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Cleopatra7

Down the Jonestown Rabbit Hole: the Edith Roller Journals

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Cleopatra7

These days, my main fundie interest is Jonestown/Peoples' Temple, even if this group wasn't fundie in the traditional sense of the word. One resource that FJers might be interested in are the Edith Roller journals, which are an account of life in Jonestown/Peoples' Temple by a white woman in her sixties who was a college professor before moving to Jonestown in January 1978. Roller died in the mass suicide/murders of November 18, 1978, but her journals were recovered by the FBI. Through a FOIA request by the Jonestown Institute, the journals have been transcribed and put online:

http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=35667

These are a truly fascinating account of how one particular individual experienced life in Jonestown/Peoples' Temple, not through the lens of November 18, but as someone who was invested in the vision of Jonestown as a living community. She goes into a great deal of detail about what she did, who she talked to, what she ate, and what time she went to bed. The journals end after August 1978, and it's not clear why. Jonestown survivors have said that conditions in the community became more dire around this time, so it's possible that Roller didn't have time or resources to keep writing. It's also possible that further entries could have been stolen from someone within the community or they could still be classified by the FBI. What we do have is a great primary source about life in Peoples' Temple/Jonestown that is really unparalleled. However, once you start reading, we may have to send the rescue ferrets, because they're engrossing.

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gustava

I remember Jonestown.  What a tragedy.

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Puzzled
Fascinated

Thanks, @Cleopatra7.  My husband and I watched this disaster unfold in real time and I will never forget the shock, beginning with the murder of congressman Ryan.  I have read a few accounts, most recently 'A Thousand Lives' by Julia Scheeres.  This author's goal was to demonstrate why people were drawn to the People's Temple church, and Jim Jones. She lamented that history would portray his followers as deranged cultists who happily and willingly stepped up to commit suicide for the cause. It was a fascinating read and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject. And I will definitely be reading the Edith Roller journals. (I don't know if Ms Scheeres had access to these when she wrote her book.)

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Waffle Time
ChunkyBarbie
Spoiler

 

I've started to read her journal. It is amazing how interesting something so mundane can be, I'm only in the first months. When Edith writes about Jim healing people, saving lives on the phone, taking numerous offerings and punishing people by dressing them down publicly, I can't help but wonder why bought his BS. It makes me glad I'm an untrusting cynical person. 

I don't know what I did up there, I'm on my tablet. 

 

 

Edited by ChunkyBarbie
Autocorrect hates me.

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Mischievous
LadyCrow1313

CNN runs a Jonestown documentary every so often, & I've seen it a few times. It includes videos/audio clips from the compound itself, as well as interviews with survivors. The host of the show visits the site now (well, it was taped a few years ago), & you'd never know that anything ever happened there. The only thing left was a wooden gate (that I could see); everything was all overgrown again.

What a sick, sick man Jim Jones was. He's currently waiting in Hell for Charles Manson to join him (which will hopefully be soon).

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outtheblue

Jonestown is always a rabbit hole I get sucked into. I was recently on that website listening to audio recordings of their meetings (the things they said about their family members was truly sick and showed how brainwashed they were), but I have not read this journal. Guess this is what I'll be doing today in between working!

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MotherOfDragons

The full recording of Jim Jones talking his followers through the suicides/murders is on YouTube. It is absolutely sickening hearing him direct people to force their children to drink the kool-aid, then to slowly listen as their cries taper off into eerie silence when they succumb to the poison. I listened to the recording years ago, once, and it still sends shivers up my spine when I think about it.

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outtheblue
1 minute ago, MotherOfDragons said:

The full recording of Jim Jones talking his followers through the suicides/murders is on YouTube. It is absolutely sickening hearing him direct people to force their children to drink the kool-aid, then to slowly listen as their cries taper off into eerie silence when they succumb to the poison. I listened to the recording years ago, once, and it still sends shivers up my spine when I think about it.

Yes, it's very disturbing...I just can't imagine doing that to your kids.

