In November 1978, I was a high school student when the gruesome pictures of hundreds of fully dressed bodies sprawled on the ground face down, filled the television screen in our living room. Like others, I was left with so many unanswered questions. Now, as I reflect on my first interview with a Jonestown survivor, I am reminded of how the session engaged me into the life of a Peoples Temple member. The community was overwhelmingly African American. About 70% were black, 25% were white, and the rest were of mixed race or unknown ethnic origin (Moore, 2018). It was a place where Jim Jones, a white charismatic preacher, masterfully used religion and deception to lure a disenfranchised population into the church, which ultimately led to the deaths of 918 men, women and children.
My journey into Peoples Temple begins with survivor Leslie Wagner-Wilson sharing her story.
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Well, my story begins from the time I was in Peoples Temple as a 13-year-old child until the escape from Jonestown, and of course, thirty years later. It’s my story of survival in all three phases. Sure, certainly we were living in Santa Rosa, which is a small college town probably about two and a half hours from Ukiah, and that was in the late 60’s. I had an older sister who always had issues. We believe she may have been bipolar but it just wasn’t diagnosed back then. She became involved in drugs. That was the late 60’s of course. We had the Vietnam War going on, we had the love and peace movement and the experimentationwith drugs. She was heavily into acid and mescaline, being a very rebellious high school kid. My mother had a friend who introduced her to Peoples Temple where she had been attending. We started going to the church because of my sister. My mother was trying to get her into the drug rehab program, and that was successful.
Mother had her own business. She was the owner of a personal care home. After many trips to Redwood Valley, the nucleus of the church, she decided to make it permanent, so we relocated when I was 13 years old. It still was not a large congregation. We hadn’t outgrown the church at that time. However, people began coming from San Francisco to Redwood Valley for the services. In the beginning that’s what we did. Members opened their homes up so we could stay overnight.
We pretty much outgrew the church and started having meetings in San Francisco, probably every other weekend at first, where they used to rent a junior high school and hold meetings in the auditorium. Of course, Jim’s main part of the service was the healing service, and that’s what really attracted people at that time. Also, it was more of a religious service. He knew exactly when to talk, what to talk about, and to what audience. The San Francisco Temple was eventually purchased nearby the school where the services were held. During that time, the church started growing. We started buying more buses, Greyhound buses, and then the permanent move was made, I would say probably around 1976. I’m approximating that and of course the Temple was huge! It began to be filled and services were packed every Sunday.
I think people were initially drawn to Jim because he really did teach Christ’s teachings in San Francisco, but in Redwood Valley, it was more socialism. It was preaching socialism; let’s say maybe at a Saturday night service and on Sunday it was a Christian service, so it just varied. He was able to attract everybody. I think during at that time, it was a church of inclusion. You didn’t have to worry about your sexuality. You were welcome no matter what your sexuality was, no matter what your financial or your economic status was, you were welcomed. There were legal services and medical services, so it fulfilled a need in the community. It was inclusive, so you had those who were radical. You might have a couple ex-Black Panthers in there, you might have a pimp, an ex-pimp, a drug dealer, a prostitute, a preacher, a doctor, or a lawyer. It was just a cross-section of pretty much everyone.
As it relates to the large African American population, I think it just happened to be that because we were in the Fillmore district, and so like any church, where you’re going to be able to do the most good is where the most good is needed. That happened to be in sections that are disenfranchised, and Fillmore was disenfranchised. That’s what attracted most people. The fact that you actually felt that the mission was good. I say the Peoples Temple members were the Disciples of Christ.
There was this other side that outsiders did not see, which were the beatings and the public humiliation. I had to really think about what was created and what it meant, because there came a time where, once you were broken down into not much of anything, you believed that you were nothing without the church. That’s where the brainwashing came into play. If you looked a certain way or if you were putting too much time into your appearance, then you were “bourgeois.” I mean it was so much self-sacrifice that if you did anything for yourself, you were considered decadent, or behaving in a capitalistic manner, and that was frowned upon.
It was interesting that as the church grew in the L.A. Temple, we were still between San Francisco and L.A. At least you knew once or twice a month, you were going to Los Angeles. It was a caravan of buses going down to Los Angeles; I think it was at Alvarado and Pico, which was again in a center of a disenfranchised area. He was just gathering flock, and traveling across the country every summer going to different cities and bringing folks back. He had a great reputation for leading a church of inclusion. He did, until the people left the church and began talking to New West Magazine. That ended that.
