Update on And Then They Were Gone

by Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral

The finalized manuscript of our book, And Then They Were Gone: Children of Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Jonestown, is awaiting a response from a respected Berkeley publisher, and we are hopeful. In the near future, this website will upload an edited and updated version of the Chronology of Events (formerly Timeline), as well as “Selections from And Then They Were Gone” with three sample chapters attached. Below is a brief explanation of how the book began and how it has changed, and the excerpt from Chapter 12:

Background

As teachers at San Francisco’s Opportunity II, a small (300) public alternative school, we came to know Peoples Temple students when Jim Jones sent the high school-age Temple members there in 1976.  Within nine months, most of those we knew had left for Jonestown. The book follows the fourteen students from the Temple that we knew best from San Francisco to Jonestown.

Over the last 36 years. Ron and I have other thought about our students from the Temple, especially every November 18. On that day in 1978, more than 900 Americans – many of them from California – died in what popular culture now refers to as the Jonestown murder-suicides. While its initial distinction as the largest loss of American civilian life in a single day was supplanted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the day remains the only time in history in which a sitting U.S. Congressman was killed in the line of duty. Even today, most people are familiar only the ugly and misleading phrase “drinking the Kool-aid.” Most don’t realize that the cyanide-laced drink was squirted into children’s mouths first, beginning with infants and toddlers. No one can say how many of the frightened, tired and despairing residents of Jonestown drank willingly and how many were injected forcibly. Many don’t realize that those who died in Jonestown were surrounded by guards with weapons. Most dismiss the deaths as a result of misguided fanaticism. And of those who do know of the event, many don’t want to be reminded of it.

What began as an homage to a group of intelligent and likeable youngsters we knew from Peoples Temple has come to be a journey of understanding much more, and at a deeper level, about our Temple students’ lives, both in San Francisco and in Jonestown. The story of youthful energy and idealism exploited by despots and charlatans, of the young being the first to be sacrificed to a questionable cause, is sadly an old one that keeps repeating. But what has emerged from this particular tragedy is a recurrent theme of rebellion. For example, the San Francisco section of the book (chapters 1 – 9) tells a story we didn’t know until recently, when two of our non-Temple students told us that at least two Temple students had broken Jones’ strict decree of non-fraternization with our “old” students at Opportunity. As teenagers will do, they fell in love against the rules. The second half of the book contains stories from Jonestown, collected through research and interviews. Stephan Jones, Jim and Marceline Jones’ only biological child, and a survivor, has been especially helpful to us in getting the Jonestown part of the story right.

(In the excerpt that follows, the “I” narrating the story refers to Judy.)

Guyana
Chapter 12: Entering the Jungle
March through June, 1977

Welcome to Guyana

The next part of this story takes us to a place I’ve never been, except in my imagination while reading about Guyana and Jonestown, but which still figures in my dreams and nightmares. My dream jungle – since November 18, 1978 – is peopled by my former students.

The jungle is an ancient symbol – in dream interpretation, in artists’ paintings, in literature, in common parlance – both for the beauty of wildness and for a tangle, a ruthless situation, the unknown, or the wild within. Long before I knew how the jungle would come to figure in my life, I always hung one of Henri Rousseau’s jungle prints on my classroom wall. In Jonestown both the literal and figurative jungles were much less benign.

Near Jonestown the actual jungle, or bush, is a triple-canopy rainforest. Guyana is a small country tucked between Venezuela’s shoulder and the tiny nation of Suriname, with Brazil on its ragged southern border. It is home to wild banana trees, palms, Brazil nut, guava, balsa wood, and, in its deep rainforest, giant mahogany. Tree branches are draped with lianas; mosses, ferns, and orchids grow in damper, wilder places. In some ponds and lakes float water lilies with pads big enough to support a child.

In my more romantic, less realistic version of life in Jonestown, I imagined Joyce [Brown] spotting birds like the blue-backed grass-bird, the Guyana redbreast, toucans, the bright orange Cock-of-the-rock, a flock of “Curri-Curri” (Scarlet Ibis) in flight – said to be a beautiful sight.

“The Scarlet Ibis” is a story much beloved by my students over many years. Joyce probably read it in my class – how I wish I could remember for sure! The story has so many parallels to the Jonestown story: themes of love, pride, cruelty; a plot that revolves around the complex ties between two young brothers. The setting is “Old Woman Swamp”; and in the tragic ending, a child dies. At bottom, though, the story is not about the older brother’s cruelty and guilt; it is about his courage in acknowledging his own prideful behavior, and his part in his brother’s death. The depth and beauty of the tale, told in his own voice, is an expression of both love and sorrow.

“The Scarlet Ibis” brings to mind Joyce’s poem about birds and rain and trees, but not just for those points alone. Once I understood the reality of life in Jonestown, I knew she must have suffered there in seeing others suffer. She was that kind of person.

O trade wind, when the kind breeze blows,
As the rain tingles on the roof of the tropic island
Birds fly to their nests in the trees,
Little creatures hiding from the small rain.

Joyce, I’m sure, sought out beautiful things in Guyana: African violets, gentians, yellow-eyed grass, bright pink and purple bromeliads, passionflower. But deadly nightshade grew in the bush as well. Temple member Eugene Smith spoke of poisonous plants, snakes that bite, bees that sting multiple times. He said it was nighttime all day in the jungle. And Jones created a figurative jungle as well, turning the bush into ominous, impenetrable prison walls.

When I think of Joyce, I remember her strength of character. How I wish I could have been a fly on a Jonestown wall to assure myself that this strength stood her in good stead. I want so badly to believe the literature she loved – powerful stories and poems that helped define humanity, alongside her own self-expression – helped her endure the jungle she found herself in….

(Judy Bebelaar can be reached at judy@judybebelaar.com. Ron Cabral can be reached at larbac67@astound.net.)

Originally posted on October 10th, 2014.

Last modified on October 20th, 2014.
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