The Day I Met The People’s Temple
by Bruce Anderson, May 3, 2017
Sharon Amos was short and sad and gray. Even when she was dressed in vivid reds and yellows she seemed to suck the life out of everything around her. If birds fell dead out of the sky, flowers suddenly wilted, small children broke inexplicably into tears, to me it would come to mean that Ms. Amos was up and on the move, heading for Boonville.
The day she first appeared, as the sight of her green county car coming up the road to the main house prompted a kid to scurry up a tree, and another to sprint out of sight over the side of a hill, poised to run farther from her if his social worker got any closer. I didn't have the flight option because I was in nominal charge of the operation, a group home six miles south of Boonville.
Ms. Amos had seen both boys run at the sight of her, and now she could see one of them, Merrill, resting as near to the top of an old oak as he could get without breaking off a limb too small to support him. Merrill looked down at us like a buzzard contemplating fresh kill. All that could be seen of the other boy, Domingo, were the long, wild strands of black hair framing his wary, round face.
"They're acting out," the social worker observed in a monotone, adding, "They're very difficult, these two."
Ms. Amos's statements always sounded like audible reminders to herself that up is down, down is up. She probably went around all day murmuring mental post-its to herself.
The times were odd, the summer of 1972. Millions of people were "acting out," and most of them were adults. A colleague of Ms. Amos had just made the local newspapers when she was stopped for speeding on Highway 101 near Ukiah with her nude self encased in Saran Wrap, a helping professional in need of help.
And here was this People's Temple sadsack standing in the blast of Boonville's summer sun in matching gray skirt and sweater, her white blouse secured at the neck with a large black ribbon. City social workers turned up in Boonville in modified cowgirl outfits, country social workers togged themselves out in the conservative female urban garb of the time — muted colors and sensible shoes. Quite a few female social workers were weekend hippies, or hippie-hippies who'd taken "straight" jobs to support their "old man." The males tended heavily to cocaine.
I tried to divert Mrs. Amos from whatever embarrassment she might be feeling at her unhappy reception. When you're here to help but the helpees run at the sight of you, well, people have been known to make career changes for lesser reasons.
"I saw your name in the Ukiah paper the other day," I said. "What's the People's Temple?"
"It's the only real church in this country," Sharon Amos replied without emotion for such a big claim.
"Jim Jones has brought people of all races together in Redwood Valley where we practice a true social gospel. It's exciting and it's beautiful." She said she would put my name down "on our guest list if you would like to attend services."
I was getting a definite cult vibe from Mrs. Amos. Numberless hours on hard benches with a congregation of joyless, zombo-ized social workers listening to the rantings of an outback Gantry? The social worker was not an effective proselytizer.
She seemed too tired to notice summer from winter, too exhausted to care that the two boys she had come to see had run away from her because, to them, Sharon Amos, Christian multiculturalist, was just one more in a series of people who did things to them they didn't like -- teachers, psychologists, doctors, judges, social workers and of course, cops. The two boys saw Ms. Amos as one more cop, a different kind of cop, but a cop. They saw me as their live-in cop, more or less benign, but still an agent of the state, an enemy in a world of enemies.
The judge had sent the two boys to Boonville because they'd been arrested. When the cops tried to locate their parents, it was discovered that they didn't have parents, although a chronological adult may have answered the door.
Merrill the tree climber had a Tourette's like habit of suddenly shouting out profanities in contexts where you got a mental health jacket the second time you did it. He'd been caught shoplifting food because he was hungry. Domingo was in Boonville for assaulting other children and adults at the slightest, and sometimes no provocation. I saw my job as getting Merrill to curse where it might do some good and to teach Domingo to attack only the people who have it coming. I did not share these rehab strategies with the authorities.
