“The Strength to Ask Questions” by Jordan Vilchez
Almost 30 years after the deaths in Jonestown, I take this moment to reflect on how life has been for me since that time.
Immediately after the deaths had occurred, those of us in Georgetown, Guyana were in a state of shock. We’d been instructed to kill ourselves – never a formal order, as I recall – but a message that Sharon Amos received on the radio from Jonestown and delivered in passing, as she whizzed out of the radio room clutching the hands of her two youngest children. With the exception of Sharon and her three children, we were fortunate enough to be far enough removed from the ominous atmosphere that demanded the lives of our friends and loved ones in Jonestown.
We faced a new beginning as members of the larger society outside of, and away from, Peoples Temple. One by one, we were released by the Guyanese government to return to the U.S.
I spent about a month in Georgetown after the deaths. My feelings during that period were like waves of a bad dream, coming in and out of consciousness. It was a strange feeling knowing that everyone had died, and there I was, suddenly, free from the hold that I felt that Jim and the Temple had had on me. I never imagined that there would be a time when I would not be in People Temple, because I was taught that life outside was going to be impossible. I could not fathom any other possibility. Mixed with a sense of disbelief and tremendous grief I had after having suddenly lost my sisters, nephews and everyone else I had grown up with, was the liberation and sense of freedom that was suddenly bestowed upon me. I also discovered that – as hard as the first month was – the major grieving was waiting for me after I returned to the States and reunited with my family.
Returning from Guyana a month after the deaths, meant taking in life, one day at a time. Seeing my family hurting over the loss of my sisters Diane and Cynthia and the kids, Dov and Jamal, was unbearable. I felt like a large pit of pure sadness. It permeated everything, right down to the daily routine of eating and sleeping. I was starting a new life at 21, but I had no clue about what it was that I was supposed to do.
I learned that while I was in Georgetown my dad had flown out from the San Francisco Bay Area to South Carolina to find out about who, if anyone, in our family was alive and who was dead. After returning home, he read in the local newspaper that my name was on a list of the living. My dad was very supportive and told me that I should not feel bad for having been in the church, that I was not a bad person, just that I was misguided and that I had had a “bag over my head.” When he said that, I felt such relief because in some ways I felt partly responsible for their grief, and shame for having been in an organization that went to such an awful extreme. He also told me that if I was ever to encounter any kind of trouble in my new entry into life, that he would be there for me. He had a sense of my being plunked down into society without any experience. When he died in 2005, I felt orphaned.
Within a few months of the deaths, I had gone to stay with my mom in her condo in Berkeley. I got a job in a local printing company and went out partying on the weekends. I went to community college, just taking classes, with no real aim. After six years of working different jobs at different times, I began working at a private forensic laboratory in 1985 and stayed there twenty years. I also earned a B.A. in Humanities in 1991 and later became certified in therapeutic bodywork.
Even though I had made some achievements and stayed at a job consistently for a long period of time, I had some serious issues with self esteem. I was only able to see myself in relation to another – a significant other – and from that, I obtained a sense of identity. I did not even realize that I was doing it, which I guess is a common element of low self esteem. One reason for this is that as I grew up in Peoples Temple, the image of one’s “self” was always given validation only in connection to Jim. Without that external factor to which I was dedicated, I was not of much value. Autonomy was not a virtue. And because I was so accustomed to inappropriate behavior on the part of Jim, the one I had given all of my power to, I began relationships with inappropriate people.
It was about 1995 when I began to get a sense of myself within a larger context, to have moments of awe-inspired reverie. In the vast universe I sensed I was a part of, I literally buzzed with delight. I viscerally felt my own aliveness on an energetic level and experienced the multidimensional aspect of my true nature in which, for example, I merged in oneness with a tree, a mountain, a rock, identifying with the sacredness of everything. It was at this point that my identity became connected with a larger self that was not connected to another person, yet included everyone and everything. This is not to say that relationships suddenly became easy, but that emerging into my reality was this whole other larger-than-life knowing that I am whole just as I am, that I exist within a complex web of interdependence of primordial and cosmic dimensions. This grounded sense of self and placement could not come alive within the limited mindset that I had been immersed in up to that point. Yet somehow through the darkness of an eclipsed self-concept, dawned the truth of my reality.
