Peoples Temple and Synanon – Modern Communities: The Role of Women

(This article is adapted from a paper which Laura Johnston Kohl delivered before the Communal Studies Association in October 2012.)

During the two decades from 1970 until 1990, I was a resident of the two modern residential communities of Peoples Temple and Synanon, both of them controversial and unique. I am the only one from either community who experienced them both. In this paper, I will compare and contrast the leadership styles of both, including the role of women. I will share the thoughts from my fellow survivors of Jonestown, and fellow ex-members of Synanon. In conclusion, I will share my own experience in the groups. I speak only for myself in this paper, since I know there is a wide range of reflection and opinion about almost every aspect of each group.

Peoples Temple was led by a charismatic preacher named Jim Jones, who was born in 1931, and who first took a job in the ministry as a student pastor in 1952. When he opened Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1956, he was 25 years old. For the next ten years, he fine-tuned his ministry, traveled to South America and lived in Brazil, and even visited Guyana. He worked in Indianapolis city government and began to enter the world of politics. His congregation was deeply committed to integration and justice, and while this was controversial, his congregation still should be considered as mainstream Protestant. Peoples Temple was admitted into the Disciples of Christ denomination in 1960.

Jim had two assistant pastors, Archie Ijames, a black man, and Jack Beam, who, like Jim, was white. The leadership was dynamic and interracial, which was unpopular and rare in the Midwest, and in other parts of our nation. Jim had married, and he and his wife had six adopted children of different races and one “homegrown” child, Stephan. The ministry was growing, but it seemed that Jim had set higher, more political and more weighty aspirations.

Jim had read about the safe sites to survive a nuclear war, including one in Ukiah and Redwood Valley in Northern California. While there were likely other reasons as well, this safe haven was the main one given for uprooting the church and about 80 of its members, and migrating across country in 1965.

California in the mid-1960s was primed for new movements. In Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, people were pushing the boundaries of old politics and exercising free speech more than ever. With the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, the decade of the 1960s was a tumultuous time. Many cities in California were leading the way in civil rights and demanding an end to the war in Vietnam, and leading the way in many arenas. The progressive movement had taken hold in California, and the foundation was laid even before Jim made his way to the West Coast.

At first, Jim’s efforts were limited to the Mendocino County area. He coordinated some of the Temple’s efforts with the Church of the Golden Rule community in Willits and the Edgar Cayce group, and made Peoples Temple a part of the communities of Ukiah and the more rural Redwood Valley. He taught high school at night, which also contributed to his veneer of normalcy in the small community. His children and the other children attended the local public schools, and the adults found jobs in local businesses. The group from Indiana included experts in running skilled nursing homes, in repairing machinery and heavy equipment, and in general office work. They were all hard-working, model employees.

Meanwhile, he was beginning to attract some of the progressives from the Bay Area. Attorneys, teachers, scholars, and the disenfranchised were drawn to him as his reputation as a progressive religious and social leader spread. The Peoples Temple community drew a diverse group of members, and word of mouth brought more each week. By the time I attended my first service in 1970, the congregation had grown to more than 400 each Sunday. Some traveled from distant cities each week, and more moved up to the Redwood Valley and Ukiah areas to be close to the center of the action. The community was fluid, and growing.

About 1973, Jim moved the Temple headquarters to San Francisco with many of his secretaries and other leaders. He began to consolidate his power by actively supporting local politicians and weighing in on political issues. He was well-known in the Bay Area as an advocate for justice and – eventually – as one who had clout. The community in Redwood Valley housed a lot of members, and handled many of the financial and organization responsibilities. Many of the original members stayed in Redwood Valley and Ukiah until they left for Guyana in 1977 and 1978.

By the mid-1970s, Jim had several thousand regulars in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Redwood Valley, and everywhere in between. Temple members would ride in the church’s fleet of buses between cities to attend services. In addition, thousands of people flocked to his Healing Services during his nationwide tours. Along the way, many boarded the buses and came back to California with him. Some of these people eventually ended up in Guyana, including a half dozen former members of Father Divine’s Peace Mission, in Philadelphia, who died on November 18, 1978, and one man, Odell Rhodes from Detroit, who survived.

Jim’s rising power, combined with rumors of abuse and financial fraud within Peoples Temple, led the news media to become curious about the group. Former members of the Temple talked about the reasons they left, and there was vocal opposition to Jim’s tactics inside the Temple and in the community. Jim began spending more time in damage control. But he still had power. He succeeded in getting a court seal on an arrest in Los Angeles, he squelched at least one newspaper series on the Temple, and other rumors floated that he stopped local law enforcement investigations into his activities. Finally, with publication of a critical magazine article he could not block, he accelerated the migration of Temple members to a community in a remote part of Guyana in South America and joined it himself in the summer of 1977. Jim stayed in Jonestown most of the time in 1977, and never left after the spring of 1978. This powerful and ego-driven man was displaced, from a position of prestige and authority in San Francisco, to the position of “leader” over a small group of hard-working and exhausted farm workers, seniors, and infants.

