Sharing the PT Story

03-08-Joan Pursley 1978
Joan Pursley, with Philip George, 1978
Photo Courtesy of California Historical Society

There are several reasons as to why speaking freely about my involvement in Peoples Temple took over 20 years. First of all, it would not have been wise to divulge any information about affiliation or involvement in Peoples Temple without being able to defend myself against a public which was, for all practical matters, ignorant of who we really were. It also meant that I would have to come to an understanding as to how I got there, who I was as a result of having been in it, and the clear understanding within myself that my affiliation did not diminish who I was as an individual. But before I could do anything, I would have to transcend my own guilt, shame and grief to a large degree. This would facilitate the ability to have articulate conversations in spite of the charged emotions that arise, and that I imagine will always arise.

The most interesting reaction to an admission that I had been in Peoples Temple came in 1985 when I decided to tell a coworker: it was met with total silence. This odd reaction told me that I was to say nothing further. I continued to see this person on a daily basis for years, and there was not a single word or question.

Throughout the years since the deaths, reactions about my having been a member of Peoples Temple have been favorable, particularly since those who found out by various means, already knew me as a person apart from this portion of my past. Most recently those who I did not know well and found out by either my telling them, or some other means such as my having participated in a documentary, have reacted favorably, I think primarily, because of my own sense of dignity and strength with which I tell the story. Telling it matter of factly, without fear, shame, guilt, and with a willingness to honestly share the positive and the negative, as well to provide further understanding about the complexities of the Temple, not only has helped people to understand what Peoples Temple was about, but also to find their own way of relating to why it was an attractive situation to so many.

I encourage all people to share their stories, not so much in spite of them but because of them. Our gifts to the world are diverse experiences that we all carry in our past. There is so much we can all learn from one another.

(Jordan Vilchez is a regular contributor to the jonestown report, including the poem, Human Journey, in this edition. Her complete collection of articles for this site appears here. She can be reached at