Memorial Motivates Change

It was May 29, 2011. For the first time in over 30 years, I had been able to make the journey to Oakland, California, to properly lay to rest my family, friends and loved ones lost to us on November 18, 1978.

My emotions were high. I was filled with joy because this day had finally arrived. During the month of May I experienced a barrage of changes in my personal life. The first thing I did was to leave a five-year relationship, and I was very unhappy. On May 22, 2011 – my 48th birthday – I realized that, since my children are grown and leading their own lives, my job of raising them was done, so now it was time for me to live mine. My next step was to set out to find “the me” that God had spared from Jonestown over 33 years ago. I didn’t know what was next in my life, but I knew it was time to grasp whatever was in store for me.

The first thing on the list was to get back to California and up to Evergreen Cemetery. Not even the few obstacles I encountered could deter me from getting to this service. When John Cobb had called to tell me about the four memorial plaques, he mentioned that the first plaque he saw was the one with my sisters’ and brothers’ names on it. I knew it was a must that I attend, and – with the help of John – I was on my way.

When I stepped off the plane in San Francisco, the smell of the air alone let me know that – after over 30 years – I was home. There were some changes around me, yes, but the familiar atmosphere was undeniable.

The journey was not one without controversy. There were some who were upset because they learned that Jim Jones’ name was also on the plaque among so many innocent people, and they had reservations about attending. But I was not about to let that name interfere with me memorializing all those lost souls. As I told one reporter during an interview I gave at the memorial, “It’s not about Jim Jones. For me it’s about my mother, two sisters and brother, two cousins and all my friends and loved ones whom I hold dear to my heart that are gone.” I did not and would not let the name Jim Jones continue to hold them hostage. I wanted to put them to rest. I needed them to R.I.P. We needed to find peace.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at Evergreen, or even who to expect for that matter. But the sight of familiar faces dispelled my lingering anxiety, and I cried as I hugged and greeted them. Some faces had to play through my memory bank before I recognized them and – since I was only fifteen years old in 1978 – I know the reverse was true as well. But it was a glorious day, a peaceful day, a happy day.

John had told me the persons on program represented each age group lost, but he was mistaken: the young people, my people, my age group was not represented. After the formal part of the program was over and he invited people in the crowd to come forward, of course I had to speak, of course I had to represent. I was nervous, but I had to say something.

As I walked to the podium, I saw all eyes upon me – some knowing who I was, some not knowing – so I began by letting everyone know who and what I stood for. I scanned the crowd quickly, looked down at the plaques, fought back tears and let the burden, pain and grief from over 33 years escape from my soul. With a deep sigh of relief, I said: “My name is Dawn Gardfrey, and I represent the young people.” I felt as if all the stored up emotion inside me had finally been set free and I knew I had the approval of all whom I represented to continue.

I knew it was time for something else too. Finally, after over 15 years of attempts, writer’s block, stops and starts, I could commit myself to my book because now it had an ending. My life changes became clear, my motivation renewed, the next phase of my life secured, my purpose confirmed. Having closure changed my life and strengthened me. Through their memories I am able to begin a new exciting journey. Now I am on pace to relocate back to California, write my story, their story, our story.

Through the encouragement of Mark Gibson, Leslie Wagner-Wilson, Terri Cobb, Laura Kohl, Jim Cobb, John Cobb, Regina Hamilton, Jim Jones, Jr., and Fielding McGehee as well as my family and friends I receive full support.

I closed with a renewed thank you to all who made the memorial possible, to all who encouraged me to pursue my dreams and interest, and to all those who continue to support me. And thanks to all those beautiful lives and loves lost. Now they have a resting place. Now they are able to “REST IN PEACE.”

(Dawn Gardfrey was in Georgetown with her grandmother, Ruby Neal Johnson, on November 18. Her remarks at the May 29, 2011 dedication service for the Jonestown Memorial are here. Her other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Surviving November: My Life After Jonestown. Her previous articles may be found here. She can be reached at