It started out "as a fun kind of thing," Diana Mills, a one-time member of Peoples Temple, recalled here yesterday. The attractive 18-year-old sat expressionlessly as she tried to explain what led her and her entire family to spend six years under the control of the Rev. Jim Jones, the temple's charismatic founder.
Mills, her parents, two brothers and two sisters joined the church in 1969. They embraced its communal lifestyle and radical politics, enjoying to the fullest its peculiarly intense feeling of love and brotherhood. She also remembered all those wonderful "recreational activities" that included horseback riding and swimming.
The family left a comfortable suburban home in Contra Costa County, just north of Oakland, and moved to Ukiah, Calif., where Jones originally started his temple after moving from Indianapolis. Later on, the Millses accompanied Jones as he established his headquarters in San Francisco.
For her mother, Jeannie, 38, a former Seventh-Day Adventist, the temple seemed like a special "utopia," an ideal refuge from the violence and decay of modern America.
"When we first joined it, it was beautiful, interracial humanitarianism," Jeannie Mills said. "When you walked into the church, everybody greeted you with a hugs. I had never experienced this kind of love before."
For the father of the family, Al Mills, 50, it was politics that drove him to the temple. A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., Mills was the head of the social action committee of the local Council of Churches, a man who fully agreed with Jones' brand of activist Christianity.
"We went into the group thinking it was a very warm, loving family. They stood for the cause of black people and a more equitable society," Mills said. "It was warm and loving - a beautiful and cohesive group."
Yet while the Millses, like other former temple members, had different motives for joining the group, today, at last, the nightmare may be coming to an end.
It seems unlikely that anyone in the Mills family will ever forget what the temple and the Rev. Jim Jones did to their lives. The beatings, the mental anguish, the ever-increasing moves by Jones to take control of their lives - even to the point of turning father against child, child against father - began in 1972, they report.
In fact, when Al and Jeannie wanted to leave, their children at first refused to go with them. "When we first went out of the group, we were the only ones," Jeannie Mills recalled. "Sandy and Diana (two of their children) told us, 'Please move far away so we don't have to be the ones assigned to kill you."
But soon the children, too, were nauseated by the beatings, which as the years went on became a central part of the temple experience. By 1973, Jeannie Mills recalled, a deep vein of sadism began to emerge. "There were more and more beating," she said. "They'd put a microphone to a child's face during a beating. You'd hear the child scream in pain and Jones giggling."
Diana recalled that her sister Sandy was beaten 75 times before her parents finally got them all out of the temple. She recalled numerous instances of public beatings and humiliations, sometimes including such sexually provocative things as forcing young women to walk in front of the entire congregation in their underwear.
"He [Jones] completely humiliated you," she recalled yesterday. "He stripped you of your ego - till you had no ego left. We would rather be dead than sit through another of those beatings."
For Diana and other members of the Mills household, who now run an organization called the Human Freedom Center, a Berkeley-based counseling organization for former cult members, there will be no more beatings, and they hope, no more threats. But there are many others, estimated by FBI special agent Bob Fuller at up to 200 across the country, who remain hidden, still frozen in fear by Jones, even in death.
For them, the terror hasn't ended. Several members havd dropped out of sight during the last 18 months following disclosure of the violence and brutality the formerly idyllic cult has engaged in.
One man who formerly belonged to the cult has, in effect, gone underground, using his family's address as a "letter drop." A black woman with family in the church who initially agreed to be interviewed about the strange happenings inside Peoples Temple later phoned back to cancel the appointment.
"They have a hit list," she explained. "I'm told that it's possible that I may be on it because of the statements I have made and by legal action against the temple. I'm afraid I've decided that I'd better hold off talking to anybody about this, at least until I hear from the State Department what had happened to my family members in Guyana."
Other former temple members and their relatives would talk to reporters only through their attorneys, calling in through "safe" pay telephones from undisclosed locations. Even some lawyers who had worked for former cult members and their families feared publicity.
How did you find out about me?"
How did you find out about me?" one lawyer asked when called regarding a former client who had tangled with the temple. "I was just thinking to myself how lucky I was not to have been named in the papers today when you called."
Another attorney who had represented a former temple family in a lawsuit against the church pleaded, "please don't print my name in your story. Who knows what might happen?"