It was Sharon Amos's job to check to see if the two victims of a crumbling society were being properly fed and housed. She may even have expected them to be better behaved than they had been, but only a social worker could think they were redeemable in any conventional sense. If they somehow learned to cope before they were permanently put away in prison they would do it on their own; there was no help available; the damage had been done. If the government had been there when they popped from the womb and had taken them off to those first crucial years of regular meals and sane adults they might have had a chance. As they were -- crazy as hell and getting crazier -- the best we could do was provide a pleasant rural interregnum before they met their inevitable doom.
"I spend all my off-time working with the church," Amos continued. "Reverend Jones is doing something very special. His sermons are amazing, and he lives what he preaches." These superlatives were also delivered in the voice of a person reading off a bus schedule.
The newspaper story I had read said that the Reverend Jones not only tended to an ever larger, multiracial flock, he had just been appointed foreman of the Mendocino County grand jury. Mentioned among his parishioners was Mrs. Amos and Tim Stoen, the latter a Stanford graduate who functioned as both Mendocino County Counsel and as Jones's legal blocking back. Since she was mentioned by name in the story, it was clear that Ms. Amos was a church bigwig.
Jones was quoted as saying that local "racists" were hostile to his church because it contained a large number of black people. This hostility, Jones said, had prompted him to erect a sporadically manned, 40 foot gun tower that loomed up over his Redwood Valley church. There were usually a couple men with rifles in the tower for Sunday services, as if the racists might try to bull rush the congregation while they were all at prayer.
The Reverend told the Ukiah paper that he'd headed west from Indiana after reading an article in Esquire magazine that said that winds off the Northcoast would puff nuclear fallout right on past Mendocino County. But Indianapolis, presumably, right down to its famous racecar track, would be destroyed.
When the gun tower went up on the church grounds, Jones seemed to be conceding that he had traded one terror for another -- incineration for incipient, race-based, rural assault troops. Of course the tower aggrandized the People's Temple as an oasis of tolerance in a sea of hostility, and Jones as a kind of multicultural Captain Courageous. The Reverend would protect his flock whatever it took, and his flock believed they were besieged.
Sharon Amos bought everything the Reverend Jones did and said, bought it all unto death, as things turned out. And here she was, a flat-affect, monotonal professional do-gooder, the saddest sack in all of Mendocino County, wrapped in gray wool six miles south of Boonville on a hot August day, droning joylessly on about the great hope she'd found with Reverend Jones. But her droning voice gave up not a hint of enthusiasm. For anything. Jonestown was still seven years away.
Having halfheartedly invited me into the Temple's embrace that morning as we stood beside her green county car, the social worker asked, "Do you think you can get Merrill to come down from there? I want to talk to him about a home visit. He can't go, and that's going to make him very unhappy."
I couldn't imagine how much more unhappiness Merrill might express; he'd already run for the treetops when he saw her coming. Besides, the kid knew in his bones he'd never hear any good news from his social worker or any other representatives of the state.
Merrill was his last name. It seemed somehow easier to apply his surname to him than Shane, his given name. And he said he liked 'Merrill' better than 'Shane.' A pie faced little boy with a perpetually worried expression on his broad features, Merrill looked more forlorn than he was. He had his coping strategies, not that they worked to his advantage, but they seemed to console him, and he did deserve consolation. He was half crazy from a life that was wholly crazy and he was only 12, and already placed among older, tougher kids who smacked him around whenever they could get away with it.
Some people thought Merrill really did have Tourette's. We called his sudden eruptions "voice activated Tourette's" because at the sound of a conversation that didn't include him -- especially didn't include him -- he'd run up and blurt out obscenities which, of course, coming from a child had the emotional effect of verbal hand grenades. A group of teachers would be talking among themselves and here comes Merrill, walking confidently toward them as if invited. "Sounds like a great big bowl of dicks to me," he'd say, and walk off chuckling to himself. Then, when some inevitable someone told him to watch his mouth, Merrill would come back with, "Twat's that? I cunt hear you."
Merrill said his father had taught him these conversational ice breakers "so I can fit in better."
