Life Worth Living

30 Years After JonestownWhen asked why he’d lived so long, the centenarian replied, “I didn’t die.” Like him, I’ve been so busy meeting my day-to-day obligations and addressing my all-too-ordinary frustrations for all these years – in other words, just surviving – that I really haven’t much thought about what my own survival means.

As I begin to consider all this, the picture that immediately comes to mind is that of a wild hare on some African savannah, that has managed to out-turn and outlast the cheetah on its tail, despite the cheetah’s evident hunger and extreme speed. I imagine that were the bunny and I able to enjoy a post-chase brandy and cigar, we’d share an understanding that while we had no idea how we’d avoided a most untimely death in the teeth and claws of a determined predator, we felt damn lucky to have done so.

Perhaps the first critical consideration of my post-Temple survival relates to my escape from the Temple. I left about a year-and-a-half before the massacre. As a “defector” (Temple terminology for those of us who left before November 18), my worldview very likely has a different cast than that of my friends and family who remained in the church until the end. Inasmuch as I’d grown up in the Temple, spent a lot of time with Jim Jones, and ultimately married his daughter, the church was the whole of my environment until early adulthood. What’s more, given my impoverished and near-homeless childhood, the Temple was my shining citadel of hope, and Jim, of course, the man of the age.

As I finished law school, however, and in the interests of the Temple, began a career in the outside world, I began to comprehend the intense paranoia and suffering in the church and realized that, as distinct from good ol’ middle class life in America, existence in the church was going to be one of increasing misery and hopelessness, at least for me. On the other hand, those who remained in the Temple accepted those terrible conditions, willingly and in good faith, as the necessary costs of a life dedicated to high principle. And I tip my hat to them. But my closeness to Jim allowed me to perceive both his personal corruption and that which existed at the heart of many of the supposed grand causes he claimed for us. By the time I began planning my departure, I’d come to believe that his dictatorial and megalomaniacal solutions were vastly worse than the inequities he claimed to wish to eradicate on our behalf.

My experience in the outside world – symbolized perhaps by an unexpected devotion to the 1976 Summer Olympics, which I sneaked out to watch – inspired in me a sense of hope that a much more fulfilling life lay in my grasp, had I the courage to leave the Temple. With such motivation, I left all my friends and family in early 1977, borrowed some money in the form of personal checks from a couple of non-Temple friends I’d met in my year of work outside the church, and stole away to a senior citizen’s residence home in Oakland, where I lived under an assumed name. I was 28 at the time.

Shortly after I left – and much like a spiritual epiphany – I experienced “freedom.” I was walking along Third Street in San Francisco’s industrial district. I’d failed to get the last of these personal checks cashed at one bank and was headed to another. I was down, literally, to my last $20 bill plus the uncashed check in my pocket. As I walked along the street, though, my feeling of doom just vanished. Like Christian in John Bunyan’s famous Pilgrim’s Progress, I sensed despair slip away. In its place, I felt a profound hopefulness as well as an unprecedented awareness of the lightness of being. I’d never before known such feeling. In my darker days since then I have often found serenity by reflecting on this emotional awakening.

At the same time, it occurred to me that if anyone could succeed, I ought to be that person because, and these were my exact thoughts, “I’m well educated, speak English like a native (a good thing given my Buckeye upbringing), and have a penchant for hard work and organization, as well as a winning – if somewhat manufactured – personality.”

Of course, these attributes, plus my sensitivity to management interests, have been the source of, what for me at least, has been considerable success in corporate America. As my daughter notes: “Dad, you really know how to suck-up.” Indeed, my alimony payments alone confirm this talent and suggest a level of financial success unimaginable to me as a slum kid in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

From these possibly superficial comments, I’ll turn, most reluctantly to some of the more serious questions. I’ve held these questions to the end because, naturally, they’re tougher to answer and, though the questions persist as asked, the answers are more fluid. Ask me tomorrow and you’ll get a completely different and, perhaps, contradictory answer. Of course, if you’re reading this two months from now, you can’t ask me tomorrow. Oh well, the joke’s on you!!

I acknowledge my attempts at humor are something of a cover for a deep-seated fear of revealing myself. Trust is really hard!! In fact, I’ve often lived my life so that I haven’t had to trust. This trait served me so well in the Temple that, without intending to do so, I still, after all these years of private therapy, rely way too much on not trusting people. Like the ancient Athenians, I have tended to believe that if I crafted a perfect exterior, others would perceive an excellent inner character on my part. So the solution to personal weakness and character defect has often seemed to me to be to work harder on my appearance.

And thus, gentle reader, you now know why my intimate relationships are sometimes troubled by my self-imposed perfectionist tendency to create as flawless an appearance as possible and yet, perversely and simultaneously, to hide, rather than correct, my flaws of character. To be sure, I understand the inconsistency and waste of this approach and I’ve worked hard to change this. But that’s just the point. Most of my close friends are willingly and freely honest and emotionally available; and that’s why I’ve chosen them as friends and value their friendships. But, for me, genuineness and honesty require the exercise of great personal courage.

What’s it all mean? In the end, I have no idea. But, you know what? I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next!!

(Mike Cartmell is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of writings for this site is here. He can be reached at