When coerced, along with the other youngsters of the Temple to denounce the family members who had come to Guyana to see them, be with them, and – for us – possibly free them, Liane’s only “denunciation” of me was, “I don’t know why he’s come here.” This for me was clearly “praise with faint damnation” for her less than perfect father. As any parent of a young daughter can attest, Liane’s statement clearly signified our loving relationship, a relationship forged from the moments of her birth that continued unbroken to the moments of her death. Yes, there were rocky moments, mostly precipitated by Jones’ attempts to separate us and have Temple members lie to their non-Temple family.
I don’t know about you, but when I am lied to, my flesh crawls and my brain screams “there’s something wrong here.” I clearly knew there was something wrong with Liane’s situation and with the Temple. I was never permitted a visit that we were not shadowed by other Temple members. I became determined to right this wrong. Instead of creating an advocate, as was possible, Jones made me an adversary. How dumb was that? I am sure he felt it served his twisted monomaniacal purposes.
I am comforted by Liane’s love. My only regret was that my love for her was not sufficient to extract her from danger and save her life. I am grateful for the gifts she brought me. She taught me what it is to be a father, a lesson not lost on her siblings, leaving a legacy of family love extending to the generations.
Liane died on November 18, 1978, but she did not willingly go to her death. Post-mortem examination revealed bruises all over her body as she had struggled vainly to avoid the knife attack. Skip Roberts, the Assistant Commissioner for Crime in Guyana, who knew Liane personally, revealed these facts to me. It is not inconceivable that she was acting in defense of her younger half brother and sister, murdered also, whom she loved very much.
I’m writing this on 9/11, a day of remembrance and introspection, a day both sad and inspirational to us all, a day honoring the selfless heroism of many of the victims who aided and saved their companions. No such heroism was apparently present during the senseless slaughter suffered by the Temple members. Yes, senseless slaughter. There is no other rational concept that better describes the truly evil acts committed that day. I have also remembered my daughter Liane with love for these past 33 years. I see her as a victim of a terrorist no less vicious than the Al Qaeda thugs whose “spiritual” message was to murder their fellow man.
But there is a difference between the perpetrators of 9/11 and the source of evil in Jonestown. Jim Jones set a new standard for terrorism, attacking first the minds, hearts and spirit of those sucked into his orbit before ultimately destroying their lives. Men, women and children alike were murdered. That such evil was at work escaped most of us at the time. In a world that had seen and vanquished the Nazis in WWII, we were reasonably led to believe that we had created a better place, that the future was unfolding in a way that would preclude such horrors from happening again. It is the insidious face of evil which beguiled and delivered a message to Liane that she must work to make the world an even better place. She was moved to act out of the goodness in her heart, her idealism and her love for mankind. But unknown to her was that, as with her co-Temple members, they had set upon the wrong path. Choices were made for her that fulfilled the hate fantasies of Jim Jones, and that snuffed out her natural inclinations to love and care for her fellow man.
What can we learn from all this? That evil can live comfortably beside such goodness? There is more I would like to share.
What I have processed through all the years of grieving and loss is that there is a fundamental choice one must make in this life. That choice is between life and death. There is nothing worthwhile in between. We must consciously choose whether it is better to be happy or sad in life. Trust me, it is better to choose happiness. Adopt “feeling good is better than feeling bad” as a working motto. Recognize that there are enough true and appropriate times to feel sad, but let your fundamental choice for happiness guide your every decision. Turn all your must haves and wants into preferences, consciously and verbally. A wise man said, the secret of happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you got. We are completely responsible for own lives, and we should never surrender that responsibility to another. Our choice for happiness must be powerfully present at each juncture of our life, representing our deepest commitment to love life so much that it would be unthinkable to harm another human being, let alone ourselves. Being of service to others, respecting their lives and choices, is the greatest calling. I call this “working for justice.” If you can do that as your life’s work, you are truly blessed. Learn to light candles instead of cursing the darkness. Learn the pure power of your own intentions and put it to work for you. Oh, I could tell you stories. If you can’t accept it, work to change it.
I have learned to vanquish the grief by holding Liane, instead, in a truly loving memory. The power of love, both giving and receiving, unconditionally, is arguably the most powerful force in the universe. Simply being true and honest with others goes far in maintaining loving relationships. If you are working to prove yourself right, you are working thereby equally as hard to prove the other poor bastard is wrong. How’s that working for you?, as the TV pundit often asks.
Knowing the distinction of honoring ones father and mother, not necessarily loving, hating or even liking them, would have lessened the alienation from family which Jones encouraged. Holding that there is no “them” and “us” in the world, but that we are in fact all bound by our common humanity would have laid a foundation for good. True wisdom, described as the synthesis of knowledge with compassion, does not necessarily come with time but can grace us at any age. It is desperately important to pick the right teachers and mentors for your life. Be prepared to learn a lot from your children, from the beginning. The essence of communication is attentive listening, so hold your tongue. Clichés are valuable, do not avoid them, they have earned their currency.
Be true to yourself when you make promises and commitments. Keep them, but if you can’t, clean it up with the recipient. That’s real integrity. Living with integrity provides great satisfaction.
In defense of the apparent sounding “preachiness” of what I have written here and with due apologies to all who have taken the time to read this far, try to live each day as it would be your last. I am always cognizant that nobody gets out of here alive and that life itself is a gift.
If anyone objects to my interpretations of events, I make no apologies. I am a survivor, I was there – though never a Temple member – I get to write the history. Anyone who believes that the Temple participants were weak, morally deficient or somehow otherwise lacking folk, is just plain wrong. The best evidence of the quality of the membership is to look today at those who survived. You will find a range of people from ordinary to extraordinary who have subsequently contributed to society on every level. Unless they share their stories, there is nothing to distinguish them from any other citizens. I have observed many of them being a bit more idealistic than what you may consider a norm, but this is hardly a failing in my book.
Lastly, but definitely not the least, love and care for your children. Hug ‘em and kiss ‘em and tell them every chance you get you love ‘em. Remember, you are required to only do your best for them. You are not God, you are only a parent, but if you have done your best, have no regrets on how it all comes out.
(Sherwin Harris is the author of Still a Father, 30 Years Later. He may be reached at email@example.com.)