In the summer of 1971 I moved to Redwood Valley to live with my sister Diane Lundquist who had recently joined Peoples Temple. This meant that in the fall I would be enrolling in what was then called Redwood Valley Junior High, now called Redwood Valley Middle School. While this move kept me away from the lure of drugs and other unhealthy distractions in the Berkeley school system, I faced another sort of challenge: Being a biracial person in an all-white school. I sported a sizeable Afro hairdo, which added to the way in which I stood out. What did provide some comfort to this otherwise difficult situation was the fact that other Temple youth, both black and white, attended the school too. I had my group. This gave me a feeling of personal power and security, which is something that everyone needs when braving the snake pit of junior high. Although we had small interactions with the students who lived in the area who were not members of Peoples Temple, there was a strict Temple rule that we were to keep our distance from them. We could not form friendships with “outsiders”.
This rule of restriction regarding outside friends had been firmly in place when Diane and I joined the Temple. We had been screened at our first Temple visit and cleared as good membership material. We didn’t realize that this opportunity was not really open to everyone. Although we had never been churchgoers, we came from a progressive Berkeley family that resonated with the Temple’s message of peace, freedom, equality, and social justice. By that time the Temple was actively seeking members from the greater Bay Area rather than from its local surroundings up north.
Now, many years later, I find myself contemplating the potential of an integrated group as ours was, in a geographic area of a predominantly Caucasian demographic, a place where a fair amount of racism existed. How does an integrated group move from Indiana across the country, land in an area of Northern California of all-white people and assimilate into the area? Recently I found myself wanting to know more about the early days of Peoples Temple in Redwood Valley with questions like: Were people of the area invited to partake and join? What was it like during those first few years in the Ukiah and Redwood Valley area after the move from Indiana?
Another thing that nags at me now about our position back then is the contradiction of our group, representing an inclusivity and diversity. We claimed a socialist and Christian ethic of which service in the direct community is central, yet we kept ourselves separate from the community in which we lived. I understand the need for group cohesion, caution and care in protecting against possible destructive energies that could weaken, harm, or even destroy a group, but it seems that our decision to separate ourselves was an early sign of a deeper problem: it created an environment in which much internal dysfunction could easily breed. We were against racism and yet keeping ourselves apart from the greater community in which we were situated may have in some ways perpetuated it further.
So why did we do it? What would it have been like to have had an open door policy for anyone in the community to come, partake, and help to create the kind of vision that we spoke of? Had we perhaps thwarted the creation and possibility of a truly vibrant community, something like what Martin Luther King referred to as the “beloved community”?
Almost as quickly as the questions come forth within me, so does the answer, with swiftness and clarity. Such a vibrant community was not going to ever be possible with who we were. Peoples Temple was not about building a healthy vibrant community. It was built upon a “we vs. they” platform. We stepped into the role of the “oppressed” and “persecuted”, identifying with the downtrodden of the world with a defeatist attitude. The world out there was bad in more numerous ways than good, and we would find safety from the “enemy” and power only in our unity, following the directive of our all-knowing leader. We were a “chosen people,” we had a “chosen leader.” We were different, almost superior. That was the underlying message that had us cut off from the rest of the world.
All of this was in synchrony with the rising “liberation theology” movement in Latin America in the mid ’60’s and into the ’70’s, in response to political failures in changing the plight of the poor. It is where religion and politics met seamlessly and powerfully. And the movement had found an outlet, not only in Central America, but up in our Northern California group with a leader who was able to harness all of the issues of concern and to declare himself not only a political leader for change, but a religious savior. As his followers, we played our roles in the scenario. We heard the biblical references to ancient Egypt and liberation from the pharaohs, with an eventual exodus to a promised land, and took them to heart. Those of us in the choir sang political revolutionary songs, just as we sang the Black spiritual, “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh to let my people go…”
Harmonizing this song in the choir was new for me and fun, as I had not ever been in a choir, and it had a powerful feeling to it. I was a second soprano. We practiced and practiced and felt a satisfaction in these serious vocal melodic words. I was standing in solidarity with the oppressed, but I can see now that in our isolation we were in a vacuum as we spun about on a hamster wheel living out an identity we created for ourselves, an identity which had very little beneficial effect for positive change in the real world. We did stand up for some individuals who were wrongly jailed – and in some cases we were effective – but it was all more of a show for people to notice how powerful Jim was in mobilizing dedicated people for a cause. Ultimately, it was Jim’s dog and pony show.
