In 2018, the latter half of one of my final classes at South Piedmont Community College in North Carolina was devoted to studying Peoples Temple. In retrospect, the section’s main assignment – to step into the story of one person who died in Jonestown – provided me with some of the most important lessons learned during my academic career.
I chose to write about Edith Roller because I realized very early on that there would be more material on her life than other members of Peoples Temple. That would make completion of the assignment easier… and I was right. However, after diving deeper into the research, I found myself honestly intrigued by Edith’s life, where she grew up, what her life had been before she joined Peoples Temple, and what she had done to end up in Jonestown. It became much more to me than just another paper, and I was determined to find out all that I could within the timeframe of the assignment.
After completing more serious research, I did not understand why some people apparently believe Edith was considered to be a dry, monotonous woman who lived exactly the way she wrote. With the life she lived – making her own name, serving overseas, working for Peoples Temple – I feel that her true thoughts would have been much more colorful. My goal was to give further justice to the woman behind the veil of the journals. I also tried to incorporate this deeper perspective in a style that reflected her own writings.
Trying to unlock Edith’s mind from my studies led me to wonder how committed she was to Jim Jones. I have no doubt that she believed in the cause of socialism itself, but how seriously did she trust its leader? While there were several instances where she wrote of Jones’ supernatural abilities, once Edith arrived in Jonestown, they seemed to cease dramatically. One of the reasons I wrote the narrative in the tone that I did was due to the fact that I believe Edith was far more discontent in her later life than her screened journals allowed her to be.
I will always be curious as to the full extent of Edith’s pique, if I am even correct that she was frustrated. If she was, when did she come to the conclusion that Peoples Temple would have operated better without its temperamental leader? How fantastic was her ability to disconnect the work done in Peoples Temple from Jim Jones? Did moving to Jonestown further unsettle her, or was that the beginning of her decline in belief? Unfortunately, these are questions not so easily answered, but I did enjoy broaching the concept in the narrative.
In the end, I find myself overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to have studied Edith Roller as I did. Finding individual people in the midst of tragedy can bring a different sort of reality to the situation. It connects us all to those who lived something unique, whether good or bad. While I will never know Edith on a personal level, I find myself understanding her in another way and sympathizing with her life and the choices she made.
I have to wonder what I would have done differently in her shoes with the same background, experience, and beliefs that Edith held. I find that I can no longer blindly hold in contempt those who have been, are, or will be swept away by the unusual and the extraordinary. Even if hindsight is perfected vision, that does not change the humanity of those involved. Everyone has a story from which we can learn if we so choose, and I find that Edith helped lead me down from my judge’s seat.
— Angela Pallassino
(Angela Pallassino may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)