From Bechtel to Jonestown:
A Fictional Narrative of Edith Roller

by Angela Pallassino

(Angela Pallassino may be contacted at elbereth@windstream.net. An introductory note about the writing of this piece may be found here.)

“I am Edith Roller, and I have had a very varied life.”

I remember the first time that I met Jim Jones face-to-face. It was in the middle of the service, and Jones interrupted his sermon to call me by name. There was something so incredibly enigmatic by his person; the way he preached, and the gestures that he made. To be presented on a personal level with all that was Jones was electrifying. I had made my way to the front slowly. Someone clasped my arm to help me up the steps to the stage, and then there I was – in front of all those people, being seen by the leader of the new world. Jones looked into my eyes, through me, and then he took my hands in his. “It will be all right,” is what he said to me. And for a while it was, before everything changed.

However, for the sake of context, I should go back further than this.

Beginning

I was born on December 18, 1915. The world was at war at the time, not that I would have been aware. When you’re a child, things are kept hidden from you, and like most, I don’t remember my earliest years. Even though there was an extraordinary amount of tension and excitement following the end of World War I, and all the questions it brought, my home was a haven in which to grow. If my parents couldn’t fix the instability of the world, at least they could keep mine from shattering. For that, I will always be grateful.

I grew along with our little mining town, Mt. Harris, Colorado, which was established the year before I was born. My parents had moved there for work. When I was born, only one hundred and one people were working the mine. When I was ten, there were only a little more than double that, with two hundred and twenty-six workers. Mt. Harris had everything we needed – business, education; religion – and even if it was smaller than other towns, it was home, and we wanted for nothing. It also provided something else I enjoyed: the Yampa River. It was a wonderful place to imagine, weaving all around the mines, and where my first taste for adventure sparked. I decided that the world must hold much beauty, and I wanted to see it all.

After we moved, my horizons broadened somewhat. My most formative years as a child growing into a teenager were spent in several different places. Fortunately, all were safely within the Yampa River valley, and the river remained one of my constants. Yampa, Colorado, was the one I liked the least. The town boasted of a popular hotel and café, opera house, and second hotel that apparently had a ghost as a permanent resident, but with my father’s work in the mines, and my mother teaching only when she could, we rarely had the money for such frivolities. In our next home, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, forms of work aside from cattle ranching were only newly considered to be profitable. Again, we remained below those of a higher class.

Of course, this all occurred before the crash of the stock market, when I was only fourteen. What had been poor conditions for families like ours only grew worse. Adding to this abrupt financial pressure was my father’s death. After struggling for years, he died due to complications from silicosis – a disease he contracted while working in the mines. Unfortunately for him, the laws protecting blue collar laborers were decades away. It was a double-blow for an impressionable child, seeing the entire world fall apart. It taught me an invaluable lesson at a young age, however: life was unfair, and those in charge of money seemed to care only about their own well-being. As for my mother, sisters, and I, we moved from Steamboat Springs to Denver, Colorado, about two hundred miles away.

Growth

I graduated from the Colorado Teachers College on Friday June 11, 1937, with one degree in history and another in social studies. It had been an eye-opening experience – beginning, when my freshman classes started on Thursday, September 27, 1933. The week before that had involved registration and an orientation of sorts. It was important, but it was nothing like sitting and learning for hours on end, which I was finally able to do so without being interrupted by my well-meaning family.Even though the distance from home was only a little over fifty-two miles, it gave me enough room to be entirely independent. I was able to establish my own social network, eventually join several clubs and a sorority, and become involved in other campus activities. All this helped to shape my new worldview.

Unfortunately, my entry into the workforce post-graduation was not entirely what I had expected. With the second wave of the Depression that swept over the United States, there were several million people without work, let alone opportunities for newly-minted college graduates unpracticed in their field. It was difficult, and I took what odd jobs I could. My independence was subservient for a time, as I moved back into my family’s home to retain a more economical living. Several years passed. I worked when I could, wherever I could, and continued to read, study, and write with the time I had remaining. Underneath it all, something could be felt in the air. As the newsreels dragged on, it was clear that the world was changing.

The United States’ entry into World War II wasn’t as much of a surprise after the initial breakout of the second Great War. I had never liked the idea of my country entering another war and had even done what I could to speak out against it. The workings of a small few were not enough to waylay the actions of the many powerful seated in Washington D.C. Times were only going to get worse, and now thousands of innocents would be involved… surprisingly including myself. All that anyone from home ever heard was that I was involved in “government work.” I could not keep that from being printed in a small paper when visiting my mother after her return to Steamboat Springs, but I was able to be evasive enough without raising suspicion, focusing on the work I had done that wasn’t as covert.