By November 1978, Peoples Temple had about 1,000 people living in Jonestown and Georgetown, Guyana. On November 18, 1978, Jim and his most devout followers were able to coerce 914 people to take their own lives and the lives of four others – Congressman Leo Ryan, and three newsmen – at a nearby jungle airstrip. His most dedicated followers were his female mistresses and secretaries. There were few men who had access to him in these days. None of the women or men was able to dissuade him from the tragic plans he had made. In fact, those who were with him in the bleakest of final hours believed as he did, that suicide was the only answer. Jim was desperate to claim the full legacy of the history of Peoples Temple, so much so that he refused to let anyone else take over the leadership role, or talk him out of his plan.

This is an admittedly abbreviated account of a complex and problematic history of Peoples Temple.

* * * * *


Charles E. Dederich started Synanon in 1958. As an alcoholic, he had participated with Alcoholics Anonymous and found that it left much to be desired. He opened his own drug and alcohol residential recovery facility in Santa Monica, California, so that both alcoholics and drug addicts could participate. Within a few years, many people joined to be part of the lively and dynamic community. Synanon continued to grow and buy additional properties around the country, including in Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York City, Marin County and San Francisco in California, and other locations. There continues to be a Synanon facility in Germany which recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary.

At the beginning, Synanon was run primarily to help drug and alcohol addicts stop using. It was a residential facility so that people would move in and establish a family and community in a clean, drug-free environment. Almost from the start, people who liked the idea of communal living flocked to the group. Just as AA assumes that an alcoholic will remain one for life, Synanon’s eventual position was that no one “graduated” but rather would always be an “addictive personality.” It was extremely successful over the years, with thousands of people coming through the doors and many of all ages leaving “clean and sober.” Others stayed, adhering to the “clean and sober” lifestyle. Many of the earliest residents went on to form other drug rehabilitation facilities around the country, using some of the same practices. My brother-in-law was one member who came in as a long-time drug addict, and left never to use drugs again.

The primary therapy, aside from hard work and taking responsibility for oneself, was “The Synanon Game.” In this setting, eight or ten members would sit in a circle and talk, cajole, confront, scream and break through barriers with others in that setting. The most heinous charges, and the most miniscule, were handled with the same sledgehammer approach. People learned to say their piece and defend themselves, or counter-attack. One of my Synanon friends says that he found his voice by being in all of those sessions where talking and communicating was actually possible. The Game cut through superficial issues, and we really got to know ourselves and each other. The two rules for the Synanon Game were: 1) no violence; and 2) no threat of physical violence.

A second, kinder Game was developed by Betty Dederich, Chuck’s first wife in Synanon. Even though she had come to Synanon as a drug addict herself, she was wise and intuitive enough to see the limits of that one Game. “Betty’s Game” developed where there was pressure to dig deeper into thoughts and reflections, but it wasn’t so much accusatory or confrontational as delving into difficult feelings and experiences. Betty’s influence on Chuck and on all of Synanon cannot be understated. She brought depth and nurturing into the community. She could not only take Chuck on, and win, but she could sway the whole community to be more gentle and aware.

Synanon was very controversial on many levels. It was a completely integrated community, which was rare in the 1950s and early 1960s. Although it was a sanctuary for addicts, it also drew many violent offenders. These offenders and addicts were challenged each day to make courageous choices to help themselves. They were taught from Day One that no one could do it for them. They had to admit to being an addict or “character disorder” to get in to Synanon and they would be reminded on a daily basis. In Synanon, there was a line drawn in the sand to divide the “character disorders” from the “life-stylers” or “squares.” This was a gray area, with some of the squares experimenting with drugs to the same extent as the “addicts” but just luckier – they weren’t busted, or they had rich parents who hired better lawyers. These “life-stylers,” who eventually made up more than half of the Synanon community, often just sought the communal lifestyle. But, the tone of Synanon always remained rough and scrappy, like Chuck Dederich himself. He was the model for the “tough love” policy seen in Alcoholics Anonymous.

The loudness and roughness of the Game scared some people off. Others of us liked the intimacy which always flowed. That was both a draw for people who wanted the excitement and edginess, and a detriment, since it got out of hand.

The basic tenet of Synanon in the early days was “Character is the only rank.” That resonated with all of us in Synanon. We were appreciated for our hard work, honesty, and character.

