One of the hardest things for me to do is to sit alone and reflect on anything associated with Peoples Temple. I go through a myriad of emotions – good, bad, warm, empty – and I am sure that I am not alone in this.
I remember my introduction to Peoples Temple. It was either late 1971 or early 1972. My mother, Kay Nelson, had been asking me to come to a meeting and hear this man who she believed to be the world’s greatest gift. I had given up on religion, church and ministers, because I had been married to a Pentecostal preacher for a number of years and knew the in and outs of the church.
One day I went to the auditorium in downtown Los Angeles to pick up my youngest daughter, Teri Smart, who had been staying with my mother. When I arrived, Kay was working on some sort of food detail, and she told me that my uncle, Jim McElvane, would take me to Teri. What a set-up. My daughter was in the balcony listening to Jim Jones. Instead of bringing her out to me, Mac insisted that he would take me to her. When we got there, he suggested that I sit for a minute. Not wanting to create a scene, I did.
I was not seeking any enlightenment for my life, but – as it happened – I was in a relationship that was demeaning. Jim Jones said something about theses types of relationships that hit home. I didn’t stay for the rest of the meeting, but I couldn’t get his words out of my mind. I told my other three children about this man I had heard and convinced them to go with me and hear what he had to say. We all went to meeting of Peoples Temple at the church on Alvarado and Hoover, across the street from where my parents and I had lived in the early 1950’s and on the same street where I saw Eisenhower riding in a motorcade. By the time the meeting ended, my children and I were hooked. I often think that, if we had not attended that first meeting, my life would be so very different, and my children would be alive and leading productive lives. Who knew?
Over the next year I became an every-other-weekend faithful because that was Jim’s schedule for the LA Temple. During the rest of the time I drank and smoked and put aside Jim’s teachings. Sort of like a Sunday morning Baptist. It was the drinking that got me in trouble.
David Wise and I were seeing each other at the time of this incident. secretly of course. (We later married.) Anyway, we had an argument about something, I got drunk and took of in the car. Of course, I was in an accident, and of course, I was arrested. While I was waiting to be hauled off to jail, I asked the tow truck driver to take my car to the church, approximately six blocks away. My mother bailed me out of jail, but that wasn’t the end of my punishment. She had brought several Temple counselors in the car with her, and they berated me for what I had done. The next time Jim was in town, I received a tongue-lashing from him as well. I remember crying, not because I was repentant, but because I was mad at his treatment. Later my mother told me how proud Father was of the humble way I took his chastisement. I thought, who cares how proud he is, I am not a child and do not deserve to be treated as one.
During my five years in Peoples Temple, I was sometime in and sometimes out. There were times that I believed that he was God – all knowing, all seeing and all powerful – and there were times I did not.
On one occasion, while working for the federal government, I was assigned to go to Indianapolis, Indiana to assist a disaster team there making loans to flooding victims. I made a written request for permission to go, but Jim denied it. Indianapolis was a racist town, he said, and he did not want me to be in that environment. Was that his real reason, or was he concerned that I would find out something about his past?
The next time my employer requested that I go on disaster duty, I went without seeking Jim’s approval. I did my guard duty at the Temple and told my relief that I had to go home to get something, and that I would be right back. I went home, packed and headed for the airport. As I pulled up in front of the door leading to the ticket counter, I spotted Tish Leroy guarding the entrance and a few Peoples Temple security personnel on each end of the ticket counter. I thought about leaving the airport, then said the hell with it, I am going on this detail. I walked through the airport lobby straight past Tish and up to the ticket counter. Tish approached me and said that my mother had had a heart attack and that Scott, my youngest son, had been in an accident. They had convinced the airport manager that there was an emergency, and he agreed to let them use his office and telephone. I was angry but – again – did not want to make a scene, so I went along with what I believed to be one big hoax. They called the Temple and got my mother on the phone. She had made a miraculous recovery, thanks to Father. And of course my son was fine again. thanks to you-know-who. My mother then put Jim on the phone, who told me what a great opportunity it was for me. He said he had some contacts in Detroit that he wanted me to get in touch with as soon as I arrived. I got the numbers of the Detroit contacts, but I did not call. It has always amazed me that this man had so much power, and that everyone did his bidding.
By this time, I had been made a counselor in the LA Temple. I was determined to find out what went on behind those closed doors until the wee hours of the morning, and becoming a counselor was one way to find out. I believe that the church made me a counselor so they could find out where David was. My husband had left the church at this time.
