Marceline reluctantly told Stephan she wanted him to go, probably hoping to prevent a full rebellion on Stephan’s part; he finally agreed. Jones promised Stephan he could return from Jonestown in a week. Stephan left Opportunity and departed for Guyana, entering alone. Perhaps Jones asked Yvonne to be his counselor, so she’d have his transcript in hand. School was high on Jones’s priority list, not so much that he cared what kids learned, I think, but that he wanted the church to appear to support education.
Almost as soon as he arrived, Stephan was pressured to stay in Jonestown permanently. He refused at first. But not wanting to seem selfish to the people he’d grown up with and loved, all of them having sacrificed so much, and working so hard to build Jonestown, he agreed to stay.[i]
Lawrence Wright describes Stephan’s arrival in a fascinating article he wrote for The New Yorker in 1993. Tim, Jim Junior and Stephan agreed to meet with him in San Francisco. They obviously trusted him, and maybe fifteen years had given the three enough time to reflect on the tragedy in their past.
After landing in Georgetown, Stephan
“caught a flight up the coast, on an alarmingly rickety military cargo plane. Through the window he could see the jungle stretching endlessly below him. The only breaks in the canopy were vast rivers that cut through the bush. There were no roads, no towns—no human mark visible in the entire expanse.…The airport consisted of the strip and a shed with a dirt floor….The sounds of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” drifted across the village from a tiny hut that called itself a night club. Barefoot Indian children ran up to Stephan and looked at him with fascination. Six feet five, with wide cheekbones and his father’s fiery eyes, Stephan Jones, at the age of seventeen, was already an imposing figure. For years, he had been trying to break away from the Peoples Temple and his father’s influence. Now he had been exiled to what felt like the most remote place on the face of the earth, and charged with building his father’s dream: a utopia of “apostolic socialism and racial justice.”
….[About half of the 50 in Jonestown when Stephan arrived] were city kids his own age or younger; the rest were rough Midwestern blue-collar workers who knew how to use their hands.” “The kids were mostly troublemakers in the Temple membership, who had been sent by Jim Jones to Guyana either as punishment or to put them beyond the reach of the law. They were working from before dawn to nearly midnight every day clearing brush, and it was formidable work—especially cutting the hardwoods, which were so dense that they could deflect an iron axe head. They left the fallen trees to dry for months, then ran through in teams of two, one boy carrying kerosene and the other a torch, and set fire to huge swaths of brush. “We howled at the top of our lugs, pouring kerosene and lighting fires,” Stephan remembers. “It was quite a romp.” Ahead of them would be a rush of wildlife—iguanas, monkeys, lizards. The ruined forest would burn for days, and while it was still smoldering Stephan and two other colonists would come in with bulldozers and push the embers into ravines. The loved to do this work at night: when coals hit the bottom of a ravine there would be an explosion of sparks. The boys would come back with their faces black with soot and their hair singed. In this fashion, they cleared three hundred acres.[ii]
Jones had not yet arrived; the atmosphere in Jonestown was generally relaxed. It was the Peoples Temple, after all, with music, singing, dancing— and now, no catharsis sessions. People in the kitchen were good cooks. Edith describes meals that sound delicious and healthy, though by the time she entered, there were more mouths to feed, and Jones, even though the church had money stashed away in Swiss accounts, was miserly—when it came to what the others would eat.
Edith lists rice and okra, pineapple, mangos and fried fish; curried chicken with chicken necks and pork bones, rice, pumpkin and a roll; fish cakes and rice; and on Sundays, chicken dinners—at least until Jones decided they could get more money selling the chickens, Edith says. Then only guests got chicken while the residents ate more and more starch. Even coffee was cut out during Edith’s stay. She said she had the first green salad she’d had in months, as well as a chicken dinner when there were important visitors. When she was hungry in the evening once, she went to the kitchen for extra food. She was obviously disappointed when told it could only be given out to “snackers,” those who needed extra because they were declared to be losing too much weight—which shows at least that someone was paying attention, probably Marceline. But all that Edith reports was the situation
almost a year later.
Before Jones came, the food was good and plentiful, and creating the settlement, for most, I imagine, exciting and rewarding, although exhausting, uncomfortable, and sometimes frightening—they were living in the jungle after all. I imagine, also, that Marceline had a great deal to do with preventing much of what could be averted with the medicine available at the time. But the immigrants were dealing with fungus much more persistent and uncomfortable than the athlete’s foot many of us know, as well as huge stinging insects, dangerous animals, deadly spiders, venomous snakes, and yellow fever. Wounds festered easily. When Tim Jones, who arrived in March, went back to accompany his pregnant wife Sandy Cobb to Guyana in July, they married in Georgetown. Sandy was our student Johnny Cobb’s sister. Sandy stayed in the capital until the baby was born. But even in Georgetown, the facilities were primitive, and sadly, the baby died.[iii]
Wright says Jones saw Stephan as “a natural leader, like himself, and perhaps hoping to bring him back into the fold,” gave Stephan the position of overseer of Jonestown’s agricultural project.[iv] Giving the eighteen-year-old this post, upon which so much depended, reminds me of a lesson I learned from Opportunity’s founder, Marcia Perlstein. When someone is giving you a hard time in the classroom, try “giving the bad kid the basketball.” You just may tap into the desire to succeed at something important, the wish that lies just beneath the urge to rebel. Stephan’s desire to help his friends and fellow pioneers and his wish to win Jones’s affection
won out over his impulse to escape from the church and his father. Jones was not the sort of teacher—though no one can deny he was an effective one— to question the morality of his motives or his methods. The end justified the means.
