Life Lessons With Peoples Temple

by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

for K.M.

This is the place, I think, looking out the Greyhound window at the hills and valleys and late afternoon light that’s too beautiful not to look at. I’m in northern California, wine country, Peoples Temple country, but even if I hadn’t been researching Peoples Temple for the past year, this would be the place. It’s everyone’s kind of place. Across the aisle, a guy my age is talking on his phone, saying, “Almost in Ukiah,” and, “Fucking beautiful.” Another guy is filming. My heart keeps doing freaky, flippy things. If it’s possible to believe in heaven on earth, this is probably the exact place for it.

I’m the only female on the bus and the only soul to get off in Ukiah. The Greyhound station is just a bench outside an airfield on a road where no one is walking. This is what scares me most about America, and traveling alone in general: the wide stretches of road without pedestrians. I ask the driver if this is the road where my motel is and he says yes, asks if I want to be driven the extra mile, says it’s probably a nice walk. I’ve been on my ass all day. I thank him and watch the Greyhound pull away.

Greyhounds always make me think of Peoples Temple, the fleet of buses Reverend Jim Jones acquired for transporting his loyal Redwood Valley flock to services in other cities. Then again, everything makes me think of Peoples Temple these days. This trip is about indulging that, total immersion. I am a very long way from home.

A woman shouts something abrasive at me from a car—“Slut!” or maybe “Cunt!” Otherwise, the walk is peaceful. I perk up when I see the Quality Inn sign, because my bags are heavy and I’m feeling generally gross by this point. The receptionist seems pleased to see another person, gives me a map and the details of a bike place that won’t open until Monday, keys to a room big enough to sleep four people, or maybe eight if this was a Peoples Temple commune. Outside, there’s an ice dispenser, a vending machine full of American soda, a vast parking lot, a scummy swimming pool. I feel like I’m in a Lana Del Rey song. I feel blessed to be in this place.

~

My first morning in Ukiah, the weather is warm so I wear a dress. I wear my hair loose. I wear lipstick. It takes maybe half an hour to walk from my motel into town, and in that time I am catcalled, offered a lift in a pickup, and accosted by a guy who wants to know how old I am, if I have a boyfriend, where my boyfriend is. “Home,” I say, not mentioning that ‘home’ is a fourteen-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean. I’m a city girl, accustomed to the anonymity of crowded footpaths, and am unnerved to be so conspicuous here. But the hills are still golden and lovely, and the street names seem like allusions: Jones, Church, Redwood.

I buy a bag of cherries. I go to the library. The librarian is unimpressed when I tell him I’m researching Peoples Temple, but shows me how to scour the local news archives. At the computer, I eat cherries and marvel over how it all escalates: from innocent ads for church services to stories of Jones’ local heroics to scandal to jungle exodus to mass suicide, Kool-Aid, conspiracy. I try to imagine reading these things in the context of the ’60s and ’70s. As I’m reading, a woman with bad teeth gets caught stealing toilet rolls and is banished from the library forever. A middle-aged stoner comes up to me and asks what I’m reading. I show him Jim Jones.

“Oh, Jim Jones. He was charismatic.”

“Yeah.”

“I wish I was charismatic.”

“Ha-ha…yeah.”

He wants to know if I’m in high school or college, what year I was born in, what month, what day, what hour. He wants to know if I’ve heard of Vedanta, Indian philosophy, to calculate my Vedanta horoscope. I let him, then pronounce it inaccurate: I’m not an earth mother, I don’t have recurring dreams, people don’t come crying to me with their problems. The stoner-astrologer looks disappointed in me and says, “You must’ve lied about your birth hour. This stuff is normally really accurate.”

~

The day I’m to rent a bike and go to those hills and valleys I’ve been dreaming of, I try to make myself less feminine. I wear shorts, a loose shirt, no makeup. I use a thousand or so bobby pins to put my hair in a bun and think of Jim Jones’ mistresses, how they wore their hair like this. At Dave’s Bike Shop, ‘Dave’ fits me for a helmet and says I’m going to have to get rid of all those pins, they’re in the way. I like Dave. I would maybe marry Dave and live with him in this place of cherry trees and evergreens, if he asked. Dave is unfazed by my accent, my desire to ride to the old Peoples Temple building in Redwood Valley, tells me it’s ten miles north, shows me on a map, lets me keep the map, gives me a card with his number, worries about my impractical shoes. Oh Dave.

Getting out of Ukiah involves riding past a lumberyard, alongside highway traffic, but after a while things start resembling the photographs from the ’70s. The roads curve and are lined with greenery, cast with blue shadows, and there are wealthy hippie houses with windchimes and rainbow pinwheels. I’m curious how many have marijuana crops. When I see a sign pointing the way to Lake Mendocino, where Jim Jones was known to picnic, I wish like hell I’d packed a bikini and some food and was brave enough to deviate from Dave’s suggested path. But I don’t.