I cannot personally reflect on all the controversy surrounding Synanon, since much of it happened in the 1970s, while I was still in Peoples Temple. I do know that several people ended up in jail, that a lawyer was targeted, and that Synanon was charged with attacks on several neighbors who ran Synanon kids off the road while they were out bike-riding. In custody disputes between parents of children in Synanon, the issue of too-strict discipline surfaced. Synanon never allowed violence in the group against fellow members. But, Synanon folks would not be bullied, or back down to outside interference – from any source. Our reputation was that we would never be bullied. At times, we were too loose in responding to “perceived” bullying.

A perfect example of Synanon’s philosophy was the case of “The Beam.” In the late 1970s, a state-of-the-art kitchen was built on the Ranch Property in Point Reyes, in Marin County. Somehow, due to an architect’s error, there was a low-lying huge beam that went across the room at about 5’8” off the floor. When the architect and construction crew saw it – once it was securely in place – they opted to wrap a moving blanket around it so that no one would get hurt if they bumped their heads. Chuck, for one, was taller than 5’8”. When he came to inspect the building, all hell broke loose. He got in a Synanon Game and told all the architects and construction crew members to shave their heads. They did. Then, as the waves emanated from the first rock in the pond – those members’ assistants, and wives or husbands, shaved their heads. They had known about it too. And so it went. Eventually, everyone was bald in Synanon. Ultimately, everyone or nearly everyone had had some opportunity to say, “But the Emperor has no clothes!” No one called the architects on the idiocy. So all were culpable. As you will see later, that is the total opposite of the way issues were treated in Peoples Temple.

When I moved into Synanon, rebounding from the trauma of Jonestown, it was full of nurturing people who felt a kinship with me since I too had lived communally. They were willing to take me in. I was desperate to find a cocoon to hide in for a while. I wasn’t scared off by the controversial group. Like other communalists, I was drawn to it. I was beyond fearing for my safety. I’m not sure I wanted it in any case. Possibly I moved in because of the possibility of a second disaster.

During the ten years I lived in Synanon, from 1980-1990, it went through many changes. The community had taken a “vow of childlessness,” believing that it was taking care of the world’s children, that is, the young dope fiends who came through our doors. During the 1980s, many of the long-time residents had tired of the work involved in “curing” addicts. But the children who were already there were turning ten and older, and there were no young children. The “vow of childlessness” didn’t ring true anymore. Many couples successfully started playing the Game to end that policy. By 1988, Synanon had ceased the “childlessness” vow. That decision and many others no longer had any teeth. Many children were born and adopted over the next few years.

In 1977, Betty Dederich died of cancer. The whole community grieved, but Chuck was devastated. He went back to drinking, off and on. For part of that next decade, the community stopped many of the earlier practices. We started eating sugar, and drinking alcohol – at first just wine, and later hard liquor. We loosened the restrictions that had been so much a part of the Synanon lifestyle. We forgot for a bit what AA never forgets: “Once an addict, always an addict.” We found that untrue in some cases, but too true in others.

Other significant changes were taking place as well. The most fundamental belief that “Character is the only rank” was abandoned. The advertising branch of Synanon started making money and many people in the community wanted to share in the wealth. The prior policy of “WAM” or “Walking-around-money” was based on seniority. Although we had a rich lifestyle with our own food service and many other amenities, it was no longer enough. Now we had salesmen who brought in over a million dollars of advertising in one year. At first, Chuck and the Board of Directors gave out bonuses based on contributions different people made to the community. People who were valuable were rewarded. They wanted bonuses, and indeed, the whole community was eager to have wealth. The rich lifestyle, much like a Club Med vacation, was not enough anymore. People insisted on cash. From my point of view, that broke down the egalitarian structure of Synanon, and was a major cause of the systemic decline. When cash, diamonds, and other perks were given out, the belief that character was the most important quality a person could have was dissolved. “Value” became a personal opinion and some were more valuable than others, though their “character” seems above reproach. People who received additional money wanted more. Those who didn’t get much were dissatisfied. Divisions were forming in the communal environment.

In the 1980s, fewer people moved into Synanon, more people left, and the properties around the country were sold. The remaining residents congregated in Badger, California. While Chuck continued to battle with his own demons, other leaders and decision-makers in Synanon kept the organization afloat. Chuck’s genius in setting up Synanon couldn’t be duplicated. Unfortunately, maybe, the structures began to weaken. Not only was Chuck not available to lead, he was not available to challenge and advise the new leaders. That was an integral part of the Synanon most people loved. Leadership could be humbled upon occasion. In Synanon, an unwritten rule was that leadership SHOULD be humbled frequently. Chuck’s direction was much missed.

