Then, Now, and In Between

by Nell Smart

FAIN, Tinetra La Dese
SMART, Alfred Laufton
SMART, Scott Cameron
SMART, Teri Lynn
Photos Courtesy of California Historical Society, MSP 3800

Almost 30 years ago my life was turned upside down and inside out. Why I am still here is a mystery. There were times that I had wished otherwise. The agony of that first day did not prepare me for the roller coaster of emotions that I would experience over the weeks, months and years to come.

To say the least, that first day was surreal. I was awakened from a deep sleep by a friend calling from the San Francisco Temple telling me that everything in Jonestown was okay and not to worry.  I was a little groggy and said “All right,” and hung up the telephone. I closed my eyes and it hit me: “What was he talking about?” I called him back and asked what he meant by “everything was okay.” He told me that Congressman Ryan had been killed at an airstrip in Port Kaituma. While I was saddened by the fact that the congressman had been killed while on a fact-finding mission, it did not quite explain the urgency of that early morning call. So I turned on the television. And there I stayed.

The first reported body count left me devastated but hopeful that just maybe some of my family, if not all, had survived. I contacted the State Department’s Task Force and provided the names of my family members. I did not want the telephone to ring and each time it did, my heart stopped.  After receiving all of the calls that I was going to receive, there were still two family members missing. My two youngest children had not been identified – and still to this day have not been identified. For twenty years, I held on to the hope that one day they would show up. I am not sure that I have really put that hope aside.

What happened was just too mind-boggling to be believed. After all, I had been there. I was satisfied that my three younger children would be fine in Jonestown with my mother, my eldest daughter and the Peoples Temple family.

I had severed my membership from Peoples Temple approximately two years before the unthinkable happened. During that time I had established new friendships – and maintained old ones – outside of the Temple.  These friendships became, and remain, a source of support for which I am grateful. Only one of those friends questioned my decision to allow my children to go there.

Over the years, people have made remarks that have caught me off guard and required that I bite my tongue to keep from lashing out at the offender and reveal to them and/or other strangers that I was and in some ways still am a part of that group. A few days after November 18, I was in line at a supermarket and overheard the clerk make a comment to customer about “not drinking the Kool-Aid.” A few years later, I attended a meeting at which an attorney commented that the noise coming from the adjoining room “sounded like a Jim Jones rally.” I did not acknowledge to anyone that I had heard him, although people who were present did let him know that a former PT member who had also lost her entire family was in the meeting.

Being on guard for comments about Peoples Temple has just become a way of life. I brace myself against news reports about cults because showing a picture of all the dead bodies is an easy way for the media to describe a cult. Just this summer, during CNN’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention, one of the newsman made the “Drinking the Kool-Aid” comment. How insensitive, and it never ends. But friends try to protect you, to comfort you, and will also cry with you.

* * *

For years, I did not want to live, but I did not have the courage to end my life. There is hardly a night that goes by that I don’t spend hours thinking about my family, especially my four children. It is difficult to sleep in a quiet room, so the den with the television going has become a place of refuge. When I dream of my children and my mother, it is always of happy times. Then I wake up wishing I could go back to sleep. Someone who recently lost a daughter asked me if you ever get over it. I told her, “No, you never get over it, you never really accept it, you just learn to live with it and not break down at the very thought or mention of them.”

The guilt is still the hardest thing to live with. One just does not outlive one’s children, and if you do, you blame yourself. I continually think about my relationship with my children and am haunted by mistakes I made. I try to recall any that I may have overlooked. I berate myself for promises not kept or not kept in a timely manner, for the times I caused them to be unhappy. Most of all, I criticize my decision for having allowed them go, or for even introducing them to Jim Jones. I feel guilt for having ever blamed my mother for not keeping them out of harm’s way, when I know deep in my heart that her last thoughts were of me and how I would survive.

One of hardest questions to answer has been, “Do you have children?” How do I answer that? If I say yes, they ask how old they are, and – now – if I have grandchildren. I have never been able to come to terms with any answer I give. I want to shout out, “Yes, I am – or was – a mother,” and “No, I do not have grandchildren.” So, some of the time I just answer, “No, I am not a mother,” and then the guilt that is always sleeping just below the surface of consciousness awakens and stabs me in my heart and the pit of my stomach because I have denied that my children ever existed. Some people have even responded to my “no” answer by saying, “You don’t know how lucky you are.” I want to shake that person – the one with a child or children standing by their side – and tell them, “It is you who are lucky.”

Whenever a tragic event occurs, I can certainly identify with the loss of the mothers. I am ashamed because I begin to dwell on my own loss. They deserve my undivided attention because they need to express their feelings.

* * *

I was never much of a joiner and I am now even more reluctant to join anything. My one concession has been a bowling league. People occasionally have asked me if I go to church and I cringe because my “no” gets the most condemnatory looks.

My experience with Peoples Temple has caused me to be more mindful of how I treat people, to be careful of what I say to them or how I say it, to try and to be as concerned about their welfare as I am my own. Most of these traits I brought with me to Peoples Temple, and those were the traits I saw in other members. I do not want people to think we thought we were better than anyone else. Far from it, for all of us all had our shortcomings. We just wanted to set an example of how people could live together in harmony.

While Jim will be remembered for being that crazy man who caused the deaths of over nine hundred people in a jungle that most people don’t remember the name of, he will be remembered by those who followed him for not only that, but for what he taught us. Towards the end, he may have forgotten what he once stood for, but for those of us who lived – we remember.

(Nell Smart was a member of Peoples Temple for five years in Los Angeles until she left in 1976. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at juanell@sbcglobal.net.)

Last modified on January 25th, 2015.
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