Penny was a very troubled person, before I knew her. She was a bright woman who had been married three times, a mother of three who was on heavy prescription meds that she would abuse, a secretary and a hairdresser, she needed counseling and a halfway house with a 12 Step program so she could stabilize her moods before re-entering the workforce. She needed all kinds of services just to function.
She should have never been allowed to join Peoples Temple.
A week or so prior to attending her first church service and meeting Jim Jones, Penny had reported her son to the FBI for his smoking pot. When she joined the church, I can only imagine Jones’ alarm about her relationship with the FBI. He probably decided if she would report her son to the FBI, that she would be loyal to him. She would walk around church and write up Temple members and then pester Jones throughout Sunday services as well as during the week. Temple records recovered from Jonestown showed she continued the practice all the way into 1978.
I met her for the first time following a church service in Los Angeles, after Bonnie Beck told me that Jim would appreciate my befriending her. I was new to the Temple, and despite our 18-year age gap, Penny and I became somewhat close, but there was a price tag on our relationship. I had to rush her to SF General at least twice to get her stomach pumped from prescription drug overdoses. And among the dozens of times when she would dye her hair yet another time in the space of a month, I knew her to be approaching yet another breakdown.
I knew her for two-to-three years. When she left for Jonestown, I was relieved. I had come to think I was on permanent suicide-watch.
In the decades since, I have come to imagine her as a Jonestown survivor, living a life with poise and balance, and in a profession where she could follow her passion: reporting people who break the rules and need to be written up.
(Andy Silver is a former member of Peoples Temple, and is now a divorce and federal mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina. His complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)