One problem with making a telephone call to Peoples Temple during the 1970s was the likelihood that someone at the other end would be recording it. And, of course, one problem with having a tape recording in existence is that you have no idea when and where it might pop up. All of which means I shouldn’t have been surprised when Fielding McGehee, the principal transcriber of Jonestown tapes on this site, told me that a conversation involving someone with my first name had popped up in the collection of a thousand tapes which the FBI recovered from Jonestown. At the time – almost 40 years ago now – when the recording was made, I was too much of a basket case, trying to survive one of the most painful periods of my life, to care.
The FBI had misspelled my first name as “Gary.” Adding to the confusion around the identity of the male in the conversation, the voice didn’t sound like mine. Nevertheless, I recalled it, however reluctantly, as a desperate reach for help, though I hadn’t thought about this late evening phone call which I made from a dark, almost empty house for multiple decades.
Accordingly I assured Fielding that his suspicions were correct: that I was that misspelled, fucked-up “Gary,” uncharacteristically without affect at one of the worst moments of my life, begging for readmission to purgatory from hell.
I had been on the outside for two years in a tempestuous ménage a trois involving Gerry Masteller, my best friend from childhood, and Teresa King, who had already found her refuge and last best hope in Jim Jones and Peoples Temple which she had learned about from me. I was miserable, feeling deserted by both my mates, lost in a swamp of fear and self-hatred evident in the tape despite the garbled words and phrases.
The question of my own threat of suicide, which I seem to express on the tape, is moot. I felt I was dying by vibrational distance from incarnate deity, Jim Jones, God=Socialism, the only coherent reflection of sanity in our globe-dominating culture. I thought I had seen and understood too much of the “truth” he expounded to deny him and all that I believed he represented. My punishment therefore was the very distance that I had created in order to satisfy my own deadly need for pleasure. In such a state I couldn’t sleep – not even with the help of illegal substances provided by a chemist friend. And so I felt almost exhausted to death. There remain a few photos of my face during that spring. Psychosomatic pustules, exacerbated by bloodshot eyes, bloated it into a picture of insanity. This kind of self-torture could only be remedied by a return to the laboratory of “socialism” in a renewed attempt to sacrifice what little cohesion was left to my miserable sense of “self.” Thus in the context of a mental/emotional world where I barely survived, this phone call to the Temple constituted not so much a threat of suicide, however that might have been manipulatively implied by a desperate me, as a plea for help before it was too late, before I had been sucked down into the whirlpool of a disintegrating identity.
This is a very painful episode to relive, but it is therapeutic – not masochistic – to do so. For the historical record it illustrates how negotiations were conducted with at least one potential traitor during a period of escalating fear towards all those outside the Temple community, ignited a year and a half earlier by Lester Kinsolving’s vicious and – even in retrospect – unfair exposé in the San Francisco Examiner.
The other person in the tape – the voice on the Temple’s end of the line – is, of course, Karen Layton, a spirited woman whom I always respected. She was the person whom I had phoned when I’d left Peoples Temple on the previous occasion 18 months earlier. At that time, she’d zigzagged between self-righteous lecture and intellectual seduction – neither of which worked. Full disclosure: readers need to know that I was the organization’s perennial black sheep, who had left several times before but had invariably continued to spread the Gospel, bringing back with me each time at least one new convert.
Though I can understand that someone who was not “there” – in that very complicated, potentially difficult and perceived as “dangerous” context – might regard the part played by Karen as high-handed, inconsiderate and/or manipulative, the truth is that she was navigating very treacherous waters, thinking she knew my fundamental reason for calling but needing to be certain in her conclusions before she reported back to Jones. She certainly didn’t want to risk the tongue-lashing she’d received from him when she let me depart without a more serious attempt to keep me within the fold than she had made on the previous occasion. In retrospect, I don’t envy the situation in which she found herself. She must have suspected that I didn’t really want to come back to the spartan drudgery of Peoples Temple. In my own mind I was coming back simply because of the gravitational pull of the nature of reality.
As I hear Karen speak clearly through the 37 years that have passed, I find it typically remarkable of PT folk that she was able to listen with such sensitivity and be able to respond, however carefully, with genuine compassion. It must be remembered that we spoke a common language, shared the same worldview. When she spoke of the imminence of the end times, she was speaking to one who already understood and accepted Jim’s prediction that those of us who survived his death and the destruction of the community would probably not survive subsequent nuclear war, and that therefore we would have to be reborn 1000 generations back in time and trace the tortured history of humanity in order to have the opportunity once again to serve God+Socialism. I certainly didn’t want to be one of those benighted folk who had to go all the way back to the beginning of Kali Yuga in 26,000 BCE or to its equivalent in the post-nuclear future, a fate worse than death that supposedly awaited those of us who weren’t able to sacrifice enough to graduate from this degraded earth plane, one of the densest in existence, at least according to our would-be master teacher.
Karen’s voice, originating at the end of the line where the conversation was being taped, comes in clear and coherent, sometimes hesitant, but always with an underlying confidence. It’s a pity that mine, vacillating from the far end, reduced by trauma and grief to glorified and imponderable whispering, isn’t nearly as audible and for extended moments seems an echo chamber of silence. It frustrates me that I can’t reconstruct most of what’s lost but I can continue to be grateful that thanks to the marvelous support structure that Peoples Temple at its best provided I was finally able to find healing and restore discipline to my life, so that when I did depart for the last time, it was as a relatively whole and reinvigorated human being.
(Garrett Lambrev is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this edition are Pilgrimage Through Richmond and Lynn to Crete, Joe Phillips: A Reflection, and Youth Theatre Makes Peoples Temple Breathe Again. His previous writings may be found here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .)