Christine Miller: A Voice of Independence

Christine Mille
Christine Miller
Photo Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

pixelAlthough there have been fifty or so books written about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, most of the stories center on Jim Jones, his family and the inner circle of the church. However thousands of people made the social movement possible. Because of the Temple’s practice of taping services and meetings – as well as retaining thousands of documents which are now Shoused at the California Historical Society – the stories of a number of rank and file Temple members are preserved for all time.

The most famous of these people may be Christine Miller, who valiantly tried to dissuade the Jonestown leadership’s decision to enact revolutionary suicide.

Christine was born in Brownsville, Texas on June 4, 1918. In a letter to Jones she writes about working in the cotton fields and losing her mother at a very young age. Christine Miller spent her entire life working. She eventually became a county clerk. As she said, “I pulled myself up by the bootstraps.” Christine’s hard work paid off. She eventually found herself in Los Angeles, where she earned enough to buy a home and car, and still have money for jewelry, furs and travel. She probably enjoyed these things more than most because of the hard work it took to get herself there.

It was while she was living in Los Angeles that Christine was introduced to Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. There were a number of reasons why people joined Peoples Temple. Many went because they needed help, others went to offer help. Christine was a helper. She also contributed financially. In fact, it was the financial generosity of members such as Christine that gave the Los Angeles church the reputation as the Temple’s pocketbook. Christine was very loyal to Jones and gave regularly to the various projects funded by the Temple.

Many researchers on the Temple have commented on Christine’s unique relationship with Jones. Although all Temple members were required to turn their personal possessions over to the church when they went communal – and even more fundamentally, were discouraged from wearing trappings of the elite – Jones allowed Christine to retain and wear some of her fur and jewelry. What was it about Christine that set her apart from the others? Did Jones respect the fact that this black senior had “pulled [herself] up by the bootstraps” and so had some special right to wear these items? If so why her and not other women in similar situations?

It could be that Christine Miller was one of the few people who simply refused to give up the things for which she had worked so hard. She knew what she wanted, and she acted on it. We know that members of the inner circle refused Jim Jones’ advances, and that certain members were able to argue and refute him, within accepted boundaries. Although she was not a member of the inner circle, Christine Miller was apparently one of these people.

Christine eventually moved to San Francisco and joined a Temple commune. On January 3, 1978 she moved to Jonestown. Unlike most members of the Temple who traveled in groups to Guyana, Christine traveled alone. Although she tried to adjust to the pace of Jonestown, she was not happy in the isolated jungle community. In letters to Jones she states that she feels that she had come too far to be pushed as hard as she was being pushed in Jonestown. Christine felt she had more value back in America where she could work and donate her check to the cause; in Jonestown she felt like a liability. She was accustomed to being an asset. She was also accustomed to being treated like an asset. Unlike many in Jonestown, Christine did not leave a slum or ghetto to live in the jungle community. And when she felt it was necessary, she would remind people of her sacrifices for the cause.

There are a number of stories that survive about Christine and her interactions with Jones that shed light on their final exchange of the last day. The first is an exchange caught on tape Q595 of a Jonestown meeting. Jones calls on Christine to recite what he had just said, which she does. He then asks her opinion on the topic, to which she replies that she does not know because she had not thought about it before. Jones states, “That’s why I asked you … I knew you hadn’t. You’re standing in the gap of the hedge, and there’s others, but you’re honest. Some others would tell me a lie.” Certainly Jones knew that Christine would answer his questions truthfully, that she would not shy away from uncomfortable answers. She was not ashamed to tell him when she did not know something.

A more telling story of the friction-based chemistry between Christine and Jones is told by Jonestown survivors. At one meeting Christine and Jones exchanged words. It was heated. Jones had gotten into the habit of handling guns during these meetings, and on at least one tape recording (Q833 from late March 1978) picked up the sound of Jones firing a shot to wake up people in the crowd who were sleeping. Additionally the isolation of the community, with Jones’ word as sole authority, put anyone who opposed him in a very vulnerable position. A troublesome person could be put in a sensory deprivation box, drugged in the medical unit or – as he threatened – shot on the spot and buried in the jungle. There was not much that one person could do to stop any of those things from happening. In Jonestown, Jim Jones did have the power of life and death.