Erick Erikson, developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst wrote an essay about what he saw as a central task of adolescence “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity.”[v] All young people face in adolescence having to find a way to remain true to what they value in their families and communities—while simultaneously struggling to break away to become themselves, to be true to their own developing principles. Erikson points to Hamlet as embodying the dilemma in the extreme.
His uncle Claudius, Hamlet is told by his father’s ghost, murdered his father. Then his mother becomes complicit in the crime, marrying Claudius, so soon after the murder that “the funeral meats did coldly furnish forth the wedding table.” Stephan and his brothers faced a dilemma tragically similar to the one Erikson describes, loving their parents, though—as Jones descended more into his own peculiar type of power and drug-enhanced madness—seeing more that was terrible about the way their father treated the people who followed him to Guyana.
Though many, even stoic Edith, found Jonestown a difficult place to be, Stephan thrived—at first— on the hard work and the beauty of the wilderness. He ventured into the bush and learned to love it, as he had the woods in Ukiah. Here too, the wilds became his refuge.
He was in the bush every day, and his hut was full of snakes—including an anaconda and a couple of emerald tree boas—that he kept as pets. The natives regarded the tree boa as the deadliest creature in the jungle, but Stephan knew that it wasn’t poisonous. He liked to walk through the bush with one of the magnificently colored snakes coiled around him. ’When the natives saw that, they freaked out,’ he recalls. ‘They thought I was some kind of demon.”[vi]
Stephan and His Father
Mark Sly’s mother, Neva, with whom I have spoken, said that after Jim Junior was adopted, Stephan’s father’s affection turned more to Jimmy, a bright and beautiful child. He was also an embodiment of Jones’s commitment to equality and inclusiveness as he was the first black child adopted by a white couple in Indiana. It seems natural that some of Stephan’s insecurity about his father’s love was related to the adoption. Jones even gave his new son Jim Jones’s own full name: James Warren Jones, Jr. But Jones was obviously also proud and fond of Stephan. Wright reports in the New York Times article, from what Stephan said about his father:
There was a tenderness about him that was unique for men his age…. Sometimes Jones would pull Stephan aside and tell him that the two of them were special in the universe, and that Stephan would inherit his psychic gifts, because their genes were so closely linked. Despite his growing disaffection with his father, Stephan still wanted to believe that.[vii]
And he told Wright,
It was a strange relationship. I still wanted his approval. I wanted his time. I wanted to love him. I always felt he loved me—I felt that, if nothing else, he was proud of me. But I fought him. And it wasn’t out of any bravery or enlightenment—it was just that, one, I saw things that other people didn’t see, and, two, I could get away with it. I was his son.
Wright says sometimes Jones ascribed Stephan’s rebelliousness as natural to adolescence, but at other times, accused his son of being an enemy of socialism. “If you rebelled against Jim Jones, you had to be bourgeois,” Stephan told Wright.[viii]
Jones Gathers the Family
In early March, 1977, Loreatha Buckley, Opportunity Student Coordinator Dorothy Buckley’s older sister, came to Guyana with Stephanie Jones (the first Stephanie was Stephan’s namesake who died as a child in an automobile accident; Marceline was this second Stephanie’s guardian); Tim Borl Jones, another member of the Jones “Rainbow Family” whom Temple members and we at Opportunity too called “Tim Jones Night;” Tim Tupper Jones, our blond Cobra pitcher, was called “Tim Jones Day.” Jones was beginning to assemble his family, some of whom, like Stephan, and perhaps Loreatha, were also the core of his utopian dream, as well as strong young workers.
Loreatha, twenty, seems to have been a kind of special project. Edith speaks of Loreatha’s strong desire to attend school, even though for the most part anyone eighteen years old was not allowed to go, being more valuable as a worker. I think Loreatha attended Opportunity briefly. Her sweet round face and easy smile, on the Alternative Considerations website, looks very familiar to me. The school district has not, for legal reasons, released what information it has about those years at Opportunity.
Loreatha was a carpenter, a rare occupation for a woman in those days. She was most likely trained by the Temple as an example of non-sexism. But, though her kind of work was much needed, she was allowed to go to school—though she probably put in many hours of carpentry work as well. The Buckley family came from Mississippi and had no doubt experienced ugly racism first hand. Loreatha’s mother and her other children, Christopher, Frances and Odessa, had joined the church at an early point, probably recruited on one of the Temple bus trips across the country. They moved from the Temple in Ukiah to San Francisco. I imagine Jones saw the Buckleys as symbolic representations of the Temple’s ideals—and of how he was the hero fighting racism and sexism.
Jim Jones Flees
Earlier, in January of 1977, Jones had been feted at the Martin Luther King awards ceremony at the Temple, in a big affair attended by political and community celebrities, and orchestrated, as Reiterman tells us, largely by Jones himself, authorizing a budget which included potted palms and white table cloths as well as a fine Temple-cooked dinner. Jones claimed that he did not want the ceremony to be in his own honor, but in King’s. Shortly thereafter, Jones was appointed by Mayor Moscone to the Housing Commission. The minister collapsed, in March, at a Housing Commission meeting —because of the pressure of defecting members and the fear that induced, or the drugs he depended on, or all of those?[ix]
At the end of March, Marceline and her mother-in-law Lynetta departed for Jonestown, along with the Jones’s adopted Korean son Lew and his wife Mary Theresa. Lynetta, not in good health, suffered greatly on the boat ride to Port Kaituma. Neva says she was a “dear person,” loved by many. Ron and I believe (there is some confusion about his entry date or dates) that Tim Jones—a few days after Marceline came to take Tim from Opportunity—traveled with them too. Tim had long been with the church.