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Jasmar

I remember when it happened. I was 12, and the pictures of the bodies on the evening news was just ... indescribably horrific. I think it was the first news story that ever turned my world upside down.

I've read through the first few months of her diaries now, too, and it's just so spooky. I cannot believe the stuff about how he held beatings as part of the "church" services, and forced people to go so-many rounds of boxing as disciplinary actions. And the way it's described, "So-and-so ordered to go ten rounds against black man," etc. For as huge he was into integration (especially in the 50s in Indianapolis - he truly did wonderful things), it was so sickeningly reminiscent of white men forcing black men to fight for their amusement.

I still, even after all these decades, just can't wrap my head around it all somehow.

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HumbleJillyMuffin
32 minutes ago, Jasmar said:

I remember when it happened. I was 12, and the pictures of the bodies on the evening news was just ... indescribably horrific. I think it was the first news story that ever turned my world upside down.

I've read through the first few months of her diaries now, too, and it's just so spooky. I cannot believe the stuff about how he held beatings as part of the "church" services, and forced people to go so-many rounds of boxing as disciplinary actions. And the way it's described, "So-and-so ordered to go ten rounds against black man," etc. For as huge he was into integration (especially in the 50s in Indianapolis - he truly did wonderful things), it was so sickeningly reminiscent of white men forcing black men to fight for their amusement.

I still, even after all these decades, just can't wrap my head around it all somehow.

My twin sister and I were barely three months old when Jonestown occurred. For my mother the idea of all the children and infants being killed by their parents was too much - she said many years later how she refused to watch TV or read a newspaper during that time because it haunted her to no end. 

As an adult I remember watching some aerial video footage of the bodies on the ground and it looked like a big patchwork quilt. So very spooky. I also read an interesting story about how the group's basketball team was away from the compound when the mass suicide occurred, as they were representing Jonestown at a tournament in Georgetown, Guyana. Being away from the compound saved their lives, one of the players being Jim Jones, Jr. His son, the grandson of Jim Jones himself, was playing basketball at the NCAA level a few years back. Very interesting. http://www.si.com/more-sports/2007/12/24/jonestown1231

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Wine time!
LaPeleona

I pretty much knew nothing about Jonestown except for mass suicide with poisoned kool aide. I fell far down this hole and just found out there is a mass jonestown grave in Oakland. I live in the bay area and had no clue this was here.

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Cleopatra7
10 hours ago, LaPeleona said:

I pretty much knew nothing about Jonestown except for mass suicide with poisoned kool aide. I fell far down this hole and just found out there is a mass jonestown grave in Oakland. I live in the bay area and had no clue this was here.

Identifying the victims of the Jonestown massacre was a logistical nightmare for several reasons. The most obvious was that Jonestown itself was located in an isolated jungle in the tropics, and the Guyanese authorities didn't arrive until several days after the deaths. This meant that the bodies were in an advanced state of decay before any kind of identification process could begin. By the time the US Army showed up and began moving bodies, they were already falling apart and those of the youngest victims had become skeletized. Since this was before DNA testing, the only way to positively identify the victims was through dental records and fingerprints, neither of which were available for many victims, especially the children. Consequently, many Jonestown victims were unidentified, and were buried in a mass grave in Evergreen Cemetery. This article describes the disrespectful way the US government treated the bodies of Jonestown victims and their families:

http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=16585

Quote

At the end of November 1978, the federal government claimed its Jonestown expenses ran to $9 million. When the Justice Department finally filed a civil suit against Peoples Temple in January 1979, the figure shrank by half, to $4.2 million. And in May 1979, the General Accounting Office calculated a cost of $4800 per body, or close to $4.4 million for the entire operation. At the time, the U.S. Agency for International Development picked up the tab. When the Justice Department suit finally concluded in May 1981, the judge awarded only $1.7 million, retaining the rest of the Temple’s assets for survivors and other claimants.