Our task, besides trying to keep a straight face when Merrill went off, and he went off many times a day in howling, obscenity-laden rages, was to tutor the lad in the art of time and place. But he never was able to make the distinction because he was getting a little revenge in his demented way for all the bad things that had been done to him. When he was able to shock a group of adults he was briefly in control of them. It was him making people hop up and down and sputter indignantly instead of them jerking his chain.
Merrill's father, who was drawing government nut money himself, freely admitted to the responding social worker that he had taught his son "how to swear like the rest of the kids." Merrill loved his father, and his father was all he had in the way of role models, to borrow the tired descriptive from the exhausted schools that train the helping pros.
"Come on down here, Merrill," I yelled up the tree at him. "Mrs. Amos wants to talk to you."
Merrill, silent, stared down.
"He's not going to cooperate," I said, revealing my powerlessness to this odd representative of local government, this specially blessed congregant of "the most amazing church ever."
Mrs. Amos turned her gaze landward.
"That's Domingo over there, isn't it?"
"That's the top of his head," I said.
We walked over to the side of the hill for a full body shot.
"You can suck my…" Domingo began, instantly animated when he saw us coming toward him.
I tried to obliterate the looming, referent body part with a loud, gargling sigh as Domingo, now hopping up and down like he was gearing up to actualize a psychosexual attack, concluded, "to the root!"
"Are you going to let him do that?" Mrs. Amos asked in her usual monotone, so flat the question mark was inaudible.
Of course I was going to let him do that. It was a 100-degree day and Domingo was a good 30 yards away down a hillside. I suppose I could have hurled myself at the little bastard and chased him up into the goddamn hills, but let's be realistic here, I thought, knowing that this lady and I shared no known reality.
I made a little joke, hoping to make it clear to Sharon Amos, MSW, that there was nothing I could do but I, too, found this kind of flip-out distressing. Why did she think the state and federal governments were paying me to confine these little nutballs to a remote rural ranch? Did she have any idea who she was dealing with? This is what these kids did. This is what life on the lowest rungs of capitalism had done to them. Like the rest of America they were all impulse and acquisition and envy. I had no idea how to get them to stop acting crazy because they were crazy and the country was crazy and I was feeling a little unhinged myself.
"Strictly speaking," I began, hoping against hope that a little irony might mollify this deranged woman, "the boy hasn't done anything except threaten us with sexual assault. I'm pretty sure I can stop him if he tries anything."
I imagined a tiny brown boner charging up the hill at us like a dwarf rhino.
Mrs. Amos stared at me, then looked back at Domingo.
"Suck it baby," Domingo screamed. "Yeah you, bitch."
Tired of hearing midgets telling me to go fuck myself all day every day, I'd taught them some new insults. I'd taught them to say, "And the horse you rode in," and "Fuck me? You'll have to get in line." These not so bon mots broke the rhetorical monotony for a while, but now they too were played back at me all day every day. Which is what I got for not keeping "professional distance," as the therapists might describe my "coping strategies."
I apologized to Mrs. Amos for the verbal mayhem.
"I've never seen him this bad, Mrs. Amos. He's outdone himself today."
Hah! Domingo was this bad every day, all day long and into the night. He was often worse, much worse. Any more or less sane adult could deal with bad language, even from a kid, but try living with a kid who sniffs glue, paint, and gasoline whenever he can, a kid who assaults whomever pops up into his addled Viewmaster, child or adult. I spent a lot of time everyday simply restraining the little psycho.
Mrs. Amos stared at the kid. I hoped Domingo's obscene exertions in the summer heat were wearing him down, but he showed no signs of fatigue. Every time we looked his way he got off another obscene blast. But I still felt a need to reassure the social worker that I wasn't as impotent as I appeared. She seemed completely out of it, but I didn't know her very well so I couldn't be sure she was as zoned out, as oblivious as I suspected she was.
So I said that I thought it was a shame a 14-year-old boy was shouting obscenities at us, that it was subversive of good order, not to mention a violation of even the loosest known adult traditions of child rearing.
A normal person would have told me to spare her the bullshit, but this lady had no irony, no emotional roll bar. It wasn't that her bullshit detector needed new batteries, she didn't have the thing to begin with.