In 2003 I decided that I wanted to use the lower portion of my home as an art studio. I searched for a teacher to instruct a group of friends and me in the art of paper sculpture. After the class – which spanned three Saturdays – we continued to meet in the studio to create work. Five years later, we still meet on Saturday afternoons all year round. It continues to be a pleasure to open my studio to anyone who wishes to come and explore their creativity. We have participated in Open Studio circuit in our area, publicly displaying and selling our work in the studio. We had the good fortune as well to display our work in the Addison Street Window Gallery across from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. My philosophy with regard to art is that everyone has a unique contribution in artistic and creative expression, whether or not one has had the opportunity to ever manifest it. It is awesome to be able to provide a supportive space and atmosphere for that to be nourished. We have branched out using different kinds of media, including recycled materials in collage, and other art forms.
Leaving my regular job after twenty years was scary but exciting. Working for myself as a bodyworker and an artist, I feel as though I am living a satisfying, creative, and engaged life. Developing community has been something that has been natural for me. Perhaps this is due to the community spirit that existed in Peoples Temple. I have been in a self-run women’s group for 15 years and have developed lasting meaningful relationships with these women as well as with many other people. On the street where I live there are people who I have become close to. This is the community with whom I share genuine mutual support.
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During the first 25 years after the deaths, contact with people from the Temple had been very minimal. I carried a lot of shame about having been in Peoples Temple. This was because, as Peoples Temple shattered, my identity also underwent a shattering. Speaking to others who were not members was like opening a can of worms. I would take the chance when I felt it was relatively safe to do so. With others I had known for years, I never felt I could bring up the subject. With those whom I did share my experience, I encountered so much to say, so many questions I had to answer… and even then it was a risk, because some never could really understand.
I went to a 25th anniversary reunion at the home of one former member. It was intense seeing so many people that I had not seen in so many years. It was good, yet almost too much to handle. I left after about 40 minutes, flooded with memories and emotion.
Contact with Temple folks has increased within the past five years. The camaraderie and closeness that I feel with my Temple kin has returned. Much healing has occurred through this contact. Reuniting with others has been facilitated by allowing myself to be interviewed for in the documentary Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and by opening myself to participate in other media interviews. Speaking about my involvement in Peoples Temple has actually been therapeutic. It has dispelled a lot of the shame I once felt and replaced it with dignity. I am also reminded of what it was we were trying to achieve, which was a better world. Most of all, I have healed tremendously due to the love, encouragement, and generosity of other former members. It seems as though this will last throughout my lifetime, because together we are a family that has survived the same tragedy.
If I were asked the question, does People Temple still exist? I would have to say no, not as it was. It could not have lasted due to its areas of gross dysfunction. But the spirit of what the members attempted to do does continue in a rich and healthy way in the form of the bonds that we have, no matter where we live and how diverse our individual lives are. This is a very special sort of bond that I am so grateful for.
What is important to me now? Living authentically and being a good animal. What does that mean? It means following my yearnings and listening to the questions inside me. What kind of human shall I be as we enter into a critical phase of planetary crisis, where natural systems in place for millions of years are breaking down due to human activity? What now is required of us as a species? How do we transform despair brought on by tragic personal loss, war, global warming, extinction of species and the disturbance of the delicate systems of the planet that we ourselves evolved out of? How may I turn my despair into creative action? How may I ignite within me the sense of the sacred in daily life and work, rather than relegate it to particular carved out moments outside of routine activity? My tendency in the past has been to sink into depression at the enormity of what we are now facing. Now I am beginning a masters program in culture and spirituality in order to deeply explore these questions I ask of myself, to have continued endurance and the presence of mind necessary to be my best self.
As I explore these questions I find some of the answers by making an attempt to stay grounded, to stay present in the now, share with others, and nurture my immediate community. It is imperative that I create art, have personal quiet time, spend lots of time with my animals, get a bit of exercise and work in the garden. It is a full and exciting life, and it is great to be alive.