Teaching the Kids of Jonestown

By Julia ScheeresSeptember 22, 2018

Teaching the Kids of Jonestown
FEW VICTIMS of mass murder have been as ridiculed as much as the victims of Jim Jones. The November 18, 1978 killings in which more than 900 Americans were forced to drink a cyanide-laced punch by their preacher and his gun-toting thugs left us with the phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” yet few young people are aware of its tragic origin. Tossed about by politicians, activists, and academics alike, the phrase is meant as a warning against groupthink or uncritical thought. But the phrase is doubly wrong: the residents did not drink Kool-Aid, they drank a knockoff called “Flavor Aid”; moreover, their only choice on that fatal night was death by either poison or bullet. Leaving Jonestown alive was not an option.

In my own book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, I trace the experiences of five people who were drawn to Jones’s progressive church, Peoples Temple, out of desperation or idealism and narrate what happened once Jones cloistered them in Guyana and brought up his idea of “revolutionary suicide” for the first time.

Likewise, Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral’s book, And Then They Were Gone, traces the fate of a group of teenagers who attended the progressive Opportunity II High School in San Francisco where they taught and ended up in Jonestown. (Bebelaar taught creative writing and Cabral taught journalism and coached the baseball team.) A third of the Jonestown victims were children which makes the Kool-Aid phrase all the more odious and cruel.

Bebelaar and Cabral humanize these kids by including a selection of their poems some of which hint at darkness and sharing anecdotes that emphasize their buoyant adolescent spirits and dreams for the future. We can’t go back and save them from a drug-addled madman, but we can honor them by reading their poetry and learning about their small rebellions and impulses that are common to the human experience everywhere. I spoke with Bebelaar about this.


JULIA SCHEERES: Why did you write this book? I’m especially curious why you began it so long after the deaths in Jonestown.

JUDY BEBELAAR: The “why” is complicated. After the first reports of 400 dead, I felt just a crushing grief, but held some hope too: some of our students must have survived, as there were almost a thousand people in Jonestown. But over the days following November 18, the number of dead swelled to 918, and the names of so many kids we teachers knew appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. I still have those yellowed newspaper pages. I thought of our Temple students a great deal, especially every year when November 18 neared, but nothing occurred to me that I could do. None of us at the school, I think, knew what to do with our sense of loss.

Then, in 2006, Ron called me to say he’d seen The People’s Temple, at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, the apostrophe in the title added to the official Church name to show it was the story of the Temple that belonged to its people, not Jones’s Temple. Ron thought we could write a book honoring our students in a similar way. At first, we just wanted to let people know that the kids from the Temple did not have much choice about going, and that they were much like other teenagers, except perhaps for their apparent color blindness when it came to race. That, and the fact that they were at school every day, eager to participate, unlike some of our “old students,” who had fallen into a habit of cutting, and out of the habit of doing homework. But like other young people — a reason I’ve always loved teaching — the Temple kids were full of idealism and energy. That must have been why Jones wanted so many young people in Jonestown: he needed their strength and resilience. But those first simple reasons have been transformed over the years spent working on the book.

Tell me more about Opportunity High — who were the students?

The first Opportunity High was a San Francisco public school designed by teachers who were passionate about teaching and determined to find ways to reach students who weren’t making it in regular schools. It was one of many alternative schools generated by the “free school movement” of the ’60s. Opportunity’s founding teachers, including me, came from a graduate teacher training program at UC Berkeley. Many of us had switched to education from other graduate programs because we had decided becoming a teacher was the best way to foster “change from within.” Then we planned a second school: Opportunity II was our second attempt to get the formula right.

Did the school parallel the era’s emphasis on social justice?

The staff reflected the spirit of the times, as did many of the students, who chose to come to the school not because they were in danger of dropping out, but because they wanted a different, more relevant kind of education. We took field trips and embarked on “real world” projects such as Ron’s student radio show and the Sociology class field trip to interview farm workers in Delano. Many of the kids had never been outside the city, so we took trips to places like Yosemite and Monterey. We tried to give students choices for required classes like English. For example, Native American Literature was a class students requested I teach. Ron and I published student writing in Journalism and Creative Writing classes.

