It’s hard to believe that it has been 40 years since the deaths in Guyana. Time has made it seem distant, though memories of family and friends lost will always be painfully near. When it does come to mind, I feel a deep sadness. But I also remember smiles: young and old, bright and vibrant, shy and quiet, trusting and loving. And we all hoped to bring on a better world.
I was in Peoples Temple (PT) for ten years, a comparatively short time in my life, but it seemed like forever. My experiences in PT come from my life in Redwood Valley, Ukiah and San Francisco, before everyone moved to Jonestown (JT). I was a Temple member but still living in Redwood Valley in November 1978. I had spent several summers in JT as it began, but was never there once all the people and Jim arrived. I knew JT from its pioneer days, when 20 to 60 people were there, all focused on creating an Eden. I never saw the overcrowding, limited food, isolation, speakers sounding at all hours, and everything else that marked its demise.
I realize now that many, if not most, of the 1000 people who went down were unprepared to adapt to a jungle home. Most moved to Guyana for the promise of a better life. But it ended in a horror when our trust was betrayed by a leader lost in his own problems.
So, then and now, what did I find as a survivor of PT?
Then, 1978: I had to “bring myself back to life” in US society. Many people tried to help us, but no one knew what to do or say. We were all pretty much on our own. I was fortunate to have a good job, work place support, and a nurturing family. I continued on working as a teacher, eventually settling in San Diego.
Now, in 2018, after so many years, thoughts about PT are diminished, mingled with more current problems of retirement and aging.
27 Years Afterwards
In 2005, after many years of withdrawal and little contact with PT survivors – I talked with Claire and Richard Janaro; Claire was always a source of news about survivors – I found the Alternative Considerations website. I met its managers, Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee (better known as Mac), and connected with Temple survivors in San Diego. At Claire’s nudging, I saw Leigh Fondakowski’s play The People’s Temple and reconnected to more memories and survivors. I was overwhelmed with the warm feeling of community we had had, the closeness and goodness that I now always find with other survivors.
Ironically, Jim Jones brought us together and got us to work together. We knew so much about each other, helping each other as needed with problems brought up and sorted out publicly. In sharing our lives, we had an empathy, an understanding of our weaknesses and strengths that taught us to work together.
That sense of building together is something I’ll never forget. It showed us a better future was more than something you read about or waited for. It was something we could build and experience in the here and now; it was something we were making. I always welcome the sense of “coming home,” of the hope and goodness we share when we gather.
30 Years Afterwards
Through the website, I found the courage to look back into my Temple experience. I worked with Mac and helped document and research materials obtained though Freedom of Information. I came to answer some of the many questions I had, such as: why had I survived and not others? how could I trust myself to choose good things to do? how could something that seemed so good end so horribly? I realized that what we were trying to build – “a better world” – was a good thing; how we went about it was the problem. Our beliefs were sound, but unquestioning trust in one person to achieve it was not.
Most importantly, PT was not Jim Jones but the people in it, their spirit and hopes and beliefs. PT was us: the community we formed and still feel when we gather.
Over the years, survivors have gathered on November 18th at Evergreen Cemetery to remember those who died. Groups of us have met at other times, not to try to rekindle PT, but to feel the sense of kinship and share how we were doing. We could talk of ourselves or PT or not, but we didn’t have to explain ourselves. Having survived, we still support each other, just by our continuing on.
40 Years Afterwards
After 40 years now, I find myself thinking of PT to a much lesser extent. Thoughts and plans about retirement and other interests now mingle with concerns of aging. I find TV programming less interesting, with its emphasis on violence, with fewer comedy, documentary or positive thought-provoking shows. And the ads seem to take up more time than the shows! World politics and National issues are increasingly scattered and frightening.
So, I wonder: Aside from the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” what has PT given the world? What should we learn from the existence of PT? Of what positive influence might PT be now? Interestingly, I have noticed several news articles likening our nation’s current leader to Jim Jones. It’s not so far-fetched and offers lessons to learn.
What, then, can we learn?
- Misplaced Trust. Question all our leaders. Trust needs to be reviewed, examined and questioned. Trust no leader exclusively. Ongoing examination will affirm or deny whether a leader should be trusted.
- Fake News & Isolation. Question all news and media reports. Welcome all points of view and listen with care. The news heard in JT were written Jim Jones to isolate and cause fear and paranoia, characteristics of a fascist state; we should not repeat it.
I still remember many good moments. As a community we had problems, but we were kind, caring, hopeful, helpful, resourceful, and more. At least we were trying. Rather than tearing down what community we had, we believed in working together.
I will always miss our community and – in its absence – I miss everything we could have been.
What are some of the positive things I remember about PT?
Moments and ideas I remember that still make me smile or laugh include:
- The children’s choir singing “Welcome, Welcome All of You”
- Songs our choir sang
- Patty Cartmell and Jack Beam doing comedy sketches
- Don Sly teaching swimming in the Temple pool to kids on Monday nights
- Tutoring our children in “Monday School” for school
- Claire Janaro dancing in her own marvelous way in the children’s section at meetings
- Our wonderful children who were open and eager work and play together, with whom we should have spent more time
- Chris Rozynko jumping up and down like a pogo stick in meetings while we sang
- Joyce Touchette with Mr. Muggs
- Going places in the “old green” school bus, before the Greyhounds
- Trips across the USA
- Hundreds of us standing on the steps of the Capitol Building
- Cleaning up rest areas in California, D.C., wherever we were on the road.
- Seniors teaching preschoolers how to make a salad in the senior center
- Diane Wilkinson singing most any song
- Long hours practicing choir songs
- The idea and hope we could build a better world for our children
- Eva Pugh’s chili for Wednesday night meetings in Redwood Valley
- Melvin Johnson singing “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”
- Marching in Fresno for the Fresno Bee reporters
- Speaking out about events in letters and peaceful demonstrations
- PT Bake Sales
- Playing in the freak snowfall in Ukiah and Redwood Valley
- Eating greens in San Francisco and Los Angeles
- Patty Cartmell singing “Going Home”
- Taking animals in
- Providing food and clothing
- Jack Arnold Beam and the band
- Rennie Jackson teaching karate exercises
- The children’s summer trips to Oregon and Mexico
- 24-hour vigils to bring someone off drugs
- Pop Jackson’s smile in JT
- The toys made in our woodworking shop
- Tropical rain showers
- The quiet of shafts of sunlight shining through jungle foliage
What can we do to remember the good of PT?
- Go to the Alternatives Considerations website
— Look through lists of names of PT members to remind ourselves of who we were
— Look through pictures of people and good activities we did in PT
— Read the many Remembrances left about individuals who died in Guyana with their picture and listing of those who died
— Leave a Remembrance about individuals who died in Guyana using the button with their picture in the List of those who died.
— Share your own experiences with a member or as a member of PT that can be posted online
- Connect to PT survivors
- Attend the November 18th gathering at Evergreen Cemetery
- Go to the California Historical Society in SF and peruse some of the PT Materials
— Help put names to pictures
- Listen to the songs from PT record “He’s Able.”
(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)
(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)