I recently received an email today from man who lives in Redwood Valley, California and who had been a child when his parents were members of Peoples Temple. He considered himself as a victim of Peoples Temple. He considered him mom and dad, who had become disenchanted with Jim Jones and who left the church before everyone went to Guyana, as victims of Peoples Temple. Reading between the lines, I sensed his fear that his children – who were all born after 1978 – might also be victims of Peoples Temple.
The exchange left me to ponder: Who are the victims of all that was Peoples Temple?
Of course, those who lost the most were those whose dedicated and idealistic lives ended in Jonestown. But the number is well beyond the 918 who died in Guyana. The most identifiable victims include all of the loving family members who lost their brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. The victims include all who lost good friends, people with a vision and a commitment to bring about a better world. Somewhat removed, but who also felt the pain of the deaths are those members of society who saw a powerful interracial and caring group of people lost before rising to its potential. We all lost by not having these people in our lives and in our world, pushing for reform and dignity.
What about those of us who survived? Are we victims? We feel like victims. Our bodies – our lives – could have easily been among those who died in Jonestown. We lived through a hell because we survived. And we were all responsible for what happened in Jonestown.
As a child, I dismissed the allowance that there was ever a gray area. A person was a racist, or was pure. A thing – any thing – was good or it was bad. I lived my first twenty years or so with that mindset. Life was so much easier then.
Now, I can think about tones, or location along a continuum. Is a long-time smoker who dies of lung cancer (as my mother did) a victim? Can a tormentor also be a victim? My sense of it is that we are both victim and transgressor.
For many of us it was a matter of timing – a fluke. We Peoples Temple-ites were struggling to reach our goal – our glory in having a “heaven on earth.” We justified the means of getting there. We were a sovereign nation. We fed, clothed, taught, housed, educated, integrated, treated, and disciplined our own. One point we all agreed on was that the government and the society was not doing enough to protect our human rights, our right as Americans to live without prejudice and with a basic standard of living. Many lived in poverty and many paid a heavy price for being of color in our country. We chose not be victimized by our society.
Jim Jones found us with differing perspectives along a continuum – again – of discontent with the environment. He solidified our angst. It seemed worthwhile to sacrifice certain amenities of our lives to work hard for a bright future. In exchange, he promised to always make good decisions and to keep us from harm. And, under that protective umbrella, we made mistakes. After watching him carefully for years, we stopped watching with a critical eye. We were naïve and hopeful that it was all worth it, for that heaven on earth. And it all came crushing down on our shoulders. We were unflinching soldiers on our path, but we forgot to monitor our check-and-balance sheet.
At what point was it too much? Long before November 18, 1978, it was too late. Yes, many clues were edited out of our thinking. By Jim – yes – but by ourselves too. All of us did it those who died in Jonestown and those who didn’t. We should have never been so gullible. But we were.
So what do we survivors now make of our lives? Yes, we were part of the problem. And yes, we survived whether we wanted to or not. All we can do now is live our lives and try to use our resources to honor those who died and make things better for those of us – all of us – still alive and kicking. It solves nothing to be paralyzed by guilt. I can only be motivated by it. Cynicism, apathy, anger, and grief cannot control me. I have to be in control. I have to be on the move. I won’t take on more guilt for my inaction. No more.
We were all victims. And we can all do something about it.
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)