You lived in the Bay Area when the Peoples Temple came to power. What was it about the times and the political climate here that allowed Jones to become so prominent a player?

People were exploring a “New Age” array of alternative spiritual paths, looking for some way back to the optimism of the ’60s as they morphed into the darker, more violent ’70s. Peoples Temple was a truly integrated church, with singing, dancing, and good works: helping seniors, participating in protests, raising money to keep a medical clinic open and supporting our PBS station, among many other projects. Much of that work was done by the young. Jones was good at charming and impressing people and had won over most of the progressive politicians in the city and the state: Willie Brown, Jerry Brown, San Francisco mayor George Moscone, to name just a few. Jane Fonda attended a Church service and sent a thank-you note. Rosalynn Carter met with Jones briefly. A huge testimonial dinner was given to honor Jones in October ’77. Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, John and Phillip Burton came, as well as the mayor and state senators. Cecil Williams presented a plaque from Glide Church. Jones had convinced everyone that he and his Church brought “hope and love” (words on another plaque) to the city.

How did your new principal, Yvonne Golden, come to admire Jones as much as she obviously does in the book?

Golden had called Cecil Williams, Glide Church’s charismatic minister, her “number one” agent for social change, but after visiting Peoples Temple, announced Jones had taken that place. Jones, like Golden was a declared socialist, and she admired that, but I think she also saw his political savvy. He could bring a crowd. He could get letters written. He could bring out the vote.

And did you see anything that caused you to suspect something was wrong?

Only briefly, and then when I looked at how engaged, happy, and healthy the Temple kids seemed to be, I dismissed my doubts. Only in retrospect did some of the darkness stand out.

We teachers were used to kids who were eager to tell us when something was wrong in their lives. They trusted us and confided in us. But the Temple kids didn’t talk much about their private lives. And I think that probably, they were truly happy to be in our school, which was kind of like a family, as the church was in many ways. Only Amondo Griffith spoke of fear when he wrote, in a poem about being alone in a dark place, talking to himself, and being afraid someone might hear him “say the wrong thing.” I thought of it as his poking fun at himself. It does haunt me, that I didn’t ask him more about what he meant.

When did you realize something sinister was happening in the Temple?

The Temple kids enrolled in our school in September 1976. We didn’t begin to wonder about the church until the reports of terrible things going on behind closed doors began coming out in the summer of 1977: at first a flurry of smaller articles and then the big exposé in New West magazine. Only a few Temple students were pulled out by Jones in the spring of ’77, beginning with Stephan, his only biological son. Later I learned that Stephan was probably sent to Guyana because Jones feared Stephan would defect, as other Temple members had. Jimmy and Tim, his adopted sons, both on the baseball team, were taken next, and Mark Sly told Ron, near the end of school, that he was going — and didn’t want to. Our title comes from the fact that, over that summer, most of the Temple kids simply disappeared in a secretive exodus.

When you reached out to your former students as you were writing the book, did you learn anything about their experience in the Temple that surprised you?

Definitely! We didn’t know, for example, that Temple students weren’t allowed to make friends with the non-Temple students. I learned from two of the “old students” at Opportunity — what we came to call the non-Temple students — that at least two of the teen Church members had broken the rule, in a way that I’m sure now would have resulted in serious punishment, probably a whipping with what Jones called “the board of education,” something else we didn’t know about at the time. The two couples were more than friends: it was young love that brought them together.

The meeting place for such “Romeo and Juliet” couples was the empty art room. Mark Sly had a non-Temple girlfriend, who told me about their relationship. Another “old student,” Carl Ross, told me about his Temple girlfriend, Kimberly. Those stories are part of the book, an early indication that it is not so easy as Jones thought to cow adolescents into submission and what he once guaranteed would be the “perfect comportment” of Temple students. They were good students, always showing up unless they had an excuse from the Temple, doing their homework, contributing to class discussions, showing up for practice, working on the school paper, and writing poetry. But as teenagers, they resisted what they saw as wrong, especially when it came to love. They were finding their ways to the selves they imagined they would be.

Yes, I see that in their poems and the prose they wrote. What can we learn from their writing about their dreams and their fears?