This doesn’t seem like too much to spend on “the proper and decent thing to do,” White House Press Secretary Jody Powell said of the airlift. In fact, the government could have done much more for the people who died in Jonestown. It could have followed routine forensic procedures to accurately determine how 900 people actually met their deaths. The fact that it didn’t shocked medical examiners across the country. “Once [the U.S. government] assumed responsibility,” said Cyril Wecht, the medical examiner for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, “the medical/legal work was inequitable, ridiculous, inadequate, and negligent.”

The President of the National Association of Medical Examiners, William Sturner, described the U.S. investigation as “badly botched,” and called the follow-up “chaotic.”

Family members will never know how their loved ones died and will be nagged for years by unanswered questions. Insurance claims and other matters of adjudication will be mired in doubt for years to come.

The United States government wronged the victims of Jonestown and their families when it removed the bodies from Guyana without making any tests at the scene of the crime. It wronged them, and us, when it took the bodies to Dover, Delaware. It wronged us when it embalmed the bodies before conducting postmortem examinations.

By failing to follow routine medico-legal procedures, the government raised questions about its own performance and motives regarding Peoples Temple. More important, however, it obscured the true cause of the deaths in Jonestown, irrevocably.

A new memorial was placed on the mass grave at Evergreen in 2011 that lists the names of everyone who died on November 18, 1978:

http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29510

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SilverBeach

The sdsu site is really informative. I read all the survivor posts (sadly, not too many). I have been reading Edith Roller's journal to see if she had any observations or questions about Jones' deteriorating mental state and/or abuses. Haven't seen anything yet, she appeared to be a true believer.

Many of the Jonestown victims were black, which to my mind contributed to their disrespectful treatment. That, and generalizing blame for the assassination of the senator to all the Jonestown residents.

On 1/5/2017 at 8:08 AM, outtheblue said:

Yes, it's very disturbing...I just can't imagine doing that to your kids.

They had no choice, did it with a Jones goon pointing a gun at them. Beyond sad.

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outtheblue
20 hours ago, SilverBeach said:

They had no choice, did it with a Jones goon pointing a gun at them. Beyond sad.

Probably for some, but I think most had such a strong belief in this "cause" that they were willing participants. Even the older kids. Just  from listening to the audio tapes of their meetings and rallies and the practice suicide sessions months prior.

 They would have to shoot me first, though.

Edited by outtheblue

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SilverBeach
39 minutes ago, outtheblue said:

Probably for some, but I think most had such a strong belief in this "cause" that they were willing participants. Even the older kids. Just  from listening to the audio tapes of their meetings and rallies and the practice suicide sessions months prior.

 They would have to shoot me first, though.

I meant specifically parents giving their own babies poison. I would have had to be shot first also.

Those meetings and rallies were compulsory. By the time the mass killing took place, any pretense of freedom was gone. Some may have resigned themselves to the inevitability of dying since Jones armed henchmen were monitoring the death lines. Unfortunately, the US did not autopsy any of the remains.

There was also a lot of disillusionment by the time the killings took place. Jones saw how eager some were to get out of there, which just ramped up his paranoia. He had dropped the pretense of being a Christian church and openly identified as a socialist collective. Some were not down with that either, but what could they do?

I think the number of those who died willingly was far smaller than we thought. The truest of believers were the armed killers who did not die that day!

The sad story of Jonestown remains a prime example of cult danger, and underscores the importance of resisting charismatic influence and always retaining your critical thinking skills. I hope current Scientology adherents get out before it is too late. Cult brainwashing is difficult to overcome though. But it can be done.

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Satisfied
church_of_dog

I am working my way through Edith Roller's journals too -- I was 16 when this happened, and I was just down the peninsula from SF.  I remember it not just as a national tragedy but also as a close-to-home one.  As a high school kid with a small/local circle of friends, I didn't know anyone who was involved.  But now looking back as an adult with a few decades of life and acquaintances, especially in the San Francisco area, I'm so curious whether I come across any familiar names in her journal.