During one meeting, Jones became frustrated with Christine’s vocal independence. He pointed the gun at her and said he could shoot her, and no one would ever find out. Christine replied, “You can shoot me, but you are going to have to respect me first.” Jones repeated his threat with more menace, but Christine wouldn’t back down. “You can do that,” she said, “but you are going to have to respect me first.” A moment later, Jones was standing before her, holding the gun to her head, shouting his rage at her defiance. She looked him in the eye and said calmly, “You can shoot me, but you will respect me.” The standoff ended when Jones – not Christine – backed down.

This tells a lot about Christine’s fortitude and self-respect. It especially sheds light on her relationship with Jones which makes her stand out – and stand apart – from many of the other residents of Jonestown. One would expect Jones to quash this type of individualism because it had no place in a collective setting of a thousand people. Some researchers have speculated that Jones allowed Christine to be the spokesperson for the opposition because she was disliked and resented in Jonestown. This does not seem to be the case. Rather, their exchange is more reflective of her desire to stand up for herself and her high level of self-esteem than a nefarious manipulation by Jones. Christine Miller was going to be respected, and if Jones did not give her that respect, then she would just as soon be dead.

This is also evident in their exchange recorded on the last day of Jonestown. After Rep. Leo Ryan and his group left Jonestown, the leadership called for everyone to gather at the central pavilion to discuss a potential calamity that was going to befall the Ryan party, and the subsequent ramifications for the jungle community. The pretext is a discussion about revolutionary suicide, but the decision had already been made by the leadership. Preparations were already underway to extinguish the community.

Evidence from a journal left by Jonestown resident Edith Roller makes clear that the community had practiced this drill before. On February 16, 1978, about a month after Christine arrived in Jonestown, the community was told of a coup attempt on the Guyanese government. The Jonestown community would be compelled to commit revolutionary suicide. A vat was brought out and people lined up to take the potion. Edith records that there was an extended discussion about traveling to another country such as the Soviet Union or Cuba, or even somewhere in Africa. Roller also records that when the whole process started only a few people offered opposition, and that they were required to take the poison first. About 45 minutes into the process, Jones called it off and said that it was only a drill. It is not clear how many of these drills were held or if the people in the audience actually understood that the final day was not another trial run. However, it is no wonder that when Jones asked for dissenting opinions to mass suicide on the final day – in a conversation captured on the so-called “death tape” (Q042) – the first person to take the microphone was Christine Miller.

Some researchers believe that Christine’s opposition to revolutionary suicide was one of the pivotal moments, when the tide still could have turned against the decision to destroy the community. Others downplay her role and her persuasiveness. Most have overlooked her attempts to use Jones’ own philosophy and words against him in her attempt to convince him to live.

Christine’s first question is about traveling to Russia. The community had often been told of a potential migration to the Soviet Union – as other tapes and Edith Roller’s journals show – but the chances of such a move were highly unlikely. Nevertheless, Jones says that Christine has made her point well enough to ask someone off mike to try and contact Russia. In all likelihood, no one made such a call, but Jones’ promise of it speaks to his need to disarm the persuasiveness of Christine’s argument.

Not to be sidetracked, Christine refuses to give up the mike. Instead she continues by commenting that too few people had left with the congressman for over a thousand people to give their lives. Jones replies that only twenty-odd people left Jonestown, but that they would not make it to their destination safely. This is an important part of the tape, because it all but proves that Jones knew that something was going to happen on the airstrip. Does it prove that Jones was the one who ordered the attack? Not necessarily. But certainly his reference to a pending disaster for the Ryan party was more than a prophetic premonition.

Christine Miller stays focused, and she was not alone. Other disgruntled Jonestown seniors are heard supporting her during this exchange with Jones. At this point, Christine engages Jones with his own philosophy: “Well, I don’t see it like that. I mean, I feel like as long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith.”