Even more than most kids I have taught, idealism and a belief in the possibility of a world without racism, sexism, or ageism was part of what many Temple kids wrote about. For example, two Temple kids in my reading class, Cornelius Truss and Vance White, wrote a letter to Theodore Taylor, the author of The Cay. It’s the story of an elderly black man who saves the life of a young white boy. Although the boy was raised in a racist household, he comes to love the man. I do have Taylor’s beautiful letter in answer to the kids, who were best buddies, and it’s in the book. They asked him if he thought a world without racism was possible, and how it might come to be. He told them he believed it was, and that he counted on young people like themselves.

There were poems about love too, and loss — and romantic descriptions of a tropical wilderness. We teachers knew little about Jonestown then, but Jones had been rhapsodizing about life in Guyana to his flock. One of our students, Joyce, was one of the best Temple poets. In her poetry, she speaks of the trade winds, rain which “tingles on the roof of the tropic island,” “a clear blue stream / Leading to a little white cottage.” But another poem wonders why she feels “half” instead of whole and asks, “When will I change?” Again, I wondered: was it more than adolescent longing? I invited her to come with me to a poetry reading, but she said she couldn’t. I wish I’d found some other way to talk to Joyce alone. Looking at her pictures, on the cover and inside the book, still breaks my heart.

And what did you learn about your students’ lives in Jonestown?

In addition to what we found in books, I also found, in the California Historical Society’s library, many letters by students about the wonders of Jonestown. But I soon discovered the writing was pretty formulaic, probably assigned. Then I found Temple member Edith Roller’s journals, as you did. She had been at an Opportunity gathering where Jones spoke at the school. He had that talk recorded — as he had many events — and we used the transcript, from Jonestown Institute website for the scene in the book where Jones speaks and presents a check to the baseball team.

Edith was apparently the only one allowed to keep a journal in Jonestown, and I found details about what kids were doing when they weren’t working or attending the Jonestown school: girls “fixing” boys’ hair (a common teen practice in the day, which Jones frowned upon); girls and boys meeting after curfew outside her cottage (which Edith didn’t appreciate). There had been dancing once in the evenings, but Jones put a stop to that (the dust raised was bad for their health, he claimed). I think, as you do, that her journal for the last three months went missing because she was being too honest. Jones wanted to choose what would go down in history. But back to the kids: Stephan sent me one of his pieces, about how the kids managed to have at least one dance party, probably more, in spite of Jones.

So the teenagers found ways to maintain their independent streaks in spite of Jones and the Temple?

Yes. They had the courage to disobey his rules in spite of the danger. The heart of the book is the chapter called, “Precious Acts of Treason,” a phrase from Deborah Layton’s book, Seductive Poison. She uses the term to describe the ways people rebelled in spite of terrible punishments. The young people found many ways to fight back, or ways to escape, like the secret dance party Stephan describes — at least for a time. They managed to be teenagers even in a prison camp. It was one or our students, Monica, who, with her friend Vernon, was brave enough to pass a note to one of the journalists who came to investigate Jonestown which said, “Help us get out of Jonestown.”

I don’t think most in Jonestown, until the end, fully believed Jim Jones would actually carry out his threats of “revolutionary suicide,” which you point out in A Thousand Lives, is a twisting of Huey Newton’s definition of the phrase. There had been many “White Nights” where the topic of death or that of committing suicide for a cause was part of Jones’s message. But those where a substance was drunk had previously turned out to be just a “test of faith.”

Another act of youthful resistance was how Stephan and others convinced Jones that a basketball team would be good PR, in spite of the fact that he opposed organized sport as capitalistic. The team, which included some Cobras, was playing a tournament with the Guyanese team when Jones called them to come back to Jonestown. The boys, convinced it was just another scare tactic, were sure they could win the next game and refused. They had also coalesced in their opposition to Jones, and Stephan was sure that when they got back to Jonestown, the time was ripe for a change. But they did not know, until too late, what had happened.


Julia Scheeres is the New York Times best-selling author of the memoir Jesus Land and of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown. She lives in the Bay Area with her family and is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

LARB Contributor

Julia Scheeres is the New York Times–bestselling author of Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown. Her essays, articles, and reviews have been published in Elle, The Pacific Standard, The Guardian, O, and many other places. More at www.sequoiaeditorial.com.


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