In March 1970, I first traveled up to Ukiah, California. I was a progressive with a Cause – without any shelter from the storms around me. I was a recent college dropout and divorcee, an anti-war protestor, an “honorary” Black Panther member, a Woodstock participant, and a seriously impaired activist. I had just arrived in San Francisco at the insistence of my o...
lder sister, who, as always, saw what was really going on with me in Bridgeport, Connecticut. So, here I was – facing Jim Jones at the pulpit in the Peoples Temple Church in nearby Redwood Valley.
When I arrived at the Peoples Temple building, I was surrounded with an enthusiastic, multi-ethnic crowd of all ages. That was what I’d spent considerable time searching for. I also came face-to-face with a leader who had gathered them all together in a protected place – a temple. As he spoke to the congregation, I could sense his commitment to an egalitarian community. And, I saw his interactions with his family, and his close friends. Everyone in the congregations seemed to be his close friend. He seemed intimate and kind.
After a few visits, I joined Peoples Temple and moved up to Ukiah, where I got a job at the local welfare department. That was my day job, but my heart was in what I did outside of the job – my life in the community of Peoples Temple. Today, as a teacher, my life on and off the job is connected. My friends from work are some of my best friends and are treasures in my life. Not so, when I was part of the PT group.
One of the fundamental “rules” of Peoples Temple was to be very private (aka secretive) with anyone outside of the group. We were reminded that we were the cutting edge of a new society where all colors, ages, and socioeconomic levels were welcomed. Those outside of our “group” were not to be trusted with any knowledge of our internal workings. Those of us who were employed in the larger community worked hard at fitting in. That meant we could never disclose what was going on with us. For instance, while I worked at the welfare department for those seven years, I drove a greyhound bus around the country and within California in my time off. I was on the Planning Commission which was an all-night meeting usually once a week. I was head of security for the Redwood Valley property – which kept me up many nights during the week. I never shared any of this at the welfare department. I also lived in different communes where other Peoples Temple members working at the welfare department lived. We attempted to hide that we lived together, or even knew each other well.
I spent many hours with these people, and formed friendships with them. They just knew nothing that was going on with me in my off time. That was intentional. We members actually worked hard at disinformation. Rather than appearing different, we would try to fit in to the culture of Ukiah and whatever job we worked at. That went on for seven years.
In December of 1975, a group of 90 members of the Peoples Temple Planning Commission flew down to check out Guyana and Jonestown. I fell in love with Guyana. In March 1977, Jim asked me to move to Guyana. I moved right away and never looked back.
When I survived the deaths in Guyana, and headed back to California, I hid all of my Peoples Temple experience. I stuck it away until I could deal with just surviving. That took me about twenty years.
Over the past fourteen years, I have reopened my past and have found that my life is richer and saner. I am a product of who I was, of what I lived through, and what I have made of myself. I try to be forward-thinking. That sometimes means I have to try to understand my past, while moving ahead.
Several years ago, I got serious and wrote my autobiography, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look. That has dramatically changed my life. I felt that I had to remember those wonderful people who died and make a record in some permanent way. An extension of writing is that I have to go around and speak about my life – before, during, and after Peoples Temple. I want to explain and clarify what we were all about. I want to answer questions people have and, as one of my friends puts it, “Put faces on the body bags.”
I have never been one to “go home again.” I never wanted to return to Bridgeport. I never contacted my ex-husband, or returned to Guyana. I am not one – generally – to look back. I want to look forward.
But, here I am – going back to Ukiah. Who would have thought? I myself never thought I would.
I am traveling around California doing Book Talks at universities, libraries, book stores, Quaker venues, and other locations. I started thinking about Ukiah. I really don’t want closed and locked doors in my life. My life is just richer when I have full disclosure to myself – about myself. I decided to make contact in Ukiah, and arranged to do a speaking engagement at the Mendocino County Library in Ukiah. I spoke with the librarian who told me that another Peoples Temple author had visited the library. It was an emotional presentation and even more emotional response from the audience. I expect that some of those I worked with still live in Ukiah. I hope to see them and speak with them. I am glad to be going, for the most part. I don’t think it will be easy. I have asked two of the other survivors to accompany me, along with my husband. They were living with me in Redwood Valley for much of the time in the early 1970s.
I had two contacts with my Ukiah co-workers the first year after I returned from Guyana. Immediately after I returned, in a tiny restaurant in San Francisco, I met up with a woman who had sat next to me for seven years. I had disconnected my memory then as a way to survive. I couldn’t “place” her though I knew I did know her. She introduced herself to me, but I couldn’t really grasp the conversation. Soon after that, two children of one of my other co-workers wrote to me. They told me that they were so glad that I survived. Since I wasn’t happy I survived at that point, I didn’t respond. Later, I was unable to find them to write them a belated thank you. I’m hoping I can possibly clean those up now – thirty-three years later.
It is really a new journey – not really adventure. It may be something like setting a goal of climbing a tall mountain. I want to get over the mountains, and have them behind me. I don’t want obstacles. I want to face the plains in front of me – no more mountains from Peoples Temple in front of me.
I returned from my trip with wonderful memories refreshed. I passed by all the familiar spots in Mendocino County – the former welfare department building, the Ukiah post office and a home where we Temple members congregated at and worked in for years. Then, I went around Redwood Valley and saw old communal homes where I lived, the Peoples Temple building with the pool in the back for swimming all summer, the road to Lake County where Don Sly (aka “Ujara”) taught me how to drive a greyhound-like bus, and finally West House – my last residence in the United States.
I traveled with my husband and met up with some wonderful Quakers in the area. I spoke to a combined Quaker group from Lake and Mendocino counties, and spoke at the Ukiah library. Several other survivors came to my presentation. The events were very intimate and the audiences were drawn because of their curiosity about how Jonestown could have perished. It was very healing for me, and, I believe, for them.