The Deaths of Children, the Death of Childhood

Photo courtesy Leslie Wilson

I. The Horror of Jonestown

I was sixteen years old, and just months into an emancipation that was all at once frightening, peaceful, and confusing. I had no idea what I was doing, but was determined to let experience be my teacher. After a few fits and starts in the foreign territory of Northern California, I found a decent job and a furnished apartment. I signed contracts and opened accounts – and was absolutely giddy when I received my first box of checks.

I had a charged-up kind of confidence that came from years of hopeful and escapist reading. Positive thinking mantras, bootstrap philosophies, self-informed destinies. Think it and be it. I had scars, deep ones, but I was determined that they would fade. That as an adult, I would bury those crushed and diseased layers of childhood under so much happiness, love, and positivity that they would cease to exist in any real dimension, and become only distant memories.

Then, Guyana. Jonestown. A Utopian dream for those disenfranchised or disenchanted by society – a dream that somehow went terribly wrong – leaving over 900 people dead, including 303 children.

I didn’t really believe the news when it came blaring through my tiny black and white television. Adults die, but children – we bounce back. Adults are screwed up in a thousand ways, with their alcohol, their deceptions, and their rage, but children – we know, don’t we? We run, we escape, and when we can’t – we bounce back. We hold our thoughts and dreams in a special place they can’t touch. We make promises to ourselves, and take pleasure in every new inch added to our height. Soon, we will be grown-up. We will reach the magical age, and no one will harm us anymore.

I was so mad at the media. The newscasters wouldn’t shut-up, even after hours, about the dead congressman and the cameraman, their lives, and their families. It seemed to me that the media was pronouncing that these men, who lived professional, distinguished lives, deserved to be mourned, while 900+ other people existed only as a sensational backdrop – nameless, faceless, without stories to tell, or families left behind. I needed to know: Who were they? What happened? Why? How? Did they try to run, did they struggle, did any children escape, did anyone, in a moment of revelation, scream for others to stop? How could one man, who originally led others in a quest for equality and harmony, lead them into murder and suicide?

303 children. Really dead. Not able to bounce back from the sickness of adults.

I used my bus money to buy every newspaper and magazine available, and became frustrated and obsessed with the story of Jonestown. The answers were sparse and shallow, and the children remained largely anonymous. Adult survivors who were interviewed still seemed blinded by a charismatic madman and a broken promise of Utopia. At sixteen, I found them selfish and weak, and despised them for fleeing into the woods without carrying so much as one defenseless child with them.

Jonestown was thousands of miles away from the Silicon Valley, where I, like thousands of others, spent my working hours in a sparkling clean factory filled with diodes, capacitors, and motherboards – cutting edge technologies meant to make life easier and more efficient. While the horror of Jonestown was being broadcast, cars stalled at their usual pace on crowded highways, people fought for parking space at the malls, and billboards and radio stations hawked their usual wares.

People made jokes about the “Kool-Aid drinkers” as if there really was no more to the story than a bunch of really stupid, worthless people who followed a delusional madman into a murderous pact. But there were bent and broken syringes, showing signs of struggle. Reports of parents screaming, children screaming, and being forced to swallow. Tiny teeth marks on plastic syringes tell a story very few people had the heart or mind to tell.

They took the children first. 303 of them. Agents of Jones, for the most part, led them; a few parents. They led them to the podium like little lambs – and lions – to slaughter. It was a coldly calculated move, designed to make the bereaved parents easier to manage, more willing to let themselves be killed.

The dead and dying were placed out of sight, to painfully convulse to their deaths under the warm Guyana sun. They say it took about five minutes for their hearts, even the tiniest, to stop beating.

I grew up after Guyana. I changed, my dreams changed, and my thoughts shifted outward. My introverted nature turned itself inside out, and I began to demand answers for every unfairness, injustice, and act of cruelty I saw, experienced, or heard about. I became, to some, a hellion; a thorn. Others found my passion admirable, but “too much,” too “intense”. I was urged (and often warned) to be more diplomatic, to temper my tongue, and slow my thoughts.

