Returning to Jonestown

A few months back I visited author Julia Scheeres, who is writing about Peoples Temple. She had recently returned from Guyana to visit the Jonestown site, a place that was once a community of vibrant individuals who were full of life, in spite of the overarching dysfunctional system within which they lived. It was a life I had known, a life I had experienced with so many others. As I viewed photographs of that which remained of Jonestown, I felt like a ghost visiting a place that I had inhabited with my family and it seemed like yesterday, rather than almost 31 years ago. It was eerie and painful, but internally, I knew I had to see the pictures of how it looks today.

Prior to this, I had somehow envisioned everything somewhat like it had been, with cottages and other buildings inhabited by local people who had moved in and who were hopefully living a decent life. What I saw in the photographs was totally different.

Everything from Jonestown has been stripped in the years since the deaths. Understandably, local people – and perhaps the government of Guyana – made use of the machinery, the lumber of the structures, personal belongings of the individuals, educational resources from the school, utensils from the kitchen, medical supplies, the beds where people slept, the cottages, and all of the many things that comprise a town. What remained was a huge space of tall grass and shrubs in an area that was perhaps the size of several football fields. Around the entire place tall trees of the jungle stood in a huge circle as silent witnesses to all that had happened there, majestically living in their own right, with their looming presence protecting and coexisting with the spirit of life that once filled that empty space. It is a spirit that still seems to naturally inhabit the landscape.

I survived because I was in Georgetown that day, but as I looked at the photos of Jonestown today, I realized that a part of me died there that day too, along with my friends and family members. Recalling what was once there – from the flowers that lined the walkways to the bandanas crowning the heads of dedicated and hopeful youth – was a vision, alternating, flashing back and forth contrasting with the emptiness of what now remains. The strange feeling I had reminded me of a time about ten years ago when I went to Costa Rica and trekked to the Guayabo ruins and saw the remains of a community that existed one thousand years before. As I sat on the old foundation stones soaking in the energy of life that existed there, I tried to imagine what life was like. Having experienced the devastating loss of an extinguished community of my own, I felt grateful and fortunate as well as in awe, to be there pondering, imagining, experiencing. It also brought to mind thoughts I have had about Holocaust survivors who returned to experience being in the homes of loved ones, or perhaps their own, after they and those they knew had been taken away to die, yet they themselves had somehow survived.

During the afternoon that I spent viewing the photos of what remained of Jonestown, a place where I lived and where everyone had died, I was amazed at how I could feel the vitality of the collective energy of the place. As time goes on, I come to know more and more that everything is energy, and that this is even so with what we perceive to be crass matter. So it stands to reason, that although nothing visible remains in Jonestown, there is a clear perceptible resonance with what I see in the photographs, a seemingly empty place, with a remaining essence that has become part of the place. Not only does the vitality remain within the aliveness of my own experience, but perhaps within what is there now in a form apart from my own identification with it. I like to think that the vibrancy of life that existed there still remains on some level, in an overlaying segment of time, wholly perceptible within the natural beauty of a place we know as the South American jungle.

(Jordan Vilchez is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. A second piece in this edition is Sweet. Her complete collection of writings appears here. She can be reached at