What I told them about were the stories I had from the time I spent in Greece, working with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Living in an occupied country was an experience like none other, and I was reminded many times of the dreams I’d had as a young child along the Yampa. I was seeing the world and doing something good for it along the way to help heal its broken parts. Our main work involved placement, protection, and provision for displaced war-refugees. No matter what religion may preach, the work we did there and the other places in which the UNRRA was active was the only definition of true love: “doing something about the condition of…disadvantaged people.”

What they would have wanted to know, had they managed to piece together my diversions with the article, was the classified work that I did with the Office for Strategic Services. I have always found words to be a magnanimous tool, and it appeared that there were many others who held the same belief. As it was, I was forced to keep my personal feelings about United States politics concealed. For one thing, it would not have been deemed appropriate for an individual in my position. Working for the United States’ government while being forthright in my opposition to its policies would not have been accepted, and I would most likely have been terminated from it. For another, I found that I mostly enjoyed what I did there.

After the war, the jobs that had been taken by women were reclaimed by the returning soldiers and servicemen. There was no point in fighting it – lacking in justice though it was – and nothing could compare to using, recording, and learning new information. Also, I was able to continue in my overseas travels, as I was sent to both the Philippines and India over the course of my employment with the CIA, the agency that had succeeded the wartime OSS. Even with all the written work I had to do, there were still so many exotic, wonderful things to see and do. Just being there was a gift. Though there were murmurings among my family of more interesting affairs in my life, I don’t feel that those details are a necessity.

After more time spent adventuring in the political and literal sense, I felt it was time to move on. Watching the inner-workings of a government agency, small on the spectrum that I was, became too tiresome. Everything they did went against what I believed about the importance and value of people. I desired to return to a place where I could believe freely. When I moved back to the United States, I replanted myself in San Francisco, California. The primary reason was that I wished to return to school. After spending nearly three decades writing instead of teaching, I found myself wanting to apply myself more to the former. I completed a master’s degree in Creative Writing in 1966. However, without really being able to acknowledge the work I had done for the government on any resumé, I was at a loss as to how to enter the workforce.

A bit of luck turned my way, as I was offered a secretarial position at the San Francisco State College post-graduation. It allowed me to maintain a regular life, with plenty of time for my own pursuits. I was able to read more, go to the theatre, and make connections beyond a professional cooperation. The months slipped away as my routine became second-nature, yet underlying it was a quiet longing. Happiness is not contentment. Though I had disliked the environment in which I had been working previously, the satisfaction of knowing I was helping others in a greater cause had been the reason I had stayed for so long. Cross-checking schedules just wasn’t the same as saving a refugee. Though I was comfortable, I knew I had to strike a better balance.

Discovery

Then came July 1969. There were only a handful of reporters, but I was still determined to speak my mind before leaving the campus. The press release I had sent to the media apparently worked, even if the faculty at San Francisco State College had all but shrugged their shoulders at the mention of what I had done. It didn’t matter, though. I would walk out with my head held high, without compromising any further. I had seen enough heartache overseas, with the poor souls who were irrevocably damaged by the war, and I could not handle it anymore here in the United States. For all their blustering that this country was better, I could no longer believe a word of it. How could I, when the stain of its history bled through the cracks of time? Even now – when all these children wanted was to be heard themselves.

It began with demonstrations and protests regarding the military draft. The grades of students were given to the Selective Service Office for screening, and those chosen unfortunates ended up in Vietnam. It grew to include other insults purely grounded in racist tradition. All the students wanted was to learn a more fairly-based history of this country, when regarding ethnic minorities.It led to police brutally beating and arresting the students. Even though an agreement was reached, the cost was far too much for our modern country. I shared this belief, as well as many other statements regarding my outrage, which had been included in what I gave the press, and so I left. I did not expect it to be noticed more than it was, but something inside me dared to follow their call.

I had already visited the Peoples Temple church twice but had thought I was blending in with the others. I suppose, considering the personal invitation I had received to attend, I really had not been quite as inconspicuous as I first thought. Once Jim Jones took notice of me, and spoke to me, they had successfully accomplished what they wanted. Here was a place I could serve the world; here was a place where those lesser were not seen as such but were recognized for their value and their purpose. Even though I was not religious myself, I also couldn’t help but admit that there was something to this supposed power of Jones. His ability to heal the sick – whatever powered it – was extraordinary.