This innocuous line is often overlooked by researchers, or considered a divergence from Temple philosophy. The opposite is true. In fact, Christine was reciting a Jones’ line from a meeting caught on tape Q833. She had the quote line for line. One has to wonder when she originally heard it, if she thought that it was an effective defense against an argument for revolutionary suicide and waited until then to spring it on Jones. Certainly the comment seems to takes Jones off guard. He responds by saying that life ends eventually, which was not an argument against what she was saying. He effectively avoids the issue of life being the source of hope, and instead refocuses the discussion on the pain involved in living.

But Christine still isn’t through. She makes another argument about her right as an individual to choose her future, and the right of others to choose theirs. Again, while this may seem to be contradictory to Temple teachings, it is instead a reflection of the contradiction within those teachings. Temple members were constantly told that if they stayed with Jim Jones and the Temple, they would reach their full potential as human beings. Christine was making it clear that she did not feel like she had reached her full potential. She wanted to live, she wanted the children to live and, despite her personal misgivings about the jungle commune, she wanted the community to survive. She affirms her right to have her own opinion.

Again members of the crowd shout her down and compare her words with those who left the community earlier in the day. Jones does not seem able to adequately respond, so Jim McElvane steps in to neutralize Christine’s arguments. Like Christine, McElvane was from the Temple in Los Angeles and the two had even had a brief relationship. He was one of the trusted black leadership of the church who was respected by most members and who also worked on the security team. McElvane interrupts Christine to tell her that she had no individual life, chastisingly reminding her that she chose to be part of a collective. Jim Jones had extended her life to that point, McElvane says, and she should be prepared to give up her life if Jones asked it of her. It was paramount that the discussion of individual choice was stopped, and the topic of collective death again be pushed to the forefront. Nevertheless, Christine continues expressing her concerns about revolutionary suicide. She attempts to neutralize him by ignoring him.

Eventually, Christine must have realized her logic is no match for Jones’ leapfrogging interpretations and the interference of his lieutenants like McElvane. Jones indeed seemed to always be a step in front of her. She relents somewhat, then argues that she is not afraid to die – an obligatory statement given the circumstances – but that the children should be allowed to live. She even invokes the name of Jones’ son John Victor, in an attempt to appeal to Jones’ paternal instincts. He is not moved. The decision has already been made.

At this point, the audience tires of listening to Christine’s protests. Eyewitnesses recount that people began to shove towards her, that one woman needed to be held back as she shouted, “You are too afraid to die” and “What fucking good would you do in Russia?” Christine makes a plea to Jones to quiet the hostility, but she is again shouted down and eventually gives up the microphone.

Jones praises Christine as an agitator, commending her for her ability to make him see both sides of a problem. He tells the congregation that he truly likes her as a person, and that her life is as precious to him as John’s and everyone else who lived in Jonestown. That alone was probably the only thing that stopped her from being physically injured by the assembly.

The community continued with its discussion about suicide, and eventually the vats were brought out and people lined up to die. According to Edith’s journal, in trial runs people who were opposed to revolutionary suicide were among those at the front of the line. If this was the case on November 18th, then you can be sure that Christine Miller was one of the first people to die that day. Eyewitnesses confirm that Christine and her friends were sitting in the second row toward the front. Some authors have written that her body was discovered with injection marks on her upper arm, but do not provide sources or proof for their claims, so it is not clear where the line between truth and speculation begins and ends.

Christine Miller’s protests on the last day of Jonestown might have given voice to many Jonestown residents who did not want to die. Who knows how many people she spoke for? That’s one of the unanswerable questions about that day. But what is known is that Christine Miller was speaking for herself. In the face of a hostile and sometimes violent crowd, she stuck to her beliefs which were rooted firmly in Temple teachings. She opposed Jim Jones by confronting him directly using his own words and philosophy, which was probably the best possible articulated defense against revolutionary suicide that could have been offered that day. Christine Miller remains a beacon for those who realize that self-respect comes from inside. And even if someone holds a gun to your head, you can always remain true to yourself, or life just isn’t worth living.

(Michael Bellefountaine was 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.)

(More information on the “death tape” may be found here. An article about the dramatic presentation of Christine Miller is here.)