I've already been rather shaken by the fact that she (Edith) worked at Bechtel.  I never worked for them directly, but I did spend much of 1982-1983 -- only a few years afterwards! -- in the city doing temp secretarial work, including a few months at Bechtel!  I was in the word processing "pool" and don't remember any particular individual employees nor what kind of documents I worked on.  I often ate lunch in the nearby PG&E cafeteria just as she has described doing.  I was at the time just aware enough to be turned off by the giant corporate organization with their giant construction projects (including nuclear reactors, I think?) but felt that was possibly balanced out by their "good works" such as desalination plants.  (my opinions have since changed and I'm opposed to all of it)  I felt some internal dilemma about the theoretical idea of working for them directly, but since I technically worked for the temp agency I was in the clear in terms of that internal debate.

Anyway, I want to just skim Roller's journals until they get closer to 1978, but I'm finding them hypnotically interesting and my desire to scan for familiar names and places is overriding my hurry.  So I guess I'll be reading the whole thing...

Edited by church_of_dog

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FundieFarmer

It's really interesting to hear there was any doubt or confusion about how they died. I didn't know there had been. I'm glad to go down this rabbit hole and to learn of Edith Roller's journals. They're very interesting. Thank you for sharing. 

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Cleopatra7
11 hours ago, SilverBeach said:

I meant specifically parents giving their own babies poison. I would have had to be shot first also.

Those meetings and rallies were compulsory. By the time the mass killing took place, any pretense of freedom was gone. Some may have resigned themselves to the inevitability of dying since Jones armed henchmen were monitoring the death lines. Unfortunately, the US did not autopsy any of the remains.

There was also a lot of disillusionment by the time the killings took place. Jones saw how eager some were to get out of there, which just ramped up his paranoia. He had dropped the pretense of being a Christian church and openly identified as a socialist collective. Some were not down with that either, but what could they do?

I think the number of those who died willingly was far smaller than we thought. The truest of believers were the armed killers who did not die that day!

The sad story of Jonestown remains a prime example of cult danger, and underscores the importance of resisting charismatic influence and always retaining your critical thinking skills. I hope current Scientology adherents get out before it is too late. Cult brainwashing is difficult to overcome though. But it can be done.

Something I have been thinking about a lot lately is how many of the people in Jonestown really thought they were committing "revolutionary suicide" versus those who drank the poison out of despair that their community was imploding around them. I'm inclined to believe not many believed the former. Documents from the inner circle in the last months of Jonestown indicate that they were desperately trying to persuade Jim Jones to find other options to salvage the project other than "revolutionary suicide." Among these options were relocating Jonestown to the Soviet Union, sending Jones himself to Cuba to take external pressure off the community, and being more focused on building a viable future for Jonestown, rather than constantly obsessing over perceived "enemies" and "taking a final stand":

http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=13109  (a collection of primary documents relating to Jonestown's final months)

Survivor Tim Carter has an interesting opinion on this question:

http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=31976

He asserts that the children and the seniors should be considered murder victims because the former could not have consented to "revolutionary suicide" in any meaningful sense, and the latter were too infirm to defend themselves against young, healthy guards who were intend on injecting them or forcing them to swallow poison (the oldest seniors were found dead in their beds, presumably injected by third parties).

Quote

However, I assert there are other groups of people who should fall into the category of being murdered:

• Those who drank poison believing that they had only two choices: drink the poison, or be shot by armed guards. Is that “revolutionary suicide”? No, it is not. Their deaths were coerced. The pavilion was surrounded by armed guards. People witnessed others being pulled from their seats and forced to drink or being injected.

• Those who may have voluntarily drunk the poison based on the lies of Jim Jones as told that day. Jones asserted that the children would be taken from us, that the Guyanese Defense Force was on its way and it was armed and would be shooting, etc. If someone “voluntarily” takes their life based on the lies of another, is that really suicide? Wouldn’t the perpetrator of the lie be responsible?

• Those who voluntarily drank the poison through months/years of conditioning that created a state-of-siege mentality. Oftentimes, as many survivors have learned since, the “crises” we were experiencing were – literally – manufactured by Jones himself (e.g. gun shots being fired into the community in September of ‘77). If one commits “revolutionary suicide” based on years of experience, without the knowledge that the experiences themselves were created by the leader, is that suicide? I assert it is murder.

