I don’t recall when I first met Michael – known by most of us in Peoples Temple as “Mike” – but it must have been some time in the spring or summer of 1974. Though a prescient observer of his fellow humans, including those of us gathered in the Redwood Valley mother church, he was never a dramatic person who called attention to himself. We may have passed in the aisles or the parking lot multiple times before we had the first opportunity for a real chat. And then it was in an entirely public setting, appropriate for a group that didn’t much respect privacy.
Michael was seated behind the book sale table before or after a meeting, answering questions that folks might have about the selections, making recommendations based on his assessment of individual needs. I wanted to know why a particularly esoteric text by Jung had been included in the relatively small space afforded by one long metal folding table. Michael assured me that its presence had been approved by Jones. My puzzlement deepened. The text relied heavily on an astrological vocabulary and an interpretation of charts against which Jones had railed publicly on multiple occasions. Michael just smiled and said nothing.
We all saw a lot of his slightly older wife Martha “on the floor,” being confronted by Jones for serial transgressions. Adult family members and close friends were normally expected to line up to testify against the target of his wrath. Michael, however, seems to have been exempted from this odious chore much of the time. On those rare occasions when he did reluctantly follow her “front and center,” Jim didn’t require him to say very much. Nor did Jones criticize his reticence. What I found remarkable was that nothing Michael did say betrayed the slightest hostility, only a note of resignation and quiet disappointment. I sat next to him one evening in the balcony of the San Francisco Temple while Jones berated his wife for the umpteenth time. Michael just bit his tongue and watched.
Our intellectual fellowship developed slowly, but with the ease of old friends reconnecting after a very long time. We had only a few opportunities separate from the group. One occurred on a Friday evening in a Ukiah laundromat. Feeling imprisoned, I had been thinking and reading more of Lao Tze and Zhuang Zhou,Taoist mystics, than of Marx or Lenin. To my relief – but not surprise – Michael shared my spiritual orientation. Though neither of us questioned the validity of the Marxist analysis, both of us agreed that consciousness underlies everything that exists in this apparently material world. It never occurred to me that he might turn me in for ideological deviation. And he didn’t.
Michael was one of those rare members whose point of origin was Jones’ adopted home town of Richmond, Indiana. One of his uncles had married one of Marceline’s sisters in what had been a double wedding with Marceline and her younger husband, Jim Jones. The in-law connection and possibility that Michael might send negative feedback home kept Jones from imposing a tight leash on this quiet, independent and introspective, potentially dissident individual. On the other hand, he didn’t allow Michael to move – or even to make a visit – to Guyana to which his wife and adopted kids were subsequently deported. Remaining on the PT-owned Redwood Valley ranch saved his life.
That life, however, had been a hard one, even before he joined PT. While an only child, he had enjoyed an easy-going rural childhood, much of it spent on his grandparents’ farm, often in the company of four male cousins close in age. That dream life had been brutally ruptured when he was sixteen by the death of his father in a freak highway accident.
The trauma caused Michael, who had questioned very little heretofore, to go to a deeper place in order to seek meaning and find healing. A high school teacher inspired him with what proved a life-long love of history, and the study of it began to open him up to a much wider world. He came of age at the summer solstice of the antiwar and civil rights movements where they converged with the counterculture. He hung out with his buds and smoked a lot of dope, continued to read, and did his best to avoid the draft. Hoping to find answers – or at least to establish the right questions – he sought out the democratic socialist philosopher, Eric Fromm, whose works had inspired him to hope for something better in this inequitable world. Fromm, then resident in Mexico, responded to Michael’s initial letter with encouragement. Unlike many of the locals, Michael didn’t adhere to any of the traditional pacifist churches, such as the Society of Friends which had long been entrenched in the area and was responsible for Earlham College which he briefly attended. As a result, his draft board rejected his application for conscientious objection.
