Transcribing the journals left by Temple member Edith Roller of her time and work in Jonestown has been an educational and valuable experience. I have gained a new glimpse into life in Jonestown – a quiet daily view rather than the media hype and horror. The journals describe the community that the people built, made possible by their own belief in each other, and I look forward to the day when they are published.
The Roller journals from the first eight months of 1978 are a great read, to get a real sense – albeit from one perspective – of life in Jonestown. They quietly give real insights into life there. They also help to give context to some audiotapes of meetings, as to date, content and purpose. Perhaps these journals will be more interesting to survivors than a general public; but only perhaps.
Edith joined the Temple around 1972 during its Redwood Valley years, and came up on weekends from San Francisco. She was a regular attendee, not missing very many meetings. She participated regularly in letter writing projects and helping other people.
Edith took many notes of Temple meetings, at the time jotting things down and later filling her notes in. Jim knew that she was taking notes and keeping a journal. He publicly encouraged her to do so, saying that her notes would one day provide a window into Temple life and activities.
She worked for Bechtel Corporation in San Francisco, a known CIA company with activities and business world-wide. Her earlier journals chronicle some of her daily work activities there as well. Jim would joke with CIA connection, saying that “Professor Roller had fled from the CIA and taken refuge with us.” Whether she was a professor or not, she doesn’t say, but that’s what Jim called her. I always assumed she had taught college level studies, but don’t know where or when.
Though she indicates that she kept a continuous journal, what is left begins mid-July 1975 and goes through August 1978, although there is only one page from July of that year. About half of 1977 is missing as well as July 1978. It is not known what happened to the July notes or if she wrote more entries after those of August. Only eleven months of her journal in final typed format are here. Some of the missing material may have disappeared before Jonestown. While in Guyana, she asked about all the copies she had turned in to San Francisco, and was told they were lost or destroyed. What we have now is what the FBI gathered in Guyana and San Francisco.
While her journal’s San Francisco years reveal the inner workings of the church, perhaps of greatest interest is her writing from the last year, 1978. What we have of it comes from original handwritten pages held by the FBI, released to the Alternatives Considerations website through FOIA, and accessible as .pdf format files of scans of each journal page. These files are spread across three discs. The first disc has very poorly copied pages. The other discs came through with better copied pages. An index to the files on these discs can be downloaded in .pdf format here. Copies of these first CD’s themselves may be obtained through the website. Better scans were made and are now online for download here. A new index will be forthcoming
Transcribing Edith’s handwritten journal entries has been a three-fold challenge.
- First, her handwriting is a challenge to get used to. Fortunately, my own is fairly illegible, and that helped me puzzle out most of what she wrote.
- Second, she had her own system of abbreviations, a personal – and sometimes mysterious – shorthand which allowed her to write journal notes quickly. As we transcribed her journals, we compiled a list of “most probable” meanings. This list is here.
- Third, the pdf pages of her journal notes were sometimes unintelliglble scans of the original 1978 pages. Poor scanning made many pages partially to almost completely illegible. [Later re-scans cleared most problems].
While in San Francisco, Edith used her handwritten notes as a basis for her typed entries, which she completed later the same day in her early journals, and weeks later towards the end of her time in California. Although she took her typewriter to Jonestown, the 1978 journal entries were apparently never transferred to her intended final typed format. She occasionally mentions her busy schedule, of typing entries, but all of those were from 1977.
Edith’s writing style is rather factual and unemotional – probably as part of an objective observer mode for reporting about the Temple. I remember Edith Roller as one who kept her exuberance and excitement under control. She was rarely animated at meetings, although she almost always had a smile and danced a bit of a jig sometimes, as appropriate. Her reserved demeanor was punctuated with a dry and somewhat guarded wit. She was always open to talking to people and helpful to others. She kept to a relatively scheduled existence – as the journals show – always with some daily time kept to herself. She loved to read and to walk in and around San Francisco. She had a small circle of friends, but writes of her reluctance to become communal. Within the Temple, she worked in offering-taking, wrote many letters, and made and met goals of pamphleting in San Francisco.
Edith went to Guyana in January 1978, spending a week or so in Georgetown before going in to Port Kaituma on the Cudjoe, and on to Jonestown on the tractor-trailer. She lived in one of the community’s 50 cottages, sleeping quarters that held up to 12 people (four double bunks on the main floor and four singles in the loft). Over time in her journals, Edith refers more and more to her “cottage” as “home.”
Reading the 1978 Journal
Reading her entries, you get an impression that there is a lot of activity going on in Jonestown, somehow organized at different levels, to meet the settlement’s needs as well as to occupy people’s time. The people there were building ways to provide and sustain themselves in a new, undeveloped place. You have a sense of the immense resources residing in the people living there and the ongoing challenge to get the “resources” allocated to bring about a working, self-sustaining community within the jungle. Though most young people came from an urban setting, many older members had experiences in farming. For what they didn’t know, they consulted closely to Guyanese counterparts, Amerindians, and experts. I helped find and send books and texts for all agricultural projects. In the summers or 1974 and 1976 when I was there (before the mass migration), I saw how motivation to find answers made people who once hated school, learn to read college scientific texts, quoting from memory chapter and page, what was said.
