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An Interview with Judy Bebelaar, author of And Then They Were Gone

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Judy Bebelaar taught in San Francisco public schools for 37 years. Her poetry has been published widely in magazines; in nine anthologies, including The Widows’ Handbook, Kent State University Press, foreword by Ruth Bader Ginsburg; a chapbook, Walking Across the Pacific, and a poetry book, Sky Holding Fall. And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown, written with Ron Cabral, non-fiction, has won ten honors and awards.

You can buy And Then They Were Gone here.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I have been writing poetry since I was in the third grade. I became a public high school teacher in San Francisco and felt that teaching poetry as creative writing and inviting poets to my classroom was great way to get my students to want to write, to care about what they wrote. And it was! I published their work too, in a school poetry magazine, on broadsides and in a multicultural calendar the Creative Writing class produced. I encouraged them to enter contests and poetry slams, and many of them won—all had a great time at the slams. In 1976, when I was teaching at a small public alternative school which I helped start, Jim Jones sent almost all the Peoples Temple teens to our school in 1976. Opportunity High was a school designed to help kids who were not doing well in school and heading towards dropping out, though many students who were doing quite well elsewhere applied because of the interesting classes and field trips; and the small classes. Students were interviewed, one at a time, by teachers and students, in order to let them see what they must do to graduate, and to get their “buy-in.” Our principal then allowed the Temple kids to enter in large groups with no interviews. At first, we protested, but they were such great kids and so enthusiastic about our school, we soon decided they were a wonderful addition to the student body. They enabled Ron to realize his dream of a school baseball team, and many joined my Creative Writing class. Within 9 months, though, Jones had shipped off most of them, largely secretly, over the summer, to Jonestown, Guyana. Then, in 1978, came the terrible news that 918 people had died in what have come to be called, more correctly, murder-suicides. The people who died there, 1/3 of them children, under 18, and 1/2 in their twenties or younger, really had no choice. Ten days after that news, our popular San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, and City Council member Harvey Milk, the first openly gay council person, were assassinated in City Hall. The air was heavy with shock and grief. In 2006, Ron called me and suggested we write a book about our Temple kids, in the vein of a play both of us saw, The People’s Temple. There is no apostrophe in the official church name. Its addition in the title indicated that the play was not about Jim Jones, but about the people of the church. Our book grew and changed as we learned more, read more, talked to more of the survivors and to our students who knew the Temple kids. The Temple kids were forbidden to tell us what went on behind the closed doors of the church and were not supposed to fraternize with our other students. But there were at least two couples which I now call the Romeo and Juliet couples. Ron describes me as the lead writer, and, I was that. He was often impatient to have the book finished and out, but he l listened when I said it wasn’t yet ready. And he was immensely proud of the book. Sadly, he died in February of 2023. His daughter brought copies of the book to his memorial, and asked me to speak about it. I think he was listening.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I was a teacher in San Francisco for 37 years, and I am now a writer. People might be surprised that I belonged to a belly dance troupe which performed at street fairs and in convalescent hospitals. We still gather to meet and dance a little.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I was explaining to a writing feedback group what the book was about, and when I said “and then they were gone,” the teacher, Clive Matson, said, “That’s your title!” And my publisher, Jannie Dresser, added the subtitle, which I think is perfect.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

Amazing. I had a hard time believing it would ever be published. I sent queries to agents and publishers. No acceptances. But I ran into Jannie, who has a small local publishing company, Sugartown Publishing (though she is not currently publishing) at a book fair, was explaining to friends there what the book was about, And Jannie, listening in, said, “Judy I’d like to publish that book.” And she did, and did a great job.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

A singer-guitarist wrote a beautiful song about a friend who died in Jonestown. He has performed with me at readings.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope people come to learn that the folks who went to Jonestown were not mindless followers of a cult leader. They had a vision, which Jones had given them, of creating a model for how people could live like true Christians, in a world without ageism, racism or sexism. Jones sank farther and farther into paranoia, megalomania and illness in Jonestown, and turned the dream into a jungle prison camp, with scant food, hard work and terrible, sadistic punishments. And I hope people learn not to use the cruel and inaccurate phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool Aid.” With armed guards surrounding them, and Jones adding in the false story that the Guyanese Army would shoot them, they felt surrounded. And the thick jungle surrounding their little settlement was a dangerous place, no easy or short way out. Add to that the fact that the babies had the cyanide shot down their throats, and that many were found with needle marks in their arms, meaning they were forcibly killed, the horrible phrase only shows ignorance of the true story.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

I am so glad that the book is out in the world, that people can meet these youngsters, hear their stories, and read their poetry, which is an important part of the book. I feel it is one of the major accomplishments of my life, and that all the hard work, the doubts and struggles were well worth it.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I am working on a new book of poetry.

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