No doubt for many residents in the Redwood Valley and Ukiah community we were considered weird. I don’t have anything against weird, as it is often those considered weird that are on the cutting edge, brilliant and daring, inventing something or bringing forth outstanding contributions to the world. But when our adherence to our strong position of separateness and exclusion took on its own momentum of dysfunction, it eventually led to our demise as a church, as a community, as a movement. With no doorway in place from which to freely enter and exit, and connect viably with the outside world, stagnation and dysfunction took hold in the way that an autoimmune disease kills an entity. Delusion became the norm and the reality.
This all became very clear to me, but not until it was all over and I had stepped into the world that had been previously invisible to me. In my Temple life, I had come to believe that life on the outside was empty, doomed, and meaningless. Now I know there is a way to protect a vision and yet allow it to grow viably, and evolve within the larger context of the greater community and the world. This lack of openness to new ideas, keeping things fresh and flexible, was the thing that would have kept the extremely repressive tendencies of the Temple at bay.
In recent years, I have reconnected with two individuals whom I knew well from our Temple days. One of them is Garry Lambrev who joined in 1965. I wanted to understand more about how the Temple had grown after its move from Indiana, what the meetings were like, and whether the exclusivity that was in place when I arrived six years later was something that existed from the get-go or if it was something that happened over time.
Garry told me that the first members were brought in by invitation. He was 23 when he met Jim Jones at a party at the residence of one of the church families. Others who joined were relatives of known people, students, and hitchhikers who heard the Temple’s message of bringing positive change in the world. They were open-minded, malleable, and interested in wanting to belong to such a group. A few members came from Ukiah, Redwood Valley and surrounding Mendocino County, but after 1968, most came from the San Francisco Bay Area, and later on from the Los Angeles region. Along the way, a few others from other states joined when Temple caravans traveled through their cities.
At the time he joined, Garry said the young Jim Jones was serious about a wide range of topics. The Temple leader was well-read and knowledgeable in issues from world history and politics, to medieval Christianity. He was a good orator, and passionate in his delivery. That was something that remained so throughout his California years, up until the time when we emigrated to Guyana, and he became disjointed in his speaking, diminished, angry, and cynical. Apparently he was personable and good enough in reading people to know if they might become a loyal member of his flock. According to Garry, people in the black community of San Francisco were invited to experience the Temple at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds after the assassination of Martin Luther King. As he wrote to me:
The reasons for all of this happening at once reflected, I believe, what was happening in the greater culture, the manic high point of the ’60’s political and cultural revolutions and, in particular our loss of a potential new home when the elders of Christ’s Church threw us out of the schoolhouse in the spring of ’68, followed almost immediately by the assassination of King and the loss of our protector, Judge Winslow, in the June election on the same night that Bobby Kennedy was murdered. Jim and all the rest of us realized at that point that we needed friends and numbers of members in order to attract them to our cause.
Another early member told me that he had roomed with Garry in 1965 and joined the Temple by invitation in 1969. Before that, Garry’s involvement with the Temple had been kept a secret. For a group wanting to spread peace, love and brother/sisterhood, what was there to hide? What was there to fear?
The reasons for this secrecy reflect those of our separateness from the community. It appears that from the very beginning, careful attention was given in determining who should be allowed to be a member of the Temple. This concern and hypervigilance was rooted in some deep-seated fear within Jim, that had no tolerance for dissent, other perspectives, nor an openness for the differing ideas of others, unless they enhanced his ultimate authority.
