To my sorrow, I have no quality childhood experiences to share about my sister Liane and me interacting as children. Not one. Maybe I did once, but they have long since been eclipsed by the tragedy of her life and our family’s close involvement in it. The memories I do have are really memories of the struggle with Peoples Temple and their determined efforts to keep Liane’s family estranged from her, of being kept at arm’s length from Liane and her life. I also recall the protests outside Peoples Temple in San Francisco, the discussions with other concerned families, their consideration of hiring abductors and deprogrammers and their methods, the planning of the trip to Guyana with Leo Ryan and a number of relatives – including our father – and the brutal aftermath. This is the content of my memories about my sister Liane and her life. For me as an outsider to her world, my sister Liane and Peoples Temple are the same now.
Liane and I share the same father, Sherwin Harris. My father was married to and divorced from Liane’s mother, Linda, before he married my mother and had my sister Elizabeth, and then me. When I was a child in the 1960’s and 1970’s, our family lived in Oakland and the East Bay. When Linda joined Peoples Temple, she took her young daughter Liane with her. Liane lived with Linda in Ukiah, several hours’ drive north of us. Still, we would often drive to visit her. She rarely came to our house early on, and never after Linda became involved with Peoples Temple. As a child, I ascribed the estrangement to the divorce, and not to anything outside. Looking back, I realize that was not the whole story.
Liane did also visit us on several occasions. As a child, I wondered why she didn’t come more often. We have a picture of her skiing with us from winter 1968, where she looks as I remember her, smiling. I also have some 8 mm movies of her, dancing at a family party, having fun with us, playing with us and our cousins. It must have happened occasionally at least. I specifically remember several trips north to visit her in Ukiah. I remember her at our house, at either my or my sister Elizabeth’s birthday party. These memories are fleeting. I am sure there were many more than I can recall, my memories as a child are so dim now. This all happened when I was very young.
Our family owned some rural property a short drive north of Ukiah, and so my father, sister and I would drive up to camp on the property, and try to visit Liane. On a number of occasions – for whatever reason – she wouldn’t be available. At the time it seemed odd to me that we would drive so far and not be able to see her, but I accepted this, as children do. I remember that when we saw her, she seemed to be always surrounded by her friends, four and five children at a time surrounding her during our visits. In fact, I don’t have any memories of ever seeing her on her own in Ukiah – except for maybe once when we got to take her out to the buffet on the edge of town – although there may have been times when that happened, and I just don’t remember them. In retrospect, I believe the children who surrounded her during our visits were from Peoples Temple, placed there to ensure Liane’s conduct with us outsiders. She never came camping with us that I can recall. I know she would have been welcome to join us. Other forces must have been at work even then to stop us from interacting. I considered it normal, the same thing that other children from divorced families went through.
Liane had a problem with her spine and spent several months in a full body cast in a long term care facility or hospital-type room. We had better access to her when we visited her during that period of time, although – again – she would have the group of children around her. I also attended her high school graduation in Ukiah together with my sister and father. My memories of that day are of a vicious dog that attacked us at the high school, and then my father’s camera being stolen from the car with all Liane’s graduation photos in it. Liane said hi to us briefly after the graduation, and immediately left with her friends. That was probably the last time I saw her. I sometimes wonder if that vicious dog and the theft of the camera were arranged by the church to keep us estranged. Liane told our father that she would be attending a community college in Santa Rosa. Later Liane moved with her mother to Peoples Temple in San Francisco.
Our family focus shifted to increased concern for her as the situation with Peoples Temple seemed to deteriorate. My father joined with other parents in what became known as the Concerned Relatives group, which met at The Human Freedom Center in Berkeley, a house that was used for deprogramming and other anti-cult work. As a young teenager, I remember sitting through long meetings there, listening to adults discuss various seemingly outlandish scenarios. Ex-Temple members would tell stories that were beyond my conception, but – as it turns out – were less bizarre than the truth as it played out. Parents and relatives would talk of strategies to regain their loved ones. It was all so unreal to a teenager.
I later participated in protests outside Peoples Temple in San Francisco, calling for Liane to come out, carrying signs demonstrating, looking up at the big building and wondering what was happening inside. I couldn’t imagine Liane being a part of that. We believed she loved us, so why was she doing this, rejecting her family? There was no reason. This was the Liane I clearly didn’t know.
Then the focus became Leo Ryan – as his interest increased in what was happening – then the organization and preparations for the trip to Guyana. I remember my father packing for the trip, worried for our safety, as we believed we were on “hit lists” of people to be killed. Any danger for Liane still seemed remote to me, as death does to a teenager. And then the world changed for me forever, when my father called us from Guyana to tell us Liane was dead.
The circumstances of my sister’s death are so very odd, even in the context of the rest of the Temple deaths. Liane, Martin, Krista and Linda were the only deaths outside of Jonestown. Krista and Martin were kids. I understand Linda was a “true believer,” but where was Liane in this? For 30 years I have pondered it, and have no conclusions. I am unsure that my sister went willingly to her death, unsure that she was a victim, perpetrator, or something else. I don’t know that she died believing she was doing the right thing. The only fact we know is that her corpse was terribly bruised. We know she could have left the house with my father, a short time before she died. So many others in that house at that same time clearly drew a line in the sand and said no more, it ends there. No one else died outside those four. Why did Liane?
My sister’s death most reminds me of the sacrifices of children to the gods in Central America throughout the centuries, performed so that the rest of the community may fare well. Those Temple members who were there in the house when she died, that same community that let her sacrifice herself, or be sacrificed for them or for something else, clearly know more, but their stories have never been heard. I do hope they speak out. I bear no ill will, but would have the truth be made known as they remember it.
The aftermath is not Liane’s, but ours. Whatever she was is gone, and we are left to make sense of it all, to live our lives meaningfully, and to do righteous things with the knowledge of what happened there. I have no nostalgia for good times or meaning that church members brought to the Temple or the world, the good things they did together. I experienced none of that. My childhood role was of agitator, of youthful bystander to a tragedy. My only drive to understand this now, to keep this in consciousness, is so that we understand what went wrong and how, so that it stops just one other person from repeating what happened to my sister Liane. That will need to be enough.
(Adam Harris can be reached at email@example.com.)