally lack balance. She could also turn arbitrary and censorious in the opinions she tolerated, but I doubt that she ever became as fanatical as Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, who tried and fortunately failed in an attempt to ban Plato’s works from her husband’s first supposedly socialist republic. Whatever else she did, I’m sure Teresa helped to cultivate the poetic genius of the young, many of whom were beginning to grow up within her clear compassionate line of vision. In the end, I can only speculate, of course.
We know the outlines at least of what happened that final night. Like many other survivors, members of their families and dear friends, hoping against increasing certainty, I waited each day for several weeks through late November and early December, 1978 for a final list of names of those who’d perished. In my case, I conducted a vigil in the public library of the city where I was hiding out, scouring the papers. One afternoon I heard Teresa’s voice distinctly inside my head: “Become a librarian,” it authoritatively whispered. Why would she try to tell me this in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe that had probably taken her own life? Didn’t she have better things to think about than my temporal security? Was it love that provoked her, a deep concern for the consequences of my inveterate shiftlessness? I blame her – whatever the case – for my fortuitous choice of profession. Finally, one day, a more or less complete list of those deceased was published by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her name was among them. I felt as if a bomb had fallen through the roof. I left the library. The next morning I headed south to my parents’ home to celebrate a Merry Christmas and another Happy New Year.
Images of Teresa
The only photo I have – or have ever had – of Teresa, taken six months before we first met, shows her very light face, expressionless except in the eyes, staring out of the surrounding darkness of jungle somewhere in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the most southerly point she’d yet reached in her 25 years of struggle. I believe she was traveling with one of Gerry’s friends, Jeffrey Shurtleff, who snapped the shot. She told me later that she saw herself in the indigenous people around her, practically invisible to the “rich” North American and European tourists with their cameras and enthusiasms to whose world she didn’t really belong. Unlike her traveling companion for whom this was only the first leg of a journey that would span two continents, she had to return to work in order to keep the job on which her material welfare depended. She headed back north to work the following day.
Recently I encountered a quite different image of Teresa, dressed in white like an angel or a ghost, on what must have been the last day of her life. The sight of her in a TV documentary electrified me. There she was alive again, hair once again relatively long but held back, smiling broadly as she almost never did when I knew her, waving to those of us lucky enough to wave back so many years and decades later. On either side were two other women, neither of whom I immediately recognized, also dressed in white, also facing the camera and potential viewers they would never know. All of them seemed to be swaying. I like to remember Teresa this way – ecstatically joyful. If there was an undertone of hysteria, it wasn’t apparent to me as the frames flashed by on the screen of my TV set. Perhaps life in the jungle as part of a functioning community based on the extended family developed her potential for happiness. Those of us who cared for her and survived will probably never know for sure, but I think she may actually have found whatever happiness she did during that brief period before the end. It’s only a hunch and I may very well be wrong.
Teresa Speaks for Herself and/or for Jim Jones too
Having taken too many pages to speak on her behalf, let me give Teresa a brief opportunity to speak for herself in this oxymoronic dialogue with Comrade Jones, recorded in the context of a family meeting in the late summer of 1978. The source from which I quote is Tape Q 245, available through this website:
Teresa King: My name is Theresa King, and I also am voting for revolutionary suicide tonight. I was one of um, capitalism's casualties, I– When I came here, I was a drug addict, and I was a drug addict because I didn't have anything to live for, but since I've been here, love has given me something to live for, and I've seen this happen in the lives of everybody here. I– Also since I've been here, I've been able to see that communism um, is what is necessary to bring this about. Um– Before I came here, I could only see what was wrong with this society, but I couldn't see what was necessary to bring about a change. Um, the communal life that I've lived here has taught me that basically the problem is economic and the only way we will be able to change anything is through economics, uh–
Jones: Why do you choose uh, revolutionary suicide over, say, going to uh, to communist Cuba?
