By Angela Hill
OAKLAND — Convinced Jim Jones was God, Garrett Lambrev was the first person to join Peoples Temple in Ukiah in 1966 after the group moved from Indiana. Ten years later — two years before the Jonestown tragedy — he was part of a wave of defectors, shaken to the core by tales of torture and wanting nothing to do with a god who could sanction such things. He was reviled as a traitor and lived in fear for his life.
Yet as Lambrev reflects on the enigma of Peoples Temple, his thoughts settle not just on the horrors of the final days.
"The media images — so many of them dwell on the piles of bodies, the rotting human beings in the jungle of Guyana," said Lambrev, a librarian who is semiretired from the Oakland Public Library, looking every bit the part with his glasses, white hair and goatee, and surrounded by stacks of books in his Oakland home.
"Without trying to reduce the impact of (Jim Jones') degeneration, because he was indeed a classic dictator gone mad, there was still a lot of significance to Peoples Temple that history overlooks," he said. "It spoke of hope. Of connection. All these races and cultures living and working together, very successfully for the most part.
"Not to say that Peoples Temple was in any sense a democracy," he said. "But the Temple was the most significant experiment and example of interracial living in the U.S. so far," he said. "This was a community based on a vision of hope. Of people who were like-minded, who wanted to live with each other for the benefit of the planet. What stays with me is that these were some of the best people I've ever known in my life. Extraordinary human beings."
That said, the realities of Peoples Temple and the depths of Jones' madness came as even more of a shock to Lambrev when his "eyes were opened," he said.
Back in 1966, Lambrev was a young grad student, searching for truth, for peace, for a new world. After his involvement in anti-Vietnam war protests that landed him in jail, he dropped out of a doctoral program in history at Stanford University and moved to Ukiah for a job as a welfare worker. When he met Jim Jones, who was teaching at a local school, he thought he had found the realization of all his dreams.
"I was utterly transfixed by him," Lambrev said. "He could talk for 14 hours, and I'd be fascinated. I'd never met anyone so intelligent, so cognizant of the human puzzle."
Even then, Lambrev took note of Jones' disturbing behavior. Lambrev had been in the temple only about two months, and he was listening one evening to Jones expound on environmentalism. "He was praising things the Soviets were doing to protect wildlife in the Soviet arctic. And I thought, 'What!' I spoke up, and I said, 'Jim, what about the Gulag? What about the labor camps?'
"He turned red and glared at me, and said, 'Who do you think you are? You're speaking to the Almighty God,' and he pounded his fist. I felt so humiliated. I wanted to be under the floor. But I thought, 'He's God. I'm not.' So I went along with that for years. I questioned myself, rather than him."
During the years, Lambrev was what he calls a "black sheep" in the Peoples Temple family. He'd had trouble dealing with the discipline, and had left previously — five times, in fact. But he returned five times.
"Inevitably, every time I left, I would fall apart and turn back. The center of life was Jim Jones. He was the access to the divine. For years, I was very much a prisoner of that reality. Nothing could break that until the revelations about the torture."
It was August of 1976, and Lambrev had no plans to leave. He felt very good about his place in the Temple and what he was doing. But there was a friend and fellow member who was upset, and he feared she might kill herself, so he reached out to her. They met outside the Temple, at a pizza parlor at midnight.
"She told me, 'You don't know anything. You haven't seen what I saw,'" Lambrev said, dropping his voice. "She told me, 'Garry, there was torture. Physical torture.'
"I could find nothing to justify that," he said. "I was very, very angry. Enormously disappointed and shaken. I thought, if this guy is God, I want no part of his religion. So I left that night."
Lambrev went back to his small commune in San Francisco and started packing. His commune-mates alerted a "posse" of Temple devotees to stop him, he said. A car showed up, just as Lambrev and his friend were driving away, and a chase ensued. "We finally lost them through back alleys of Chinatown," he said. "It was laughable, like a Marx Brothers movie."
Lambrev went to a hiding place where another friend was staying in Marin County. For a while, he worked with a defectors' group in Berkeley, called Concerned Relatives. Then, finally, he felt he must distance himself completely from anyone connected with the Temple, moving to the woods of Oregon.
He was there when the tragedy in Jonestown happened.
"Like so many people, I didn't know what to make of it, whether this was done by a hit squad, if I was on the hit list, or if friends of mine were in danger," he said.
"I think we all knew Jim Jones was responsible for the deaths of about 1,000 people in Jonestown. There were others involved who carried it out. We'll never know who and how many committed suicide or who and how many were murdered. But the decision to carry that out was Jim's."
Questions about what happened still haunt Lambrev, however. In the years before and after Jonestown, there were some mysterious deaths, including the still-unsolved 1980 murders of Al and Jeannie Mills in Berkeley, who had started Concerned Relatives.
"My ambition in this life is to know what really happened," Lambrev said.
He is currently revising a memoir, written in the immediate aftermath of Jonestown, called "Life Before the Final Punchline: A Memoir of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones."
He writes, "It's the least I can do for friends, enemies and strangers who died at Jonestown, ostensibly for the sake of a vision in which I believed passionately too."
Reach Angela Hill at email@example.com.