The Poems In Jonestown Lullaby

(Editor’s note: The following is the forward to Teri Buford O’Shea’s book, Jonestown Lullaby.)

When you read Teri O’Shea’s poems in Jonestown Lullaby, you will be taken on a journey of intense emotion. Written over the years on scraps of paper, in journals, hidden away and later found by her daughter, these poems have been a long time coming into the light.

Stark, raw and powerful, O’Shea’s poems are about survival – not just survival in Jonestown itself, but survival of the tremendous loss in its wake. The poems give us a glimpse of the secretive, fearful and bewildering world out of which O’Shea escaped a few weeks before the massacre in Jonestown. Her poetry conveys unimaginable fear as well as enormous loss and despair, portraying as well the reverberations of the trauma of Jonestown in a new generation. Yet O’Shea’s poetry also gives voice to the healing in friendship, in forgiveness, and in hope for new beginnings.

In addition to losing the community of people she lived with, worked with, loved and cared about, Teri had to face in isolation the terrible guilt of being a survivor. She was compelled to conceal her past due to the significant stigma associated with Peoples Temple and Jonestown. She, like other survivors, encountered disbelief, fear, even loss of employment, when she revealed she was a Jonestown survivor. As a result, she told very few people about having been a member of Peoples Temple. For years after her escape, O’Shea also feared for her life because of her defection and so lived in hiding. It is only in the last several years that she has come out publicly as a survivor.

It is no small act of courage to deal with the stigma, fear, loss, guilt and shame associated with being a Jonestown survivor, and to reveal your own identity as a survivor and the dark places where you have been. It’s especially hard when the media has reduced your experience to sensational headlines and when most of what persists in popular memory are photographs of dead bodies in the jungle, the demonization of Jim Jones, and jokes about drinking Kool-Aid.

The poems and photographs in Jonestown Lullaby demand that we remember more than headlines and images of bodies; they demand we remember that those who died were friends and family members who worked, loved and played, and are still mourned. Jonestown Lullaby insists we acknowledge that the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown is complex and multilayered; it did not end with the massacre on November 18, 1978, but continues to this day.

Heather Johnson
April 2011