JONESTOWN SURVIVOR Responds to High School Students’ Questions

JONESTOWN SURVIVOR Responds to questions from high school students preparing for a National History Championship.

I always answer questions from students and curious people of all ages when they have taken the time to write to me about Peoples Temple. Here I have responded to ten questions:

What compelled you to join the Peoples Temple?

I was in high school and college in the 1960s. In high school in Maryland, I was part of an integrated group that helped integrate a huge local amusement park – I felt that our society had been divided far too long. I also watched many of my heroes killed in that violent decade – John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers – to name just a few. I did not want our democracy to be run by vigilantes who killed people with opposing views. And, I shared those views – so my own freedom of speech was threatened. I continued being an activist to remedy those problems and others. In college and after, I tried working with the Black Panthers. That didn’t work out well for me. I also tried going to Woodstock. That didn’t fit with my personal activism. My sister persuaded me to move from Connecticut out to California, to live with her in March of 1970. Her attorney friends had heard of Jim Jones, so we drove 2 hours north of San Francisco to check him out, in Redwood Valley, California. He seemed to have the same heroes and the same desire to fix a broken system. I also saw him as a protector – someone who might help watch out for me during a tough period.

What were your thoughts originally about the way that The Peoples Temple was run and operated?

Jim was always a hands-on manager. He oversaw everything. In Redwood Valley, things were well-run, organized and efficient. He had many experts overseeing specific aspects – he always picked dedicated and careful administrators – of the family care facilities we ran, of the budget, of the buses, of the communes, etc. Things were well-run. When the Temple moved headquarters to San Francisco in late 1972, good people were still in place to keep everything efficient. In the business arena – things were in capable hands. And, Jim was obsessed with not spending money. He was never one to wear fancy jewelry, clothes, or drive a fancy car. So, that part was fine.

In his personal space – it was very different. He controlled everything, discouraging feedback or questions.

Why did you choose to move to Jonestown?

Peoples Temple moved to Guyana because it was English-speaking, tropical and beautiful, and had a socialist government with a black Prime Minister who was anxious to have an investment of our resources in his country. I moved there at the beginning of the development to help however I could. I purchased parts for broken machinery, food, shoes, clothing, and other supplies in Georgetown, and picked up people flying in and sending them out to Jonestown by boat. I did many other things as well, during that year in Georgetown. I traveled out to Jonestown several times, and then moved out after a year in Georgetown.

What was it like everyday in Jonestown? What about on the day of the massacre?

We were very hard workers in Jonestown. In about 1 ½ years, we had built housing and a community housing 1,000 people, and feeding them three meals a day, as well as caring for their medical needs. Our community was not producing much food yet, so everything had to be purchased in Georgetown and shipped the 24 hours by boat, into Jonestown. We had accomplished an astonishing amount of building.

Our days began at sun up, and we would eat and then each go to our jobs. Everyone had something to work on – farming, clearing land, building cottages and buildings, teaching, legal work, interaction with the government, hosting guests, bartering and exchanging goods we had with the other residents of the Northwest District of Guyana, and more. After dinner each night, we generally had a meeting or a movie, or a language class. We always had something going on at night.

On the day of the massacre, Congressman Ryan was still in the community since he and his entourage had spent the night. He was making plans for an extra airplane to fly out from Georgetown (complicated since it was a 1-hour flight, and the airlines had to find a pilot and get him to the airport, etc.) Once that was arranged, Congressman Ryan and about 20 Jonestown residents left for the nearby tiny airport. Jim called everyone else into the Pavilion, where we met for all of our meetings.  Everyone gathered there for Jim’s harangue and the final hours.

What was Jim Jones like as a person? Was he nice, manipulative, mean, different?

Jim was a typical con man. He had a public persona and his own private persona. In public, he was kind, inclusive, brilliant, funny, creative, determined, focused, and inspirational. In private, he was absolutely controlling and demanding. He wanted to be the center of attention in every setting, and discourage people from establishing any close relationship with anyone else. In fact, he did all he could to breakup alliances and relationships. He was an expert in “divide and conquer” and would pit one person against another. He was also very cruel. He would target a member for some reason, and make that person’s life miserable. And, then move to the next. Most of that was behind the scenes, but would sometimes spill over.