How does one assign a numerical total to the people who fall into the above categories? It is impossible. Perhaps one guideline would be this: During the so-called “September Siege” of 1977, Jones twice asked the approximately 700 people in Jonestown “Who wants to commit revolutionary suicide?” The first vote revealed a total of two who voted “for” (Maria Katsaris and Harriett Tropp). The following day the total rose to three (Carolyn Layton, along with Maria and Harriett). [bolding is mine]

 

it's interesting to note that Peoples' Temple members who were not physically present in Jonestown itself were ordered to commit "revolutionary suicide" by Jones via ham radio, but the only person who actually did it was Sharon Amos, who was considered a fanatical Jones loyalist even by other members and killed her three children (ages 19, 11, and 10) as well. Away from the intense peer pressure of Jonestown, physical coercion by guards, and Jones' charismatic influence, the Peoples' Temple staff in California and Georgetown, Guyana ignored the call to die.

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zee_four

I know this is an old thread but I've recently been really into reading about Jonestown after reading Julia Scheeres' book "A Thousand Lives" (after reading her first Jesus Land because of my interest in fundies) so I guess its fitting that I find FJ in a lot of my Google searches. Full circle.

 

I had no idea how many children died and how it was mostly PoC. I was born in 88 and everything in school was very cursory. I'm learning so much now and its heart breaking, especially the way victims were treated. They were murdered.

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Don'tlikekoolaid

I was at the dentist when the news broke in Canada and we all ended up in the dentist’s break room watching the news. Things like Jonestown happen when people give up their power to an asshole.  Horrifying!  Stay in charge of yourself.

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Cheetah

Just found this thread after searching for a Jonestown thread.  Did anyone else watch the Sundance documentaries over the weekend..  Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle.  I guess they were produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, which wasn't obvious when I watched.   Also if you've read Jeff Guinn's book on Jonestown, he's interviewed quite heavily in this production.   Also has interviews with 2 of Jones' surviving children (Jim Jr. and Stephan) as well as Jackie Speier and several other survivors.  Lots of original video footage as well.  

After finishing that I started googling for more resources and found some conspiracy theory stuff that seems a bit nuts (the basic premise is that Jones worked for the CIA and Jonestown was a mass psychological research operation).  Crazy and yet I do feel like a lot of questions were never answered in the official accounts (mostly along the lines of how did they get so much cyanide?  Who were the upper-level guards who were injecting the reluctant people with the cyanide and what happened to them in the end? )  

Anyway, thanks for the Roller journal link.. will start reading those.  

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Cheetah

I finished the Roller diaries from the Jonestown months and some of the SF months.  Fascinating stuff... you really get a picture of day-to-day life there.  It's weirdly detached... or not so weird because it's a diary of events rather than her emotions around them, but still, it's just odd that she shows more emotion (annoyance) about her roommates talking loudly late at night than about the idea of committing revolutionary suicide eventually.   I hadn't really thought too much before about the idea of trying to set up a utopian self-sustaining communal society in the jungle and how difficult that would be.  I still wonder whether Jim Jones went into the project with the main goal of flaming out with this grand suicide gesture once he got a big enough group there or if the main goal was to set up an alternative society and the suicide was the backup plan of a paranoid man. 

I started looking at some of the other things available on that San Diego State site and one thing I found was that Leo Ryan's body was sent to the funeral home that's about 6 blocks from my house that I go past about 10 times a week.   I guess it's not that weird since I live in his former district and about 5 miles from SFO but still.  Also, my family went for a long weekend in Redwood Valley about 3 years ago which is where Peoples Temple was when they first moved to CA from Indiana.  I didn't know that when we were there (found it out last year when I read the Guinn book).  Weird because Redwood Valley is tiny... so after I found that out I started wondering if the Airbnb people we rented from ever had any association with Peoples Temple.  I'm sure they must have known people who had been in it.

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