King: Um, well I feel that um, that in spite of the fact that communism is the answer, that we– that we as a group are kind of premature in that what we have found here is more advanced than what other societies have to offer, and I feel that if we went to another society that um, we would end up being a– another minority group, and I feel that even the um, communist societies that exist have not dealt with racism to the uh, extent that we have, or sexism and I– I– I think that um– I don't think we would be able to live with it at this point after we have come as far as we have.
Jones: Well, if you would allow me to disagree, I think that racism, as an institution, is dead in Cuba. I feel that um, there might be difficulty in coping with some of our children coming of the ghetto where they've been there fortunate enough in the revolutionary society to have grown up free of the tensions of the ghetto. We have overridden most of those problems, but there seems to be some question. The main question whether we could be brought to Cuba as a group, or even if we can be brought there, and if it would be possible put an undue burden upon them, and then it would seem as we've heard the consensus tonight, it's too bad we didn't tape all of it, but someone thought at the last to tape– It seems that it would be um, difficult for a transition to take place, and there might be some retrogression, regression uh, if our youth were thrown in uh, circumstance where they had to assimilate immediately, we have a language barrier, we have all the problems of inner city living that– from an entirely different culture, and we have wondered about whether we should uh– even youth, so many, many youngsters have spoken tonight, and all ages and every race, of course, we are completely multi-ethnic and multi-racial, and yet we've come up with that conclusion, over and again, that it would be uh, undue burden, and someone of course like yourself, I hear now this sentiment and I've heard it before, that you feel that we represent an advancement. I had the pleasure to visit Cuba for a time, and I would not want to cast dispersion on others– other nations in their struggle and other groups in their liberation achievements. But I just wanted to interject that and I certainly respect your opinion. Thank you.
King: Thank you.
Though it appears from this that she remained a true believer, a teacher in the Socialist Enlightenment classes ordained by the Master, we will never know whether, in fact, Jim Jones remained the only man to rise entirely above her suspicion. Her service in Jonestown on the Steering Committee of the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM), supervised by Marceline Jones, indicates to me, at least, that her deepest ambition remained the empowerment of women in a revolutionary society still dominated by males. As she was shepherding the children for whom she was responsible to their deaths and to her own, did she have last minute second thoughts? Did she wish that she’d never heard of this man? We’ll never know.
A Soldier in the Army of Love
Bless you, Teresa, however you are now. Though thirty two years in our time have passed since you died, almost exactly the same as the number that you lived, it has never occurred to me that you are really dead. I do not forget you: the education in feminism you imparted to me, your patience even when angry and frustrated, when you wanted to scream rather than tolerate anybody who talked back to you as I did. Deep thanks for listening and empathizing even when you were most critical and advocated very tough love. Almost always you eventually forgave. Rarely did you wish to inflict more pain on anybody, including those few you quietly or noisily detested. You did know all too well what suffering was like. I’m sorry beyond words that you went through that last night of terror and that I was in any way responsible even if I was only the messenger who hooked you up with the madman who took your life.
As far as I’m concerned, you served your sentence here on earth. If I were God, I would condemn you to a reward far more heavenly than the mess we civilized humans have made. The doom we planetary stewards face that will make the end of Jonestown look like the mad hatter’s tea party to those unlucky enough to survive. If there’s anyone left to remember with aid of oral history and archives – digital and/or other – a hundred years from now, your demise/transcendence in the Final Punchline may have a different resonance than it does today. For the time being I put this bouquet of words on your grave. May you never rest in anything short of revolutionary peace, the triumph of the holy spirit working on earth. You were a soldier in the army of love and you perished on a quiet, green, and very industrious battlefield, betrayed by a general to whom you’d trusted everything you were and the little you had. The crops you and others planted wait to be harvested. May love bless you always, wherever and however your sweet fierce spirit is trying to help out.
For Teresa King
Aztec princess from Plainview, Texas
You gave me a ruby with a diamond inside it
The eye of your heart
Cactus bleeds emerald tears
Tell me what’s ahead
Jungle turns to desert
A mirage of suburban happiness
Burns in a lake of fire
September 3, 2010