He briefly thought of escaping to refugee-friendly Canada. However, one of his cousins, Mark, who had just returned from a year in Redwood Valley, where he lived much of the time in the parsonage of Pastor Jones, recommended that he make a visit and see for himself. Feeling he had nothing to lose, Michael took Mark’s advice. The welcome he received made him realize that he had a much more extended family than he’d ever expected to find in this world.
Michael moved in with Tim and Grace Stoen in the fall of 1972 as the shit was hitting the fan. The San Francisco Examiner had just unleashed a series of damning articles on Jones and PT by the poison pen of reactionary Episcopal cleric, Lester Kinsolving. In his first political act as a PT member, Michael joined the caravan of Templars who mounted a protest in front of the paper’s San Francisco headquarters.
Michael was already looking for a full-time job. Masonite, the mainstay of the micropolitan Ukiah economy, hired him. He was lucky. The Mendocino State Hospital which had employed so many PT members had been closed down by then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts, and there were few other sources of steady income.
It wasn’t long before he hooked up with Martha. She might have been only a few years his elder, but she looked almost old and worn enough to have been his mother. Theirs was a marriage of convenience. She needed a father for the three sons by a previous relationship. He needed something which she seemed incapable of fulfilling, except in terms of providing him with a daughter, April, who was born with a serious heart defect.
Sometime before April’s second birthday, during a meeting in Redwood Valley where I was present, Jones signaled everyone to hush while he reached out to April whom he claimed was facing imminent death. With a lightning stroke of his mind – the powerful impact of which I felt – he announced that she had been healed forever. In fact, Michael later attested, she had just been rushed to the emergency unit of a Ukiah hospital where he witnessed her sudden recovery. He never ceased to believe that Jones did channel the energy which healed her, until the final irony of the life he took from her at Jonestown. How does one make sense of such contradiction?
Late in the afternoon of November 18, 1978, as Michael was driving to the San Francisco Temple for an emergency gathering, he looked up, saw a rainbow above a tunnel, felt the shudder of apocalypse, and knew already that his people were dying or dead, among them the wife from he was separated, his three stepsons and his own daughter.
None of us recover from such losses. Michael, nonetheless, persevered. A few years later, he moved south to the SF Bay Area in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree in computer science and thereby secure a modest income in a burgeoning industry. While studying at Hayward State, Michael spent much of his time politically active, fighting against the right-wing tide that had finally swept Reagan into the office of the presidency, an era which may have run out of natural energy but is still with us on steroids. He was instrumental in bringing unrepentant radical viewpoints, among them those of Abbie Hoffman, as speakers into the educational environment.
During that period, both of us became involved with the Peace and Freedom Party, a ballot-qualified entity in California. Elected as Alameda County delegates to the state convention in 1981, we were both embarrassed by the tempest in a teapot to which the party amounted. The silver lining was an opportunity to hear Bernie Sanders, the newly-elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and keynote speaker, inspire us with practical hope.
After graduation, Michael found employment in a series of professional jobs in Silicon Valley. He seems to have made friends wherever he went and stayed in touch with many. An aficionado of film noir, he commuted evenings to San Francisco State in order to take classes in its iconic film department. Even after completing his studies, he continued to meet regularly with groups of writers, critiquing each other’s prospective scripts. Learning how to write more effectively for a mainstream audience, he spent three-day weekends attending conferences, usually in LA.
In 1986, Michael moved to San Francisco where his soul belonged. He eventually settled into a single bedroom apartment on the top floor of a turn of the twentieth-century edifice across from the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. He and I met regularly, usually on Sunday afternoons, for long slow walks through the park, followed by simple but hearty dinners at café-restaurants like the Crepevine on Irving Street in the Inner Sunset where the staff left us alone to talk until closing. I cherish those philosophical exchanges and meanderings in which we never ceased to reflect on everything that mattered… except for the losses for which there were no words.