When it was suggested to me that I seek work at Bechtel, the largest construction and engineering company in the United States, I did so. The paycheck I received would be enough to keep me comfortable, and to allow me to give to the Temple sufficiently and consistently as was expected. It was fairly simple to obtain a job at Bechtel. There were many rumors that it was an elaborate cover for my former administration,which could explain the ease with which I was employed, but I did not think it worth looking into. Frankly, it was a road I did not wish to travel. I was a secretary again, but one with a bit more standing. Even though most of the information I saw in the beginning related to the James Bay Hydro,other interesting memos crossed my desk. I was asked to pass those along, and with plenty of practice in being covert, I did so without anyone noticing.

When I was asked to begin keeping an official journal for Peoples Temple, to publish a book one day on the success of the organization, I was eager to do so. At last, all the work I had done for the government would be used for something just. The world would be able to see all that Jones and the cause were doing for them – how Peoples Temple was shaping history. As I had already spent several years of services and trips jotting down notes and other observations, it was an easy transition to be more thorough in my accounting. I began properly recording for the journal on July 16, 1975. I decided that I would not miss a day in my recollections, to communicate how the Temple was integrated in our daily lives. Even my work at Bechtel; everything in my life pertained to the needs of the many as well as our cause.

When I was urged to move into the communal living area, I resisted for as long as possible. Even though I knew it would ultimately be for the best, especially when considering my position in the Temple, I was hesitant to give up my personal freedom and space. However, when the time finally came, I felt I had little choice but to obey. I was disappointed with all that I had to sacrifice and considered it irreproachably unnecessary, but once again I held my tongue. I determined to continue to work as I had: quietly and effectively. I still served in the Temple as needed, and I now gave all I made from Bechtel to the cause. Ultimately, for the sake of eliminating racism in this country and promoting our haven of harmony in the jungles of Guyana, it would be worth it.

When I was told that I would be moving to South America to join this community, I was considered to be one of the lucky ones. Many of the followers in California wished to move to Jonestown, but I was one of the few who was chosen for the assignment. Unless I lived among the people there, how would I be able to sufficiently capture the spirit of Jonestown? It was there that the perfect model of socialism was at work. It was there that the love between the brethren would light the way for socialism to increase until it was a world-wide phenomenon.It needed to be recorded; that was for certain. Agreeing to be the chronicler for Peoples Temple was just the beginning. I could see that now. Had I known it would lead to this, I don’t know what I would have done. Nevertheless, the choice has been made, and it is one that will take me away.

Of course, there was a bit of excitement to be had. I would be travelling again and seeing a different part of the world that I had yet to see. Four continents in sixty years was nothing to sneer at. Even if we were to be secluded from the rest of the country, it would contain its own exoticness that I had missed from Asia’s borders. Though our leaving was delayed a few times, we finally took off on January 16th. Our layover on the East Coast took almost a full day. By the time the plane left for South America, it seemed as if we had departed California an age ago.

Eventually we reached Guyana and were driven to the Temple’s headquarters in Georgetown.It was there that the process slowed for a week, but finally, we made it to our destination. Seeing Jonestown for the first time was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It seemed so vast and unreal. Then I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker and remembered that I was known.

What good it did, I’m not sure. Life in Jonestown was far different from what we had anticipated. Communal living in the United States had been difficult, but this was even more so. I roomed with eleven other women, dealt with insects from the start, and found what I had been promised to be shortcoming. While I was given a teaching position, and Jones frequently referred to me as “professor,” there was no classroom. Nevertheless, I intended to make the most of it, and began implementing the lesson plans I had developed back home. I attended the rallies, late as they were, and would read – sometimes my own books, borrowed back from the library – as often as I could.It was some consolation in a never-ending bustle.

I don’t know if it slipped through that I was reaching a point of discontentment. Yes, it was frustrating that the food we ate was less than satisfactory,and that the other women in Cottage 48 consistently grated on my nerves. Even with all this, my goal was never to speak ill against the cause. I was finally able to teach socialism, literacy, and Russian. Even so, three months of my writing from the previous year had disappeared, along with several days from a recent month.

