As the anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown approaches, I have been asked to contribute to a number of projects, including a play, a possible movie, and several publications, including this one.
I wanted my voice to be heard. With so many different viewpoints and perspectives out there, I realized that if I don’t speak up, those conspiracists and revisionists would rule. Those that said the deaths were caused by the CIA would gain credence if I remained silent.
But what is my voice? What is the highest form of that voice? What do I have to say?
I looked within and got… the voice of transformation, of resilience, of hope. Creating value in all things. Going to the depths of hell, and rising up on the path of self-discovery. Looking low, looking at the dark ugly parts of myself, and discovering the beauty, the deep stillness of my soul. A soul that wants communion, unity, oneness with others.
There was a space in time that opened up, a window that was the Peoples Temple. A movement, a cause. A grand dream.
A hope for equality, for freedom from racism, sexism, ageism. That same dream drew in many different persons, of different races, socio-economic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. From prison, from the streets, from churches, colleges, suburbia, educated, not educated, those who had seen it all and those who hadn’t seen shit – yet.
We became a family, a large, diverse, united family. I lived in the People Temple from age 19 to 25. Some important years. Discovery years. Make a lot of mistakes years. We lived together, struggled together. Fought for a better world. A place where a black child didn’t have to grow up to live in prison. That dream was worth sacrificing for, giving up creature comforts, giving up biological family, money, possessions, conditioning. The dream of a just, equitable society – one that we would build.
Until the slow eclipse of Jim Jones’ mental illness and drug addiction brought darkness. More and more darkness. Yet we held onto the dream. The ends justified the means? No, the means becomes the end. If I kill to accomplish my dream, I become a murderer, and the dream becomes a nightmare.
Some say Jonestown was a concentration camp. Some say it was more like a socialist summer camp. Some say it was an experiment. Some say the food was very good, some say it was bad, that we ate only rice. I’m almost six feet tall, and I weighed only 119 pounds when I left Jonestown. Of course, I lost weight when I was shot.
Shot? By the CIA? No, by my brother, the one from the grand family. Was I a defector? A socialist gone bad? Undisciplined? An agent provocateur?
I was young (25), idealistic, wanting to make a difference, hedonistic, selfish, immature, searching, curious, undisciplined, vulnerable, kind, naïve, cruel, uneven, courageous, yearning to be the best I could be, willing to risk it all. Young.
I spent five years of my life with the Peoples Temple. Five intense years where I was discovering who I was and wasn’t. Living as a young gay man in San Francisco in the 1970s. A socialist disco bunny?! Can you go to orgies, and still fight for freedom? Can you discover who you are, make mistakes, and still be a comrade?
When the darkness came that blotted out the light, I lost my family, my son. My son who was murdered at five years old. A son who knew only a life in a cult, life in Jonestown. A son I brought into the world and who was sucked into the vortex of my life. I was the steward of his life. I couldn’t see the way through.
Yes, I was shot by my brother Larry Layton, and returned to San Francisco. After spending a lot of time in the hospital, without a spleen and wearing a bag on my side, I returned to my City by the Sea.
I was swallowed up by the darkness and guilt. I became the shadow. What is darkness? The darkness of the womb is a place of birth. Through this experience, I gave birth to myself. I wasn’t quite formed yet when I was in Peoples Temple. The journey to sanity and serenity was long. There was a stop in a mental ward. A long journey to forgive Jim Jones, Larry Layton, and myself. But not before raging for years.
Mine is/was a journey from alcoholism and drug addiction. To stay clean and sober, I had to face myself. A self I really didn’t know. When I saw myself honestly for the first time, I was horrified. It had to be someone else. Not me. Like a toilet that hadn’t been flushed for a long time. A really long time.
The pain of living, the great agony I felt, was the flame-thrower under my ass. Pain that pushed me to grow, explore, heal.
Richard Nixon said that people who hate you can not harm you, unless you hate them back.
I was chased by a thousand ghosts. To forgive to is be free. I could have been Larry Layton or any of the others very easily. From rage, to self-hatred, to forgiveness. Not a short trip.
Through those 25 years, I am many things: Jonestown survivor, long term AIDS survivor, widower of many, clean, sober, queer, alive, police officer, pagan, friend, Buddhist, human being. And much more.
Wait a minute. How does the drug addict, alcoholic, orgy-going disco bunny, ex-socialist become a police officer? It happened!
My life today is a good life. My last big runaway was 20 years ago, when I tried to run away from myself and ran to Hawaii. Good choice. Here, I have healed. Here, I got sober. I went to countless 12-step recovery meetings, therapy sessions, workshops, new age circles. Fought for what I believe in. Became part of the community I live in. Became active.
Am I ashamed of where I came from? No! Peoples Temple and Jonestown are what helped form who I am today. Through all my experiences – there have been many – I am a deeper, richer, more compassionate person.
I’ve grieved for my family, for my son. For the dream that died, that grand dream called the Peoples Temple. For where a moment in time, a window opened and we came together as one people.
Today, I’m so grateful to be alive. I have a full life. Overwhelming at times. I have been so blessed to have wonderful partners, a family to love and be loved by. Live is good. I continue to grow, unravel, unwind and blossom. Do you think there really is a Great Spirit?
Yes, my voice is the voice of transformation, of resilience, of hope. The highest form of that voice speaks from who I am and how I live my life.
Mahalo nui loa.
(Vernon Gosney is a Jonestown survivor. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report is here.)