I’ve titled this year’s jonestown report contribution to make it sound as though I’ve walked away from Jonestown. I haven’t – you can’t if you’ve traveled there long in your head – but I’ve managed to gain some distance if not a new perspective. As the cliché says, the more things change, the more they remain the same. We have a black president, a man I personally admire with every fiber of my being, and so there is a change. But the bitter hatred displayed towards this fine man by millions of Americans will also show that the stain of racism that darkens my country’s history remains the same.
From this we understand today, as clearly as the compassionate did in 1978, how Jonestown came to be. We are taught this lesson again in our country’s lack of understanding and kindness to our fellow Americans who happen to be gay. The intolerance, shunning, casting aside, they all create deep feelings of disenfranchisement in the place one should be able to call home, and when your home has a lock and you’re outside, you might understandably look for a more welcoming environment and theology. In fact never before in my lifetime have I seen my home with so many locks, or so ripe for a charismatic leader – a 21st century Jim Jones – who may offer solutions that will ultimately lead to unimaginable horror.
As for me, I’ve moved forward into lighter paths. My first book was just published and it speaks to nothing more important than the vagaries of small town life, but as I walk down the path towards my own figurative Port Kaituma and the freedom it represents from the horror of Jonestown, I can still feel it at my back. It’s good to remember where you came from. Knowledge and memory provide the only protection against the unlearned lessons of the past. We remember the photographs of the bodies in the pavilion; we need to recall the sign above those bodies, with the George Santayana quote – “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – that seems to become more ironic in the gathering mists of time.
(Kathleen McKenna lives and writes in New Mexico. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)