The morning of the memorial I was nervous. This was nothing new. I always get nervous when I’m about to go to a big event. That day, however, I was going to be a part of something that thirty-three years ago was unimaginable. I was going to an unveiling of the Jonestown memorial. And I had no idea what to expect.
At first I was going to wear black, but an email from a Jonestown survivor told me to wear bright colors. I decided to wear a green shirt with a jeans skirt. I grabbed a book to read, along with my iPhone, and headed to Evergreen.
On BART I put on Sofia Talvik’s song “Jonestown” on my phone, and her voice echoed in my head. Put your troubles in a box, just look at your shoes, so you can be fine be fine. Outside the Oakland hills were still green after an unordinary cool spring. Thoughts drifted in and out, one of them was: how did I get involved in this? Well, the obvious: I was writing a novel about what happened. Yet what had attracted me to such a large story that was still evolving? This was a good question.
I was six in 1978, yet I didn’t really get the impact of Jonestown until ten years later. My mother and grandparents made sure I didn’t see any of the news coverage. This was pretty easy to do; there were only thirteen channels and no Internet. The only part of the newspaper I liked to read were the funnies. I have vague memories of Mayor Moscone’s and Harvey Milk’s murders. At my Catholic school, we prayed for Moscone’s family but not for Milk’s. Six months later, my mother had the chance to sit in the gallery for Dan White’s trial. What struck her about him was he looked so ordinary. He looked like someone she could’ve dated. Years later, I had the same realization about many of the victims of Jonestown: they looked so ordinary. They could’ve been my friends.
I got off BART and caught a bus. I put my earbuds on again. The song changed to Judy Collins’ “Albatross.” The lady comes to the gate/dressed in lavender and leather. Looking north to the sea, she finds the weather fine. I loved this song. And yet it was ironic: Along with the Cudjoe, the other PT boat was called Albatross. An English major couldn’t make this up.
While listening to the song, my mind drifted to the first time I went to Evergreen five months before. The first time was by accident. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I decided to go see the latest Harry Potter movie. Because of track delays on BART, I missed the movie. I was at MacArthur BART, debating what to do next. And then I knew what I had to do. I kept on waiting and waiting to go to Evergreen, but put it off. I was in Oakland, I had money for a cab/bus, why not?
I grabbed a cab and we headed to Evergreen. Here’s the ironic thing: Evergreen is near Mills College, where I graduated. Yet I had no idea it was so nearby. So when we saw the green trees of Mills, I was comforted. Then we reached the black gates of Evergreen, where, with a white Sharpie, someone had written: Don’t come here at night.
I paid the driver. “Are you sure you have a way back?” the driver asked, looking concerned. I understand his hesitation. I am a Caucasian woman from an affluent suburb. I’m in an area that they told us at Mills not to go in by yourself. Yet here I was. I told the driver I would be fine. He still looked concerned when he drove away.
It took half a hour to find the grave. I was the only person there. It was so quiet, so still. Finally I found it, sloping up a hill. I looked at the grave. This was where the people I researched for a year were buried: John Victor Stoen, Kimo Prokes, Terry Carter Jones, Liane Harris, Malcolm Carter, Judy and Patricia Houston. So many people, and I only knew a handful of names.
I kneeled down at the grave. Did the Sign of the Cross. Then I started to talk: “Hi, I guess I should introduce myself, my name is Jennifer Gibbons.” I talked about my novel, what I did for a living. I told them I would obey one rule: First Do No Harm. That (with the exception of Jim Jones) I would try and be respectful, for they’d been through enough. I made the same promise to their family, the survivors. “I promise I’ll tell a good story, but I’ll make sure people knew what happened.” Before I left, I lay down a daisy I’d found, plus a 12-step coin I’d found that said “I put your hand in my hand.” I brushed the grass off my jeans and left.
The bus driver’s loud voice interrupted my reverie. I knew the Evergreen stop was coming up. Two minutes later I was walking towards Evergreen. Two friends who had also written about Jonestown – Katie and Jane – were going to meet me there. Katie had just seen the Stanley Nelson documentary. I knew Jane through my job, plus she’d published a short story that revolved around Jonestown.
Walking up to the cemetery, I was greeted by several security guards. There were rumors of protests, so I wondered if I should show them my ID. A bit nervous, I told them my name and who invited me. They smiled and told me to go ahead.
I walked up the hill to the memorial. There I saw a smiling Laura Kohl (whom I’d met the year before and become a Facebook friend) who gave me a hug. Tim Carter shook my hand. I saw people from the documentary: Neva Hargrave, Claire Janaro, Juanell Smart. My friends came, and we sat in the back.
I sat down on the grass. Ahead of me a woman sat already crying; she lost two children in Jonestown. Several young girls are taking pictures; I later learn they are John Cobb’s grandchildren. There are Kleenex boxes handy, along with water bottles. After days of unordinary rain in the Bay Area, it is a perfect day.
The speeches started with Reverend John Moore giving the benediction. Other speeches followed, yet there was one that made me cry: Juanell Smart’s speech. Smart lost her four children, her mother and her uncle in Jonestown. Later, she found out she lost a son-in-law, Poncho Johnson. And yet she could finally listen to a song Johnson sang often (and once dedicated to Marceline Jones), “The Greatest Love Of All,” and find comfort in the lyrics: And if by chance that special place/leads you to a lonely place/find your strength in love. I was the first one to admit I’d made fun of Whitney Houston’s version of the song. And yet, hearing Smart read it was so moving, my tears flowed.
After the speeches, people came forward to search for the names of their relatives, their friends, their loved ones. Paper and crayons were given out to make rubbings of names. Children made impressions of their grandparents, great-grandparents’ names. I watched as survivors and family members alike hugged, crying. It could’ve been incredibly sad, but it wasn’t. Healing was all around. Katie and I managed to see the most controversial name of all: Jim Jones’ name was half hidden with red dust. Somehow that felt so, so right.
As pictures were taken, I looked at everyone. I only truly “knew” a handful of people there, but I felt connected to every single person there. We all were a part of something bigger than ourselves, something beautiful. Judy Collins’ song floated in my head again: Day and night and day again and people come and go away forever/While the shining summer sea dances in the glass of your mirror/While you search the waves for love and your visions for a sign/…And in the dark, the hard bells ringing with pain. Come away alone, come away alone with me.
The bells rang with pain, but the pain was going away. The albatross was disappearing in the summer sea. What was left was people searching for, and finding love.
(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are Finding Jeanette McDonald’s Pool and My Mike Wallace Moment. Her complete collection of stories for this site may be found here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)