I know I’m close to Peoples Temple when I get onto East Road and start seeing vineyards. My heart feels like a water balloon. I pass a sign that says ‘JESUS IS THE ANSWER’ and wonder if it’s meant ironically, how anyone can be unironic about Jesus so close to the place where a black-haired man in sunglasses claimed to be his reincarnation. Though I can’t remember the exact address of the building, I’ve zoomed in enough on Google Maps to know it’s still used as a church, is still low and brown-roofed and ugly in that rectangular 1960s way. When it finally appears ahead, it looks placid and toy-like and I want to laugh for joy. This is the place.

woollettThe doors to the inside of what is now ‘Assembly of God: Redwood Valley’ are locked. I don’t really mind. I ride in circles taking photos, examine the cracked asphalt behind the church and wonder if it’s where all those Greyhound buses used to be parked. At the far end of the parking lot, there’s a row of pines and a tall fence, a property behind the fence that could be the old Jones house, a shimmering body of water that may be a cow pond or a creek or a mirage.

I wheel back to the Assembly of God lawn, lay my bike down, sprawl beside it. I glug water. Then, since I’m a millennial and alone with a camera, I do the thing that seems most natural: I take a bunch of selfies.

~

My bus to San Francisco is meant to come at one the next day. The ticket advises earliness, so I get to the station at midday. It’s four-thirty before the bus arrives. I am not a happy customer.

Only one other person is waiting for the bus, a youngish black guy. I ignore him for the first two hours, in case he’s weird. Around the two-thirty mark, I roll my eyes at him in sympathetic frustration. Around three, I sit near him and complain about the stupid bus. Yeah, it’s stupid, he agrees, then tells me his name is Robert and that he’s been here six hours, was dropped off by a friend in the morning, is on his way home to South Dakota with an eight-hour layover in Frisco, has nothing but time to kill.

We get to talking. About our families mostly, the places we’ve been and the lives we’ve led so far. There are obvious imbalances: he’s thirty-four with three kids to support, had his heart broken by their mother, has been working with timber and sending home his paychecks, has never been on an airplane; I’m twenty-five with no one to think of but myself, have never had my heart broken, work with words, have probably flown at least fifty times. I’ve been to more major American cities than he has, but we both have things to say about New Orleans and he tells me a cool story about his Louisiana grandma who survived being snakebit, “’cause she’s a strong, crazy beast.” He asks me if there are black people in Australia and, after learning I was staying at the Quality Inn up the road, why the hell I’d want to sleep alone in a motel in Ukiah when I have a boyfriend back home. I guess it’s a pretty good question.

The bus still doesn’t come. I seriously consider going back to the motel, or paying whatever I have to pay to get a cab somewhere more civilized. Robert asks me to look after his bag and shuffles off to the gas station across the road. He’s gone a couple of minutes when the thing I’ve been wanting to see for hours comes glittering on the horizon, and I think, oh no! But luckily my bus friend is back with a bottle of soda and hasn’t even broken a sweat. We board the Greyhound without exchanging another word.

By the time we get to Frisco the sky is as black as Jim Jones’ hair.

~

In San Francisco, my solitude takes on rhythms. I soon learn the quickest way to get from my Hayes Valley apartment to the CHS library, where the Peoples Temple archives are, is to walk through the Tenderloin. People in the Tenderloin are mostly black. They’re sometimes drunk or high at eleven a.m., sometimes sprawled corpselike on the pavement, sometimes lining up, sometimes drinking from paper cups. Sometimes people stumble into my path and sometimes there are smells and wet patches I don’t want to interrogate, but it’s daytime and no one hassles me. It’s hard not to think of this city in the ’70s, that these were the people who Peoples Temple tried to help, that it all went horribly wrong and still hasn’t been made right.

Hours disappear in the archives, but they’re only accessible three days a week, and I’m in town a month. On my days off, I walk, sometimes five or six hours, or sit in parks or the library or by the sea. I learn that I like Whole Foods, Walgreens, diners with endless soda refills, but also these places charge more than I expect, and sometimes it’s hard sticking to my $20 a day budget. I watch the series finale of Mad Men and can’t get ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’ out of my head, prance around my tiny apartment singing:

I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love!
Apple trees and honeybees and snow white turtledoves!

 I have no friends, and don’t try especially hard to make any, but a couple of times a week I meet people who were young in the ’60s and ’70s and have interesting conversations. I meet these people mostly across the Bay, get picked up in their cars, go to cafés or their houses, am treated very kindly and rarely allowed to pay for anything. We talk about Peoples Temple, in a way that makes it immediate. One man walks me through what would have happened to a girl like me, showing an interest in the Temple in the ’70s: how I would have been visited in an apparently casual manner by apparently lovely people; my cabinets and trash sneaked through; notes taken; invitations issued; revelations made by the great Jim Jones himself on the basis of those notes; people gasping and falling over and making a great big fuss. He asks if this sounds impressive and I say, “Yeah!” He proceeds to tell me that, while all this was going on, Jim Jones would of course have been checking me out through his sunglasses to see if he wanted to fuck me, and that this would have been arranged over the coming months through a combination of flattery, extra responsibilities, guilt trips, isolation from family, and personal attention from the very charismatic leader.

