Harriet Remembered

Harriet Tropp
Harriet Tropp
Photo Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

I knew Harriet Tropp from her first days in the Peoples Temple, in 1969 or 1970, as I recall. My earliest acquaintance with her was in the “skit crew.” A number of us Temple college students had formed a comedy group to entertain Temple members during monthly birthday parties. Immediately on her arrival – and to my irritation – she attempted to assume directorial control. However, our similar senses of humor and comedic pacing, and our love of silent film (not to mention my own ability to overcome my envy of her casual brilliance) soon made us the closest of friends. We were to remain so even through some difficult periods until I left the Temple in February 1977.

Harriet’s ingenious theatrical innovations for the skit crew included “silent movies.” Usually we simply acted out Tom Lehrer tunes or Stan Freberg sketches. However, Harriet thought it would be a hoot to stage comic silent film clips. Harriet wrote the scripts and rubbed some white greasepaint and a little rouge on the actors’ faces. We created a strobe light using a slide projector and bicycle wheel, and doused the house lights. We were surprised to learn we’d created a captivating and enthusiastically received form of theatre.

I was in law school when Harriet studied at Cal. Although I was married to Jim Jones’ daughter and Harriet was married to Jim Randolph, she and I enjoyed seeing silent films together, chatting about books we’d read, and arguing about our interpretations of European history. My historical view was obligatorily Marxian; Harriet’s somewhat more nuanced. Harriet was smitten with Queen Elizabeth I. We discussed her reign endlessly, and Harriet was nearly tiresome in her explication of Elizabeth’s incomprehensible (to me) Netherlands policy. We shared a mutual interest in the history of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and New York City’s underworld. Harriet’s often hilarious observations were original and insightful. Had Harriet the opportunity, she would have made a profound contribution to the study of the Elizabethan era. No doubt, Elizabeth’s Netherlands’ policy would have been the subject of Harriet’s dissertation.

When she was a freshman and I a senior at Hastings, Harriet became fascinated with property law and the history of English civil procedure. Given her love of the English renaissance, she studied these subjects exhaustively and became something of an expert on the early modern history of both. However, her interests and accomplishments as a law student didn’t extend equally to all fields of scholarly inquiry. Indeed, she would often describe constitutional law as “so much rarefied horseshit.”

At about that time, her brother, Martin Tropp, published a scholarly work on Frankenstein. Harriet openly read it several times and insisted that I listen while she repeatedly read aloud lengthy passages. She simply beamed whenever she had his book in hand. Harriet would have needed little, if any, instruction to have become the perfect Jewish mother.

If I accomplish nothing else in this remembrance, I hope to convey an understanding of the significance of Harriet’s so open display of pride in a family member. In the Temple, one was expected to distance oneself fully from one’s family members who were not part of the Temple. Jim Jones was deeply suspicious of the most innocent associations with one’s non-Temple blood ties. He was extremely concerned that family loyalties would lessen our devotion to “the cause” and, were he honest, to himself. The most casual of seemingly fond references to these relatives could lead to harsh punishment. Harriet knew well the risk of her open display. I admired her courage and quickly intuited that her attention to Martin’s newly-published book bespoke a deep emotional tie.

My family had joined the Temple in 1959, when I was eleven, and I visited the Joneses frequently when we moved to California in 1965. Given the violence and impoverishment of my early childhood, the Temple became for me, as a child and young adult, the great citadel of hope, and Jim, of course, the man of the age. For some time, I was one of Jim Jones’ chief lieutenants. Despite my dedication to the Temple and to Jim, I kept to myself the knowledge of Harriet’s sisterly affection. Of course, we never spoke more directly of her feelings for Martin or any other family members.

Harriet was insufferably proud of her hometown of New York City, and we were both committed “asphalt rats.” In May, 1974, I spent a week in Manhattan by myself on Temple business. Harriet and I planned my trip so I could visit all the important sights. On one of my free nights, I walked down Broadway from Columbus Circle to the old City Hall. When I returned home and shared my adventures in the Big Apple with Harriet, she pinched my cheek and exclaimed, “Michael, you’re such a mensch.”

While in New York, I visited her father and step-mother. This was a Temple-“approved” visit; I was to assure them of Harriet’s happiness and fulfillment. In truth, while she was with the Temple in San Francisco, Harriet was happy. She had an enormous pride in her own accomplishments. She often spoke about the lack of direction and failed relationships of her pre-Temple life. The Temple seemed to give Harriet the structure and purpose she required to excel at Cal and to compile a fine record at Hastings.

By late 1976, my weakening dedication to the Temple gave way entirely. I could no longer live with the unrelieved misery and paranoia the Temple had come to represent. I was, myself, increasingly under suspicion. Harriet on the other hand had begun an unfortunate rise in stature as a Temple strategist. As I prepared to leave, I thought about asking Harriet and my sister to leave with me. I decided against this for a number of reasons. Also, I genuinely believed I could seek them out, as well as a few others, once I’d settled “outside” and somehow appeal to them to leave. This proved to be a forlorn hope. My sister went to Guyana soon after my departure and Harriet never forgave me for abandoning “the cause”.

Once in Guyana, Harriet became one of the members of the triumvirate which administered Jonestown. In this capacity, Harriet dealt routinely with Guyana’s highest ranking ministers of state in representing Temple interests. Two memos of Harriet’s from this period may be found in Dear People: Remembering Jonestown, edited by Denice Stephenson, and published by the California Historical Society Press (Go here and here for reviews of this work). Written during a time of obvious stress, both convey some sense of Harriet’s independent thinking about even ordinary matters. I deeply regret that her scholarly essays and theatrical scripts have not survived. They would far better illustrate her wonderful capacity for deep insight, subtle humor, and elegant expression.

Writing all this, I’m reminded of a story her father told me of the “Papier Kinder.” As I remember it, families in Tsarist Russia cut out paper dolls and hung them on their walls as reminders of their children who had emigrated to Europe or America. On the rare return visit of any of the emigrants to the home village, he or she would be expected to visit each family who had lost loved ones to these emigrations, and, irrespective of whether the returning travelers had the slightest knowledge of these absent relatives, regale the family with tales of their “Papier Kinder.” Harriet emigrated from this world on November 18, 1978, and now she is a Papier Kinder who rests safely in my heart. But I don’t have to make up stories about her or even exaggerate upon them. Hers was an original soul in any meaningful sense. She was my dearest friend, and my memory of her is never far beneath the surface of my thoughts.

(Mike Cartmell is a former member of Peoples Temple. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at Beemermcart@aol.com.)