I did / I didn’t. I tried / I failed. I burned hot and cold, got burnt, and burned myself out for months, even years, at a time. Often, I stepped up only to get shot down. Sometimes, I rallied back, fought harder than ever, and succeeded. There are rarely any easy choices in a life that’s determined to make a difference, no matter how small, limited – or even eventually inconsequential – that difference might be.

II. Naming the Rage

I raged most, and still do, against those in positions of power and authority – including parents, religious figures, CEO’s, celebrities, media moguls, politicians, judges, and those in law enforcement – who misuse and abuse their positions and then hide behind the many protections they are afforded in order to prevent their misdeeds from being discovered or, in the case of the wealthy or powerful, to escape punishment when they are caught.

I name as my enemies those who neglect, abuse and even kill their children, leaving scars, blood and tears in the wake of their negligence or violence; those who pilfer and steal the hard-earned money entrusted to them; those who purposely distort the news millions of people rely on; those who make shady backroom deals to line their own pockets; those who bring their personal prejudices to bear in deciding the fates of others; those sworn to uphold the law, but who hold guns to their wives’ heads, torment their children, or beat handcuffed citizens to a bloody pulp, and then hide behind their badges.

I name you as my moral enemy, if you are one of those who are so dazzled by the light of power or celebrity that you will invent blinders or a different set of rules for privileged others; if you are one of those who will create excuses for authority figures that you would not create for your own friends or neighbors; if you are one who would support the torture at Abu Ghraib as a justifiable means to an end, yet loudly proclaim America to be the near-infallible and supreme promoter of Human Rights.

I name you hypocrites, those of you who would line the streets to cheer for a perverted star like Michael Jackson, but who wouldn’t hesitate to demand the harshest sentences for sex offenders in your own communities; those of you who would make heroes out of someone like (the now-dead) Kurt Cobain, or other drug-addled stars, but who want the poverty-stricken crack addicts in your own neighborhoods locked behind bars for years. (A disease is a disease regardless of how much money or talent a person has).

I name you selfish, those of you who vote only for the lowest taxes, and the least dent in your wallet, even while you claim to care about the most defenseless among us – the poor, the children, the disabled, the elderly.

I name you cowardly, those of you who choose blinders and invent excuses for even the worst acts perpetrated by those whose talents, lives or positions – or even whose looks – you idolize; those of you who, although fully capable, won’t stand up in the face of adversity or injustice, but instead cower when there’s any perceived threat to your time, your peace, your reputation, or your resources.

There are many violent, abusive, power-hungry, corrupt, degenerate, illogical, dishonest, and cowardly people in this world. If I have enemies, it is because I do not care to make such people my friends.

III. A Fighting Spirit, a Fighting Chance

303 children died in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. The last remnants of my childhood died with them, and out of the tattered, torn spirit of a young adult sprung the heart of a fighter. I will fight for you, I promised them. You’ll see, we’ll make it right, we’ll make it matter. We’ll show others how to bounce back.

Thirty years later, I carry my own battle-worn legacy, and it’s unremarkable really, except for the strength of convictions born out of the ruins of tragedy, and the long-reach of lessons learned. The intensity of my beliefs and feelings will die with me, and even the strongest of my words will fade into oblivion or obscurity. I will one day leave the earth as most people do – as the children of Jonestown certainly did – largely anonymous, leaving behind barely a ripple. Stronger, younger, and perhaps better-situated others will pick up the sword. I hope so, and pray that they will have more success than I did. At the same time I would not wish anyone into a life of prolonged struggle.

IV. Braving the Fears

Once, when I lived in the country, I made a hesitant companion out of a lone red fox. She would often come near my porch in the early hours of morning. Fascinated, I began to set out bowls of dog food for her, and watched her from behind the window whenever she came. If I spoke, or moved too quickly, the fox would startle and take off running. I watched her then, in silence, for several months. One morning, I opened my door to find the tiny, lifeless body of a fox pup on my steps. He was still somewhat warm but had gone stiff. I could not revive him.

I never saw the mother fox again, but I thought – if even the wildest creature can brave her most ingrained fears to try to save her young – what is wrong with us?

What the hell is wrong with us?

(Jane Devin may be reached at