Sunday, November 18, 2018

Life at Jonestown

It was 40 years ago today that over 900 people died at Jonestown in Guyana, having been ordered by their cult leader Jim Jones to partake of a cyanide-laced drink. It was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the incidents of 11 September 2001. One of those who died was Edith Roller. Her diaries, though, survived and many of them are available online.

Jonestown, Wikipedia says, was the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, a community built in northwestern Guyana by the Peoples Temple, a cult from California led by Jim Jones. The cult moved to Jonestown in the summer of 1977, and a little more than a year later, on 18 November 1978,  909 of its members died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning in an event termed, by Jones, as ‘revolutionary suicide’. Jones himself died of a shotgun wound to the head, probably self-inflicted. The deaths followed soon after the murder of five others by Temple members at a nearby airstrip. Those victims included Congressman Leo Ryan, the first and only Congressman murdered in the line of duty in US history, and three journalists.

Very much has been written about the cult, and the extraordinary events of that day 30 years ago. The Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, for example, runs a website - Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple - which aims to present information about the Peoples Temple as accurately and objectively as possible. Being objective, it says, means offering as many diverse views and opinions about the Temple and the events in Jonestown as possible.

One of the most intriguing parts of the website concerns Edith Roller, a Temple member who meticulously recorded her daily activities in a diary. At the start of the diary in 1975, she was working for the international company, Bechtel, and living in downtown San Francisco, but the diaries continue through January 1978, when she was called to Jonestown, to August that year, a few months before she died (aged 63). Don Beck and Michael Bellefountaine are credited on the website for compiling, transcribing, and analysing the journals. They say the journals were found in two locations: in Temple documents collected by the FBI and released through the Freedom of Information Act; and, in the Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society. However, entries for several months are still considered missing.

Bellefountaine, in particular, has written a number of interesting articles about the journals for the website, and gives an excellent overview of their content and value. Here is part of one article entitled Roller Journals Reveal Detailed, Dispassionate Look at Temple.

‘Edith offers a detailed description of Jonestown that is rarely seen: a thriving active community of over a thousand people who are well aware that their sacrifice and hard work were paying off in the very existence of the community. . . [She] offers overviews of in-depth agricultural reports as well as gardening and livestock reports. She also records the daily diet, and the daily school and work schedules. Additionally Edith takes care to mention as many people as possible: new arrivals, births, job promotions or demotions, and those being brought on the floor for praise or punishment. Because Edith made every effort to record as many names as possible, she gave valuable information about the babies being born in the community, many of whom had gone unrecorded in the official death lists which were based on the passports issued. It is also valuable information for people who know nothing of their relatives’ lives while they were living in Jonestown.’

Edith’s journal also reveals much about the Jonestown community’s darker aspects, Bellefountaine says: ‘She writes of a suicide drill, essentially a trial run for the last day. Her description of the long lines, and the vat of juice are hauntingly familiar to the pictures from November 18th. In her writing she talks about how she did not want to die, and she did not think that the juice was really poisoned. These revelations give credence to some theories that the people of Jonestown thought the last day was just another drill, and many may have initially participated because they thought it was a loyalty test. Additionally Edith gives clear voice to those who do not want to die. Though she writes that she was willing to take the potion, the drill was called off before she got to the vat. Edith makes clear that she had too much hope for the future of the collective community, for the individual children, and for herself. She gives an understanding voice to the conflict of being willing to die, but not wanting to.’

Here are two entries from Roller’s diary in 1978.

1 August 1978
‘. . . Although it was very late Jim took up another matter: Norman Ijames, after having been gone for six months, had informed the Temple he would be returning this week, he had not communicated with his wife Judy and child, had sent no money. He had been reported with another woman, some of our people had talked to him while in Miami, though he had been offered a job at the airport in Georgetown he was flying on lines that did not bring him in to Guyana. The fact that he is a pilot may have some significance with regard to his activities in view of the aerial surveillance of Jonestown by the National Enquirer plane and reports of planned mercenary attacks on us. Many members spoke of Norm’s characteristics: spoiled by his parents, cherished as the only son, avoidance of physical labor, pride in his appearance, which made it possible that he could have deserted to our enemies. Jim said that the government had told us the CIA had a plant in our membership who might come here. . .’

Sunday 20 August
‘I was up at 8.00.

Read news from the pavilion boards. For breakfast pancakes and coffee worked on journal items.

At 12.00 I worked in the African map in the pavilion. I completed the outline for all countries, though there are some loose ends to be tied up. I still have a problem in the seacoast area where Zaire and Angola join. I plan to cut out the outlines of all the countries have a game in class in which the students looking at atlas maps can pin the outlines of the separate countries on a sheet, thus learning the position of some of them. Also we will be able then to ascertain where the map is insufficiently accurate. At the same time we can get a complete list of each country.

Had a shower and shampooed my hair.

Sewed, continuing with my skirt.

Ate dinner at 5.00 and we had rice with pork, okra, french fried eggplant in a batter.

I sewed.

Mark Gosney was giving Edith Cordell trouble; she had a cold. She turned him over to Vern Gosney.

The guest was expected tomorrow and entertainment was being prepared for him in the Pavilion. Intended to go up about 8;00, people were gathering but I didn’t hear any music so assumed he had not arrived yet. Then I heard Jim in the loudspeaker. He was annoyed because people were waiting in the pavilion instead of being in the library studying the news.

I finished sewing about 9.30. I went up to the library, read as much of the news I could over the heads of the crowd. Dick Tropp and Jack Beam were explaining the backgrounds of some of the news. As the guest had not yet arrived I went home and went to bed but I didn’t sleep.

Then we received orders to come to the pavilion. I went up. I expected to find it difficult to get a seat but Jim had earlier ordered young people to get up and give their seats to seniors. A young man led me to seat in front, asking the little boy occupying it to sit on the floor with the other children. The guest, a young looking man, was seated with those assigned to talk to him at a table in the middle of the pavilion. A musical program was given.

We were dismissed at 2.00. A heavy rain fell.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 18 November 2008.

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