A World Unto Itself: Life in the States after Jim Jones Moved to Guyana

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As Jim and more people left for Guyana, the Temple activities changed considerably. For those in San Francisco, meetings continued but were short and sparsely attended: listening to tapes of Jim, testimonies and offerings. Behind the scenes, those left were still arranging for people to go, which meant outfitting people with what to take, building wooden trunks, moving out of and cleaning apartments.

Each person gathered and packed their things in their trunk. As well, each would take a duffel bag with items requested by Jonestown. People leaving were bussed to leave from various locations – supposedly to not attract attention, but probably because fares were cheaper from the East Coast.

The every-other-weekend bus trips to LA services had stopped late in 1976, as the Temple was winding down its outreach, though Jim or Marcie held some services there until Jim left for Guyana in June 1977.

Redwood Valley/Ukiah had been scaled down earlier when the Temple’s center moved to San Francisco. Once Jim moved to Guyana, those of us in Redwood Valley became even fewer: several care facilities and the Ranch were still operating. Alice Inghram was one who stayed in Redwood Valley, to run and then close down facilities, finally going down to Jonestown in May 1978. By November 1978, only the Ranch was still running.

I was still teaching in Ukiah and by then living and working part-time at the Ranch. Spirits were high; we were all expecting to go to Guyana in due course. None of us went to San Francisco for meetings, nor did we have meetings in Redwood Valley. I can’t speak for others, but I know I was relieved not to have services, not to have security, not to have to ride busses, not to have Planning Commission meetings – with Jim Jones far away, not to be under a constant scrutiny nor ridiculed by reminders of guilt at not doing enough.

Life had become much simpler. We were still held together because we all shared a desire to build a better world; Guyana represented that. What we didn’t know was that Jim Jones, in Guyana, sick, on drugs and paranoid of the world, would lose touch with the life he had inspired us all to build and that his unchallenged authority would eventually destroy our community.

* * * * *

I had spent two summers in Guyana. The first summer, 1974, there was only a handful of people there as we prepared things for the arrival of our boat, the Cudjoe, and the first settlers, for a total of about 18 people. Clearing and construction were underway. My second summer, 1976, there were about 40 people. There were a number of buildings, clearing more land was underway, chickens were being raised, plants and trees were being planted and more. We were setting up a school program for our children there.

For me, those Guyana summers held a very strong sense of camaraderie and cooperation. We were working to build a community we all believed in. Life in a jungle was a contrast to the hustle-bustle of Temple life in the states where we had no time to appreciate our community. To me, the cooperation and work of a small group of people in the natural beauty of the rain forest were a welcome beginning of a reality we wanted to build. I could see what we were building!

Similarly, after Jim went to Guyana in 1977, the routine at the Ranch, no services or endless meetings, etc., were also a welcome change. I felt that same sense of camaraderie I had felt in 1976 in Jonestown. Like a respite we all deserved, there was finally time to appreciate it all.

The Ranch was busy with its activities and became a world unto itself. We worked with the clients in transporting them to activities, caring for their needs and teaching independent living skills. For Jonestown we recorded tapes of movies from TV. We bought and packed materials, including educational supplies, to send to Jonestown.

I was still teaching in Ukiah in a bilingual program I helped set up. As well, I was attending Sonoma State University twice a week for classes required for my teaching. As a result, I had a life apart from the Temple – even though I was still ready to go to Guyana, to what I had known over the summers I had been there. We were all in a holding pattern of sorts waiting to join our children and friends.

* * * * *

When November 18th came, those of us left in the US were as surprised, bewildered and devastated as the general public. Whatever we had heard of “White Nights,” no one believed it would actually happen. The days after were a great confusion for us all. The clients were taken from the Ranch. The Secret Service interviewed us all in San Francisco. The press had the first lists of those reported dead, but would only give it to us if they could film us as we read them. We refused, as did the Concerned Relatives (we found out 25 years later).

We dissolved the Temple Corporation in California. I found I was on the Board of Directors of the Temple Corporation in California. As a director, I got a bill from the US Government for more than $4.3 million for removing the bodies from Guyana. Attorney Charles Garry, who helped us all afterwards, let me know I was being informed as a Corporate Director and didn’t have to pay personally; I was relieved.

As Temple economic affairs were being sorted out, we were allowed to stay on at the Ranch until it was sold in April 1979, though the clients never returned. I was in a sort of daze – I think we all were – trying to make sense of something nonsensical. I was more fortunate than others, in that I had a job and found support in the Ukiah community. The rest who were at the Ranch left the area going their separate ways. Though the San Francisco community offered counseling, in reality no one knew what to do or say to us. My family was supportive, but in many ways they were as confused about it all as I was.

Some couples emerged from the survivors and continued through the years. Little by little we all found ways and places to continue on – some coping better than others. Though I divorced in 1982, my ex and I spoke daily on the phone for more than five years.

I would say we had been made distrustful of the world we were returning to, which, actually, wasn’t overly welcoming. Most of the books and even two movies that emerged soon after, were crude portrayals, pandering to the horror of an ending, memorialized by the media for 30+ years now. Later, several books, though, were well researched and documented.

It wasn’t until Leigh Fondakowski undertook her play, The People’s Temple, some 20 years after, based on survivor interviews, that we began to talk about the Temple experience. When the play came out, many survivors came together for the first time in 25 years. No one wanted to start Peoples Temple anew; but like it or not, we had a common bond of an excruciating experience and we still had a common belief in a better world.

Coming to terms with what happened has been a continuing process. I have been helped partly through the Jonestown Institute website which offers a way to connect, read and write about Peoples Temple. Even more healing for me are the yearly gatherings that have emerged, where survivors and friends come together, talk, and share experiences.

Thirty years later, I have been able to answer the question I was left with from November 1978: How could something that seemed so real and good have turned out so bad? In connecting to survivors again, I have come to realize that the good I found in Peoples Temple was real and that it came from the good we all brought to it – and I find it still in those who have survived.

(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.)