Garry recalls a time when Jim gathered perhaps 25 or 30 men to discuss the possibility of moving to what was then the Soviet Union. One man responded that he thought it would not be a good idea, giving reasons that he felt that it was problematic. Apparently, this was too threatening. Not long afterwards – through a series of orchestrated and planned manipulations – a situation was created that drove this dissenting member out of the church, never to return.
There are always deep reasons for secrecy and exclusion, and they are usually not healthy ones. Primarily, exclusivity denies transparency.
What I have come to learn and recognize is that the careful attention given around those entering our ranks was actually about preservation of a personality over anything else. It was about our leader’s own need to feel safe and protected, even though we were deluded into thinking that it was a cause that we were protecting. For reasons of his own, he had a need for leadership to feel like a worthy being. There was a need for lots of attention.
He did this by stirring things up, whether by integrating a church in rural Indiana, throwing a Bible across a room, or using rotten chicken livers as “cancers” for people to vomit up. There were other ways of getting attention and sympathy, usually by being a victim. He pretended to have been shot in the parking lot of the Redwood Valley church, and then healed himself. He told the congregation that there was glass put in his food, thereby showing himself as one who had enemies because of his power and what he stood for. And how many strokes and heart attacks did he have in the last ten years of his life, all of which he “miraculously” healed himself of.
But it was because of this exaggerated power – and concurrent danger – that security shifts were set up everywhere, at all hours of the day and night, to resist the “enemies out there.” And it was his own sense of sacrifice that wanted him to appear burdened by people needing to have sex with him and that he would engage in order to keep them dedicated to the cause. And if all that wasn’t enough, he was great because he was the reincarnation of Jesus, Buddha, and Lenin. One of our songs that we would break out singing after a healing proclaimed, “I know he’s god, I know he’s god, I know he’s god almighty god!”.
I understand now that he had so much ambivalence about himself and his bisexuality that it necessitated the diminishment of others, especially men. Because I was so young, I literally believed that underneath, every man was homosexual. That was part of my upbringing. Every man had to make an admission of homosexuality, so that Jim was seen as the only heterosexual man.
Manipulation and divisiveness existed at every turn, as individuals were pitted against one another, all to create a greater alliance to Jim. All of these needs, disguised under a veil of benevolent leadership needed to be protected at all cost. Why? Because without these things in place, our leader was lost, he was destroyed. Alone, he was nothing, without value, empty. This is the sad truth of a pathological narcissist. That was the affliction of our leader, Jim Jones.
* * * * *
A group with this separateness, with this exclusivity, and with such a flawed leader, could not survive, and when there was scrutiny and analysis – when the truth of things began seeping through into a world that would have none of it – we had to flee to Guyana. Dedicated, but deluded, individuals had managed to conceal and justify an extremely toxic environment for ten years until it was no longer sustainable, until that toxicity literally took the lives of almost 1000 people in 1978.
We were caught up in living a lie.
We were against fascism but the structure of our organization was dictatorial and totalitarian. It diminished and destroyed our individual freedom and ultimately demanded the very lives of its members.
We claimed to be an exemplary model of equality, and yet most of the leadership was white.
We were against abuses of human rights, and yet there was physical, emotional, and psychological abuse and manipulation.
We were against exploitation, and yet it was a predominant feature in the requirements and demands of time, energy, creativity, and the finances of members, and the denial of adequate rest and rejuvenation.
We were not the Temple of the people as suggested in our name Peoples Temple. Even our name was fallacious.
How does this happen?
It is the lethal combination of a strong desire for belonging, of lost hope in the world over time, and trust in a leader over our own knowing. Each of these factors became greater than our ability to see the truth of the contradiction we were living. This is a continual occurrence in our world, still happening in governments, organizations, and religious groups everywhere. People have an intact internal guidance, but too often it is eclipsed by maladaptive promises, hopes, ideas, and fallacies. It reminds us to take a look at not only those we have in positions of leadership but our own involvements.
(Jordan Vilchez was in Georgetown, Guyana on November 18, 1978, but her sisters and nephews died in Jonestown. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Going Home to Guyana and A Letter to Clifford Gieg. Her earlier articles may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)