Crying the Billionth Tear:
Grieving for Carolyn Looman

05-14-loomanBefore joining Peoples Temple, I was a Public School Teacher in Gary, Indiana and later in Prince Georges County, Maryland. I then became an Early Childhood Education Specialist, supervising Head Start and Title XX Day Care Centers which were designed/ developed to support women in transition from Welfare to Work. When I joined PT in 1971, I was 31 years old. I have told myself, you were old enough to have known better. Well, I didn’t know better.

I met Carolyn Looman while I was working in San Francisco, before I joined the Temple. She had been brought into San Francisco as the citywide Director of Education for Head Start. I clearly and vividly recall seeing her as she was introduced, in front of all of the administrators and supervisors of Head Start Programs throughout the city. She wore a very conservative light blue/gray dress with a cummerbund in the front and a very large bow in the back. Her hair was styled, with every hair in place. She appeared calm, well-prepared for the task at hand, and very pleasant. Over time, I worked sometimes closely with Carolyn to insure appropriate child care and Head Start services to all of the children of San Francisco.

In my opinion, she was good at the mechanics of what she did, but when dealing with the nuances of the various ethnic communities in San Francisco – for example, the Five Families of Chinatown – she was naïve. But I liked her a lot and had great respect for her educational preparation and her dedication to her work. She had grown up in Canton, Ohio, and oh and that in itself was a real disadvantage in developing skills needed for multi-culturalism.

I left the “public” early childhood programs when I became director of a new day care center that was started by a private group of African American professional families who were new to the Bay Area and who wanted an early childhood facility to be programmed in harmony with their expressed social and cultural needs. I took that job just prior to joining Peoples Temple, and I lost contact with Carolyn.

* * * * *

It was a slow late Sunday night when I was on my post as a “Greeter” (meeting and greeting people as they entered the doors) at the Temple. I saw Carolyn as she came in and recognized her right away. She appeared slightly unkempt, wearing rolled-up not-clean white pants and – as I recall – a pink knit top. Conversation revealed that she no longer worked for Head Start or any other place. She was with a dark-haired guy, a doctor or intern. Having been there, I thought: She is into pot.

The man with Carolyn appeared to be very uncomfortable and truly disinterested. She, on the other hand, had lots of questions. As best I can recall, I think that they both left without entering the service upstairs, which was unbelievably civilly quiet at the time that they were in the lobby. In any case, Carolyn came back and back and back again and again and again. Before I knew it, Carolyn was a uniform-wearing member. Dressed in red and black, she was an identifiable sister for the cause.

On a very unexpected occasion, I was called on to “do a mission”: to go to dinner with Carolyn Looman and her mother – who was visiting from Ohio – and to tape the conversation of the evening. That turned into a “follow up mission” which somehow led me to go someplace and do something else. Although I do not recall most of the specifics, I am very clear about this. Carolyn showed me a very large (maybe 4 or 5 carats) emerald cut 14 K gold ruby ring that her mom had given her. It had belonged to one her aunts. Just looking at it and knowing that even then it was worth thousands, I said, “Oh God! What are you going to do with that? Why did you take it?” Carolyn replied, “She gave it to me, because my aunt wanted me to have it.” When I asked, “You think you should give it back to her?” Carolyn smiled smugly and said, “I am giving it to the Temple.” Well, I was in momentary shock, but was also basically OK with what she was choosing to do, although I knew that her mother thought that she would wear it and cherish it and maybe only – if needed terribly – cash it in. I felt like a knowing partner in some kind of scam, and I didn’t like it, but I kept silent.

Well, when I knew without any doubt that I had to leave the Temple, I made a list of people for whom I felt some responsibility for them being there and tried to tell them something that would make them get out, and yes, Carolyn’s name was on my list. I wanted to warn them. I wanted to tell them to get out before you die here. I also needed to protect myself, so I also told them that if they reported me for telling them anything, I would lie and leave them trying to prove their story, even while being fully aware that trying to prove anything of innocence in PT was always a major challenge.

So it was. I approached Carolyn one day after service while she had temporary charge of Patty Pettit who had been living with the Mertles. I asked, “Carolyn, are you happy here?” Her response: “Oh yes, I am very happy. Once I saw you here, I knew this had to be a good place. That’s why I joined.” To this day, those words haunt me. I knew then and there that I could never say anything to persuade Carolyn to get out. It still grieves me. All others on my list heeded my vague warnings and left the group right after I did but she didn’t.

* * * * *

As I stood that November day ironing clothes without even having opened the drapes for the day, I had a frightening sense of being all alone in the world and an intense feeling of needing to know what was going on out there. I opened the drapes, turned on the TV, and there it was! News of deaths in Jonestown! I panicked. All I could think of was the ones I loved. I thought that I must find Carolyn’s hometown and get to her mother and find out if Carolyn was alive. I thought: Oh God! She saw me there and liked it because of me! Oh God! I have to find her mother, and please, Jesus, just let this woman be alive! I was so panicked and frantic! Even writing about it now, it just makes me sick – just sick! – that this good woman died for no good reason! So now, re-reading this writing, I cry the billionth tear.

I could not recall then exactly what Carolyn’s hometown was. In a frenzy, I got out maps and just started running my fingers over the towns. I knew it was someplace in Northeast Ohio. Finally I found Warren and Canton. Those were the days before computers and the Internet and email, so I called information in several cities, and after some tries, got the home of a relative who gave me the phone number of Henrietta Looman, Carolyn’s mother. Finally, I got to speak with her. To the best of her knowledge, Carolyn was likely dead, but she asked me anyway: “Is Carolyn with you?” I said: “No.” Oh, how I hated to have to say that word to her. “Oh God,” she said. “After meeting you, I have thought that if she was with you, she would be safe. You seemed so competent.” Oh God. That sinking feeling. I told her that I had left the Temple about a year earlier and told her where I lived. We wept. Oh God, I wept. I had kids soon to be home from school and I could not collect myself. Oh God!

Henrietta called me later to tell me, she had found some solace in the fact that Carolyn had written her name on her arms and thighs, as a means of being identified among the many dead. A few months later Henrietta – by then in her late seventies – came to visit me, driving over three-and-a-half hours to see me. I had no real information about survivors or about who I then was or was trying to become. At that point, I was still telling my kids to not get into any car with people they remembered from Peoples Temple, and to run to a house and call me right away if they saw anyone from Peoples Temple and the school bus had not come yet.

Mrs. Looman and I corresponded sporadically for about two years. She finally grieved herself to death.

Although both Henrietta and Carolyn are gone now, I cherish the memory of Carolyn Looman and the most noteworthy determination of her mother to continually be connected to her only daughter. Carolyn was a very intelligent and compassionate woman. I loved her heart and her spirit. The world has lost a valuable gem in losing her.

(Janet Shular is a regular writer for the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for this site can be found here.)