Until he died, we never stopped comparing notes. How much of Jones had been Hitler? How much Gandhi? How could two such persons coexist in one body and share the same mind? Or had he been merely another charlatan with a particularly brutal streak? Had he worked for the CIA? If so, had it been, as he alleged, only in order to protect us? Had he also been working for the KGB, a double agent loyal to nobody but his megalomaniacal self? Had he been simply full of shit? Were we still full of shit ourselves in our search for meaning that might redeem otherwise purposeless sacrifice?
It was Michael who several decades ago pointed out to me a dynamic at work world-wide at the time Jonestown was liquidated. In revolutionary Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge were busy carrying out a campaign of extirpation against their own people in the name of similar revolutionary ideals. Viewed in the shadow of the infamous Cultural Revolution that seems to have had such a profound influence on Jones but had already self-destructed in China, we both concluded that those dreams of the Sixties which had culminated in apocalyptic nightmare had in common an expectation of an earthly utopia in the near future that could not be realized under current or perhaps any conditions. Learning from our failures as individuals and citizens to create a socialist democracy in an increasingly brave, cynical and shallow new world, nurtured by pursuit of self-interest, Michael never, nonetheless, gave up hope. He was tough, sensitive and almost always patient.
In 2007, Michael’s stepfather, more than a dozen years his mom’s senior, suddenly died. Half paralyzed since her early seventies, Katherine had lived in a Richmond nursing home, visited all day long by her increasingly fragile husband. Now that she was alone, her multiple siblings deceased, Michael knew what the right thing to do was, despite political alienation and mutual stubbornness, and with his meager savings, he moved back to his hometown. Without complaint he visited his mother each day, after dinner and through the evening for seven years.
He also plunged into the local Obama campaign, hoping that it would succeed in electing somebody who could help stop the economic hemorrhaging that was destroying the lives of working people. It took several years for him to come to his senses. In the meantime, he was heartened by the Occupy movement and precociously hopeful as the Sanders campaign emerged from the grassroots.
Michael’s mom died in December 2014. He visited me the following month during his usually annual winter escape to the west coast. I found him depressed but philosophical and not despairing. There was a lot of work he needed to do once he got back home. He had to review the physical accoutrements of his mother’s lifetime, appreciate and organize them, give away what he could of her things and decide what he wanted to do for the next part of the rest of his life. As usual, he knew to stay in the present and to try to remain open.
He was already planning a second memorial for those who hadn’t been able to attend the hastily-assembled first one during the Christmas season. It took place mid-August 2015 in the home built by his step-father which his mother had inherited and in which he now had a half interest. He expressed particular pleasure that his cousin Mark, the same one who had introduced him to the Temple so many decades before, felt moved to come. As destiny would have it, Mark collapsed and died quite suddenly the next day.
Long before leaving San Francisco, Michael learned that he was suffering from Type 2 diabetes. Even as he kept up his mother’s spirits, improved his own through active participation in a local library-sponsored book club and a writer’s circle, and joined his friend Robert in Santa Barbara in the co-writing of a novel, his health deteriorated. Relative poverty didn’t improve it. Neither did his taste for what his stepbrother subsequently described as a “Taco Bell” diet.
I last saw Michael in January 2016. More obese than I’d ever witnessed, he experienced great difficulty climbing stairs and seemed out of breath before he began. Walks of any length that had been part of our ritual were out of the question. Even sitting down at the dining room table, he seemed drained. Some friends tried to persuade him to move back to the West Coast. But he felt priced out. In any case he had a comfortable home in a familiar environment abutting a nature reserve and down the street from one of the most relaxed, undulating and undisciplined parks I’ve encountered in what was once a small but self-respecting city flourishing with industry.
His more recent ancestors, mostly of German origin, some of whom descended from Mennonites who had arrived in Pennsylvania in the early eighteenth century, others after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, were buried in proximity to each other in the local cemetery. Michael’s body joins them now. Snow will cover it. I know he is elsewhere as alive as ever. Thank you, Michael for being such a great friend in times of joy and in times of sorrow. I know you can hear me. Marxist you may have been, but you were also my meditation teacher. May you be blessed, however you are now.