The CNN documentary exposed the fact that the cyanide had been bought months, and months, and months earlier. From the beginning really. When I found out, I just broke down and cried. I’m like, you’re kidding me. I still cry. It’s just hard to fathom that he actually planned this. It’s just incredible. It really is. It really is.
In San Francisco Jim was powerful. He could get votes for people. I mean, we had neighbors who supported him. Politicians may need someone to turn out for this or show up at a court to protest and you know someone – one of the Temple members – would get on the phone tree and make phone calls, and people showed up. They showed up.
He was very charismatic. Jim could get up in the pulpit and preach from one range in theory to another, from one ideal to another and, reach everyone.
I think I want to just touch on the Planning Commission, which was a group of people that went through intimidation. I think that’s where the first suicide drill was done, and these were mostly adults. So, again I have to look at my mother to say, what appealed to her? At what point– And obviously there wasn’t one, because she came to Guyana. How does a group of adults do that? With all the things I’ve heard went on in the Planning Commission that were just insane. I mean totally insane, like stripping you down naked. Just insane.
Now yes, intimidation existed but everyone knew that to leave the church was difficult. Even in San Francisco, intimidation was definitely being put in motion. But what about those core people who really, really, really saw the masochism that he possessed, you know, his manic mentality, all that they witnessed? Yet they still stayed. That shows me that there was something lacking in themselves because okay, yes, you want to belong, we all want to belong to something, we all want to make a difference in some area, but where’s the line? As for those that were in leadership – and we’re talking adults, intelligent people, a lot of educated individuals – what was missing in their lives that they felt that behavior was okay?
When you are indoctrinated into the “cause,” it’s because everything was for the “cause.” The “cause” of socialism meant we’re doing this to you, because you’re going to be a better socialist, and you’re going to be beat, because you’ll be able to take torture. This is what was taught. When we moved to Ukiah, he talked about the cave. I didn’t think I was going to live to see 18 because of nuclear war. According to Jim, we were still in the Cold War. So, you’ve got this whole mindset of death. Even in the beginning, I believed in preparing yourself to be caught because you’re going to have to stand up and fight. And you’re going to have to know how to be able to endure it. For those adults who sat there and listened to that, allowed themselves to be humiliated and degraded while he thought ahhh…there’s a really weak link there. I didn’t understand. I mean I was a child, but at 18 I pretty much started thinking something’s– something’s wrong here. The teenage years are the hardest, and I’m thinking, okay, yes, I’ll sacrifice this and that, but then I started looking at other things and going well, I don’t think so. I mean you’d be having boxing matches where people were getting boxed for discipline. It was just insane. You look at the adults who brought their children there and stayed for the cause.
You know, the church did not really empower you. I mean you weren’t empowered. I have letters that I had to write to Jim. I cannot believe I was writing this stuff, but I had to. You know you had to write: “Oh Father, you’re just the greatest, and I’m such a weak person and I’m selfish and I’m lazy and I’m this and I’m that.” I had no self-esteem. He was just berating us every day. This is my own opinion from experience.
I went to Jonestown for another reason. It was because I really, really wanted to be with my son. I was not prepared to stay but just prepared to be to be with my child. Families who went actually thought that they could leave. I will not ever– I don’t understand that. If you were in the church in the United States, there were many places you could go and hide. I know people that actually just left and went underground, because you didn’t want to be brought back or hurt. But to go into Guyana and think that you could actually leave just baffles me, because there was one way in and one way out…literally. And so, when you talk about the followers and you look at gangs and even in your job, you want to be someone that empowers, right? I’ve had the bosses who cracked the whip. You want someone who empowers you to excel. The church did that to a certain degree, but it was all done to pull him up, and of course he was a manic depressive with thoughts of grandeur. Again, those core people saw that insanity early on and still decided to remain with the church.
I knew a couple of people, you know, high school friends who left the church. And we remained friends for a while and reconnected after I came back, but they were just tired, they just were tired of the control. But they had outside family to go to and they weren’t intimidated or anything like that.
Now there’s two set of survivors. There were those who actually escaped that day, and I commend the Parks family for their bravery to even acknowledge that they wanted to leave and of course in the documentary, there were other families that thought they were going to come back and those that actually wanted to leave. We don’t know who they are, though, because they’re gone. And then you’ve got those who were in Georgetown because of work and all the boys on the basketball team. The church just dissolved after everything happened.
