The first time I heard of Peoples Temple was through the newspaper and on the evening news accompanied with images of carnage in the sweltering South American heat. I was led to believe by the media, as I think millions did and do, that Peoples Temple was a group of extremists lead by a madman.
Then I became friends with Don Beck. Another friend introduced us, and right away we found we had much in common: a love for education, technology and laughs. Over the next twenty years, I learned that Don had been an active member of the Temple, that he had lost a son in Guyana, and that after Jonestown, he and his wife went separate ways. There was a deep sense of sadness and anger that I never understood about Don until the summer of 2005.
This past summer, Don stayed with us with a week, two times. Both times it was to see the Peoples Temple play at the Berkeley Rep, first for a pre-opening night, then for the closing performance. His visit gave me a whole new sense of Peoples Temple-its ideals, its conflicts and its legacy-as well as a new understanding of my friend.
To say that Don was nervous the evening of the opening would be an understatement. He asked me to join him for a dinner prior to the performance where he hoped to see many of his friends from the Temple, friends he had not seen since the disaster. As people entered the restaurant, Don searched for a familiar face. As an outsider, I witnessed the recognition, hesitation, love and sadness shared over and over again as Temple family members recognized each other. Mostly, I saw relief in their expressions and long hugs as people let out years of anguish they’d been carrying. They shared stories-many heard for the first time-from people who had been in Jonestown the last day or who had worked, after the fact, to gain access to materials and reports from the government. The historian who was decoding the last radio broadcasts shared over and over again what he was learning. There were smiles and many tears.
There was a stillness in the air of the theatre as we watched the play for the first time. Many survivors filled various areas of the theatre so that at times they could look from the stage to each other for reactions. The silence was thick as pictures of Peoples Temple members at various functions and then in Jonestown flashed on a screen. The music of the Temple rang out and when it was over, the entire theatre exhaled together. After the production, survivors stood in small groups sharing their own memories of the events. And they tried once again to make sense of what had happened.
The next day, I joined Don and about a dozen survivors at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, where they looked through boxes of pictures, trying to identify people. The excitement in the room was palpable: someone would lean over to another person to ask, “Isn’t this Esther and her boys James and John?” From that a discussion would ensue until the group could agree on the identification. Then the stories about the people would roll out. The mounds and mounds of pictures of the unidentified was staggering for an outsider; to those who had lived in the Temple, these were all family members, and they respectfully searched their memories to give names to faces. And still, pairs and triads broke off to retell their stories about Jonestown and share their interpretations.
About six weeks later Don visited again and we went to the closing performance of the play. On a second viewing I saw much more than the first time and left believing that Jonestown was not at all as it was portrayed, but rather a dream where a horrific murder occurred. As an outsider, I felt very honored to be trusted by these people to be in their midst as they explored their past. Although I always knew it at some level, I was reminded how shallow the news media is and how quick they and the government are to vilify. I feel cheated that the dream of Peoples Temple or the good works they had done had not previously been portrayed – only the sensationalism of over 900 people dying in a far away land – and I am grateful to the play for providing new insights into my friend Don.
(Barbara A. Storms is an educator. She can be reached at email@example.com)