And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown, by Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral (Albany, CA: Sugartown Publishing, forthcoming Fall 2017)
And Then They Were Gone has been a long time in the making. I first heard about the book at the memorial gathering in 2008, and it was as evident then as it is now so many years later, that both authors have great fondness for the young people whose lives they chronicle.
Judith Bebelaar and Ron Cabral taught many Temple youngsters at the alternative high school Opportunity II in San Francisco. The young people came to the school en masse in 1976, then slowly disappeared one by one or in smaller groups as the exodus to Guyana got underway the following year. Through 17 chapters and 424 pages, the book tells of the teenagers’ journey “From High School to Jonestown” as the subtitle of the book reads.
Through the chapters about their time at the school, we get an interesting glimpse of teenage life outside the Temple, according to their teachers, although the Temple youngsters mostly kept to themselves and were more guarded about their personal lives than the other pupils. Through the poetry they wrote in Bebelaar’s creative writing class, we learn about their dreams, hopes and ideals. Through the detailed – and in some instances a bit too detailed – descriptions of the challenges in creating a baseball team with Cabral as coach, we learn about their more carefree and playful side. We get to know them as teenagers, not as Temple members or, as a few of them later became known, enforcers at the mass deaths at Jonestown or shooters at the Port Kaituma airstrip.
The section about the life at Opportunity II also offers an interesting insight into the educational history of the 70’s, more specifically how the counterculture had an impact on the school system and the idea of what teaching was supposed to look like. The authors describe how the teachers at the first incarnation of Opportunity High took inspiration from A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in England and its progressive ideas about student involvement and responsibility, and continued teaching according to those ideals at Opportunity II, sometimes to the chagrin of the less progressive school district officials.
The book follows the Temple children as they migrate from Opportunity II to Guyana. We hear about their daily lives in Jonestown as well as the general development, or rather deterioration, of the Peoples Temple organisation and Jim Jones’ corresponding decline. This part of the book brings interesting new details and personal perspectives to situations many will have heard of before, through interviews with Stephan Jones, among others. It also relies heavily on previously-published material which is quoted at length; this means that the book does not have that much new to offer for anyone who is already familiar with Peoples Temple’s history. For newcomers, though, it provides a starting point for further explorations.
The reading experience is hampered in places by a rather clunky dialogue, and we are treated to details that a more stern editor might have nipped, such as the irrelevant tidbit that Bebelaar’s husband used to surf on his knees as well as a recurring grudge against Principal Yvonne Golden.
The book quotes researcher Michael Bellefountaine’s observation that in dealing with accounts of the final day in Jonestown, “it is not clear where the line between truth and speculation begins and ends.” And Then They Were Gone does not escape this blurriness either. For example, the authors speculate that the marriage between Wesley Breidenbach and Avis Garcia “may well have been arranged by Jones”; they freely admit that they do not know why Regina Bowser was sent to “the box” for punishment, but then they proceed to suggest that it may have been because she possibly had used the laundry after hours. Such speculation seems unnecessary.
The book’s introduction states that one of its objectives is to provide a cautionary tale. I am not sure how much more caution against organisations like People Temple the world needs knowing what we already know about its history. If a warning is needed it is probably not so much about Peoples Temple, but rather about the very basic human desire to fit in and maybe even make a difference while doing so. We all make decisions against our better judgement to fit in, to make things run smoothly, to not lose face. If we fail to see the connection between the end of Jonestown and all of us, any caution is bound to fall on deaf ears.
Overall the book is an interesting read, especially the chapters about the school and the portraits of the children. I cannot help but feel that it is a shame that the authors did not focus the book more on this, because this perspective is truly unique to Bebelaar and Cabral. I would also have liked to hear how the surviving students themselves view their time at Opportunity II.
I do however recommend the book to anyone interested in knowing more about the youngsters of Peoples Temple as well as progressive education in the 70’s.