When I first met Bob Stroud, in 1993, he was a young, thirty-something executive with the local cable company. He was blond and freckled and soft-spoken. I occasionally ran into him at the usual young professional haunts – Chamber of Commerce functions and civic club meetings – and he was always charming and dressed to perfection. I met him again much later when I was asked to help with a mentoring project at the university where I had received my bachelor’s degree. The school was looking for graduates to assist “non-traditional” (translation: older than average) students as they made their way through the degree process. Bob was assigned for me to mentor, but our prior acquaintance made us fast friends.
One of the requirements for a course Bob was taking required that he write a brief autobiography. He brought it to me and nervously asked me to read it and advise him; he was not sure whether or not he wanted to turn it in. I read it and was stunned. This gentle, soft-spoken man had survived what was arguably one of the greatest tragedies of my generation: Jonestown. That’s all it was to me, at that time – Jonestown – where some crazy cult people had committed mass suicide in a jungle somewhere that I had never heard of before, during my senior year in high school.
My mind suddenly flashed to a former client of mine, a member of the military who had been part of the first response to the site, just days after the deaths. The horror for her was immense, even years afterward. So what must this gentle man have seen? How could such a normal-looking person, so charming and successful, have been a part of something I had written off as pure insanity? I eventually learned that the answer was much more complicated than I ever imagined. And I learned a valuable lesson about passing judgment over things I knew nothing about.
That class assignment triggered a long-buried need in Bob to talk about his experiences. We talked many times over a period of a year or more. Eventually, we did it in front of a tape recorder in my living room. Bob talked for hours. He told me how he met the Jones family and became involved in the church. He talked about the church in northern California, the move to San Francisco, and how Rev. Jones had managed to get Bob out of the Navy when he decided he wanted to rejoin the church. He talked about the White Nights, the guns, and the horrible conditions in the jungle. In essence, he told the same story that Deborah Layton told in Seductive Poison, but from a different perspective. He was a bit removed from the jungle conditions and the night-time drills because he spent a lot of his time in the city with another member, raising money for church projects. He was glad for that, because he hated the jungle. He and Joan Pursley, his fund-raising partner, could eat good food and sneak to an occasional movie by “re-appropriating” a little of the money they collected.
He also told me how he escaped Guyana with his life. His parents had left the church long before and he was, for a time, estranged from them. Having spent his adolescence in sleeping bags and tents in the Jones’ living room with Stephan, Bob had grown so close to the Jones family that he was a part of it.
At some point, Bob was seriously injured in the Guyana, suffering a compound fracture to one leg and less serious injuries to the other. One day, Marceline, Jim Jones’ wife, approached Bob and told him that he had another appointment with the orthopedic doctor in Georgetown, so he needed to be on the last truck out of the jungle. It was leaving in an hour. Bob protested that he knew of no appointment, but Marcy insisted that he stay in the Georgetown house overnight to make his appointment the next morning. Bob agreed, knowing he’d have plenty of company, because Stephan and Jim Jr. were already there as part of Jonestown’s basketball team to play in a national tournament. Bob did as he was told and got on the truck.
His next memory was of Martin, the son of Sharon Amos, screaming, and a door slamming. This was apparently when Sharon Amos and her older daughter killed Sharon’s younger children, then themselves, as everyone else was doing in Jonestown.
There had, in fact, been no doctor’s appointment. Bob had been spared by the love and foresight of Marcy Jones.
Over the next few days and weeks, Bob was interviewed, interrogated and emotionally drained. Although he wished he could have remained close to Stephan, he made the decision at that time to get as far from Guyana, San Francisco and all things Temple-related, including his old friend. Later he contemplated finding Stephan again, but decided that Stephan, too, might prefer to be left alone. I know he grieved for that friendship, even fifteen years after the fact.
What struck me almost immediately was that Bob must have made some peace with his past, because he had a remarkable ability to see the good in it. He had some bitterness, but mostly what he had was insight. He talked about the positive things he gained from the experience of growing up in the church. He credits those experiences with teaching him about love and loyalty and prejudice and hate. He did not give up those lessons just because of the final outcome of Jonestown. He was able to separate the initial ideas from the tragic outcome.
I was one of two people in Texarkana who knew Bob’s story; the other was the professor who had given the assignment that sparked his desire to talk. Shortly after his return to the U.S., Bob had been inundated with press requests and publicity, and he was happy to escape that. By the time he moved to Texarkana, his past was a closely guarded secret. His decision to talk openly again was made based on a desire to talk about his experiences from the vantage point of what could be learned – nothing more. He chose to talk to me because he knew I was continuing my education at the graduate level and he thought it might “make a good paper, someday.”
Knowing of his past made it easier for me to understand some things about how Bob lived his life. I mentioned that when I first met Bob, he was a business executive. What I didn’t mention was that throughout the course of our friendship, I saw Bob aimlessly drift from respected businessman to waiter at a seafood chain to part-time radio DJ. I once asked him about the career changes. He said that he was just doing what made him happy. He got tired of the business suits and appointments and competitive atmosphere in which he was working, so he left. He was happy waiting tables and working for the radio station because he had few real responsibilities. He exasperated his employers. They loved him for his talent and smarts, but cursed him for his carefree attitude. On any given day at the radio station, he might show up – or he might quit. Then months later, he’d return, unapologetic. Because of his talent, he was always (reluctantly) re-hired.
I suppose that one could argue that Bob’s career drifting was the result of the trauma of his past. He was unable – not unwilling – to commit. And certainly he acknowledged the role those experiences had in his choices of the moment. But he saw it as a simple desire to enjoy life and not get “caught up.” I cannot say if this is a positive thing or a side-effect of his memories. Many people long for a way to break free from convention. Bob did it on a regular basis.
(Phyllis Marley is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Texarkana College, currently pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology from Texas Woman’s University. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at Phyllis.Gardner@texarkanacollege.edu.)