The Family of Neva Jean Hargrave Sly

I didn’t expect to like Neva Sly. By her own account, the four years of utopia she experienced in Peoples Temple turned into a prison, and she fled in 1976. That’s when she got involved with the Concerned Relatives—the group of family members and former Temple members whose attempts to rescue their kinfolk arguably contributed to the paranoia that existed in Jonestown.

But it was impossible not to be drawn to Neva, with her gravelly voice, her big laugh, and her no-nonsense attitude. Before joining the Temple she had been involved in a group in northern California that studied metaphysical concepts like the power of positive thinking. After Jonestown and a long road to recovery, she returned to the upbeat outlook of New Thought. This probably accounts, in part, for her usually cheery attitude, despite the loss of her son Mark and husband Don Sly in Jonestown. Perhaps I should say, her philosophical attitude, once she had come to terms with her own anger over their deaths.

Laura Johnston Kohl, Rebecca Moore, Fielding McGehee, Neva Hargrave Sly, Don Beck, 20005

Along with Laura Johnston Kohl and Don Beck, Neva formed the trio of Temple survivors living in San Diego who organized annual reunions beginning in 2004—and now all three are gone. Fielding McGehee and I were part of this cohort, but Laura, Don, and Neva were the heart and soul of efforts to bring together a cross-section of survivors for informal gatherings in San Diego around the Fourth of July. The three of them brought wide knowledge and acquaintanceship with many different individuals—from “loyalists” like Laura to “defectors” like Neva. As she observed in 2007, “even now, 29 years later . . . we are separate. You know, those who left and those who stayed! I have news for you all!! It doesn’t matter!! We all believed in the same great cause!”

Over the course of a decade about a half dozen reunions occurred. The San Diego contingent secured housing, those attending purchased food, and everyone joked about sleeping on “pallets”—the practice of sleeping on a blanket on the floor when they’d been in the Temple more than 25 years earlier. (No one slept on the floor during the reunions!) At times those attending reminisced about the past, sharing stories and experiences they’d never told anyone. At other times, they talked about their lives in the present, enjoying good food and company with those who truly understood what they had been through.

Neva and her mother Dorothy were frequent visitors to our house on Eugene Place in San Diego. Don and Laura, and Laura’s husband Ron and son Raul, also came. I seem to recall that Raul, who was very interested in World War II, interviewed Dorothy for a class project, since she or her husband had been in Pearl Harbor during the 1941 attack. Neva’s father, Marion Andrew Hargrave, who died a few years before we met Neva, had been a career Navy officer. When Dorothy died, Neva invited us to attend the burial of her ashes at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, right next to the grave of Neva’s father. I remember Neva being pretty blasé about the whole thing, saying, “They’re not here.” By which she meant, their spirits were long gone. “The Soul lives on,” as she once wrote.

Mac and I visited Neva several times after she returned to her beloved Burney, California near Mount Shasta. She kept a vibrant flower garden beside her double-wide mobile home. She also had an amazing collection of rocks and crystals, statues of the Buddha, and other religious objects decorating her living room. She kindly talked with researchers working on books and documentaries about Peoples Temple until her sight began to fail. But she continued to “read” audiobooks and get outraged at the news she listened to on television.

Our phone conversations got shorter and shorter. Then her long-time caregiver Mike Mazzini called in March to let me know that Neva had suffered a fall, was hospitalized, and would not be returning to her home. I asked if she was going to last until early June, when I’d planned a visit, and Mike was a bit skeptical.

Neva died on April 26, 2024.

Neva Hargrave—though I always think of her as Neva Sly—had a large and generous heart. Perhaps it was all that metaphysical training that gave her an inner light. Whatever the source, she loved widely. And as a result is widely loved. I think the following statement sums up not only her own experience but also that of many who shared the dream of Peoples Temple:

Remember we are family. We all had the dream. We worked together to make our dreams come true. There is no one else in the world who knows what we have been through, no one who can understand our reasons for staying, our hopes for a better world. Families do not always act lovingly – just as there may be a sibling we don’t like much, there might be those people in the PT family – but down deep, we do love each other.

From “And the Truth Shall Set You Free?” To read more reflections by Neva Jean Hargrave Sly, click here.