A Thousand Lives: ExcerptS

Tommy Hyacinth Stanley Edith


On February 5, 1976, a squat, middle-aged woman stood begging in San Francisco's Financial District. The city had awoken to a rare inch of snow, and on California Street, businessmen turned up the lapels of their overcoats and rushed between glass towers, servants to capitalism's amoral bidding.
Few of them noticed Edith Roller as she braced herself against the chill, timidly holding aloft a flyer for her church. With her outmoded cat's-eye glasses and frizzy gray hair, she was easy to overlook.
She stood a few blocks away from Bechtel, the nation's largest engineering company, where she worked as a secretary. She felt awkward and somewhat embarrassed, and hoped none of her coworkers would see her panhandling, but Reverend Jones's orders were clear: The entire congregation was to pamphlet for the next six days to raise money for the mission in Guyana. Edith only had time to do so on her lunch break.
    The leaflet Edith held was harder to ignore. It featured a photograph of a starving mother and child in war-torn Biafra. As the woman gazed at the camera with fierce dignity, her baby gripped the withered sack of her breast in both hands, trying to extract milk that had dried up long before. Below the image was a Bible verse: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." Matthew 25, verses 35-36. Striking and confrontational, the flyer summed up the mission of Peoples Temple: to offer succor in a world, where, as Jones repeatedly told his flock, "Two out of three babies go to bed hungry every night."
    Out of the twenty-five well-fed passersby that Edith approached, only one stopped to drop a quarter into her palm. When the lunch crowds thinned, she turned her wrist to glance at her watch before stuffing the flyer back into her purse, feeling both dejected and eager to return to the warmth of her office. Tomorrow, she'd try a different spot.
    An opinionated loner of 61, Edith Frances Roller had a finely honed sense of justice. She was born in a Colorado coal town where she witnessed the struggle of miners, including her father, to obtain living wages and safe labor conditions. Her father died, after years of backbreaking work, from silicosis, a painful, incurable respiratory disease caused by inhaling silica dust.
    She graduated from Colorado State Teacher's College with degrees in history and political science, and when World War II broke out, went to work for the United Nations in Greece, where she helped refugees displaced by the fighting. After the war, the Office of Strategic Services -- the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency -- deployed her to Asia.
    When she returned to the United States, eight years later, she settled in San Francisco, where she studied creative writing at San Francisco State College. After receiving her MA in 1966, she stayed at the college to work as an academic secretary.
    Her life was more or less placid—books, opera, quiet dinners with a good friend—until a student strike broke out at the college in 1968. At first, students protested the administration's collaboration with the Vietnam draft by providing records to the Selective Service, but their list of grievances grew. They demanded the creation of an Ethnic Studies Department, and the employment of more nonwhite teachers. The strike lasted a record five months. Every day as Edith walked across campus, she passed police dressed in riot gear, ready to disperse the taunting crowd by any means necessary. She saw officers beat kids with their batons, and drag them, screaming and bleeding, to police wagons. More than four hundred students were arrested. A rock shattered a window of the administration building where she worked, and she found herself deeply rattled. The plight of the striking students echoed all the other injustices she'd witnessed in her life, and she rankled her boss and coworkers by arguing vociferously on their behalf. One day, she found herself stranded in a hallway clogged with students holding a sit-in. As a photographer for the campus paper snapped a picture, she just stood there in her polka-dot dress, her shoulders slumped in mute sympathy. She'd worked for the college for seven years, but now felt like a cog in the wheel of oppression.
    In July1969, she decided to speak out. She held a press conference at the school and announced she was resigning in protest of the school's "fascist" behavior. Her coworkers scoffed when they heard about it—who cared what a lowly secretary had to say? But reporters did come. And although the San Francisco Chronicle buried its brief mention of Edith Roller, the item caught the eye of Jim Jones. He told his aides to track her down and invite her to his church.
    Edith liked to describe herself as a "square, conservative old lady," but she had the soul of a freedom fighter, and Jones recognized this. She yearned for a way to help the oppressed – the poor, the ethnic minorities, the unheard suffering masses of the world -- and the Temple seemed to provide her with an opportunity to do so.