In Redwood Valley, in 1969, a woman named Rita Tupper, who was married and had seven children, joined the Peoples Temple. She was an uneducated woman from the Mid-western farmlands who found a sense of structure and direction and support in the Temple which had been lacking in her life until then. Her son Tim became fast friends with Stephan. Tim was a big blond kid, tall and skinny with a knotted chin and deep-set blue eyes under brows that turned red in the sun. Where Stephan was sullen, Tim was outgoing and talkative. Rita and her husband divorced soon thereafter, and she took her three daughters with her. Two of the couple’s four boys stayed with their father, but Tim, although he described himself as “a real daddy’s boy,” decided to cast his lot with his mother.
….Jim and Marceline officially adopted Tim just before he went to Jonestown, six years later, but he had begun calling himself Tim Jones long before that.[x]
Wright says that Tim and Jim Junior did not share Stephan’s love for the jungle. “From the start, Tim and Jimmy hated Jonestown. They missed the excitement of San Francisco and the companionship of their schoolmates there.”[xi]
I wonder if Tim and Jim Junior were thinking of Manny, who was on their baseball team and who had been their friend for a long time. Ron and I believed Manny was not in the Temple. But the truth was, Ron and I discovered, when we met with him in 2008, in a little café near where he works as a Recreation Department director in San Francisco, that Manny, his mother and sister were Temple members, and had been for years. But Manny, uncomfortable with what was going on in the church, convinced his mother and sister to quietly drop out, taking advantage of the fact that Jones was
more and more focused on Jonestown. Manny didn’t want to go to Jonestown, and was worried that it would be the wrong place for his sister, who was troubled at the time. I asked if people from the church weren’t sent to bring them back into the fold, but Manny said that Marceline had been taking over more of the duties of seeing to the church in San Francisco, and wasn’t one to hunt people down.[xii] Ron and I thought Manny was the only non-Temple kid to make friends with so many church members. We didn’t know that others, besides Tim and Jim Jones Junior, were missing Opportunity students still in the city.
Secrets at Opportunity
Temple members Mark Sly and Kim Fye had secret non-Temple friends: Mark’s girlfriend Michelle Di Quattro, and Kim’s boyfriend Carl Ross. Michelle and Carl told me about these secret loves recently, after Ron and I made attempts to get in touch with those who had attended Opportunity during the Temple days.
Carl told me he was crazy about Kim, whom he called Kimberly. Carl, handsome, shy and quiet, was a good student who had been sent to our school by his mother because his brother Ronnie, who’d come from another school where he’d been in trouble, loved Opportunity. Ronni still got in trouble, but students and teachers alike were fond of him, partly because of his irrepressible spirit. Ever since the Opportunity assembly incident, where Ronnie demanded that Jim Jones take off his dark glasses, Yvonne sent Ronnie the opposite direction when Jim Jones came to school. Ronnie was a favorite with many of his teachers—especially Colin Covey, the social studies teacher who took kids on sailboat rides and ranted about capitalism, and math teacher Joe Bailey, who also played the bass. But Yvonne eventually kicked Ronnie out of school when he reached eighteen. She said she wished she “had a thousand” like Carl. Their differences didn’t keep the brothers from being good friends.
Carl said he and Kimberly “started to like each other,” a phrase teens still use. They met secretly in the darkened, empty art room when they could, talked and “hugged a little.” Carl asked Kim about the Temple, to tell him what it was like, why the other Temple kids seemed to close up when asked questions about it. Kim replied, “Carl, there’s a lot of stuff going on there.” When he asked for details, she invited him to come see for himself, but warned him he’d be searched, maybe asked to “drink something or smoke something.” He never did go, and Kimberly didn’t tell him much more about the church.
On the last day of school in 1977, at a picnic in Golden Gate Park, Carl told me, Kimberly asked him to meet her back at school later, that she had an emergency, and needed some money— right now. She’d give it back that same evening. He managed to scrape some up and they met at school. She promised to call him later. He said it broke his heart when she didn’t.
On the same day, coming back to school from the picnic, Carl ran into two of the Temple kids he knew, Donald Marshall and Cleve Garcia, “a shy kid, a really great guy. He had a huge Afro, I remember.” Both of them said “We gotta go someplace, tomorrow.” They didn’t seem eager. Carl was on his way to a summer job interview and invited the two to come along. Donald did, and got the job. Cleve said he had to get back to the church, and we never saw him again.
Opportunity’s art room—when no one was there, and the lights were off—was a favorite place for these couples, whose romance was forbidden, to hang out, and talk and maybe steal a kiss, as hinted at in the early chapters of the book. Mark and Michelle met in the art room too. Non-Temple kids, if you’re wondering, chose stairways, the couch downstairs in the lounge/meeting area, or Plum Alley. I wonder now if other “old” Opportunity kids befriended Temple students in spite of the rules against such “fraternization,” and found places to meet in empty rooms or close-by neighborhood gathering spots, like the closed-down Mel’s Drive-In next door. As I remember, there weren’t locks on any of the school’s doors.
