What I Still Carry With Me

I was frustrated. I was still in Ukiah when almost everyone else was already in Jonestown. Having spent two summers in Port Kaituma and Jonestown, when there were about 50 people there, I sorely wanted to return to the beauty of the tropical rain forest and of course be with the community I believed in and supported. As it turned out, still being in the States and having a job was a mixed blessing. It was nice to be employed, but not among so many memories. And I was glad to be alive, I suppose, but couldn’t understand why I had survived when so many had died.

Following November 1978, I withdrew emotionally, and never let myself feel the loss of so many wonderful people, especially the children with whom I had worked so much. Of course, I couldn’t repress it completely, and when it popped up now and then for no apparent reason, I found myself crying.

Many of us who had lived at the Ranch remained there until it was put up for sale, around April 1979, as I recall. Everyone else went to San Francisco or other places. I moved into Ukiah and stayed for another full school year teaching until June 1980.

The community knew I had been in Peoples Temple, but I had a good reputation as a teacher, and I had the support of the staff I worked with. Being gay – but not openly – I often went to the Bay Area on weekends to connect to people I had known before the Temple and to make new friends. I learned early on in my dating not to lead with my past life in the Temple – that was a good way to end any prospects. I didn’t talk much about the Temple at work either, or about much else, and people were curious about me. That last year I was made social chair, as a co-worker told me, so people could get to know me. We had some good times, but I still managed to remain an unknown – even to myself.

For 25 years I immersed myself in work, not joining any groups. Until 2005, I had kept in contact only with my ex-wife (we spoke almost daily by phone for some five years in those days before email and texting) and with Richard and Claire Janaro. I had made a few really close friends, and by the time I chose to tell them of my orientation or Peoples Temple, it was not a problem. For those of us who remained “in the closet” about Peoples Temple, telling about it to friends was very similar to “coming out” about being gay.

I remember when I reconnected with Laura Johnston Kohl and Neva Sly Hargrave, and when I met Mac and Rebecca over a dinner at their house. I was overwhelmed with finally bringing it all up again. But being with people who understood, it somehow felt very freeing. After seeing Leigh Fondakowski’s play and connecting with other survivors, I now understand I was devastated by the loss of so many friends, so many good people and a community which had taught me so much. I was left with a deep distrust in myself: how could I have trusted and believed in something that seemed so good but turned out so horribly? How could I ever trust myself or anyone again?

I also realize that the good I felt then was genuine and resided in the people who came together in Peoples Temple. That goodness is still in all of us survivors – I still feel it whenever we meet again. Not just those who were “in” but those who were “out” as well. Thankfully over the years that distinction has eroded away for most all of us.

Life still has it moments of complete meltdown and crying, but now I can feel good about who I was, who we were, and what we wanted to build. I am grateful that we were somehow “tricked” into coming together and working to expect more from ourselves. Because we did. And we still carry that goodness and learning with us.

(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)

(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)