The two facilities – the Home Place where Chuck Dederich, his second Synanon wife, and their inner circle of about forty people lived in luxury; and the Strip where most of the three hundred remaining residents also lived a lavish lifestyle – closed. Synanon eventually lost its tax-exempt status, and the IRS moved in on Synanon and sold the facilities to collect back taxes.

This too is an abbreviated history of Synanon.

* * * * *

As part of my reflecting and organizing my own thoughts about the leadership styles of Jim Jones and Chuck Dederich, I contacted all the Peoples Temple survivors I know, as well as people who have done research about the events in some depth. I also contacted numerous Synanon friends. I asked them all the same generic question. I asked them who they thought of as “leadership” in each group.

I have to admit that my hypothesis stands. Both Jim Jones and Chuck Dederich were brilliant and charismatic. They pioneered new thoughts about communal living and made them happen. They inspired many people to be the best they could be, and each was unique and extraordinary for at least part of the time as the primary leader. Everyone agrees that both Jim and Chuck made all the decisions when they could. There was no disputing that.

In terms of the next level of leadership, the results were at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Peoples Temple survivors sent me their thoughts, and 90% of the names that came up as “leaders” or significant decision-makers were women. My Synanon friends sent me their thoughts. About 85% of the names mentioned as leaders were men.

It is an intriguing difference!

While I was in Peoples Temple, I felt that I was as free and as untethered as I wanted to be. I drove a greyhound-type bus, I counseled, and I did important things which did help others. I also saw that women had very important jobs, but saw on a daily basis that Jim was a micromanager. Nevertheless, Eva Pugh handled all of the Temple cash, and Helen Swinney ran all the communes, fairly and efficiently. I’ve come to understand that, even if they didn’t decide issues, women did make it run more smoothly. We were not just window dressing.

In Jonestown, which was the most extreme example of leadership in Peoples Temple, only the women secretaries and mistresses made any of the significant decisions. When Jim was incoherent, whether under the influence of his drugs or his mental illness, the cadre of women closest to him carried out his perceived wishes or made their own decisions. Period. Early on in the creation of Peoples Temple, Jim had weeded out his competition – other men. He was only comfortable with women, whom he easily dismissed. There were no men in the final group who were decision-makers. Jim did collect information from men, but he and his staff used that information to make their plan, including their final plan.

In Synanon, men headed almost all the departments. Decisions were always made with an eye on finances, so many of them were harsh. These male leaders were shifted around frequently so that they never got too comfortable working in one business, on one property, or in one department. Even though Chuck made the ultimate decision, department heads had the authority to run their departments like companies I have worked for outside these two communal groups. There was never the same freedom. Women in Chuck’s inner circle who lived on the same property as him anywhere he lived – a whole group of his “favorites” – had more power and were given leeway to break through a glass ceiling, but that was a minority. I think the majority of women in Synanon were given less authority in most areas. If you were extremely intelligent, extremely flirtatious, and knew how to use it to get an “old-timer” to share his power with you – or less often, if you were extremely good at something – you might get a boost up. Women had to prove themselves, over and over. Men just had to play The Game, or get into Chuck’s inner circle to have that same authority. I agree with the former members of Synanon who wrote me that women neither ran nor had much input on the running of the place.

There are exceptions to this observation, however. Chuck’s daughter was in a powerful position and had a voice. Betty Dederich certainly was an exception. There were others who moved in and out of positions of power. On the other hand, as individuals we had much more independence to make decisions that only affected us. There was no one controlling our every move. We had time to ourselves and time to follow our passions if they happened to be motorcycle riding, aerobics, cards, art, and many other choices. I did have a private life. Although I was not in leadership, I was able to make many parts of my life interesting and fulfilling.

At the end of the three decades that Synanon existed, Chuck was no longer making the decisions. In his stead were almost all men who had survived his abuse, and cajoling, and course-correcting done in the Synanon Game over the years. They had “earned” his respect and his collegial acceptance – and this group made the decisions. A few women had access or position to influence some of the decisions.

So much of what went on inside Peoples Temple was behind the scenes. The image portrayed was that it was everything that Jim said it was. There was a dark side that was kept hidden away, beneath the veneer of sanity that strangers and members all bought. In Synanon, I never saw Chuck kiss-up to anyone. If the truth was ugly, it stayed ugly. Synanon was authentic. Chuck had that particular quality – he trusted his own judgment. And, many times he was right on.

My life in each of the communities taught me so much. It is unbelievable really, that the two modern communities might look so similar from a distance, but had so many differences. I’m glad I survived Jonestown. I am glad I experienced Synanon. I am glad that my present and my future are up to me. I am my own leader and I am pretty authentic!

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)