In transcribing, I couldn’t always read Edith’s notes on agricultural details (diseases, infections, ideas, procedures, processes, etc.) and often consulted the internet to verify and understand more about what she was writing. I learned much about tropical agriculture. But even more I marveled at what more might have been possible if the internet had been available then to Jonestown members. So much of what was done, was done in an experimental vein, scrambling to find information (how to raise pigs, chicks, cows; how to grow citrus, cassava, vegetables, etc.), learning by sheer effort of trial and error. Now, almost 30 years later, cassava (one of Jonestown’s more successful crops) has become a widely developed crop in Guyana. The information we have about it now would have been a real bonus for us then.
Everything the community did was a learning experience. Agricultural reports were given to the whole community for two reasons, it seems: (1) to keep people informed and educated on the tasks facing them all and (2) to tap any members who could help solve some problems as they came up. An open forum kept everyone informed and involved.
Jim read the daily news, with much editing and commentary, of course. There is a great deal of talk of plots and CIA activities, and it was hard to know what is true and what is paranoia, especially in the last year 1978, as Edith reported it in her journal. Some copies of daily news summaries exist in other parts of the FBI CD’s. The news appears more general and wider ranging than I had suspected.
No one had money, but there was no need, as everything you needed was provided, and there was no place to spend cash. Entertainment was a necessary and regular item. Groups formed and practiced: singing, dancing, acting, stand up comedy. Young folk seemed to have tape recorders and tapes to play. Some went on to perform in Georgetown at events to showcase our youth and talent. Sports was a part as well. A number of young men from Jonestown survived November 18 by being in Georgetown to participate in a national basketball tournament.
School was provided from nursery to high school, to adult classes as well. Socialism was taught at all levels, so everyone could understand principles of cooperative and communal living, as people were more fully than ever dependent on each other. Some seemed more ready than others.
Meetings of the full community were called Rallies and were held in the main pavilion at least twice weekly (Saturdays and Tuesdays) during that last year. A Rally started after dinner, at 7:30 pm, and ran till 11:00 pm, although some went as late as 4:00 am. See a list here of get-up and go to bed times recorded in Roller Journals. Late meetings often resulted in Jim allowing people to sleep in one to three hours, eat breakfast, start work late, then skip lunch, returning to the regular schedule by the end of the work day. Special Rallies might be called to greet new arrivals and introduce them to the community; they were also called during times of crisis.
Regular Rallies usually included three activities: first the entertainment, and then agricultural reports and concerns brought to the floor for group consideration. The latter two were often intermixed, going on until all items were addressed. There were chairs and benches in the pavilion, and many seniors liked getting there early to claim a chair or two near the front for themselves and a friend, especially if it looked as though it would be a long night.
How do you build a better place?
How do people transition from US society to an interdependent communal society of 1200 people in the tropical jungle? How do you structure people to find their own places and roles? How do you praise and encourage working together? How do you reshape behaviors “against the common good”? What was the “common good?” Counseling and catharsis continued in the “family” of your residential-living group, which gave way to counseling sessions, and then on to open public catharsis of the full community if needed.
For discipline, you could be assigned to the learning crew: a crew that worked longer hours, working faster and harder with fewer privileges of communal life. It was intended as a place to reflect and reshape your attitude and behaviors more to the needs of working together respectfully, not to discourage individuality, but to encourage it in a communal way.
Edith’s journals reported that results seemed to be favorable. I was pleased to read that my own son, Danny, had been on a learning crew, and had not only changed some disrespecting behaviors afterwards, but was up for commendation. Some members needed something more than catharsis and the learning crew, without resorting to violence. A time-out place – a sensory deprivation chamber called “the box” – eventually emerged as the place to isolate community miscreants. Part of its initial power was in its mystery. It was designed by Tom Grubbs and went into use in March 1978, but by June and August, Jim was questioning its effectiveness.
The Rallies featured praises and rewards in addition to discipline and punishment. Commendations and other acts garnered special privilege and treats (foods, fruit, candy, cookies) that were handed out at special times to those on the “list.” Food has always been highly motivational.
Alternative View of Jonestown
The journals by an intelligent, committed member gives us hindsight into what Jonestown might have become. So many social definitions were being redefined. We can see some of the challenges as they arise, and how well – or poorly – the leadership dealt with them. How far should they have gone to shape change? When should they have used coercion, and when should they have used other methods? Perhaps some who thought they were ready for a commune-ity were not – this too is apparent – and the people would have been much more creative in handling them. One of the options could have been to find folks a way to leave.
For some Jonestown has been portrayed as a nightmare – and certainly because the agricultural project ended in such grotesque unforgivable horror – that view has been the one that persists through the years.
But Edith’s journal gives us a quiet glimpse that many good people were building many good things, the emergence of an interracially mixed group, with so many beautiful new children, in whom the hope of a better future was being built. Much hard work. Many fervent hopes. Through it all and through the years, the goodness of the members still shines.
Edith died on November 18, along with 900 other members of her community. Her writings reflect what she saw and not – by definition and in contrast with everything else written about Jonestown – through the dark lens of the final day. It is this fact alone that makes the journal such honest reporting and compelling reading.
(Don Beck worked with the late Michael Bellefountaine in transcribing Edith Roller’s journals. Don retired in 2002 and now lives sometimes in San Diego and sometimes in Ireland. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)