On one occasion, I had just returned to the LA Temple from hiding David at a motel, when Jim and his security asked me about David’s whereabouts. Even though I thought Jim was God – so how could I fool him? – I answered, No. I didn’t drop dead. Jim then asked me when I had seen him last, to which I answered, about three days ago. Still didn’t drop dead. That was just another bit of proof that I needed to tell myself to get out of there.
The straw that broke this camel’s back happened during a planning commission (PC) meeting in LA. A young woman was brought up on the floor accused of something, although now I can’t really remember just what it was. She was told to undress in front of PC members, and we were expected to ridicule her and her body. I felt her humiliation, as I am sure many others who were there did). How could a man who professed such love, so much compassion for people, do this to another human being?
Later during this same meeting, the PC took up the issue of David tapping Jim’s telephone David wasn’t there to take the abuse, so family members of the accused took the brunt of the attack. I remained silent – an absolute no-no. Someone turned to me and asked me what I thought about it. I decided to play dumb and asked, “Think about what?” “David tapping Father’s phone,” my antagonist said. “If he tapped Father’s phone,” I answered, “then I guess he was wrong.” Wrong answer. It was now my turn.
After taking the obligatory verbal abuse for so long, I started to cry. Jim asked why I was crying, and I told him I wanted out. He said that if I left, I would have to move at least 100 miles from any Peoples Temple. I replied that I had lived in LA almost all my life, and neither he nor anyone else could tell me that I had to move.
At that, he offered an alternative: Sign my children over to the church. I agreed, but only because I had a friend who was an attorney who had a friend who was a judge and could issue a court order giving the children’s fathers complete custody. The court order was issued the following Monday.
Jim’s last demand to assure my silence was that I put my fingerprints on a gun, which was provided by my uncle. After I held it, the gun was taken from me and placed in a bag. Again, I made sure to provide my attorney with this information.
After all of this, Jim wanted me to sit in on a PC meeting to decide on security measures for his personal quarters located in the three churches. I was not going to be placed in the position of knowing the particulars. I told him that since he thought we were all potential traitors, he should pick three individuals whose names would not be known to the whole PC, and that the individual he chose would pick an alternate. That was my last meeting.
Although I have shared some things that showed the bad side of Peoples Temple, I must admit that there were times I remember with fondness. It was a joy to see the buses roll into town. The fellowship with the members is something that will always stay with me.
Jim Jones probably started off with good intentions. Why would any white person want to take on the white establishment for black people, poor people and the dregs of society? Why did the man not live an opulent life style like other preachers? One could say that he did it in order to gain power and control over his people, but that’s not true. Daddy Grace and Father Divine had power and control but lived quite well. I do believe that power is a heady thing, and that after a while, it tends to corrupt. The fact that the man was on drugs certainly didn’t help matters. When I saw him in Guyana, it was so obvious that his drug abuse had dragged this once-dynamic speaker to the level of those he pulled from the streets.
After November 18, 1978, I was in a state of disbelief. I was mad at my mother. I was mad at my uncle. I wanted Jim Jones to be alive so I could kill him. Then I went through the guilt stage which I have not totally come out of. I have somehow managed to survive even though I wanted to die. I have somehow managed to live without drinking myself into a stupor every night. or at least every time I think too long about what happened almost 26 years ago. Yes, I still go through periods of self-pity, but I no longer hate Jim or my white former sisters and brothers of People Temple. My hope is that we will all find peace within ourselves. I do not go to church, but that is my choice and I cannot find fault with anyone who does.
The mother of a friend of mine was involved in a cult. During the time of her involvement, her husband wanted me to talk to her. I could not find the words. I believe that if you are a true believer and a seeker of a utopian life, you may be at risk for what we Peoples Temple survivors went through. I do not believe that you can stop anyone from joining a movement that has the potential for becoming dangerous.
I have always been a skeptic, so it was hard for me to be a true believer for any length of time. It is unfortunate that I attended that first meeting and that my skepticism did not kick in earlier. But I did attend and I was not skeptical soon enough, so I live with it. In spite of losing my whole family, I try to remember that the experience was not all bad. I am a lot more tolerant, a lot more caring, and a whole lot wiser. I go into old age alone, but not bitter and without placing blame on anyone.
(Nell Smart’s family – her mother, Kay Nelson; her four children, Tinetra Fain, Alfred Smart, Scott Smart, and Teri Smart; and her uncle, Jim McElvane – died in Jonestown. Nell Smart lives in Indianapolis. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)