It wasn’t until 2007 that I entertained the idea that my own current personal reality may be in an extreme way, influenced by the belief system under which I developed as a child, and teenager. The perpetual climate of fear, doom and gloom in my early formative years in Peoples Temple and its eventual tragic ending when I was 21 has reverberated in ways that I have only now begun to understand.
When I joined PT at the age of 12, I quickly learned that the biggest threat to us and to society was a nuclear bomb. For the next five years it was drummed into our brains that nuclear war was inevitable, and that – whatever day the bomb dropped – it would happen at 3:09am. Preparedness among other things meant eating mass quantities of dry roasted soybeans which were to protect us from radioactive fall-out.
By the time I was 18 and living in the SF Temple, the focus of fear was on a different sort of catastrophe. It was the seventies, and the global political scene was hot. As Jim Jones reminded us almost every week, the Chilean military coup had overthrown the democratically-elected socialist president Salvador Allende. We needed to become evermore cautious, vigilant and most importantly, dedicated to the “cause”. Why? Because as a nation, we were headed in the same direction as Chile, a rapidly advancing fascist military dictatorship. Working class folks and minorities would be rounded up and put in concentration camps like the Jews in Nazi Germany and Americans of Japanese descent in this country had been a generation earlier. Groups like ours would not be immune to the oppression but – to the contrary – would be targeted. I remember Temple meetings when we watch footage of Auschwitz; shocking scenes of people stripped naked – some of them not much more than skin and bones – headed for showers that emitted deadly gas rather than water. Then came the scenes of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves.
The repetition and emphasis of these things in lengthy meetings registered loud and clear within my being, branded into my core. What were we to do as individuals? How would we best face the enormity of what was coming and already beginning to happen? For me it meant that I accept in full measure and most profoundly that my own personal value existed only to the extent to which I could be of service to the “cause”. It required the total immersion of my emotion, energy and creativity towards the honorable deed of hard work. It demanded the relinquishment of personal hopes, dreams and desires because they were unrealistic, futile and – worst of all – selfish. It was not only our own survival that depended on it, but it was a way of honoring all people who had and were suffering from injustices all around the globe.
We took a militant stance. Our bright blue choir dresses from the Redwood Valley days changed to long black skirts and red blouses. Men wore black and militant looking berets. Our hands, once raised in praise, turned to fists raised with revolutionary fervor. We took turns with round-the-clock security shifts at all entry points and fire escapes. What with all of our activities, long meetings into the wee hours of the night and security shifts we were always exhausted.
Our education in revolutionary fervor included movies like “Z” and The Battle of Algiers, and footage on the Soviet Revolution of 1917 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959. We had a reading list that included Das Kapital and Glass House, and writings on Joe Hill and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. We were told that wiretaps and monitoring devices were everywhere; if we had anything important to say, we should write it down rather that speak it.
Torture was spoken of often. Jim would tell us that revolutionaries are often tortured. I can hear his words, his voice as if it was spoken yesterday: “They will come after you. You cannot live these ideals without eventually being destroyed. They will torture you, but you mustn’t talk. Give no information. Before too long, you will pass out from the pain and then not feel anything. You will not have spoken. You will not have given them anything.”
To show support for our ideals and strength in numbers, we wrote letters to government officials. We marched around the International Hotel in San Francisco in defense of senior citizen residents threatened with eviction when the owners decided to sell the hotel. We demonstrated in defense of the “Fresno Four,” newsmen who were jailed for refusing to reveal their sources, at the courthouse in Fresno, California.
Members who were caught being frivolous, lazy, or acting “selfish” were embarrassed by verbal chastisement during open meetings. Some were given painful whacks or made to box with another person. Other punishments included procuring money on the street and extra work duties.
Because of what we were being told and shown, we were in a state of perpetual readiness to defend our ideals and principles of racial and gender equality, working class pride, humanitarianism and social justice for all. I still believe these to be worthy ideals, yet as I look back in retrospective and thoughtful analysis, I also believe the price of this for me and other young people was enormous. It was enormous because while the principles are noble and good in their own right, the circumstances under which we were to exist and promote them, were ironically repressive and destructive to my already undeveloped and diminished sense of self as a human creature and my own personal sense or worthiness apart from anything else. It meant living with a cognitive dissonance between the wee small voice within and the power in control over me. Being so unacknowledged as an individual at such a fundamental level, while so young and formative, resulted in a certain amount of detriment to my experience of the world in general. Even now as I attempt to try and figure out which of my behaviors are a post traumatic response, and which are real and viable concerns of living in our present time, I am handicapped by a lack of skills that most people learn as teenagers and young adults. Yet, because it required so much of me while I was so young, and because of the intensity of it all, including the tragic end, I believe there has been a sort of “stretching” of the psyche, so to speak, which has served to develop particular sensitivities, abilities and instincts that would not have come otherwise.
Indeed I acknowledge the gifts that come out of scorching experiences such as this one. What are they? For me one gift has been insight into the complexities of life and the ability to view complex and even painful situations as a process out of which something new is trying to emerge. Humans are in an infancy stage as a species. The evolutionary process of the natural world has never been neat and pretty, and everything is part of it, including the way we humans live in groups. I believe if we can grasp the myriad of social and psychological dynamics which were at play in the Peoples Temple, we are given insight into the frailties as well as the strengths of the human in general. Many of the same dynamics have been – and still are – at play in larger scale when we look at some of the roles of leaders in modern societies. Consider the dilemma they face as flawed human beings from whom we demand profound, far-reaching, even superhuman guidance. We as a society condemn the Peoples Temple leadership that sent its members off to die in a Guyanese jungle, but what’s the difference between that leadership and one which sends youth brimming over with gallant idealism off to die in war in a place they know nothing about? Will we continue to look the Peoples Temple tragedy as a different sort of event, or can we see the ways in which it is reflective of the larger macrocosm of the human story up to the present time? Will we learn how it is reflective of our level of competency of living together on a larger scale? Will the lessons learned help us on our journey to be masterful in the way of healthy living in groups and societies?
The second gift this experience has given me is the gift of compassion. Compassion is the ultimate pain reliever, because whether you are happy or sad, you can still be content. Feeling compassion allows me to cope with conflict and difficult issues, because I know when I feel compassion, I can drop guilt, blame, shame and anger, all serious snags that prevent us from continuing to grow into our potential. I don’t really know how it has happened, but the experience of being in Peoples Temple and the loss of my sisters Diane and Cynthia, my nephews Dov and Jamal, and hundreds of others I was close to, has given me compassion towards myself and others, including those I don’t particularly like or agree with. Why? Because we are all one and the same, each of us reflecting a different dimension or angle of where we are on the journey.
(Jordan Vilchez is a former member of Peoples Temple who was living in Georgetown, Guyana on November 18, 1978. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)