And Then They Were Gone: A Report

by Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral

(A Peoples Temple timeline which will appear in the book And Then They Were Gone is here. Judy Bebelaar can be reached at judy@judybebelaar.com and Ron Cabral at larbac67@astound.net.)

From the Synopsis:

And Then They Were Gone is based on the collective memories of two teachers of Opportunity II High School in San Francisco. Opportunity was a small public alternative high school set up to deal with disaffected and troubled kids, giving them one last chance to finish high school. In September 1976, approximately 120 Peoples Temple youngsters enrolled, in an arrangement between Jim Jones and principal Yvonne Golden.

Though they were there for only nine months – in some cases less – those students changed the school dramatically. Incorporated in the story are excerpts from school-student publications such as In Small Dreams (student poetry) and The Natural High Express, the student newspaper. The school also had a weekly radio show called the Natural High Express on KALW-FM which figures in the story, as do newspaper articles from the time concerning Opportunity’s baseball team and others about the growing notoriety of Jones and his church. The first half of the story is partly based as well on interviews with Opportunity teachers and students.

The first and second halves of the book are necessarily different, as the authors were not in Jonestown. The second half of the book is based on interviews, phone calls and emails with survivors of Jonestown; with two students who escaped going there; and with two adult Temple members who did not go to Jonestown, one a mother of an Opportunity student, and one a Temple member who knew Jonestown teacher Edith Roller. Edith kept a journal which both provides information about day-to-day events and maintains a teacher’s perspective as part of the story. The authors also did research for the Jonestown portion of the book, reading books, magazines, newspaper articles, and papers at the California Historical Society – which houses all the People Temple Archives – and this website.

And Then They Were Gone has been written together by Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral, but is told in one voice for the sake of clarity and a more seamless narrative.

Update on the Book, September, 2010

Ron and I sat in the white metal folding chairs under a white canvas tent top, along with 30 or 40 others. Before us were two rose bushes, November-bedraggled, but one of them blooming anyway, beside a small gray memorial stone. November 18, 2006 was the first time Ron and I had come to the annual service in Oakland, California. Some of the 400 people buried on the knoll in front of us were our former students who had died on this day in 1978, who were fifteen to twenty years old at the time of their deaths.

We’d gone to the memorial because we’d recently seen Leigh Fondakowski’s play, The People’s Temple, which had inspired us to try to write about the young people we knew at Opportunity High. Ron had been their journalism and radio production teacher and coach; I had taught cooking, English and creative writing.

Now it’s five years since we began our project. It’s different, and better, because we’ve learned a great deal more about the students we met in those tumultuous years, 1976 to 1978. Most important is the addition of many personal stories told to us by people who knew our students, or who knew Peoples Temple, people like Linda Mertle, Emmanuel Blackwell, Neva Sly, Stephan Jones, and Carl and Ronnie Ross.

Another important addition is the book’s Timeline, which references newspaper and magazine articles published at the time the story takes place and which relate to the Temple and/or our students. The Timeline also lists Guyana entry dates for those who appear in the story and includes the dates of events both inside and outside of Jonestown which are important to the narrative’s unfolding.

The new sample chapter we’ve included is from the second half of the book, which takes place in Jonestown. Chapter Eleven, “Everything Changes,” begins with Stephan Jones’ arrival in Jonestown. Edith Roller’s journal gives the Jonestown chapters the voice of a teacher, at least until her voice is silenced. The previous chapter begins with the story of the theft of her journal. The endnotes for the Jonestown chapters indicate our sources: books, interviews, emails, and articles. Both the Timeline and the endnotes represent Ron’s and my commitment to the truth in telling this complex and many-faceted story from the distance of so many years.

We are very near the end now. I am working on the chapter called “Aftermath,” which is a sampling of reactions to the tragic events of 1978, from interviews with students and teachers from Opportunity. Ron will be contacting people regarding the section of the book that tells the reader a little about the main characters in the story today.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on October 3rd, 2014.
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