Little did I realize, when I was a member of the Joint Humanitarian Task Force that was sent to Guyana in November 1978, exactly what impact Peoples Temple would have on the world. We thought we were flying from Panama to Georgetown on a mission of mercy, when in actuality, we were being sent on a temporary assignment in Hell.
Much has been written about the organization, its tumultuous existence and horrific ending. There have been feature films and documentaries trying to describe and explain it. I’m not sure there will ever be a satisfactory explanation for what made nearly 1000 American expatriates take their own lives and the lives of people they loved.
If I told you that memories of the aftermath of Jonestown do not haunt me, that wouldn’t be the truth. Although I am not as emotional about what I saw there as I was 15 or 20 years ago, I am still visited by the ghosts several times a year. They come to me when I sleep and when I discuss that awful experience with the curious.
I still receive a few dozen inquiries a year from family members who read my book or saw me in the documentary on A&E. Documentary producers seek me out, wanting me to relate my experiences in that jungle enclave more than a quarter century ago. I tell them what I can and wish I could tell them more. But it was too late for me to learn anything from their loved ones when I was in Jonestown.
The Ghosts of November was published in 1998, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacre. I wanted to tell the story of what happened in Jonestown AFTER its residents lost their lives. I wanted to honor the men and women of the task force, my comrades, who spent nine days in bruising tropical heat, recovering the bodies that lay in the small agricultural community.
Recently, I received a telephone call from an old Army buddy. He told me to look up my book on Amazon.com. I said, “Art, it’s been out of print for years.” He said, “Just go to Amazon and look it up.”
I was shocked to see that my book was selling “used,” for $129.99. That’s $110 more than the publisher’s retail price new. It made me wish I had kept a case of them stashed away, as an investment.
As some of you who read the jonestown report may know, I was homeless for several years. Occasionally, I receive very kind and generous offers from strangers for rent-free rooms and use of a mobile home. I want to collectively thank these kind people and update them on my status.
In January and February 2004, I was in a residential rehabilitation program for compulsive gamblers at the VA Hospital in Brecksville, Ohio. I haven’t gambled since January 25, 2004.
I now live in Indianapolis, Indiana, coincidentally the city where Jim Jones first preached the gospel. I work as a safety consultant and am currently under contract to a major multinational oil company, working out of Nigeria, West Africa. In August, I purchased my first new car, the first vehicle I have owned since 1999.
Since arriving in Indiana, I have had the opportunity to meet former neighbors of Jim Jones. I have traveled to Richmond, the city where he is buried, and intend to visit his grave when I am traveling through that town and have some extra time. I don’t dwell on the awful experience I had in Guyana, but it is something I probably think about several times a week, even more frequently as we approach anniversary dates.
I don’t believe I will ever forget what happened in the jungle of Guyana on November 18, 1978, nor do I believe I should. In fact, I hope our collective conscious never forgets what happened there so that we can make sure it never happens again.
(Jeff Brailey, who died on January 31, 2014, was the author of The Ghosts of November: Memoirs of an Outsider Who Witnessed the Carnage at Jonestown, Guyana. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)