I was in Peoples Temple for many years. My experiences during my life with the Temple, our lives since then, and the simple fact that I have grown older, have all given me insights into the past. I am partly the same person, and partly a very different person than I was during my time in Peoples Temple.
Even as a child, I was very sensitive to the needs of others. I was taught to care about those less fortunate than myself. I never attended a segregated school. At an early age I was taught to identify racism and prejudice, and to stand firmly against it.
I went to the Temple at age 30. I will be 63 next April 10th. I share the same birthday as my sister, who is 3 years older. We were born in the same hospital, at the same time of day. It’s also the same birthday as our father. For that and many other reasons, my biological family felt a great loss when I joined Peoples Temple.
My real point here is that I am speaking from the perspective of an adult, so to speak, who voluntarily chose to be at and in Peoples Temple, not from the position of a child/victim who had to be there. It would be remiss, however, to omit the fact that at that time, I was well-educated in a conventional sense, but not at all “street wise.” I was very needy and immature, naive and gullible; in a word, vulnerable.
I joined Peoples Temple at the end of the sixties. There was action in America, and there was (the appearance of) real movement toward a better way of life for all Americans. I lived in Washington, D.C. when President Kennedy was killed, then moved to Menlo Park, California with my first husband, who was Jewish and older, while he was completing his doctorate at Stanford. We divorced soon afterwards, and I moved to San Francisco in 1965.
I was always an advocate of righting the wrongs in our society. I would always speak out and voice my thoughts when I saw oppression or injustices. That was and still is my nature. But, trying to make our community better is not a one-person job. When I came to be part of Peoples Temple, it was because of what I saw with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, and wanted to believe with my heart inside the Temple — and what I knew to exist outside. I met like-minded people in the Temple, and I made great friends. “Friends” is really an understatement — more like sisters, brothers and a whole new family.
Immediately after I became a member of Peoples Temple, I met my current husband. We were both 30 and single. We married more than 32 years ago (17 May 1971) in a “group marriage formality” at the Redwood Valley Peoples Temple. Within the context and confines of Peoples Temple, we developed a family, which we later integrated into both our families of origin. We adopted three children, all of whom had social adjustment problems. I also adopted the woman who was the biological great grandmother of two of them, the woman who had brought them into Peoples Temple. Soon after we left the Temple with our adopted children, we sent for this wonderful woman, and she came to live with us in our small village. I cared for her and helped provide for her, until we placed her in a small local high quality nursing home. She died in 1983, at which time she was about 83 years old. The Temple had brought us all together at the same time and place, and we formed quality friendships. To have left her, or her great grandchildren, was never an option. They were family — our family — period.
There were many of these same levels of friendship between the Peoples Temple family — across all race and age “differences.” That was the essence of our community. We were dedicated to the philosophy of what the Temple stood for — not just in words but also in our thoughts, feelings and actions. I was drawn to the Temple because so many of the members had this rare quality.
I had a lot of out front political/professional type “missions” while in Peoples Temple. From my perspective, it was wonderful to live in an integrated community because it was billed as being like no other place on earth, that could equal it’s commitment to the masses of poor and downtrodden. It was sold as a place where everyone was equal and therefore treated equally, where any person, regardless of race or class or gender, was believed to have the power and the support for confronting and overcoming any injustice. Everyone had “Father” who knew everything and who would protect all of his children . both from and against everyone and everything at all times. Omnipotent to the utmost! For me, that was what I had been looking for. I was delighted to join forces with others of like mind. Especially at the beginning, it seemed like utopia. We often worked out problems in an open forum, we interacted, and we had valuable resources to meet the needs of many of the members. It was challenging and exciting. We accomplished at lot!
Several years before the mass exodus to Guyana started, Jim seemed determined to control more of the actions of the members. In my own life, I felt that he interfered with some of the things that I knew needed to be done. I felt that he was more and more obsessed with making decisions that impacted our lives. I knew that I would never want to go to Jonestown — a very remote place, far in the jungle — with Jim the way he was becoming more and more.
Finally, Jim intruded into my life on one occasion with horrible consequences for my adopted family. I could not tolerate it any longer, and I feared making a public separation from the Temple. My family left secretly, leaving no clue about our destination. We were not trusting that we could leave in any other way.
When my husband and I left, six years after our marriage, we had three children and almost no money. Before going to Peoples Temple, I had earned a degree in elementary education (K-8), had been a public school teacher and was certified as an early childhood education specialist via Head Start. But by the time we left and spent a couple of years in our “new life,” I had not worked outside my home in ten years. As for my husband, he was unable to find any employment related to Geography or Earth Science, the areas of his academic training. We had a lot of ground to make up, and — to the best of our ability — we did it. For ten years, my husband worked as a welder for as long as 16 hours per day for as many as 27 days in a row. It was his living “gift” to provide for our family. After working for some years with Head Start and opening a thrift store, I returned to school to earn a Master’s of Art in Counseling Psychology and worked as a counselor/therapist for ten years.
We have four children, including my step-daughter — now all adults between the ages of 42 and 27 — and six grandchildren, ages 13 to 1 ). As part of our wonderful family, we have been so blessed that I have two first cousins who are physicians and who have been very strong advocates for insuring the best quality health care for us both. So no matter what, we feel blessed. To the best of our ability, we peruse life joyously because, (for) now, we do have life!
(Janet Shular is a regular writer for the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for this site can be found here.)