How did Jim Jones´s personality change from the beginning to the end? Was he a different person than you originally thought he was?

When I met Jim in Redwood Valley, I saw him as a wonderful father and husband, who had a loving relationship with everyone in the congregation. He was kind, would notice people that others might have overlooked, and noticed all of us and encouraged us. He was at his best, and most normal in Redwood Valley. He still had deep secrets there – a long-time mistress, many other sexual partners, manipulations, and enormous paranoia – but we saw him nearly every day, in mostly normal settings.

Once he moved the headquarters to San Francisco, he became a power broker in the City because he could provide great numbers of people for political rallies, encourage people to vote, and he became known around the city as the leader who had soup kitchens to feed the hungry, he welcomed many people into the church from every background. Peoples Temple was made up of black, white, brown, as well as Native American and Asian. It was a diverse group and Jim was given much credit in the early 1970s.

As he became more powerful, his ego spiked. My favorite quote is “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That was Jim. The more power he had in the Temple – where he was worshipped and acclaimed, the more outrageous his needs and demands. That was also true in the community. He started making demands of “friends” he had supported. He wanted investigative reporters stopped from investigating. He wanted newspapers stopped from printing anything negative. He wanted to control the “free press” he had been so strongly supporting.

In Jonestown, he had absolute control. We were 24 hours away from Georgetown, by boat. We did not any contact on our own. Our radio room was the only way to contact the outside – he managed that. Letters were monitored. With this heightened power and control – he became dictator. And, adding to that, he was already addicted to drugs which made him even more paranoid, and he was both mentally and physically sick. And, everything was deteriorating.

Why weren’t you in Jonestown on the day of the massacre? What was your reaction when you found out about the massacre?

Jim had sent me back to work in Georgetown at the end of October – to replace people who had family in Jonestown that they were missing (he said).

When we found out about the massacre in Jonestown, we were all shocked, traumatized and devastated.

What were the last days before the mass suicide like?

The majority of people in Guyana did not have any idea that Jim was planning the suicide. He had a small group of people – maybe 20 or even 30 – who had some information. The rest of the community went on as before, taking off time to perform for Congressman Ryan and take care of him. At some point before the last day, Jim and his secretaries/mistresses/accomplices divided up the tasks to be done to give out the poison. Jim was drugged up that last day, as seen in some of the video footage, but he had participated in delegating the jobs at some point. The secretaries and others carried out the instructions.

You wrote the book, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider's Look. What inspired you to write it?

From the minute I got home, people told me to write a book. I couldn’t go into that deep, sad place then. It took me over 25 years. I had to get through the trauma, finish up my education with my bilingual teaching credential in California, get married and have a wonderful son. And, I had to reconnect with the other survivors to figure out what the hell had happened on our watch. I kept everything inside – never discussing my past even with good friends. I just couldn’t talk about it. In the early 2000s, I was interviewed by Leigh Fondakowski for her play “The Peoples Temple” – so, I started speaking publicly then. Soon after that, I was interviewed by Stanley Nelson for his PBS/American Experience documentary “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.” Then, I was on the big screen briefly. I started speaking about my experiences. In 2010, I published my book. Now, I have spoken all around the USA and in Mexico, in universities, libraries, Quaker venues (I am a Quaker), and in every kind of media locally, nationally, and internationally. I do not want my dearest and most wonderful friends forgotten, or minimized.

How has your experience in Jonestown changed your life?

I am a survivor. I came back from Guyana deeply traumatized, with nothing. I have worked my butt off for the past 37 years. I have a wonderful family. I have many, many awesome friends, and I live a full life. Besides being an educator and world traveler, I am an activist and work on immigration, civil rights, human rights, educational rights, and many other issues. I am not as frivolous as I used to be, nor as happy. But, I am optimistic generally. I built something from nothing, with my own hands. I had help along the way, but I DID IT. And, I could do it again. So I feel very strong and self-sufficient. I have had a very rich life. I love life – as long as I can still impact the world around me and make it better.

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