I was not in Guyana on November 18, 1978. I was still in Ukiah as a Temple member, working as a school teacher. My first reaction to the deaths in Guyana was shock and disbelief. With talk of “avenging angels,” murders in San Francisco of Supervisor Milk and Mayor Moscone, interviews by the Secret Service in San Francisco, we were as stunned as everyone else. In the days and months after, I was devastated but numb, my feelings pretty much pushed way down deep, put away somewhere, out of view and mind. Go to work. Carry on, somehow.
In the days and weeks after, most people – including myself – didn’t know what to say or do about any of it. Not until several months later, when I saw a longtime friend and mentor, did I actually begin to talk about what happened. Words and tears all came tumbling out, mostly that the deaths of all the children was unforgivable.
I continued teaching in Ukiah for another year and a half. Most people I worked with seemed supportive, but had become distant. I found a few surprises in sympathetic friends and colleagues that I hadn’t expected. My parents were very supportive. And most of my old friends remained good friends. I think they assumed since I was still alive, I wasn’t really one of those crazy PT folk. Not conscious of it then, I see now that I let myself hide behind that assumption.
Though I worked in Ukiah, my attentions were scattered. I was finishing up studies at Sonoma State, with classes once and twice a week. Weekends were usually spent in the Bay Area as I renewed old friendships and returned to the gay community. In making new friends or dating, I learned early on not to mention PT. I wasn’t in contact with other PT survivors, except for my (now) ex-wife. For more than three years after it all came down, she and I spoke on the phone almost daily.
In June 1980, I moved to San Rafael, north of San Francisco, into studies for a Special Ed credential. I worked part-time and had some financial help from my parents. In 1981, I moved to San Diego. On my way through LA, Claire and Richard Janaro helped me get set up in San Diego. They were the only Temple members I kept in touch with over the next 25 years.
I taught in San Diego until retiring in 2002. Half of that time I worked in an innovative charter school where the entire staff – teachers, secretaries, custodians – was like a family. Everybody went to staff meetings and were part of school planning. Staff meetings ended with everyone holding hands in a large circle, where comments of appreciation and recognition for work were shared. My first staff meeting blew my mind! It was like being back in PT again – with a sense of community and a conscious dream of working together to build something better. Not exactly the same, but it made my work very special.
In 2005, I met Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore, who, it turns out, live only blocks away from me in San Diego. Through them, I contacted Laura Johnston Kohl and Neva Sly Hargrave, who also live in the San Diego area. Then Claire enticed me to see the play, The People’s Temple, written from interviews by Leigh Fondakowski. For the first time in 27 years I met with other PT survivors, an amazing experience. Strange, though wonderful. I felt like I had come home to a place where I had no need to explain myself.
I learned that we were no longer divided, since there was no longer a Temple to be “in” or “out of.” What I found instead was the goodness that is still “in” all of us. We had once dared to dream and try to build a better world.
Since then, I attend the yearly November services at Evergreen Cemetery and afterwards spend time at the California Historical Society, identifying people in photos. It is especially wonderful to share the photos together. If you can’t recall a name, someone else can – with a flood of memories of those we knew so well. It is like finding a missing family album.
Through the Jonestown website I have been working with FOIA materials from the FBI. I do this for a very selfish reason: to understand more and chronicle the work that was being done in Jonestown. I believe that more must be told in order to recognize the people’s dreams and efforts and – most important – to accord them the dignity they deserve.
This has included transcribing the 1978 Journals of Edith Roller in Guyana, a project started by Michael Bellefountaine. From 1975 to the end, Edith Roller was always writing notes in services. In a meeting, once, Jim had said not to worry about this; that her notes would later tell the story of PT. It never occurred to me that I would be part of reading and transcribing her notes to make the story available!
Some Things That Have Taken Me Years To Resolve
What to call it? I have never known what to call the events of November 18th. Over the years I have heard it referred to as: “the Jonestown tragedy,” “Jonestown suicides,” “Jonestown murders,” “November 18th ,” and “Jonestown massacre.” I seem to call it “when it all came down,” but I am not sure why, just fits for me.
How could something be so good and then end up so bad? It was not until I saw the play and met with other survivors that I realized that PT could be both good and bad. Seeing, speaking to, and hearing other survivors made me realize that what was good about PT was – and still is – the goodness we all brought into the Temple community. A goodness that flourished because of the trust we had in our community. A trust in a leader that was ultimately betrayed. When I gather with other survivors, I still feel the goodness of PT thatwe all shared in having given so much in trying to build a dream of something better.
Whose fault was it? Why am I still here? It’s a question of guilt for all the deaths in Jonestown. Aside from Jim, it’s no one’s fault. Everyone was doing the best they could at the time, by leaving or by staying. Dividing us by who left and who stayed no longer has meaning. Ultimately, if blame must be give, then we all share in it. Why didn’t each and every one of us question more, challenge more, speak out more? Some did, but too little, too late. As a survivor, I carry on. I am not changing the whole world, but I do what I can, speaking up and participating where and when I can.
Why the continuing media attention? With only a few exceptions, press, media, and writers over the years seem stuck in the ending, bringing it up over and over, not to clarify so much as to exploit the easy write of the gore and frenzy of the final hours. Those “new looks” at well-established facts and well-known events leave everyone stuck. They serve only to diminish the people of PT and preserve the impression that we can learn nothing from what happened. That is wrong, because there are important lessons about placing trust in our leaders; about challenging them to be trustworthy; about questioning ourselves, family, community, and country; about speaking up on many levels.
What do I carry with me from PT? Many things. What I learned during my years in the Peace Corps was continued in the Temple: more understanding of people, social responsibility, community, politics, and so on. As with Peace Corps, though I came back more critical of the U.S., I also believed more deeply in what can and should be. I know people can work together, and how a supportive, cooperative community can look. More fundamentally, I know what community is and miss it terribly! I have found that when survivors get together, it’s almost magical as the feeling of community reignites, warms and electrifies me up and down the back of my neck.
What do we survivors need now? For the past four years over the Fourth of July, PT survivors have met in San Diego. The time together has been awesome for it gives us a chance to talk and laugh together, something we all need. The Jonestown website and the July gatherings both need to continue doing what they do!
Moments I remember that still make me smile or laugh include:
• The children’s choir singing “Welcome, Welcome All of You”
• Patty Cartmell and Jack Beam doing comedy sketches
• Don Sly teaching swimming in the Temple pool to kids on Monday nights
• Claire Janaro dancing in her own marvelous way in the children’s section at meetings
• Chris Rozynko jumping up and down like a pogo stick in meetings while we sang
• Joyce Touchette with Mr. Muggs
• Going places in the “old green” school bus (before the Greyhounds)
• Seniors teaching preschoolers how to make a salad in the senior center
• Diane Wilkinson singing most any song
• Eva Pugh’s chili for Wednesday night meetings in Redwood Valley
• Melvin Johnson singing “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”
• Cleaning up rest areas in California, D.C., wherever.
• Marching in Fresno for the Sacramento Bee reporters
• PT Bake Sales
• Eating greens in San Francisco and Los Angeles
• Patty Cartmell singing “Going Home”
• Jack Arnold and the band
• Reenie Jackson teaching karate exercises
• The children’s summer trips to Oregon and Mexico
• 24-hour vigils to bring someone off drugs
• Pop Jackson’s smile in Jonestown
• Tropical rain showers
• The quiet of shafts of sunlight shining through jungle foliage
(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)
(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)