But I can only speak for myself. I think I realized that my dream of going to medical school was not going to become a reality for me, and that my child was gone. I am not going to be able to grow up and contribute, and the key was for the children to be able to grow up and it was a loving environment for the children. The babies were brothers and sisters, they weren’t just friends. They grew up together, they slept together, they stayed together, they were sisters and brothers. But there was no future for them. I was 20, and college was not going to be an option any longer. I realized that you have all these kids with all this talent, and they weren’t going to be able to use what they learned. The children were compassionate. There were kids who went on fasts because they heard of something going on in another country, where kids were starving, and we’re going to fast for two weeks so we can see how it feels to go hungry and be compassionate. That’s what the kids were made of. I mean, they were these incredible beings who could have grown up to make a difference in the world. You know, it’s just amazing.
When I came back, I couldn’t go to college or medical school. I came back and I was trying to find a job in a month. Just in denial. I mean truly just totally, totally in denial. I was in New York applying for jobs. I was just waiting for my family members who perished in Guyana to show up. I was waiting to get a call saying that somebody had been found and they were in Venezuela or something, and they didn’t know who they were. I mean I was just waiting for a sign that some of my family was alive. I was offered a lot of opportunities when I got back. I was not mentally prepared for any of them. I really wasn’t. I was one of those who self-medicated as a way of dealing with trauma. I mean, I did not know. I did not want to be here. I just did not want to be here.
It was like, you’re growing up in this organization, with this whole idea of what the world’s supposed to look like, and then… I’ll never forget coming back and flying over New York City and just looking at the lights and going, oh my God, what am I going to do? Everything that I was raised with was totally gone. Here I am, coming back to a society that I was taught was bourgeois and decadent. Although I enjoyed being a part of it, at that age I felt like I was missing things. The rug was pulled from underneath us. I didn’t go to the brainwashing sessions or the deprogramming sessions that they had set up. I just didn’t participate in that. And of course, my situation I think was different because of who my husband was to the organization. I was fearful of the death squads and just really confused.
So now, I can’t say it’s a regret because now I can talk about it and hopefully help some people. Pretty much the issues of just thinking that your life is over, but it’s not. I really wanted to be a doctor and I was practicing medicine, but I was working with a doctor in Jonestown. I was performing pap smears and training to become an Ob-Gyn.
I always thought I wanted to be a psychologist. I thought I could. One thing that I have to say about the church is that we were honest. That’s how you were supposed to be: really honest, so we were able to just talk to anybody and say anything, even to adults. It was interesting. Also, what I found is that I’m very objective and I can look at both sides of the story, and so I thought about going to become a psychologist because I can understand both sides and look at both sides of the fence.
What I realized when I was telling someone, if I left this world today, I have a peace that I never ever thought I could find. I never saw it, I never saw it. And I’m just so grateful, and I just give all the glory to God. I do. And it wasn’t me, it was God seeking me, listening to me, and yet there were times I didn’t listen. There were a lot of doors that were opened that I walked by, and said I’m not ready, nope. I don’t want to do it. Nope. But I think just the fact that I’ve lived this long, and I never thought I’d see my birthday. Hopefully I can just share that part of me to inspire and just let people know that there’s always hope. There is. There really is. You know, I know what’s important. I know what I need in my life.” (Edmonds, 2011)
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This experience allowed me to witness deadly deception. I heed the warning of the risks involved when a person acquiesces to the seduction of false narratives, no matter how charming. In listening to her story, I understand her pain of having family members snatched away without warning and dreams shattered. Even with all that she has encountered, it is her blessed restoration that she walks in each day that gives her the power of hope to encourage others. I too am left with peace knowing that, through all of the suffering, God is a God of restoration.
Edmonds, W. M. (2011). Followership, sacrificial leadership and charisma: A focus group study of survivors from the jonestown massacre. doi:Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy-bs.researchport.umd.edu/docview/1333031151?accountid=9683.
Moore, R. (2018). An Update on the Demographics of Jonestown. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Retrieved from https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=70495.
(Dr. Wendy Edmonds is a Lecturer at Bowie State University. She conducted her dissertation research on the survivors of the Jonestown Massacre using “Followership” as a framework. She won 1st place in the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s 8th Annual 2018 Regional Research Symposium and she was also the recipient of The Chair Academy’s 2018 Idahlynn Karre Exemplary Leadership Award. Her previous publication with the jonestown report was the publication of her dissertation, Followership, Sacrificial Leadership and Charisma. She is currently continuing her research and can be reached at www.drwendymedmonds.com.)