Leaving Peoples Temple

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04-02b-batesThe decision to leave the Temple wasn’t hard, although when and how were both challenging. I didn’t feel safe discussing leaving, not even with my family or closest friends. The environment became immersed in paranoia to the point of not knowing who to trust. Friends that were once your closest confidants were no longer capable of safeguarding your plans. So I became more hidden with my inner feelings. I noticed that any comments that were not hyper-positive were interpreted as anti-Temple. There were a few of us that spoke our minds and agreed on the falsehoods, but we didn’t take it out of our small circle. We were young, under-aged, and in the custody of those who made decisions on our living arrangements, so we learned to play our hands close.

I had been living with the Bogue family and life in their home was a joy. It really was. It was only when I had to step outside of the home that things became unbearable. After Jim Bogue left for Jonestown I really didn’t want to live in Redwood Valley anymore, so I went back home to San Francisco. Once home I was hanging out with people who were not in the Temple and began to distance myself from it.

Toni James was my best friend, and one person I could confide in. I shared many of my concerns with her. She asked me once why I was so negative about the Temple and that Jim Jones had said that when you “imagine” negative things, you probably were wishing those things on others. I’ll never forget that, because I became angry and asked her why would I wish something bad about people I loved? She and I would talk about the films that were sent back from Jonestown, and I always said something wasn’t right. I didn’t like the way people looked. They looked like they were sunburned, all of them, whether they were black or white. My friend Willieater Thomas was very dark skinned, and even she looked sunburned to me. I remember telling this to Toni, and she said it was the “jungle” sun. I told her I didn’t care what sun it was, Willieater looked sunburned and the only explanation was that she was in the sun too long.

I had a problem with everybody having only good things to say about Jonestown. They always started with the food and how good it was. The air was “good”, the rain was “gentle”, and the work was “fun”. What? Get outta here! I might have fallen for it from someone else, but when I saw my friends lauding this nonsense, I had to step back. People I knew that never thought of work as “fun” were lying through their teeth, and I could tell.

What bothered me the most was that I never saw my sister, Darlene Ramey, in any of the films, and she never wrote to me. She had given birth there in the spring of 1978, but she never wrote mom or any other family members to discuss the birth. We were clueless. Every inquiry I made to anyone stateside, or by letter to Jonestown always omitted anything concerning Darlene. It was as if she vanished, and I told Toni. She agreed with the strangeness surrounding Darlene because she knew how close we were. Even Toni felt this was out of character for her.

* * * * *
The winter of 1976 I became pregnant at 17 years old to a young man who was a former member of the Temple. I saw it as a way to leave San Francisco and move in with family in Los Angeles. I was encouraged several times to go to Jonestown and give birth there, and each time I refused. After I had given birth, Toni and I moved in together in an apartment owned by the Temple. I lived across the hall from Mary Pearl Willis, and she fell in love with my baby. She used to come by and play with her, and I let her take her places with her daughter Brenda. She used to tell me not to go to Jonestown and take my baby away from her, which is why I was shocked that she had gone to Jonestown later. She never gave me the impression that she wanted to go live there.

Living on our own was new and I took Toni on a lot of excursions away from the Temple. We’d often skip services to go to a movie or out to a restaurant. We bought records and listened to a lot of music. One of the counselors finally called Toni in and told her I was a bad influence on her and she needed to stop “socializing” with me so much. Really? How can you not be social with your roommate?

Toni and I had gotten our passports and were told we were going to Jonestown in August 1978. Our trunks and duffel bags were packed, and we were ready to go. I don’t remember how the conversation began, but we started talking about what would happen if we didn’t leave at the same time. I just had a gut feeling that something was going to change our itineraries. I told Toni that if that were to happen, whoever went first would have to warn the other if things weren’t right over there. We knew mail was probably censored, so we agreed to come up with a secret phrase. We would write this sentence directly on the center of the page, “I know I should have gotten married before I got here.” It was a joke between some of us younger people that if you wanted a spouse, you’d better bring one because it seemed as though all of our friends were married once they got there. We promised we would not let the other come into a dangerous environment.

Just as I thought, about a month later we were in bed about 5:00 a.m. when there was a knock on the door. Toni got up to answer the door and two counselors were there with Jim McElvane. They told her to step outside to talk with them and when she came back she looked sad. She said she was leaving that day for Jonestown. I was more ticked than surprised. I felt it was totally inappropriate to wake someone up the morning of leaving and spring that on them. She was told not to tell anyone, but of course she told me. Her little sister was at our place because she had come to spend the weekend with us, so I woke her and told her Toni was leaving and she wasn’t telling anyone. I remember pleading with Toni to call her grandmother who had raised her. I know I made her feel guilty, but I was mad. Her sister called their grandmother and all hell broke loose. Toni’s family called the Temple counselors and gave them a piece of their mind. The counselors came back and berated Toni for calling, and told her it was her fault that this chaos ensued, and if she had listened to them none of this would have happened. I remember asking why her family had no right to know, but didn’t get an answer.