Opportunity was a refuge for rebels, misfits, and kids living in difficult situations. Opportunity’s open, free, welcoming and slightly wild atmosphere might have been especially attractive to kids from the church.
Carl and his gregarious brother Ronnie, I’m sure, were not the only Opportunity students to try to break through the barrier the Temple kids put up. Ronnie told me he tried hard to make friends with Temple kids. “We don’t mind sharing our school with you,” he’d say, “but talk to us!” Carl and Ronnie knew some of the kids from elementary school days, or junior high, like Amondo Griffith. They’d played ball in the streets together. Still, most wouldn’t open up much. When pressed, they’d say they’d “get in trouble—not now, but later, at services. We all watch each other. Talk a little too long to someone, and we’ll get in trouble.”
Ronnie said, “When I asked, ‘What are they gonna do to you?’ they’d shut off. That told me something was wrong, for them to shut off like that.” But sometimes a girl or boy would accept his offer of a ride on his Honda 350—an opportunity worth taking a risk for. Ronnie and Carl lived near the Griffiths, Amondo’s family. “It was a nice house,” Carl said. He was their paper boy. Then suddenly, that summer, the house was empty. “Stayed empty for years.”[xiii]
Tim, perhaps, when he said he missed his school friends, was also thinking of finishing the season with the Cobras, pitching the team to more wins and a move up to varsity status for the Cobras, helping ensure for him, a place on Cal’s team. He had that letter from the coach at Berkeley, Jackie Jensen, thanks to Ron’s writing the man. He would have been missing his girlfriend Sandy, a Temple member too, but still back in San Francisco when Tim came to Guyana. I suspect Sandy was the girl he wrote a poem about in my class, whose face Tim said, “Reminds me of night that comes/And settles down/Over the world.”
Wright says Jones thought of Tim ”as intensely loyal and courageous,” and made Tim his personal bodyguard, as well as, along with Jim Junior, a top lieutenant on the security squad, which was composed of almost all the young men in Jonestown. “In that capacity, they were feared and envied by others in the Temple. ‘We were the Gestapo, the elite, and we treated ourselves that way,’ Jimmy admits.” [xiv] Probably, they were more like true guards until Jim Jones entered, and began to change everything.
Jones first came to Guyana after his collapse at the Housing Authority meeting in March, 1977,[xv] but appears to have returned to San Francisco, then entered again later, on June 17, 1977. He may not have settled in permanently until after that, as Stephan says in the Wright article that he spent eight to ten months in a happier Jonestown before Jim Jones came to stay. Lisa Layton says in her book that there were no calendars in Jonestown, which would explain why residents—except Edith of course—were uncertain about dates.
Opportunity Students Begin to Enter Jonestown in Large Numbers
On April 5, our student Cornelius Truss arrived with seven others, some of whom may also have been Opportunity students. His inseparable friend Vance White did not come to Guyana. I know Cornelius missed his buddy. Jones needed young people to do the hard work required to build a settlement in the jungle. He needed their optimism and idealism, their goodness of heart.
Wesley Breidenbach, the first Cobra replacement pitcher for Tim, arrived April 24. His wife Avis Jocelyn Garcia and his sister Melanie had entered earlier in April. His mother would arrive in November. Avis had been born in Belize and was a year older than Wesley. Apparently they did not live in the same cottage, as the SDSU website lists her cottage as 18, and Wesley’s as 33, where he lived with 18 others, including Tim Jones Day, Opportunity poet Joyce Polk and two other young people. Residents were moved, so the couple may have been together. The Relationship Committee decided who could be together, as Edith tells us in her journal. Wes worked in the radio room, was on security, and later became a tractor driver and boat operator. He would leave Jonestown that last day on the trailer that carried out the defectors and Ryan’s group.
Candace Cordell arrived with eight others, including her older brother Chris, on May 29. Two other brothers and four sisters, her mother and father, all came later in the summer, when the big exodus from San Francisco began. Candy wrote this letter, a class assignment, to Angela Davis. Although it’s apparent, reading the letters housed in the Temple documents at the California Historical Society, that kids were told what to say, and what not to say, Candy’s letter does give a good description of Jonestown, from a teenager’s point of view.
Hello Comrade! I am a member of Jonestown. I am 17 years of age and in High School. I have listened to you speak at the San Francisco Temple and have read your book. I enjoyed your speeches and appreciated hearing you speak about Black Liberation and the Peoples Freedom. All my life I have wondered if there would be any place in the world where Blacks, Indians or minority people could go and really be free. Well, I never found the place until I came to Jonestown, Guyana. Because in the states all I saw was young people going to drugs or jail and even being killed. But here in Jonestown there is none of that. It is a very beautiful community and I would like to tell you just a little bit about it.
In Jonestown we have five large buildings we call dorms, about 60 cottages, a large kitchen and a main dining area where we all eat. Surrounding Jonestown is miles and miles of jungle. It is so beautiful to look out and see nature as it should be, not infiltrated with smog and pollution – much less racism and fascism. We have about 50 dogs, 3 beautiful birds, 2 small monkeys – plus Mr. Muggs, (the chimpanzee), 2 horses, 16 cows, 100 pigs, 2000 chickens, 1 anteater and many others. We serve 3 meals a day, also 3 mid-time meals (snacks). And many 100’s of acres of food planted: Bananas, fruits, eddoes, papayas, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, just so many for me to even think of. We also have a large Cassava Mill, Piggery, Chicken House, Sawmill, Tent, Mechanic Shop and other productive things.
We also have a very beautiful nursery – for the babies. There are three different rooms – one room is for the babies 0-8 months, the next room is for 8-18 months, and the last room is 18 months – three years. The parents can leave the babies in the nursery if they want to while they go out to work. All of the babies here are very healthy. As a matter of fact, in Jonestown, a community of about 900 citizens, we have maybe only a couple of people that are not to the best of health. The climate is nice and warm but there is always a cool breeze blowing. No money in the world could ever pay for this kind of a life. Many people coming from the states that are here did not know anything about agriculture, including myself. But we have caught on and learned that I really love working in the warm sun; Planting, weeding and picking the food. Which really makes me feel good because I know I am doing it for myself and I can actually see what I have produced it and eat it! Jonestown is undescribably beautiful. Thanks to my leader, Jim Jones who paid my way over here, I can now live with comrades that care for me. I work in the nursery with the babies, 0-8 months and enjoy it very much. I hope that you will write us back in response to our letters.
We are determined to keep our land free and committed to defending our land.
We really have a beautiful land to defend and we’re not going to let the Capitalists come in and take over our land.
Thinking of You Always,
Your Comrade Sister,
Though much of what Candy tells is probably true, Deborah Layton’s description of working in the fields is probably more accurate. After a night with little sleep because of the mournful cries of howler monkeys and insect bites on her feet, Deborah got up at dawn with the others for a breakfast of cassava bread and syrup.
Two out-of-control beetles dive-bombed into my breakfast and got stuck in the syrup. No one seemed to notice, much less care. I stared aghast at the duo standing on my bread as if on a runway, slightly off balance, flapping their wings, trying to take flight, but unable to free their legs from the sweet glue. I watched them struggle, sickened by their quiet commotion, as the battled for their freedom….I looked around for a garbage container to throw out my bread, but Lee [her work crew leader] was ever watchful.
“We don’t waste food here. It takes too long to find it, plant it, grow it, then cook it. Just wait till the bugs get tired, then pick them out”
….My forehead was wet with sweat as we walked the few miles down a dusty jungle road to the sugarcane field. I was thirsty and my mouth felt like a sand dune….It was 8 A.M. and I was already puffing and sweating from our hike. We would not stop until 6 P.M. and we had many more hours to go before our lunch break.
….I followed my crew as they worked on through the rushes, bending, looking, hunting. Pushing aside the thickly growing brown stalks, they hoed, pulled, dug. Lee instructed me which strands were food and which just weeds….When we stopped to determine how much more work was needed, my clothes were drenched, my socks were wet, and I felt as though I had just crawled out of a heated swimming pool.
“Could I taste one of these?” My mouth began watering with the thought of splitting open a cane and sucking the sweet moistness….
Matt growled, “The food here is to be shared with everyone. If you ever took a bite it would be considered stealing. You’d be severely punished and assigned to the Learning Crew.”
The Learning Crew was a punishment enacted after Jones’s arrival (Deborah did not arrive until December of 1977). But fieldwork was always hard. Deborah continues, after Lee tells her they will join Lorina’s crew, clearing land for planting, when they’ve finished. She has not been warned to bring her own water, so she goes without.
My mouth was too dry to moisten my cracking lips. Why couldn’t the truck drop off water containers? How come everyone was so afraid to ask? Why was no consideration given to the field hands?
Across the road, up a small embankment, Lorina’s crew had just finished clearing an acre of land for the burn: downing trees, ripping out vines, then stepping onto the road to watch as the guards set fire to the debris. Burnings were supposed to level the harsh land and render it workable. Once the smoldering subsided, the thick black smoke fading into mustard-colored mist, the field crew trudged back in. The workers tied wet bandanas over their mouths and noses to alleviate the labored breathing that came with the hot, malodorous air. Hoisting tools upon their shoulders, they marked their work area and began to hoe and pick, turning and preparing the soil for the seeds and bulbs of indigenous plants. So far we had had little luck cultivating the ground for agriculture, I soon learned. The jungle had her own rules about what would and would not grow.[xvii]
Everyone, upon entry, worked for thirty days or more in the fields, but many then took on other jobs. I hope Candy had some of the joy she describes in her letter. The nursery, thanks to Marceline, was a good place for children.
Learning Crew and Rallies: Newspeak
When Jim Jones re-entered on June 17, along with Jim Junior and Johnny Cobb, he had gathered his family and extended family. Soon most of the San Francisco Temple members, and many from Los Angeles would come to Guyana.
Rules began to multiply, and so did punishments for infractions, like “Learning Crew.” Learning Crew had nothing to do with teaching. Rather, it was re-education in the sense that Communist China used labor to re-educate “reactionaries” and “loafers.” People assigned to Learning Crew had hard work, cleaning outhouses, digging latrines, chopping wood. They were not allowed to speak to one another or to others, ate separately, slept in a special dorm and had to work double time, running from job to job. Punishments were handed down by Jones at the “rallies” all were required to attend after dinner. The planning commission and other committees made decisions too, but, just as Jim Cobb observed about the running of the church in San Francisco, Jones was behind every decision.