"America does this to people," Mrs. Amos said. "I know that."
Domingo fired again. "Come down here, bitch, so I can bone you up… "
Mrs. Amos responded to the abrupt switch from oral to anal rape by saying, "I think he should be tested for Simian Crease Syndrome."
"I attended a conference last week on it," Amos continued. "You can see that some hyper-masculine males have an extra crease on the palms of their hands. There is a strong correlation between these creases and an extra male chromosome which causes an excess of testosterone and increases the likelihood of violent criminal behavior."
"That's very interesting," I said, trying not to laugh, and beating back an impulse to check my own palms. "It sure would explain today's outburst," I added, lathering her up a little more, wondering how much more insincerity this woebegone creature could take before she woke up and denounced me as "an enabler," as another social worker had done when I laughed as I described a repeat episode of aberrant behavior to him. Lots of these helping pros didn't seem to know that there was a difference between laughing at unacceptable behavior and sanctioning it. And the people who didn't know the diff seemed to be running Mendocino County and, for that matter, the country.
The social worker took a last look at Domingo who now was chanting, "Suck it baby, suck it," cupping his crotch and thrusting it forward to an imagined disco beat. I had to admire the boy's commitment to outrage.
Without further comment on either the boy's verbal aggression or its possible links to the higher primates, Mrs. Amos turned her back on Domingo and we walked over to the tree for a second-round of negotiations with Merrill. I wondered if Merrill had a Simian Crease. He sure got up that tree fast.
Merrill looked down at us, expressionless.
"Coming down, Merrill? Or do we have to talk from here?" I said to the tree.
The tree was non-responsive.
"Shane? I went to see your father in Laytonville," Mrs. Amos said in her depressed, unamplified voice, too softly, I thought, for Merrill to hear.
"What did she say?" Merrill yelled.
"Mrs. Amos said she went to see your father in Laytonville," I shouted back like a cop trying to work out a hostage release. "I'm not going to relay everything like this," I added. "If you want to hear what Mrs. Amos says, you come down here and talk with her like a gentleman."
"Your mother is a gentleman," Domingo yelled from over the side of the hill.
"Yes, I went to see Mr. Merrill," Mrs. Amos continued, speaking directly to me, perhaps realizing on her own that both the substance of what she had to tell me about Merrill's father and my bellowed relays to the boy in the tree were not an effective way to communicate.
"He lives in Laytonville in this rundown old motel," Amos began. "It was about 11 in the morning when I got there. I knocked on the door and Mr. Merrill told me to come in. The room was so dark I could barely see him at first. There was no light on and the shades were drawn, and Mr. Merrill was still in bed." She paused. "And he was in bed with one of those blowup sex dolls."
"I thought it was totally inappropriate of him," she said.
I laughed again.
I knew for sure by then that she was nuts, and that it didn't matter what I said or did, short of ripping her clothes off and throwing her over the hill to Domingo, Ms. Amos was in her own world.
"Well, heck, I don't know," I said. "Maybe after his rough experience with Mrs. Merrill the poor guy thought he needed a less demanding relationship."
Ms. Amos looked hard at me. I'd finally gone too far.
"It's not funny," she said, reflexively, without heat. "Mr. Merrill has real problems."
I snapped myself back into a state-sanctioned posture of Appropriate Male.
"Yes, you're right. That's terrible," I said. "What did he think he was doing?"
"Mr. Merrill is not my problem," she said. "I have to do what's best for Shane, and it's clear that Shane cannot see his father at this time. Mr. Merrill's home environment is not suitable for a young boy. It's totally inappropriate even for a visit."
It was raining inappropriates. Mrs. Amos was way ahead of the appropriateness curve prevalent in Mendocino County today where that bland judgment is applied to everything from mass murder to Hawaiian shirts at funerals.
