Standing at the Edge of the Precipice

30 Years After JonestownI was lucky. I owe my life to a supervisor in the Temple’s publications center in San Francisco. When Jonestown summoned me to come down, he protested that he could not do both my job and his. And so I survived.

* * *

In my first dream of them, within a year afterward, I was standing where the dunes meet the beach at the Pacific Ocean. It looked like a migration was underway. The large crowd of people was walking toward me, south along the beach, then turning eastward and walking into the dunes, past where I stood. They moved silently, in twos and threes and singly, with the efficient stride of those who have walked a long way and are bound for a destination nowhere near. The fog was so thick the visibility was about 20 feet, and as I strained to recognize them, Dick Tropp passed close by, almost bumping into me (did he even see me?), and continued on, into the dunes. “Dick,” I said, and watched him vanish into the fog. I knew I deserved that. I remembered the letters.

We got mail from Jonestown regularly, and from June to September 1978, Dick wrote a rash of letters asking me to write to publishers and reporters for religious magazines. I was to tell them about the Jonestown school and ask them to contact him for articles or possible visits to Jonestown, where he headed the school. I never wrote any of them. I was lazy and busy, and long years had passed since I’d had more than a passing conversation, or any other contact, with Dick. He was nowhere in my chain of command, and the request struck me as funny somehow. But when I allow myself to do it, I wonder if it might have been the life preserver that would have saved him, all of them.

Dick Tropp was my companion when we joined PT in summer 1970. He went to the mat, I’m told, arguing vehemently in opposition to Jim’s inexorable course before that final day. Interviewing me a month or so later, Temple attorney Charles Garry said that he thought Dick had been either killed, restrained or confined the day of November 18, 1978 due to his protests. Garry, if you recall, was sent down to the East House with Mark Lane as the deaths began, where he listened to what he could hear, getting the rest from his talkative guards.

So it goes without saying that I didn’t – don’t – deserve to live. But I did. I used to think it was to fulfill some great purpose – for them – but now I am content to do no more harm, insofar as possible. Even that’s a lot harder than it sounds.

One or two ex-PT members continue to be my close friends. But I am not motivated to gather with survivors for purely social reasons. It is a reminder of the person I was, one who didn’t have a personality or volition, a good cog, risk-averse to a fault, keeping a low profile and doing my job. It creeps me out. It’s not what I am now, and I don’t want to be reminded of it, or of the things I might have prevented.

Transferring my only certitude onto what I could personally ascertain, unshakable certainty soon followed, as the incessant watching of news wherever and whenever I could find it soon became an addiction. Superimposing new events on the strong platform of political consciousness I had inherited, it was evident immediately that, however it was that PT went down, there were many who were quick to interpret and capitalize on it, and to use it to their advantage. They were shadowy figures then. Not until recently, in the wake of the Bush II debacles, the stolen elections, and the outing of the neocons, did I realize just how powerful and how organized were the purveyors of that devastation, the ones who hold sway today.

The greatest irony is to realize how much more enlightened, or at least sincere, both Peoples Temple members and our society were in 1978, something I didn’t realize until I saw Leigh Fondakowski’s play, The People’s Temple. The rationalizations for all we did then are so much clearer now, against the background of the new class society and its consumer identity that has taken hold of the US with its descent into fascism. I’ve tried working with groups along shared interests, but these efforts have been erratic and sporadic. Still, an irrepressible apocalyptic fervor – first a concept, then an intention – arises in me, complete with passionate verbal torrents, surfacing often and with an unexpected intensity. Maybe it is a response to the degradation and devastation I see on the outside, the powerlessness of all of us who ever dreamed of social justice and economic equality, in what could and should have been the great Aquarian Age, that could only happen here, in the U.S.

We are at the edge of a precipice today, about to be folded into the financial chaos that will be a win-win situation for a few. The beleaguered middle class hunkers down, clutching their security blankets of who to blame, miserable long before they have had to go without, raising a cacophony for the waiting media. The taste for shit that Jim Jones used to talk about has become a ravenous cultural appetite. Better yet, its addicts claim that foul slop to be “truth”! I suppose I stand precisely opposite from where William F. Buckley did in 1978, when he swore to stand athwart the tide of history, shouting “Stop.” Maybe, maybe, I am in the right place at the right time.

If it does all come down, I hope to continue living communally for survival purposes, as it is still possible to have more for less that way. I hope an uprising will demand the restoration of the freer society we had once before the Patriot Act, and that a conservationist lifestyle will become not only popular, but sexy. Another full circle has come around and, although the torch has been passed to other countries to continue the path of progress, our destiny as a people could still be reshouldered and brought to fruition. I hope I will live to see it and play a part in it. Confluences are especially exciting, and there are several this year. Our country is crumbling. The need to rebuild presents an opportunity to make long-needed changes, to modernize and yet to return to a touchstone of what is important, discarding the deadweight of possessions that entraps us, and rededicating ourselves to life, survival and sustainability.

(Kathy [Tropp] Barbour joined Peoples Temple in 1970 with her companion, Richard Tropp, and was living in the San Francisco Temple on November 18, 1978. Her other writings on this site can be found here.)

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