Please Don’t Say The “C” Word

[Editor’s note: Vernon Gosney left Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978, and was seriously wounded during the shootings at the Port Kaituma airstrip. He died on January 31, 2021 due to complications of bypass surgery. This article was written in 2009. His collection of writings for this site is located here.)

The “C” word. Please don’t say the “C” word. You know the “C” word. That dirty word, Cult.

I remember when preparing for one of the 25th anniversary productions about Peoples Temple and Jonestown. I was telling my story to an author – full of my own judgments and opinions I’m sure – when he stopped me in mid-sentence. “We heard all that before. That’s old news.” You know, the controlled environment, sleep deprivation, bad food, loud speakers, corporal punishment. I guess it is a tired old story. So what?! You want something new, fresh!? Sexy! No cult talk please.

Now it is said that Peoples Temple was not a cult, that it was a new religious movement. But was it?

No one thinks they are in a cult. I didn’t. I remember back in the 70s, being in a gay bar while a member of Peoples Temple. I was a bad socialist, I admit. Bad Vernon! Bad! Bad! But I was young and pretty then. Instead of being a good socialist – you know, working for the cause, writing letters to legislators, handing out Temple newspapers or begging for money, cans in hand, on street corners for starving children (starving children, my ass!) – I was in a capitalist pig, degenerate gay bar. Jones said I was animalistic. Yeah, baby! But not with you. You were getting arrested for propositioning an undercover officer in a porn theater. You must have had a wide stance. I had a wide stance myself.

Anyway, I was in the gay bar when a follower of Reverend Moon walked in selling flowers. I looked at the poor soul and thought, now he is in a cult. I wasn’t in a cult, but he was! I’ve thought about that in more recent years, and wondered, Who in another group looked at me and said the same thing. And who would the Moonies look at and say, “Oh, that guy is in a cult!” Me, probably.

I’ve heard that when the word “cult” is used in reference to Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, all discussion stops. Pre-judgment is so final. I see there is validation in that. One man’s cult is another man’s religion. I can’t say Peoples Temple was something else. A social movement, socialist dream that turned into a fascist nightmare?

I look around at my fellow Temple survivors, and while we have all had our own various experiences of Temple life, it’s also true that I’m the only living survivor who was shot. That left me with a very sharp edge.

Two of my heroes, two people that helped me to get free, to de-program myself and unlock my mind, were Margaret Singer and Steven Hassan. Every time I discovered the truth, every time I got to correct and release a lie I had believed, I was another step closer to freedom.

Jonestown and Peoples Temple have become the very embodiment of the word “cult.” In my experience a cult is a group that seeks to compromise the integrity of the individual, using a combination of deception, hypnosis, and mind control techniques to control followers and infringe on the individual’s freedom to choose.

Someone shared with me that to say you were in a cult is to deny responsibility for one’s actions and put the blame on someone else. I am responsible for my actions. I did fully abdicate responsibility for my life to another (Jim Jones, Peoples Temple). That way, if anything went wrong, it wasn’t my fault. I chose to be a member of Peoples Temple and chose to go to Jonestown. I was also responsible for making that choice for my son, who had no choice.

I am responsible for taking my son to Jonestown. I am responsible for my part in my son’s death. I have lived with that decision for thirty years. I will live with that decision until I die. I am responsible. That does not mean that Peoples Temple was not a cult but a religious movement. I am not a professor or college-educated. I would never win in the debating society, but that is my piece in the mosaic.

* * *

Peoples Temple inoculated me against cults, and led me to being kicked out of Scientology headquarters. I had returned back from Jonestown with three bullet wounds I picked up at the Port Kaituma airstrip, I had been released from the hospital, but I was still healing. I had finally gotten the bag removed from my side that I was wearing to hold the bile draining from my liver. Then I made the big step. I had gone back to work (bless those people!) and was now attempting to live in an apartment by myself in San Francisco. It was not easy. The first time I had been left by myself, I got lost for hours a short distance from my home. I was drinking like a fish, heavily medicated or in constant need of male companionship. I would do anything but be alone with myself, my thoughts, my decisions, my mistakes, and my guilt.

I was a huge mess if there ever was one. I don’t know how I am made it through every day. Well, actually I do. Lots of drugs. Lots of booze to blot everything out.

That was when I received in the mail a piece of literature from the Church of Scientology, whose headquarters at the time was near the Civic Center in San Francisco. It was a standard questionnaire asking, What are your fears? Would you like to do something about them so you could live a better quality of life? Well, of course I did! I filled out the form. I had no real intention of joining, I just thought I would mess with them a little bit. I made an appointment to meet at headquarters. When I arrived, I met my Scientologist intake person there. I do not remember her name but she had a certificate on the wall that said she had attained a level of “Clear.” She was quite proud of it. I looked around the building, in the little office and saw signs that perhaps some members were living there. That wasn’t a crime, but after having lived communally all those years, I could see the tell-tale signs.

Then I talked with a few other prospects. The Scientologists showed – or tried to show us – a really scratchy movie clip of L. Ron Hubbard. I had no interest in him at all. I told them I didn’t want to see this movie, that I didn’t care about Hubbard. That did not go over well. Apparently they thought quite a lot of him.

Then there was the e-meter. You know, the two cans you hold in your hand with a low level of electricity while talking of some trauma. You release the trauma and you are on your way to being clear. Boy, I would have to sit here for an eternity, wouldn’t I? I had no interest in that either. If there was enough electricity involved, I would go for it. Turn the juice way up and give me the cans. I was always up for a cheap thrill.

I wasn’t there to join, mind you. I just wanted to talk to them. I wasn’t obnoxious, but do obnoxious people ever think they are obnoxious? I don’t think so.

Then they told me how they didn’t read the papers. All lies, you know. Wait! That sounds familiar! No therapy! No medication for your mental ills. Well, that left me out right there. I was on enough medication to kill a horse, or at least put him in as coma.

I obviously wasn’t Scientology material! And not too over the moon about Hubbard either. I just really wouldn’t do. It was decided that I would be escorted out of the building. However, the woman who was in a certified state of clear lacked the ability or skill to get me out of the building. I still wanted to talk and talk and talk. So her supervisor was called. Helen was in a state of “Clear, Clear” and had the certificate to prove it.

Well, Helen, being in state of “Clear, Clear,” did have the ability to schmooze me out of the building, step by step, edging our way ever so subtly to the door until I found myself bidding a fond farewell to Helen on the sidewalk outside of HQ. A prospective Scientologist cast away.

Now, every time I see Tom Cruise, I think of my short journey with Scientology. Actually when I see Tom Cruise, I think of him in the movie Risky Business, dancing around the living room in his underwear. Please don’t sue me, Tom, I just don’t have the 50 million.

* * *

There is one topic Jim Jones would speak on that still resonates with me today. He used to talk about the Bible and how soft the pages are. So soft and thin. How great the pages of the Bible would be wipe the shit off our ass! The pages of the Bible would make great toilet paper.

Just think how every country in the world would have a bountiful supply of toilet paper. How clean everyone’s ass would be.

So please don’t use the “C” word. That dirty word! And please don’t use the “R” word, either. It’s religion. It is the root of all evil, hate, killings and war.