I had proposed I could return to the United States and take up work with Bechtel again, and handle another issue, but it strongly implied only for the sake of Jonestown. Not to escape, as some might have claimed. Perhaps I was not quite as trusted as I had once believed. Not even the journal which I so proudly maintained could make up for the seed of despair that had become so interwoven in my being.

End

This Saturday had started differently than others. With the congressman’s visit, they had all been given a free day…probably for some scheme of Jones’ involving the cameras.

Her foot had been bothering her again, but with all the shenanigans yesterday, Edith had not been able to make her appointment. Today it must be a priority. She took her breakfast, another offering of something quickly forgettable and never enough, and then began to make her way to the medical area. The group from the United States was leaving soon; she was thankful for it. Enough of her life had been spent around government officials.After the treatment and with the free time so graciously given to them, Edith went back to her cottage to read and maybe work on lessons.

It wasn’t a moment too soon, either, for the sky suddenly opened and began to pour. The morning shifted to afternoon, and aside from one venture to race between the raindrops for lunch, Edith remained tucked away. There was only one, brief disturbance, as someone was paged over the loudspeaker. However, it was there and gone so quickly, it couldn’t have mattered much, and Edith easily pushed it aside. More time slipped away, and then the other women returned, reminding Edith that they had been told to “freshen up for dinner.” They were chattering about people leaving, but all Edith felt was something like “good riddance.”

No one had yet left their home when the third announcement of the day came, ordering all the residents to move to the pavilion. Edith placed her notebook aside with a sigh, immediately beginning to memorize the new lesson plan that had begun taking shape. It would have to keep. Hopefully, she would be able to find Eddie Washington in the rush.It would be much more bearable on an empty stomach with her friend beside her; it always was. Shortly after arriving at the pavilion, Edith caught sight of Eddie waving, and made her way to the seat her friend had saved. Her last, normal thought rested in the hope that this wouldn’t take too long.

Then everything changed.

Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s.

“You owe me five farthings, says the bells of St. Martin’s.

Later on, they were ordered into groups. This was different from other White Nights. The juice was poured; the infants and children with their parents were served first. It was as if time stood still at obedience to Jones. People were talking; trying to soothe the nerves that had erupted… and then the screams started. Children were wailing; hurting? Jones had said it wouldn’t hurt. It had never hurt them before. It had never been real before. Now it was. Now, like before, he was wrong. Underneath the shouts, others were weeping and groaning. Eddie still clutched Edith’s hand. Their grasp shook; from which of them, she wasn’t sure.

“When will you pay me? say the bells at Old Bailey.

Edith stepped forward with Eddie trailing dully, as each person ahead of her moved to take the juice. The children she had heard were silent now. How much time had passed? Everything seemed to blur. She was numb and still. It was too quiet. Her heart thundered above it all. Some murmuring – people were thanking Jones, as she knew she must – and she was inching closer until it was her turn.

“When I grow rich, say the bells at Shoreditch.

She wasn’t sure what she said, if she spoke, but Jones nodded and waved her forward with an anxious, jerking movement. The juice slipped past the numbness, but still she felt nothing. Fear, she decided, is a narcotic – and she had never desired to be an addict. When ushered off the dais, Edith was able to catch a glimpse of the many faces through the blur. Angry faces. Faces twisted in pain. Peaceful faces. Faces riddled with terror.

“When will that be? say the bells of Stepney.

Then she was on the ground. Somehow. Somewhere. Was Eddie nearby? She had lost her. Time was also slipping out of her grasp. Something was happening. She could feel it in her body. She could feel the change, the pain, and finally understand what was happening. A couple were heaving to her right, and a still body was to her left. She hadn’t wanted this. Not really. She had wanted to live and serve the mission. To go back to Bechtel; buy a kitten. Somehow it had all gone wrong. It wasn’t them. It had never been them. It had always been him.

“I do not know, says the great bell at Bow.

Oh, if only she had more time to write, to put all this down to paper. But she hadn’t brought any, nor a pencil. She had given that up once it became too hard to filter her own thoughts, and it had been noticed. Still, someone would eventually come. They would come. They would go through the cabins, to understand how they gotten it right, how it had been wrong. They would find her binders; they would read her journals. Then they would know. The cause was just. The cause was right. Jones, well, he was unreliable. They would see it. They would…

“Here comes a candle to light you to bed,

And here comes the chopper to chop off your head.”

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Originally posted on May 26th, 2019.

Last modified on September 23rd, 2019.
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