Living Through the Pain

by Silvia Harrill


OLIVER, Shanda Michelle

JAMES, Ronald DeVal
Photos Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

I lived in Redwood Valley with the Cobb family and graduated from high school and had my transcripts transferred in 1972 from Ukiah High School to Woodrow Wilson High in San Francisco. I left Redwood Valley where I was an active member and attended all of the meetings. I continued to attend meetings at Peoples Temple in San Francisco. My sister Shanda James Oliver and my brother Ronnie James were very committed to the church, but I had started to pull away. I had become very guarded about all of the prophecies of things to come. Being so young I could not comprehend everything, but something inside of me would not let me give in totally. On November 18, 1978 I was in Los Angeles, and not Guyana.

I had been having dreams of death for about three months prior to November 18. And then, on November 16, I lost a step-brother in Iran. Two days later, Ronnie and Shanda died in Jonestown. That was the saddest Thanksgiving in my life.

I had lots of guilt because I was the older sibling. I had introduced both my brother and my sister to the Temple. When Ronnie told me he was going to Guyana, I took him out to lunch and told him that I would be there later because I wasn’t ready to go. Because I wasn’t ready to go, I missed out on death.

The first few weeks I was so grief-stricken crazy, I tried to commit suicide. I left everything in Los Angeles and came back to San Francisco to be with my mom, dad and brother. Feeling like this was not happening, I continued to exist.

The first year, I secluded myself, went to work, came home and didn’t socialize at all. I kept trying to figure out what happened, wondering if maybe they’d gotten away and they would come around the corner or show up somewhere. We never had closure because their bodies came back in sealed caskets.

I became the caregiver and started watching my family very closely. I did not want to feel the pain of loss again. I started looking at things very differently. I began to appreciate and wanted to know more about people I’d taken for granted before.

I felt stripped of whoever I used to be. I was not that same person anymore. I felt angry and guilty, because I had not warned my parents about my suspicions or any of the things I’d heard that didn’t sound right. I was selfish and had my own way of handling life.

It was very hard for me to attend any type of family functions without feeling the loss. Because our family had been torn apart, we became even more dysfunctional. It was almost like we were afraid to love. We were stuck on the past hurt and disappointments, what we could have done, what we didn’t do, why it happened. There was no peace in our hearts or lives.

I did not want to conceal my connection with Peoples Temple. My mother asked me not to go public, although I wanted to. She was concerned that I would become a target of some kind, and she couldn’t handle any more. So, although I received a number of queries from the media, I didn’t respond.

My healing has come one step at a time, one day at a time.

I have my own family now and make sure that I take time and make every effort to be there for them, understand them, educate them and allow them to express themselves. In the beginning I was very overprotective, but have since learned to relax and enjoy our lives together.

For years, I would not go into a church or have anything to do with anyone who was affiliated with church. I was very guarded around any type of religious organization. When I first started trying to go back to church, I would hear about the Kool-Aid drinkers. And there would be overviews about the Jonestown mass suicide. I would sit through sometimes to see how they thought it occurred and what they believed about the people who were involved. I was amazed, and not happily so.

At times it has been difficult for me to survive because I could not accept the reality of the deaths. It had been a church, and I had been a part of it. I knew the people who had committed suicide. They were my friends and family. They were like me! They were me! For years I masked the hurts and disappointments with different types of outward show, whether it was keeping busy or staying closed up.

I have never gone to the Oakland cemetery, although I may have a niece or nephew buried there. I have never gone but once to the gravesites of my siblings.

Every year on the History Channel or some other special coverage of Jonestown, my family sees the faces of my two siblings. It’s always a shock to see their pictures. We have never been consulted. No one ever respected us as a family to see or understand how we might feel. That has been disturbing.

I take responsibility for what I can control and I accept what I can’t. Through every experience I ask, what can I learn from this to enrich my life? And I am thankful when I receive an answer that helps not only me but will also help someone else.

The way I have integrated those experiences into my life is to be real. I have grown to cherish every moment of my life and have found a relationship with God in a healthier way. I am not afraid to love people and see issues realistically. I don’t run or hide or avoid anymore. I am a witness to help others understand that this could happen to anyone who does not maintain in a healthy way. What is a healthy way? If you are spiritual you must maintain integrity, honesty, purity. You must continue to take inventory of yourself in accountability, not only to God but also to the people of God.

Even though it was 30 years ago now, people judge me because of my affiliation with Peoples Temple. The look they give me is something I have come to expect. I understand that some people will never comprehend what happened. But neither can I.

I can only be the best that I can be.

It has taken many years for our family to be a family with love and togetherness. But we have it and it feels good!

(Silvia Harrill can be reached at silvia.harrill@yahoo.com.)

Last modified on February 10th, 2014.
Skip to main content