Toni’s grandmother gave her some harsh words over the phone and hung up on her. I can still see her expression as she replaced the phone receiver; sad, scared, and broken. After about 30 minutes her grandmother called back and apologized. She said she was hurt, but wanted to take her words back because she didn’t want Toni to remember her last words being harsh. Toni said, “I’ll see you again grandmother”, and she answered, “Yes you will, but not in this life. If you go to Jonestown, I’ll never see you alive again.” Toni cried and told her she would, but her grandmother never retracted her statement. She told her to come by and get some money to buy the things she needed, but Toni said she didn’t have a ride. I hollered that I would get her a ride, but she refused.

I can’t remember crying as hard as I cried the day Toni left. The counselors told me I was going to see her in two weeks and not be sad, but I really felt like I was saying goodbye. The following two weeks were hard because I missed my friend. Toni arrived in Guyana in June 1978. Her first letters were just like everyone else’s, but she made a point to say that she was really telling the truth. She even talked about things she didn’t like. I was still skeptical because she was in Georgetown, and I was waiting to hear what Jonestown was like.

The night before I was to leave, I went to spend the night with my family. They were saying I shouldn’t go and the whole evening I was hiding my inner feelings of doom. I went to bed and was awakened by what I thought was a dream. In this dream I was in Jonestown, but my baby was home in the States with my family. I remember seeing my sister and Toni and how happy I was to see them again. They asked me if I wanted to play a game of volleyball with our friends and I said yes. We were laughing and playing like we used to all afternoon and when the evening began to approach, a long, loud horn blast went off. Toni, Darlene, and all of our friends froze, then turned to the left and walked away. I waved goodbye and turned to walk to the right. There were faceless guards that appeared out of nowhere and pointed a rifle at me. One asked me where I thought I was going, and I calmly replied, “I never meant to come here, I left my baby at home and I need to get back”. He laughed and told me I wasn’t going anywhere. I started screaming “I didn’t mean to come here” over and over again. I was forced into the center of a ring of dogs and if I stepped away from the center the dogs would charge me viciously. I can still feel the panic and terror as I screamed “I never meant to come here”. I awoke with chills and called Toni’s grandmother. She told me that it was not just a dream, but that God had given me a vision, and if I went to Jonestown I was a fool.

My brother and his girlfriend took me back to my apartment where I grabbed the things I needed and threw the rest out of the third story window into a dumpster below. While I was frantically clearing out my room Jim McElvane suddenly knocked on the door and asked if I was ok. I said yes, and that I was getting the things I wanted to leave at my dad’s place and that I’d be right back. He said we were leaving that evening from LAX to meet a group in San Francisco and travel to the east coast from there. I smiled and pretended I couldn’t wait. I said I left my baby at my dad’s and that I’d be back with her. He gave me a check-in time and left. I finished by grabbing anything that had the addresses of my family members on it and left without looking back. My mind was made up, I wasn’t going to Jonestown.

I hid with some family members and begged Toni’s sister not to tell anyone where I was. She was the only Temple person who knew where I was. She called frequently to let me know how she was being grilled about my whereabouts. I remember begging her, “just let them leave without me, and you won’t have to cover for me anymore.”. I’ve always felt bad about the danger I could have caused her, but I never regretted my decision to leave. The heat finally went down after a couple of weeks, and I stopped being afraid. I still hid out because I wanted to protect my baby, but my mind was made up: I was never going back.

Toni sent a letter to my father’s house for me where she said she had made it to Jonestown. She gave an update on our friends, and right in the center of the page she wrote boldly, “I know I should have gotten married before I got here!” I literally got chills. I called her family, who immediately tried to intervene and were actively working to have her returned home up until the day of the tragedy.

There are so many things I could say about the events that led to my decision to leave the Temple and the events that happened after I left, and I pray one day I can express them. There are so many others with stories not too different from mine. I struggled many years with guilt, always feeling as though I didn’t fight hard enough to stop them from leaving. I’m finding peace day by day with the decisions we made decades ago, and pray that others will also.

(Glenda Randolph Bates was the sister of Darlene Ramey, who died in Jonestown. She had a Doctorate in Theology, and passionately preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. Glenda was also a board certified lactation consultant. Her numerous articles for this site appear here. She died on March 29, 2022 from pancreatic cancer.)