In like manner, rallies were not the fun affairs that name conjures up—though often, entertainment was part of the program. Sometimes people enjoyed the Jonestown musicians. Songs Edith lists are Jonestown versions of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Rollin’ on the River (The Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”), and Les McCann’s “Compared to What.”
Jonestowners wrote and performed original songs too, some of them poking fun at their own discomfort: “Diarrhea,” “Deworm Me Please,” “Sittin’ on the Toilet Stool,” (which must have been sung to Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ by the Dock of the Bay”).The Soul Steppers were a rhythm marching group, a “stomping” group. Edith says Patsy Johnson performed a snake dance with an emerald green boa constrictor, and Shawanda Jackson to the “St. Louis Blues.” Some of the songs were political, like “I’m Just Another Worker with a Cutlass in My Hand.” The drill team performed to “Guyana Is So Beautiful.” And even though Jones seemed to have dropped most references to religion in favor of teaching socialism, which became a required class for everyone, people sang “I’m Going up to Jonestown over Jordan.” [xviii]
Some nights there was a movie. Edith lists The Parallax View, Night and Fog, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Harlan County, Hearts and Minds, The Bombing of Dresden, The Unjust Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Z. Edith says, that at the end of Far From the Madding Crowd, which seems particularly out of place in the list, “Everyone was thoroughly bored by the end of the picture” because Jones kept interrupting it with political commentary on class consciousness and sexism.[xix] She reports his commentary on Z had the same result.
Always, Jones spoke, railed or ranted at the rallies. Preaching had given way to his politics. The meetings went on sometimes until two or three a.m. Edith tells us Jones allowed people to sleep in the next morning when this happened, but only for an hour or two. Then it was work as usual. Those who were “slow” at work, or showed “lack of enthusiasm” could expect to be punished. And the severity of punishments began to escalate, too.
Tim and Mark
Tim’s job, when he arrived, was to protect his father. But as time went on,
he spent his time tending to Jones’s nocturnal whims and fetching people whom he wanted to talk to. ‘A squire—I was like a squire,’ he says. He had learned to suspend judgment and not to ask questions. ‘Tim had sworn an oath to my father,’ Stephan says. ‘I equate it to a military oath. The guy said, “Look, I’m in. You’re my leader. And with that I sacrifice some of my own thought processes and defer to yours.” Given Tim’s loyalty to Jones, he and Stephan were bound to become antagonists.[xx]
Johnny, his brother Joel, his sister Brenda, Tim Jones, and Jim Junior lived in Cottage 14 with five others. Johnny was tall and strong. Naturally, he was on the security patrol as well. Four members of his family, his sisters Brenda, Mona and Ava, and his brother Joel, arrived in July and August of 1977, when the largest influx took place.
Tim Jones’s blood relatives, the Tuppers: his sisters Janet, Mary and Ruth, his little brother Larry, and his mother arrived July 17, as did Mark Sly. Mark’s father Don didn’t enter Jonestown until November of 1977, when, Neva told me, Jones realized Mark was a minor without a parent or legal guardian. And his mother had left the church. Jones knew Neva wanted her son back. In Mark’s cottage, meant for four, fifteen would be squeezed in.
He was in training to be an electrician. Neva says she learned that Mark was often in trouble and sent to “The Box,” a hot, cramped, form of underground isolation, one of the punishments that came later, apparently teacher Tom Grubb’s idea for “deprogramming” people. Edith tells about Mark being “called on the floor” three or four times. Mark’s roommate Rory Bargeman, also probably an Opportunity student is called “a bad influence” by another boy on the cassava work crew. At a May 6 rally, Edith records
Brian Davis working near vegetable shed, uses bad language to the seniors. He says he gets mad when inventory is heavy. Says he’s making up for it. Cynthia Davis [Linda Mertle’s girlfriend] was careless with tools. Jim doesn’t want Brian and Mark Sly together.[xxi]
Expressing discontent with life in Jonestown was forbidden, and Mark was apparently speaking out, refusing to go along with the increasingly crazy and cruel program. That took courage.
I think of his Opportunity girlfriend, Michelle, and her description of Mark. “His smile was rare, but beautiful.” I think of his artist’s hands. I wonder what he and Rory talked about when they could, late at night. Neva told me she was so glad to hear about Michelle. “I often wondered. Did he ever have a girlfriend? Did he ever get to kiss her?”
Catalyst for the Exodus
In hindsight, the reasons for so many coming in July and August are obvious. On July 17, the Chronicle-Examiner Sunday magazine announced the publication of the New West exposé on the Temple, complete with many damning details. Deborah Layton tells about the magazine’s editor, Rosalie Wright, calling Jones to read the article to him, before publication, sometime in July. [xxii]
Our students Ricky Johnson and Billy Oliver entered July 27, and lived in the sawmill, with Cornelius. Billy’s older brother Bruce, handsome, square-jawed, and his pretty girlfriend Shanda came then too. The brothers’ father, Howard and their mother, Beverly—a Temple member who had left the church—allowed the boys to visit Jonestown, but when the exodus began, feared that “their sons were gone for good.” Bruce and Billy had written letters home about the wonders of Jonestown. Beverly was skeptical. The Olivers hired a lawyer and were able to obtain a court order for the return of Billy, still a minor. But he was almost eighteen, and Jones stalled until then.
So the Olivers set off for Guyana, hoping to bring both Bruce and Billy back. “For eight maddening days they tried to see their boys,” asking for an audience with the prime minister and appealing to the U.S. Embassy, but the Temple kept postponing the visit. “Finally the Olivers were told that the church council decided it was best that the couple not see their sons. Frustrated, they left They would be back to try again, even though they had to borrow travel money.”[xxiii]
Raven reports that “By the end of July 1977, approximately 850 members had resettled in Jonestown.” Most left in the middle of the night, on Temple busses bound for the East Coast, where they would board planes for Guyana in New York or Miami, as leaving from San Francisco was too risky, Jones felt. People quit their jobs suddenly, or just left them without notice. Some told none of their friends or family; some claimed they were going on another routine Temple bus trip. “Butcher Freddie Lewis [Opportunity student Lisa Lewis’s father] came home from the meat market one day to discover his wife and seven children gone, along with most of their possessions.”[xxiv]
The arrival of people in such large numbers meant that cottages and dorms became even more crowded. Food was doled out in smaller portions. Many of those just entering didn’t have the skills or knowledge to help with the extra work that was required. And Jones’s growing concern that things were falling apart resulted in a tighter grasp on his power over the Jonestown residents: more rules, more punishments.
Monica, Rory, Calvin, Willie, Amondo, Marilee, Lisa, Teddy, Christopher and Dorothy
Opportunity student Monica Bagby entered at the end of July. Our students Rory Bargeman, Calvin Douglas and his twenty-year-old sister Joyce, Willie Thomas, Amondo Griffith and his family, Marilee Bogue and her family, Lisa Lewis and her older sister all came in early August. So did Cobra team member Teddy McMurry. The girl he would marry, Eileen, as well as Teddy’s sister and brother, would enter later in September.
Our Opportunity Student Coordinator Dorothy Buckley, her brother, two sisters and their mother, entered Guyana August 22. So did Cobra player Christopher Newell, his brother and his mother.
The humidity and heat are high at the end of summer in Guyana, and the rain still heavy, nothing like San Francisco summers, June’s foggy cool turning bluer and warmer as September approaches. The weather would have been hard on these kids, but the emotional atmosphere, even more stressful. Jonestown was full of tension and fear when these teenagers entered. Stephan told me that
most people were incredibly disillusioned and scared by the time they hit Port Kaituma, which was somewhat offset by their relief at being released from the hell-hole in which they traveled the very rough seas from Georgetown to Jonestown. It got worse when they saw that Jonestown was indeed under siege…actually a police state.
In an earlier version in which I imagined the arrival of a group of our kids, I had a friendly Stephan greeting the group of excited young people, and driving them—holding a kid on his lap— on the tractor-trailer into Jonestown where joyful friends and family waited for them with food in the pavilion.
I only got two things right in the scenario: the outhouses — from which I described two girls returning, dismayed — and the fact that Stephan drove the tractor trailer. When I sent him that version of the chapter, he thanked me for remembering his brothers and sisters in Jonestown “so kindly,” but said all of the immigrants would have been feeling “strain and anxiety,” and “most would have been trying to hold it together somehow.”
More often than not I met newcomers with a scowl as they crawled out of the packed-to-the-gills hold of the Cudjoe, or, during and after the “Six Day Siege,” [September 5 to 10, 1977] I secretly boarded the truck bringing them in with a loaded rifle in my arms and a pistol on my hip.[xxv]
Judy and Patty Houston
Judy and Patty Houston arrived a little earlier than the last group above, on August 17, with their birth mother Phyllis. Judy Houston, twelve, would have gone to middle school in San Francisco the next fall. Her sister Patty, one year older, probably would have come to Opportunity if not for the sudden mass departure to Guyana. I’ve included Judy and Patty in our story, even though they were not our students, because their story, as told in Raven gives another, tragically clear example of the way young people became pawns in Jones’s crazy chess game. I’ve looked at the sisters’ pictures on the San Diego State Website enough times, going back to check facts, that I can see them in my mind’s eye. Judy Houston’s hair was curly blond-brown, her wide smile framed by dimple curves, her large brown eyes by round glasses. She still has the look of a child, full of optimism and trust. Patty’s hair is straight, her eyes more guarded, her expression more serious.
The girls had grown up in the Temple. Bob Houston, a Cal student, married his high school sweetheart, Phyllis, also a musician, in 1962, when he was a freshman at Berkeley. By 1964, Judy and Patty had been born. Bob was getting top grades and working nights across the bay in San Francisco at the Southern Pacific railroad yard to support his young family. He was a talented musician, and student director of the Cal Marching band, going to the stadium to perform for games when others his age were joining the Free Speech Movement, marching in protests. On graduation, Bob went to San Francisco State to earn a teaching credential, continuing to work nights at the railroad yards. Bob got a teaching job in Mendocino County—a far political cry from the liberal Bay Area—where he met Carolyn Layton, also a new teacher
there. Bob came to Carolyn’s defense when her innovative teaching practices brought censure from some parents; he came under suspicion too as a “hippy from the city.”
Carolyn invited the Houstons to a Temple barbecue. Here, for the first time in the rural community, they felt welcomed, and, surprisingly in mostly white Mendocino County, by a racially integrated group of people, people who were obviously good friends. Bob and Phyllis were attracted to the charismatic preacher and his “apostolic socialism.” The kids found friends, and Phyllis, other women who could understand her frustration as a stay-at-home mom. Good music, horses and other animals for the kids, a swimming pool— this church in a bucolic setting seemed to be a true community of like-minded people as well as a church that acted upon Christian beliefs.
