SUQUAMISH — She left behind what she could — a name, a city, a marriage. Other things — the newspaper articles, photos and, oddly, a candle blessed by the man before he was a demon — she neatly labeled and filed away. That’s how a legal secretary defeats chaos.
“Recent and less recent NRM catastrophes help us realize that in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than any other accounts.” […more…]
The rest of the baggage resisted abandonment. It wouldn’t be organized and layered into boxes. Guilt is as tenacious as a shadow, as slowly corrosive as salt air. The former Joyce Shaw didn’t know this when she fled Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in 1976.
She’s learned it since. Yesterday, on the 25th anniversary of the suicide and slaying of 914 parishioners in a South American jungle — including at least 13 from Washington state — she thumbs through photos of children she helped raise, of the friends with whom she wanted to build a perfect communal life.
All dead. The difference is now she doesn’t want to join them.
“It’s been a long, hard road,” said Dominique, 61, sitting in her cluttered turquoise cottage a stone’s throw from Puget Sound. For privacy, she asked to have her last name left out of the story. “For years I didn’t deal with it very well. I self-medicated. I had panic attacks. I withdrew from people.”
Not anymore. She says she’s deeply happy now. Therapy and time have carved her thoughts into sizes she can handle. And so, she wants to talk.
Opening a neatly arranged scrapbook, she said yesterday that in a way, the Peoples Temple, initially, was a reflection of its time.
“We were idealistic. … I guess I was looking for some way to help people. And I found it, for a while, working for the greater ideal.”
It was 1970, and Shaw, as she was known, was 28 and worked for the University of California-San Francisco, giving psychological evaluations to patients. She’d recently moved to the city after graduating from Miami University of Ohio with a degree in psychology.
As a college student, she read Trotsky. She read the nihilists. She believed in socialism. And she knew that San Francisco was everything the Midwest wasn’t. A friend invited her to hear a preacher speak at Benjamin Franklin Junior High on Geary Street.
This was her first encounter with Jim Jones.
“He was impressive, a mesmerizing speaker. At the time I thought to myself that he either was the messiah or a paranoid schizophrenic.”
She began attending meetings. Jones’ popularity was soaring, not just on the fringe but among city leaders. He’d moved his Peoples Temple into the city five years earlier from Indiana, and soon began giving cash to news organizations and politicians such as Assemblyman Willie Brown Jr. and Mayor George Moscone.
The elite attended his rallies. He set up housing for the poor and drug addicted. (Jones eventually joined those elite with an appointment to the city’s housing authority.) But inside the church, things already had started to unravel.
A full-time member by 1972 and married to Bob Houston, another Temple follower, Shaw had risen to the organization’s top tier of managers called the Planning Commission. She was working as a legal secretary, and she and Houston were running one of the church’s small communal houses taking care of a dozen needy children.
It was exhausting, but she loved it. “We had this Victorian house on Potrero Hill. We lived cheaply, bought food in bulk, had meals together. The children were happy. We were raising Bob’s two daughters also.”
Jones had begun acting more strangely, increasingly megalomaniacal. He demanded that everyone come to the main temple for meals, not letting any groups eat alone. He began keeping followers up all night while he ranted about nuclear holocaust. There were rumors of his drinking and amphetamine use — both forbidden by the church — and of having multiple mistresses.
Early on Jan. 1, 1976, Shaw learned why she would have to leave. At this point the church had between 2,000 and 5,000 members, although estimates vary. The planning commission’s 120 members were into another late meeting. (Jones, it was later learned, liked to use relentless sleep deprivation to break people’s wills.)
Jones surprised the group with an unprecedented New Year’s surprise: Everyone was handed glass of wine that he said came from grapes in the church’s Mendocino County vineyard.
He watched everyone drink. Then he offered this chaser:
“He told us it was laced with cyanide and we would be dead in 45 minutes. Some people screamed and cried. I just wanted to lay down and sleep. I was so tired.”
This was the first of several rehearsals for the end. Jones called them White Nights, the point at which the church’s world would end in a “revolutionary suicide.”
Within months, Shaw began planning her escape. Jones had warned the planning commission members that he would kill anyone who tried to leave. Shaw, when she would take out the children’s laundry, began secretly moving her few possessions to a friend’s house.
On July 16, 1976, she left work at the law firm where she was a legal secretary and with a small bag walked to the bus station with her final paycheck. (The others she had been required, like all Temple members, to give to the church.)
Once she returned to Ohio, she called Houston and begged him and his girls to come live with her and her parents. Houston, talking on one of the Temple’s tapped phones, couldn’t commit to anything. He and the kids now were being watched. Within weeks, he would die in an unexplained accident at the Southern Pacific Rail Yards.
The children’s mother, also a Temple member, began taking care of the two girls again. She didn’t want to leave the church.
Shaw returned to San Francisco and began to blow the whistle on the church, the brainwashing and beatings, the illegal claiming of the mostly black, mostly poor followers’ assets. Houston’s dad was an Associated Press photographer. The family knew Congressman Leo Ryan.
By June of 1978, Jones, a former media darling, began feeling the heat. Investigative news stories led to public inquiries. Defections mounted. He gathered 1,000 of his followers and fled to the church’s compound called Jonestown deep in the jungles of Guyana.
Ryan announced he would fly down there with journalists to investigate. Shaw wanted to go. Living in Los Angeles at the time, she couldn’t afford the $800 ticket.
“I would have gone,” she said. “I wanted to get those kids out of there.”
Ryan’s party was ambushed at the airport. He was shot and killed along with two journalists and a Temple member who wanted to leave with the group. Jones, knowing the world would close in fast, gave the final White Night order. People who refused to drink the cyanide-punch mix were shot.
Shaw got the news while driving on the Santa Monica freeway: 914 dead, including the girls she had raised as her own and the other children she had raised in the same way.
“I’ve never come closer to losing my mind,” she said. “I always wondered if I had done enough. I felt like I hadn’t.”
Years of therapy, a bad marriage and permanent disability followed. Now, 25 years later, good group therapy and medication have helped her identify her post-trauma reaction and at least in part, defeat it.
“I didn’t want to go to the memorial (in Oakland, Calif.) this year. I’ve moved beyond it. That’s a great first step.”