The experience of attending the Jonestown Memorial dedication is difficult to articulate. There are a limited number of people who know I was there, as I deliberately did not tell many people about it. A week before the ceremony, I did mention to my three siblings that I would be going to San Francisco for a few days to do some Peoples Temple research at the California Historical Society archives and – oh, yeah – to attend the dedication of a memorial to the victims. They were pretty quiet, probably because they know very little about Peoples Temple. I also suspect that what they “know” is not correct, so it was not easy to explain why I wanted to be there.
I was initially hesitant to attend the dedication ceremony because I feared that, as an outsider, I would make former members of Peoples Temple uncomfortable. I was relieved that this turned out not to be the case. When I left the reception after the ceremony, I exchanged hugs with several of the survivors. In those moments, I had a brief flash of the camaraderie shared by Peoples Temple members back in the day. This emotional connection to Temple members is something I cannot really explain, but I also don’t feel I owe an explanation to anyone about it. It was simply nice to be able to share this connection with Temple survivors in person.
The memorial dedication gave attendees the opportunity to remember, mourn, respect, forgive and heal. The reception at Jordan Vilchez’ house gave everyone the chance to just “be.” This was one of those rare experiences in life where you truly just had to be there to understand it.
Then I went home…. And everyone wanted to know about the experience. It seemed that in the interim between my departure for California and my return to Colorado, word had spread through the family grapevine. My siblings were curious. My aunt was intrigued. Distant cousins visiting from out-of-state were anxious to hear about it. Why was I there? What was it like? What were they like? I was not ready to talk about it, though I didn’t know why.
Eventually, I found out that part of the problem stems simply from not being on the same page as my curious relatives. They were still looking at details relating to the events of 18 November 1978: who was Jim Jones, where did he get the cyanide, why did they do it, how did they orchestrate the deaths?
From the start of my own personal research into Jonestown and Peoples Temple, however, I have been more interested in the members of Peoples Temple than Jim Jones himself. I did not attend the dedication ceremony because of Jim Jones. Furthermore, I think I have problems trying to describe the experience of attending the memorial because it exists more on an emotional level than on a cognitive one. My family was looking for what I thought about Jonestown, but for me, on that day, thinking was less important than feeling.
In the end, I answered my family’s factual questions, to the degree that any of us know “the facts.” Some of my siblings had done their homework, or at least had visited Wikipedia, in my absence. I never explained that I was amused by Liz Forman reading my palm, although I think she knew I do not believe in palmistry. I never described talking to Laura Johnston Kohl, whose book I very much enjoyed reading. It is difficult to explain why you would grieve for the loss and celebrate the lives of over 900 people that you never met. It is also difficult to explain why being welcomed to a memorial dedication by 200 people you do not know, is a meaningful experience. But I have decided that I do not really have to explain. I know how I feel.
(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She transcribes Peoples Temple audiotapes for the Jonestown Institute and is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are The Jim Jones “Truthiness” Project and Rewriting Jonestown. Her complete collection of articles for this site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)