I was born in 1986 in South Africa, and one thing I have learned is, if you were not alive in 1978, the chances of you hearing about the event here is slim to none. Most people have no idea about any of the events that transpired that tragic day, or probably that the country Guyana even exists.
I learned of the Mass Murders in Jonestown earlier this year. Being a seeker of knowledge I have dedicated my life to learning as much as I possibly can about the universe around me. I find it very important to focus on past events, as they have many lessons to teach us and provide us with the gift of not having to repeat the mistakes others have made. It is ironic that there was a sign above Jim Jones’ chair with the George Santayana quote: “Those who forget the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
Immediately upon reading about the senseless slaughter induced by a selfish and paranoid, yet charismatic and influential man, I was mortified at the absolute waste of human life and potential that was stolen away that afternoon. Yet it wasn’t just the tragedy that stuck with me. It was the fact that this wasn’t imprinted in everyone’s minds. This isn’t taught as part of history, much less its lessons on the dangers of following blindly.
I realized that as significant as the event was, and as much pain and sadness that it created, it has been largely forgotten. Of the people I asked the question: “Do you know about Jonestown?” only 10 percent could answer me. And those answers were vague at best. The consensus of the 10 percent was: “Jonestown, yes Jim Jones…. The Mass suicide.”
That is struck most deeply. We don’t remember the poor people who just had a dream and were trying to realize it, but rather the self-centered butcher who stole the life they had the right to experience away. If the people of Jonestown are considered at all, it is only as the blind followers who stupidly drank cyanide-laced fruit punch, and died for nothing.
To describe to you the pain I felt for this would probably make you think I am insane. I have no connection to these people. I knew no one, or even know anyone who knew anyone that died that day. I have never met any family members or even friends of any of the victims that died. For heaven’s sake, I only found out about this more than a third of a century after the event. So why does it affect me so? Why do these people haunt my dreams? Why do I cry and suffer for their loss? The answer eluded me for a long time.
First I realized that Jim Jones was a man who didn’t want the world to see what he really was, or what his motives and intentions really were. But if Jim Jones is the only one people remember, then Jim Jones succeeded in his own twisted way, and all those people who gave their lives at his command died for nothing.
For these were people, not mindless fools, not slaves and zombies. These were hard working, loving and caring people. They were a family, and they truly loved one another. There was no race, creed, religion. It was a family of people who cherished and cared for one another. And through their connection and hard work, through their unity and trust in one another, they truly did create a heaven. Jonestown was an impressive and inspiring project, an entire community built by the people’s sweat and blood. It took hard work and teamwork, but they created their Utopia.
It is horrendous enough that they died. The tragedy is compounded, though, if their work was poisoned by Jim’s words.
Why, people ask me, do I care about this perversion of history? Why is it important for us to remember, not just their horror but also their desire to belong to something greater then themselves?
My answer is this: I believe that to understand true happiness in life, you need to also understand true pain. For the people of Jonestown, that means to restore their humanity, to feel the significance of the loss, to understand the reasons they felt they had no way out, and mostly, to remember the lesson that the event teaches us, so that the people will not have died in vain.
It hurts. And I do not know why. But what happened November 18, 1978 has scarred my soul. I feel a duty to those people who haunt my dreams, who make me feel a sadness I may never completely comprehend.