Seven years later I was driving back to Mendocino County from Sacramento where I'd come in 3,523 in a half-marathon. It was late in the afternoon and raining, a November day just before Thanksgiving, 1978. Out of the car radio came a series of announcements all beginning with "What appears to be a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana…"
The announcer went on to say that a woman identified as Sharon Linda Amos had been found dead in a house called Lamaha Gardens in Georgetown, Guyana, which served as a sort of reception center and clearinghouse for Reverend Jones's new society deep in the jungle. Mrs. Amos's job was to screen visitors. With Jones gone deep into pharmaceutical speed and the terminal paranoia that often comes with it, the social worker was one of the few persons he trusted among his all-white inner circle.
Jonestown 1978, Sharon Amos with a guest (FBI photo)
Sharon Amos, announcements began to say, had received the news that "revolutionary suicide" had kicked off out at Jonestown. It was over. Jones was killing his church and it was time for her to go too.
Amos radioed the mother church on Geary back in San Francisco. "Do what you can to even the score," she ordered San Francisco.
The score was already something like 700 to nothing for insanity because out in the jungle almost everyone had downed the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid or had had it forced down their throats.
San Francisco would have to get busy if the Temple's city people were going to add to the imbalance. San Francisco, as Amos reminded them, was supposed to dispatch teams of "Avenging Angels" to kill the Temple's critics and defectors and then off themselves.
The San Francisco Temple ignored the instruction.
Described as hysterical by the 75 or so Temple people clustered at Lamaha Gardens for the apocalypse, Amos told them all it was time for them to transition themselves into the next life. Amos said that this was it, the last order from J.J. himself. Kill yourself for the revolution.
The Temple people stared at Amos. She had no authority with them. They considered her a snitch for Jones, and even by their questionable standards, they regarded Amos as a nut, a diagnosis Amos proceeded to confirm.
Turning from the backsliders and summoning her three children to follow her up the stairs, Amos ordered Charles Beikman, a 43-year-old ex-Marine, and the only Temple member available likely to do what Amos told him to do, to come upstairs with her and her children.
Amos's overweight and under-brained daughter, Lianne, carried a butcher knife into the upstairs bathroom. Amos promptly slit her 11-year-old daughter's throat, then she cut her five-year-old son's throat. Amos ordered the cretinous Beikman to hold Lianne while Amos sawed Lianne's jugular. Having dispatched her three children, Amos didn't have enough energy left to finish herself off. She couldn't get a butcher knife deep enough into her throat. Semper Fi Beikman had to close the social worker's file for her.
Out in the jungle, the official body count was 883, of whom 660 could be identified. The rest of the corpses were those of children who had been born in Jonestown. Nobody was sure who they belonged to, but it was the devil who'd killed them.
Back in Mendocino County, everyone who'd helped Jones along, including the judges who'd signed over the now dead children to Jones, ran for cover.
ED NOTE: Linda Amos, was, in the aftermath of the jungle slaughter, sometimes identified as Sharon Amos. We knew her as both Linda and Sharon. In the wild aftermath of Jonestown, the Mendocino County Social Services boss, a Uriah Heep-ish fellow called Dennis Denny, was asked why his office had diverted so much welfare dough to Temple members — Jones signed up his imported flock for every freebie available as soon as they landed in Mendocino County. In many cases the instant sign-ups amounted to instant fraud, and it was carried out by several Temple people who had jobs with Social Services. Denny, as nearly a thousand bodies lay rotting in Jonestown, a good number of them from Mendocino County, said he'd always closely monitored the Temple through Ms. Amos, and that Ms. Amos had functioned as a kind of People's Temple liaison for him from her position in both Mendocino County Social Services and the Temple. The true reason Denny was hands off the Temple, I would think, is because Jones had quickly become politically powerful in the County, and Jones had Tim Stoen, his legal advisor, sitting in the pivotal local position of County Counsel. (Today, Stoen is a prosecutor assigned to Ten Mile Court, Fort Bragg.) Denny wasn't the only local official who would dive under his desk after Jonestown. Many of the children murdered at Jonestown had been signed over to Jones by the Mendocino County Superior Court.