On November 18, 1978, I was five years old and attending kindergarten at a Catholic School. My favorite television show was The Magic Garden. I didn’t know what happened in Guyana until many years later. We didn’t have 24 hour news networks or cable television in my house, nor did we have any personal connections to those lost on that day.
Many years later I saw The Guyana Tragedy with Powers Boothe portraying Rev. Jim Jones. His performance is brilliant and Boothe rightfully earned his Emmy Award for it, even if he had to cross the picket line at the time to accept the honor. I know that if I watched the film again today, I would probably point out all the flaws and errors in the story, but I’m also sure I would still find Powers Boothe’s performance gripping.
Back then, though, the images of all those bodies lying out in the brutal sun cost me a number of sleepless nights. At the time I believed that the residents of Jonestown had committed suicide, and I convinced myself that they had been brainwashed into doing it. Later I would begin my own research and read about the events in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. That’s when I learned that things weren’t quite so simple.
The first books I read about Peoples Temple were Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison, Jeannie Mills’ Six Years with God and Tim Reiterman’s Raven. As I read more, I was thrilled to finally learn the truth about the events that culminated on November 18, 1978. I began to understand with compassion what had happened. I was shocked to learn that survivors were met with hostility upon their return to the United States.
This year I attended the dedication ceremony for the memorial at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California. I had had doubts about going, but it turned out to be the experience of my lifetime and I am proud to have been part of it. With the memorial, the people who perished in Jonestown will be remembered. Four large granite stones now bear all of their names, including that of Jim Jones. This is as it should be. If Jones’ name had been left off, then the names of Dr. Schacht, the nurses, the security team and many more should also have been omitted. In fact, we would have been hard pressed to draw a definitive line between the “guilty” and the “innocent.”
The press was wrong in 1978 to categorize the people of Jonestown as blind followers of Jim Jones, and we were wrong to believe it. Deborah Layton has often said that “nobody willingly joins a cult,” and I believe that to be true. The people of Jonestown were for the most part like our next door neighbors, friends, relatives and siblings. Peoples Temple attracted all kinds of people, particularly seniors, African Americans, families, and liberals like myself who wanted to build a better world.
If you belonged to Peoples Temple, you didn’t have to worry about having a place to sleep, food to eat, health care, a job, and most importantly, a purpose in life. I don’t feel that is true in today’s world. There are plenty of homeless people on the streets, hungry children, uninsured millions of Americans, high unemployment rates, and a lack purpose in living for some people. Where is there a place today to make those accommodations? Let us not forget that Peoples Temple assisted drug addicts and counseled its members. Where does that happen now in our society? Jonestown even had a functioning school with highly educated teachers like Edith Roller, Richard Tropp and others.
When the light was extinguished at Jonestown, it was the end of an era and a beginning of another. The 1980s emerged as a decadent, selfish, and greedy era. If Peoples Temple had still been around when AIDS hit San Francisco, I am sure they would have been the first to assist the victims of that terrible epidemic. But they are gone.
Every day, I think about the lost lives of Jonestown. Some, like Mark Gosney, Kimo Prokes and John Victor Stoen, were my age when they died. I was angry at God for a long time for letting this happen, but I believe every event is a lesson for humanity. I also believe if we have learned our lessons from Jonestown, then they didn’t die in vain.
(Sylvia Marciniak is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are Scheeres Book Offers Understanding of November 18 and Jonestown and the economy – reflections on eBay’s hidden treasures. Her complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)