Other things, less directly related to Peoples Temple, are spoken about. In his vast home library, a gentleman talks to me about Eastern religions, his passion for studying religion, and difficulty after his experience in Peoples Temple believing in anything beyond this life. Another echoes this sentiment, tells me, “Life in the Temple was life in technicolor. Nothing else compares.” But he’s a got a sense of fun and beauty, drives me through Berkeley and Oakland, up into the hills to look at views, past the cemetery where the Jonestown memorial is. He takes me to his house and we eat shortbread and drink berry tea and smoke some weed and, technicolor or not, these people still know how to make a fellow-traveler welcome.

~

I celebrate my last night in San Francisco by getting royally stoned, am very amused by a very fat seagull, drink wonderful cherry Pepsi from a mug, accidentally lock myself in a hostel bathroom, have to be rescued by a Frenchman, frantically log into Facebook and ask my boyfriend to call me ‘grasshopper’ from across the Pacific Ocean. He does, then calls me a ‘dirty hippie’, hopes Peoples Temple hasn’t made a complete kook of me.

I’ve been back on Australian soil for less than a month when my boyfriend gets sent to India for work. He’s only gone a fortnight, but it’s a long fortnight. He tells me that Delhi feels post-apocalyptic: humidity like an armpit, huge crowds of men walking along the freeways, dwarves employed to sweep low places, and, one day, a dying man on the subway. A week into his trip, he gets an offer to join the Air Force and needs to make a decision, fast. If he accepts, he will start basic training in two weeks, pledge to serve for six years, and may be deployed anywhere in the world, but we will be “looked after.” He tells me of the money, the health benefits, the sense of challenge and achievement, the travel, the uniforms, the muscles. I tell him I’m with him, whatever he decides. I stay up late reading Air Force Wife blogs, think of all the things I will have to write about, how we will be independent and interesting in ways other couples aren’t. I think I’m okay with it.

He declines. The timing is bad and ISIS is a hazard of the trade. We are still in separate cities and I cry, not because I want it so much as because I want our lives to have meaning and direction, more generally. The next day, a friend calls and tells me another friend has died.

~

I write these things together because they seem connected, and probably always will. The year I was twenty-five will always be my Peoples Temple year, and also the year my twenty-five-year-old friend committed suicide. I hope it’s okay to remember her alongside the rest.

She wasn’t a close friend, but she was someone I admired, worked with, learned from. She was my boss, in fact, editor-in-chief of the magazine for young writers where I volunteered for three years. She didn’t seem younger than me, always gave the impression of being wiser and more worldly, but I was born in December of one year and she was born in June of the next. She lived harder and faster than me, had more friends and lovers, more experiences, more opinions, and more sophisticated opinions, especially about social issues. She was fluid, funny, articulate, a feminist, an activist, a wordsmith…and all this stuff feels terribly general and superficial, reeled off like this.

Memories seem superficial too, but they’re what I have. I remember being out with her once and ordering only gin and tonics, and soon after that receiving a ‘Gin and Titonic’ ice cube making kit when our group did Secret Santa. I remember a day when we were both dressed like it was the early ’70s—her in a flouncy, ankle-length dress; me in flares and a paisley blouse—and her smiling big and saying we were matching and getting up from her office chair to give me a hug. I remember her in the same chair another day with bandages on her wrists and not knowing whether to ask why, for though I cared it was also pretty obvious and probably none of my business. “Oh…what happened?” I said awkwardly after some delay, and she said just as awkwardly, “Just something stupid,” and laughed and I said, “Oh,” and that was that, since that was the relationship we had.

I wasn’t close enough or strong enough or open-hearted enough to be someone she confided in, and I guess that’s okay, there were others who were, and maybe it’s important for her to be remembered from this distance. I remember one of the last times we properly hung out together, way back in April 2014, drinking in a park for a birthday. She wasn’t my boss anymore. She had a new girlfriend, was wearing makeup that the girlfriend had put on her, liked my purple Gunne Sax dress, snapped an iOS photo of me in my dress. A little fluffy dog kept escaping its owner and running up to our group, asking for pats, food, rolling around, and we kept detaining it, wondering if the owner hated us for touching her dog. I remember I was drinking Vodka Cruisers like a sixteen-year-old, berry flavor to match my dress, and a conversation about that, how it was okay to still like teenage drinks into adulthood. I remember leaving early because drinking in the daytime always makes me sleepy, or maybe I just wanted to be alone, and taking my shoes up off the grass and walking home by myself in a good mood, mostly barefoot. And I guess if there’s a point to any of this, it’s that it’s all part of the same life, all touched by the same light, all one with the places I feel blessed to have visited.

(Laura Elizabeth Woollett is an Australian writer. She recently signed a two-book deal with Scribe, an Australian publisher, for her short story collection The Love of a Bad Man and her Peoples Temple novel Beautiful Revolutionary. Her other contributions to this edition of the jonestown report are the companion article From Carolyn to Evelyn and her short story Soybeans. Her guest blog for the Melbourne Writers Festival about her research trip to the United States is here.)

Originally posted on October 28th, 2015.

Last modified on November 13th, 2018.
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