For more than 25 years, I have pushed thoughts of PT out of my mind. When I did think of it, I wondered how it could have ended in such horror. How so many of us had lost so many we cherished and loved – children as well as parents, relatives and friends. As a survivor, I wondered what our hopes and beliefs and dreams all now mean?
When I can’t accept something and I can’t not accept that something, I put it aside and try to move on or around it. But not as completely as if I had resolved it, whatever that resolution. So, I became numbed, putting a part of myself apart from myself and working hard to make a new sense of where I went next. I put PT away some where – getting it out now and again but never finding closure to that part of me put away.
Now and then I break into tears – the death of so many and the murder of all the children – they had no choice. Perhaps the adults chose; adults are supposedly responsible. But not the children. Who to blame? Jim? The adults?… Me? And I was Junior Choir director. Couldn’t sing much but I could move my hands and organize kids. The children were the best part of the church – the future, a rainbow of hope and promise. And they trusted us…me. After so many years, how can I resolve my guilt?
Much has happened this year, 2005, to let me at least understand if not forgive myself as well. And resolve what it was and now is to me.
Over the years my only contact with PT folk was my ex (we spoke daily for almost four years) and the Janaros. Claire always did seem to hear about others and, when I asked, would fill me in on folk she knew of. Wonderful Claire who helped with the children and danced to our music and singing, with the most wonderful rhythm all of her own, that made you feel the beauty and happiness we had as a community.
And it was through Claire that I heard someone wanted to interview survivors and write a play based on interviews. Been through this before, I thought; I wanted no part. But Claire was braver and participated. I heard bits and pieces about it over several years.
I had also come across Rebecca Moore’s Jonestown website, first in North Dakota and then later in San Diego – my own back yard. Hmm. Religious studies. I guess PT could fit there. Anyway. It seemed rather odd to see the Temple in a neutral if not slightly positive light. But then we did do many good things. Hands and feet on prayers and all that. What do I do with all the good feelings I have from all the stuff “besides the ending?”
And back to the old thoughts of where did it all go wrong, to end in such horror? Which leads into wanting to blame someone, but who? Which brings it back to me, my own guilt. Which always made me put it all away on hold somewhere.
I read what others had written and put on the Jonestown site. It was nice to hear from people.
Claire told me that the play was ready to open in Berkeley. I found myself wondering why part of me wants to go. Not sure why, I decide to go. In the meantime I find out that Laura Johnston Kohl lives nearby, and we talk for an hour on the phone. Then a week before the play I find myself at a strawberry pancake breakfast with Laura and husband, Rebecca, husband Mac McGehee, father John Moore and Neva Sly. And it feels so good to be together and even talking about PT. I find that talking and being together brings back the feeling of community I miss so much, with no need to explain myself in any way – even to myself.
The next weekend, April 16, in Berkeley before the play – I must have been ready for it -I was the first one at the restaurant where we were to meet before the play, those that wanted to. I saw one woman already seated, and wondered who she was. She wasn’t part of our group, but then they – we – started to arrive. About 30 people gathered for several hours: survivors, family, children (now adults), actors and writers from the play.
Watching us meet and figure out who was who was a show unto itself. A few haven’t changed a bit. Most have mellowed and some like myself, you don’t recognize until they speak. Strangely though, everyone’s kinda the same, eyes and smiles usually. “But so much older!” I thought at one point. Then realized “Duh! That’s right.” My memories of PT are of people as we were then.
Why did it feel so good to see people again? How could I feel good? What good was there to feel about PT? Strange quandary I found myself in.
And then on to the play. Getting to my seat, more people to see for the first time in years. Still, though, a warm good feeling.
Watching the play was difficult. Not for just the pain it brought up, but also trying to watch so closely so as not to miss anything, that I can’t recall much in detail. Several parts affected me deeply. Stephan Jones told matter-of-factly he felt both love and hate for his dad. At one point my son Danny was part of a picture flashed on the wall. Wow! And Tim Carter said that it was murder, not suicide. Both comments were things I had felt but not been able to say. And I wanted the ending modified, more statements from the people. The same way I wanted more closure for the events of November 1978.
I came back in June to see the changes that had been made to the play and also to see the California Historical Society (CHS) panel discussion on the play and the PT Collection. For me it was here that it came together even more completely, thanks to the several persons sharing what CHS and the play have meant to them.
A CHS librarian spoke of the collection as being different than any other they have, as it is still living history, concerning people still living or whose relatives are alive. Four Temple survivors spoke from the heart of what the CHS collection and the play meant to them. One said he had finally found a closure to the loss of his wife and child. Another spoke of having lost all mementos of his family, now felt like he had a family album at least. Another spoke of being able to acknowledge that it wasn’t mass suicide but homicide. The other spoke of being able to cry and smile at remembrances; that it was not all bad, that each person had their own point of view.
For me, this year has meant sorting through various things that let me become settled and at ease finally with the Temple: not having to put it aside any more.
More clearly stated by others, I can say that I thank Jim for what he taught me, for showing me how people can become a community, work together and build a better life. And I can also say that I despise Jim for losing trust in his own beliefs and bringing PT to such an ending of horror.
That said, I have never – before or after PT – found a group of folk with whom I have found such a sense of community, of belonging and trust and hope. I have found this with a few individuals I have met over the years. But never in a community to the degree and number of people as in the Temple.
The community of PT is a family to which I belong. Like it or not, we are a family. Not good nor bad, just a fact. We are bound together. A belonging. Folk that share a family album.
What persists and marks the good of PT is the good of the people in it. Working on Edith Roller’s 1978 Journals and scanning the myriad of information collected by the FBI, I realize how close we were: we knew all about each other. I can read or hear a name and a face now comes to mind. I knew them, about them, strengths and weaknesses. Remembrances of activities we shared, from writing letters, to working a bake sale, to eating together after services, to bringing the children together for swimming at the church, to helping someone move, to marching in Fresno… And so much more.
What remains is the goodness that we all believed in something better and were willing to try to build it. What remains and still makes me proud is the people. I miss so many of them and I cherish those who remain. This is my closure.
P.S. They are still working on the play, The People’s Temple, which by the way is awesome and excellent. I thank CHS and all those who interviewed and put it together. I recommend it highly.
P.P.S. After November 1978 I continued working as a teacher, ending up in San Diego for the past 23 years. I retired in 2002 and now live sometimes in San Diego and sometimes in Ireland, where I am considered a “layabout” since I no longer work. However Fielding (Mac) McGehee has corralled my volunteer skills for several projects here with the Jonestown site.
(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.)