For the last couple of years, I have been reading and researching a lot about Jonestown, Peoples Temple, and Rev. Jim Jones. Leslie Wagner-Wilson’s autobiography is an amazing true story of bravery, courage, grace, and pressure. The author was not one of the defectors, concerned relatives, or a member of the Planning Commission. She did not have a leadership role in Jonestown, nor was she one of Jones’ mistresses. Instead, Leslie Wagner-Wilson was one of about a thousand inhabitants who called Jonestown home.
While her life of the past 30 years is one of an amazing achievement, the book begins with her life growing up in Peoples Temple and going to Jonestown, where she and her toddler son, Jakari Wilson, become the only two members of her family to survive that day in 1978. Everyone else – her mother, sister, brother, nephew, niece, brother-in-law, and husband – died that day, along with hundreds of friends and fellow members of the Temple.
Leslie’s mother Inez Wagner first joined Peoples Temple to help Leslie’s sister, Michelle Wagner, during her difficult teen years. During the early years of the Wagners’ involvement, Peoples Temple was more than just a church, it was a community which was racially integrated and lived in harmony – at least in appearances. Peoples Temple was not always about Rev. Jim Jones. It consisted of caring people who reached out to those disenfranchised by society at large, providing employment, health care, food, shelter, and an atmosphere that you were not only a member of the community but part of a larger family.
As active members – but not high in the hierarchy of the organization – the family attended Temple services and utilized Temple programs. Leslie reiterates that she could have left them sooner if she wanted too. Maybe it’s because Leslie was not privy to secrets like defectors including Jeannie and Al Mills (Deanna and Elmer Mertle), Terri Buford, Grace Stoen, Timothy Stoen, and Deborah Layton were all members of the Planning Commission and who all left before the tragedy. They knew far more than Leslie and her family about the organization. If the Wagners had left the Temple, would they have been targeted as much as the former members of the leadership, or would have they just been forgotten because they did not have as much to tell the reporters and hungry press? We will never know that answer.
Leslie eventually befriended and fell in love with Joseph Lafayette Wilson, who later became known as one of Jones’ most trusted members of the security team in Jonestown. Joe and Leslie’s relationship was complicated by their youth and inexperience in their marriage, but they were bound tightly together in many ways, especially through their child, Jakari.
When Joe took Jakari, to Jonestown, Leslie knew that she would eventually have to go down herself if she ever wanted to get him home to America. The rest of her family was already there. Her own sister went to escape an abusive relationship at home.
Once Leslie got the phone call to go, she knew she had to, for Jakari’s sake. She details the long journey to Jonestown and her life in the jungle community in both negative and positive lights. She saw Rev. Jones’s health in its slow deterioration. Of course, she realized the dangers of Jonestown were far more deadly than the South American jungles. The Jonestown community was surrounded by armed guards and humiliating punishments at cathartic meetings held at the pavilion.
Of course, Leslie’s decision to leave Jonestown on the morning of November 18, 1978 would save her life and her son’s life, but she left behind 900 friends and relatives. The plan was to leave on a picnic in the jungle while Congressman Leo Ryan and his entourage was in Jonestown. The “picnic” was really a ruse to escape Jonestown. Instead of heading toward Port Kaituma, which was only six miles away – and where Ryan and four others would meet their deaths a few hours later – they went the opposite direction, to Matthews Ridge, 28 miles away. Walking in the brutal heat that day, they feared capture at any moment until they reached their destination. Even then, they knew they would have to go to the American Embassy in Georgetown to obtain passports to leave the country, and they had heard the stories of how any of the people they met along the way – including the embassy – could betray them.
What they learned when they reached Matthews Ridge was even more horrific than they had ever imagined. And that was only the beginning of their ordeal. For Leslie and the other Jonestown survivors, life would never be the same. They survived with their clothes on their backs. They were told they were the lucky ones, but they had lost everything, including a sense of identity and their families. They were now alone in a world that had viewed them harshly even more than in Jonestown. Isolated and treated more like criminals than human beings, they were denied sympathy, support, even an understanding of their losses. They were viewed with suspicion and fear by others outside of Jonestown just as they had in Jonestown.
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Leslie had decided to bury that part of her past until years later.
Leslie and Jakari return home to California, still fearing the rumored death squads. Other than in Jonestown – and in a bathroom at the Temple headquarters in Georgetown where Jones’ right-hand lieutenant, Sharon Amos, killed her three children and herself – no one else in Peoples Temple committed suicide that day. Still, Leslie decided to bury that part of her past until years later.
Following Jonestown, she and Jakari were the only descendants of her maternal grandparents. She had to deal with her family who wanted to know why she hadn’t saved her teenage brother Mark. She had to explain why she left him behind: she could have faced severe punishment such as imprisonment – or worse, separation from her son – for planning to escape. Still, her brother Mark’s death was heartbreaking, and her feelings of loss were compounded by her family’s recriminations. She had tremendous amount of emotional guilt for being a survivor.
In reality, some survivors of such tragedies never really recover from their experience. Holocaust survivors and Titanic survivors all feel some guilt for surviving while so many had died. Why did Leslie and others survive? Maybe because she was not done with her mission in life.
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Leslie writes in her book about relationships with men, failed marriages, more children, homelessness, prison, and substance addiction. Leslie was now a fractured soul who needed a foundation. As she slowly began to repair her life and identity, she had experienced more heartbreak and sorrow than any of us could imagine.
Leslie is a survivor now. She writes lovingly about those who perished in the jungles and whom she has not forgotten. An appendix to the book lists the name of every single person who died on November 18, 1978. This is the first time the complete list has been in print.
As a first time writer, Leslie is candid, truthful, and courageous to describe her life. She details her achievements and failures candidly and honestly. She can inspire those out there – myself included – to accomplish and appreciate our humanity and achievements beyond our own capacity. She does not dwell anymore on her life as a survivor of Jonestown. She has carved a new identity, in part due to Jonestown, but now separate from it. She does not hide her past anymore or her Jonestown connection. She should not be ashamed or embarrassed to have been a member of Peoples Temple anymore. She has come forward into the light to tell us about her life and those left behind in Jonestown.
Personally, I think in most part that Jonestown had happened for a reason. I believe God wanted us to learn from this disaster so the hundreds did not die in vain. Leslie has shown her amazing spirituality and a love for all humanity. People like Leslie were meant to survive and teach us how to live in this world.