Roller Journals Reveal Detailed, Dispassionate Look at Temple

Edith Roller
Photo Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

Peoples Temple member Edith Roller spent a considerable amount of time writing in her personal journal about her involvement in Peoples Temple. With unique dedication she would write the journal entries in note form as services and meetings happened, and would then go home and type them on her manual typewriter. Later, she would go over the notes in two-week periods, editing them for content and errors. She methodically maintained the journal over a period of years, recording both important and mundane events in Temple history. Edith was a proud and loyal member of Peoples Temple, and she often mentions how she hoped that she would be able to use her journals to write about her experience in the Temple. Twenty-six years later it seems her hopes are coming to fruition.

Spanning thousands of handwritten pages over three CDs, representing the FBI’s release of Peoples Temple material under the Freedom of Information Act (go here for related story), Edith Roller’s journal offers a glimpse inside Temple life intermittently from 1975 to August of 1978. About a third of her journals are in final typed form, the remainder being handwritten notes that she kept while constructing the journal. She writes about the private Temple meetings in Ukiah, the public services in San Francisco, and the routine bus rides to Los Angeles. Much of the recitation of Temple events is dispassionate: who joined the Temple and when, who had not been seen in services, who sang, who preformed a skit, and who was up on the floor and why. Edith writes about the healings and beatings with a distance and detachment that makes it comprehensible to those uninitiated with internal Temple functions. These are not the rantings of a true believer, though Edith surely was. Her acceptance of Jim’s healing gifts is as matter of fact as her dismissal of the “miscreants” being beaten for violating some Temple infraction. Mostly the journal reads like a log of events, as she omits most traces of deep personal feelings or introspection. She writes superficially about problems she had with her roommates, but nothing much deeper, and nothing contradictory of the Temple’s teachings.

Although many people will be enthralled with the San Francisco Temple story (especially how she photocopied binders of information about Bechtel’s international contracts and funneled them to Jim Jones), the part of the journal that generates the most interest is the period in which she lived in Jonestown. In January of 1978, Edith was called to Jonestown, and the journal offers a first-hand account of the process the Temple took to move people to Guyana. She writes about her preparations and numerous delays, and how she treated herself to an ice cream cone and felt guilty about it. She chronicles her travels to New York City and then the flight down to the Caribbean. She writes in detail about her stay in Georgetown and her initial difficulties with certain personalities. Through her writings, and despite the inter-personal clashes, there is a clear picture of a group of committed people working together. She writes of communal living and eating at the Georgetown office as they waited a week or so to go on to Jonestown. She writes about the trip down the river on the Temple-owned boat, and finally her arrival in the secluded jungle community. Her vivid descriptions of the foliage, exotic animals and general beauty of the area are permanently preserved.

Edith offers a detailed description of Jonestown that is rarely seen: a thriving active community of over a thousand people who are well aware that their sacrifice and hard work were paying off in the very existence of the community. The Jonestown experiment is often referred to as “the people building a town in the jungle.” And to be sure that is true. But through this journal, we see a deeper picture of Jonestown. The reader is introduced to a group of people who were not only building a town, but were daring to restructure society. They were living their dream, a community free from the racism and poverty of America. The realization of this profound undertaking was usually enough to get Edith through the difficult moments of communal living.

Edith offers overviews of in-depth agricultural reports as well as gardening and livestock reports. She also records the daily diet, and the daily school and work schedules. Additionally Edith takes care to mention as many people as possible: new arrivals, births, job promotions or demotions, and those being brought on the floor for praise or punishment. Because Edith made every effort to record as many names as possible, she gave valuable information about the babies being born in the community, many of whom had gone unrecorded in the official death lists which were based on the passports issued. It is also valuable information for people who know nothing of their relatives’ lives while they were living in Jonestown.

Edith’s journal also reveals much about the Jonestown community’s darker aspects. She writes of a suicide drill, essentially a trial run for the last day. Her description of the long lines, and the vat of juice are hauntingly familiar to the pictures from November 18th. In her writing she talks about how she did not want to die, and she did not think that the juice was really poisoned. These revelations give credence to some theories that the people of Jonestown thought the last day was just another drill, and many may have initially participated because they thought it was a loyalty test. Additionally Edith gives clear voice to those who do not want to die. Though she writes that she was willing to take the potion, the drill was called off before she got to the vat. Edith makes clear that she had too much hope for the future of the collective community, for the individual children, and for herself. She gives an understanding voice to the conflict of being willing to die, but not wanting to.

Edith’s journal is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it offers a view of the Jonestown community untainted by the events of November 18, 1978. Despite the numerous books about Peoples Temple there is actually little written about the internal workings and dynamics of the larger community. Most books focus on the inner circle’s lives to the omission of the thousand or so others that called Jonestown home. Edith’s journal sheds a light on the larger community, free of the stigma from the tragedy of the last hours.

Twenty-six years ago Edith Roller found quiet time to sit and write in her journal. She wrote so future generations would understand the greatness of Jim Jones and the Socialist movement that he started, of which she was so proud to be a part. She hoped that her journals would serve as the basis of the chronicles of the Temple. Approximately half of the journal is processed and it will take about another year to finish the entire document. And though it won’t serve her intended purposes, it will shed light on the life of one Temple member: how she went from attending services in Ukiah, to living communally in San Francisco, to the move to Jonestown; how she felt about being part of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Edith’s journal is a must read for anyone who is interested in the story of Peoples Temple or the inner workings of the Jonestown community in the last months of its existence. Twenty-six years after her death, Edith Roller is finally going to be heard.

(Michael Bellefountaine worked with Don Beck in transcribing Edith Roller’s journals. He was also a frequent contributor to the jonestown report before his death in May 2007. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here.)