For years I have wanted to write my memoirs about my life in Jonestown. After several attempts I could never seem to find the motivation to complete the task. As I stood with old friends at the dedication service at Evergreen Cemetery on May 29, I realized I am now ready to begin the project.
I want to share memories of sixteen months in Jonestown, Guyana as a teenager in what we so fondly called “The Promised Land.” I will also include poetry I have written.
I was 15 at the time of the tragedy, and so a lot of my memories are vivid. I also know my fellow survivors will be able to provide me with any information I may need or questions I may have to refresh my memory. I hold dear to me the memories of my family and friends, the memories of our performances in the “Drill Team” and “The African Dance Group” and the camaraderie we shared as young people. I also carry the clear and terrible recollections of that fateful night of November 18, 1978, when I witnessed Sharon Amos take the lives of her three children and herself.
The title of my memoir, Surviving November: My Life After Jonestown, reflects both experiences: my time in Jonestown until November 1978, and my life after my return back to the States.
Growing up in Jonestown, I learned about Socialism, Fascism, Marxism and Communism. It was the epitome of communal living, and everything we needed was provided. There was no money to spend in Jonestown, no cars to drive… and no responsibilities to learn how to be a responsible adult. Upon my return, I realized how ill-equipped I was to handle life in the States. I had to reacquaint myself with family and friends who often asked me questions I sometimes did not have the answer to. I learned how to keep my past a secret so as not to be ridiculed or looked at as some kind of “brainwashed” freak. I made mistakes that I am not proud of and – to be sure – mistakes that I am proud of.
I also had to reacquaint myself spiritually which helped me find the strength to continue during the times that I thought I would not survive or even that I wanted to give up on.
I plan to share this story with those who still have an interest in Jonestown as well as those who may be curious of how a young person grows up in an environment such as Peoples Temple. I am hoping that the book will be educational as well as motivational and inspirational.
(Dawn Gardfrey was in Georgetown with her grandmother, Ruby Neal Johnson, on November 18. Her other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Memorial Motivates Change. Her remarks at the Jonestown Memorial Dedication service are here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)