Bob already worked hard at school, supervising the band and chorus and giving extra music lessons to kids while teaching a full load. When he became involved in the church, he gave generously of his time there as well, playing in the Temple band and helping with church publications. He also donated the salary from a new job as a music therapist at Mendocino State Hospital to the church.
Phyllis and Bob soon divorced, and Bob married Joyce Shaw, another Temple member, when the children were small. Bob’s second wife was a good mother to Judy and Patty as well as to the many foster children in the couple’s charge when the couple moved to San Francisco with the church. Bob went back to his night job in the railroad yards, and worked as a counselor during the day, along with the hours put into church projects.
Then Joyce defected from the church toward the end of 1976, mainly because she objected to the “confessions” and blank papers church members were forced to sign to prove their loyalty, including, in some cases saying falsely that they had abused their own children. So the girls lost their second mother, first Phyllis, then Joyce. A few months after Joyce’s defection, Bob had been found dead, mutilated by the train’s wheels, along the tracks of the railroad yards where he worked inPotrero Hill, not far from where the Cobras practiced. Though no one was charged with his murder, the circumstances surrounding his death were suspicious. The Temple claimed he had resigned from the church the morning of his death. Joyce thought the church may have used one of the blank papers Bob had signed to make it seem he was no longer affiliated with the Temple. Jones claimed to have warned Bob he was working too hard. Joyce knew it was because of the demands of Jones and the Temple that Bob worked night and day. But she didn’t think he’d just fallen asleep on the job in the wrong place. He was a careful man. She suspected the church was somehow involved with his death.
Joyce contacted Bob’ parents, telling them her reasons for defecting and asking them to do what they could to keep Bob’s children away from Jonestown as the exodus was beginning. Her plea was to no avail: their mother Phyllis, still a staunch supporter of Jones, had prevailed— or perhaps it was Jones who decided— but Judy and Patty were sent to Guyana, accompanied by Phyllis, without even having a chance to say goodbye to their grandparents, with whom they were very close. Sam Houston, the girls’ grandfather, confided in Tim Reiterman, who became so closely involved in the investigation of the church as a newspaperman. The two men had been roommates when they covered the Kennedy inauguration as journalists.[xxvi]
I have another picture of Judy and Patty in my mind, from Raven:
In that climate of barely submerged hostility, [at Bob Houston’s funeral] Joyce Shaw attempted to speak with Judy and Patricia Houston. She believed that the girls were not being permitted to grieve openly for their father because his memory was being destroyed inside the church. Judy looked as though her stomach ached from suppressing her feelings for her beloved father. On the way to the bathroom, Joyce managed to get a moment alone with Patricia, enough only to say, “You know, I love your father,” before the conversation was clipped short by a church
At the end of the reception, Joyce stood on the front walkway as Temple members piled into cars and drove away. As a car swung away from the curb with Phyllis and the girls, Patricia turned in her seat, smiled at Joyce and raised a clenched fist. To Joyce, it meant, we’re still together, you mean something to me.[xxvii]
Judy and Patty, just twelve and thirteen, had been separated, by distance or death, from mother and stepmother, father and grandparents. In Jonestown, Judy, fourteen, lived in Cottage 17, and Patty, fifteen, in Cottage 20. Neither of them lived with Phyllis.
Already traumatized by their father’s unexpected and early death, they must have been even more lonely and confused after their sudden exit from San Francisco. In my earlier, imagined version of life in Jonestown, I had our student Candy Cordell, who was a sweet and sensitive girl, take them under her wing. I think she would have, if she weren’t working from dawn to dusk, as most people in Jonestown were.
Patty’s fist meant something else, too, I believe. Young as she was, she knew that a raised fist said, “I’m taking a stand against what I see as wrong.” She and Judy had no choice but to go along with what their mother Phyllis and the church decreed was best for them, but Patty could take a stand, even if only Joyce—who had taken her own stand— observed the gesture of protest.
[i] Reiterman, Tim and John Jacobs, Raven, 311.
[ii] Wright, Lawrence, “Orphans of Jonestown,” The New Yorker, November 22, 1993, 107, 108.
[iii] Wright, 108.
[iv] Wright, 109.
[v] Erikson, Erik H., “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” Daedalus, vol. 91, no. 1, 5-27.
[vi] Wright, 108.
[vii] Wright, 115.
[viii] Wright, 116.
[ix] Reiterman, 306-308.
[x] Wright, 112, 113.
[xi] Wright, 108
[xii] Blackwell, Manny, interview with Judy and Ron, September, 2007.
[xiii] Ross, Carl and Ross, Ronnie, phone conversations with Judy, August 23, 2009.
[xiv] Wright, 109
[xv] Moore, 75.
[xvi] Cordell, Candace, Peoples Temple papers, California Historical Society, box MS3801, folder 378, EE42.
[xvii] Layton, Deborah, Seductive Poison, 157-171.
[xix] Roller, June 6, 1978.
[xx] Wright, 119.
[xxi] Roller, May 6, 1978.
[xxii] Layton, 111.
[xxiii] Reiterman, 389.
[xxiv] Reiterman, 377.
[xxv] Jones, Stephan, email to Judy, October 19, 2008.
[xxvi] Reiterman, 1-3, 113-117, 298-300, 377,378,
[xxvii] Reiterman, 301.