My name is Diana (Mertle) Mills. I am 48 years old, and a survivor of Peoples Temple. I escaped the cult with part of my family in 1976 when I was 16. My brother and sister escaped soon thereafter. Our family had been in the Temple for about six years.
November 18, 1978 was a horrifying day. We all huddled together at the Human Freedom Center in Berkeley, California waiting for updates to filter through the heavily-guarded building. How many were alive, we wondered. Certainly, we thought, not many had died. The psychics we consulted before Congressman Ryan went to Guyana assured us that it would all turn out well. As the news reports about hundreds of dead bodies got through to us, I was horrified. The unthinkable had happened. The grief in that room was unimaginable. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children mourning their losses. So many of my dear friends had been trapped in Jonestown with a madman forcing them to take their lives. I could have easily been one of them.
The days and weeks that followed were hectic and filled with sorrow. The news reporters wanted an explanation of how and why this could have happened. I still find it so difficult to explain.
My entire family – my parents and siblings – had escaped, yet my heart was broken. As time passed it became apparent that the rest of my family hadn’t survived: the people in Jonestown who were family, though not by blood. I compare it to the bond that soldiers fighting together in battle must have. We were fighting for a common goal and for survival under tremendous duress. We were family.
In 1980, just as I was getting my life back together, my dad, stepmother and 15-year-old step-sister were murdered. Someone shot and killed them all as they watched television in their home. I lost my sweet daddy. The months that followed were hollow. I was in a deep depression, just going through the motions of living. Six months after their murder I got help from a hypnosis therapist. She was able to help me deal with the trauma of growing up in a cult and with my father’s death.
We still don’t know who killed them. We wondered if it was related to PT as my parents had received several death threats from PT members after we left the Temple. But we still have no idea who is responsible. I have faith that whoever murdered them will have to account to God someday. My faith helps me deal with not knowing who killed them.
It took many years for me to believe in anything spiritually, after being conned by Jim Jones. I have found peace and joy in my Christian faith. It truly is a miracle that I could find the ability in my heart to believe in any religion.
It has also taken me many years, but the hate in my heart is gone now. No more hate towards Jim Jones or my father’s assassin. I have learned that hate only hurts the one who is hating. Me! When I finally let it go, my life began again. I could feel joy, and my soul was finally at peace. My attention was focused on living this beautiful life that I was given. Twice. I’m blessed with a strong healthy body and a big loving family to share my life with. After going through such difficult times together, my family became very close. We desperately needed each others’ love and support to get through it all. My mother is an angel. She has always been supportive and loving. She went through hell when we were in the Temple because they wouldn’t allow us to visit her. She desperately tried to get custody of us but was unsuccessful. Jim Jones had people in high positions in government that helped him get his way. I guess he conned them too. Or they wanted all of our votes. It does makes you wonder.
Over the years I have attended several memorial services and gatherings of PT survivors. They are always like family reunions. I love seeing those precious faces from my past, but I can’t stay long. I live in the present. I have a wonderful life now. I have no desire to revisit that part of my past for very long. It’s too painful. It was a time of spiritual deception and bondage of my body and soul. I was held hostage from age ten to sixteen. No movies, no friends of my own choice, no mother (she wasn’t a PT member), not enough food or sleep. Always being threatened and afraid of public beatings or public humiliation. So many examples of just plain evil. I could go on and on.
Only a handful of my closest friends know about my past. I learned early on that most people can’t relate to my cult experience. If someone didn’t know me well enough before I shared my past, I found that they would pull away from me as if I had a contagious disease. It was also quite painful to talk at length about. Understandably, when people find out, they want to know about it in depth. It is a historic event that most people know about. They only know of the event, however, not the actual facts about Peoples Temple or the loving people who died in Jonestown.
Most of the people in PT were good, socially-conscious individuals who wanted to make our world a better place. It all looked so good at first. A swimming pool inside the sanctuary (how progressive!), senior citizens being taken care of, drug addicts being rehabilitated, black and white faces all singing together, everyone equal, or so it appeared. It was a facade. They helped the addicts because they were vulnerable and easily held hostage. The swimming pool doubled as a punishment pool. When we were “bad,” we had to walk through the sanctuary in our underwear, then our hands would be tied behind our backs and we would have to swim through the pool. I’m sure plenty of those seniors that were taken care of had every penny of their money swindled away from them. And we were not equal. If you were close to Jim Jones’ family members or his closest advisers/enforcers you got to do things that the rest of us were never allowed to do. These good people stayed in PT because they were being held hostage. They were paralyzed with fear and paranoia that was inflicted on them by Jim Jones who had books on mind control tucked away in his study. Our beloved leader had us all so tired, confused, afraid, and paranoid of the outside world and of each other, that it seemed impossible to leave. Any contact with friends and relatives that were not in PT was forbidden. Thus, we had no way out.
If I could have seen into the future 30 years ago, I would have been shocked at how my life turned out. I’m happily married to a loving man, I have two beautiful grown children that I love with all my heart. I have a good job that I like. There were many bumps along the way, but overall I am very content. I have learned from talking to people that everyone has a story. The stories vary drastically, but everyone has something in their past or present that has to be dealt with.
My experiences in PT have affected my outlook on life, and it may surprise you to know, it’s positive. I don’t get upset over little things, because I know how fortunate I am to still be living. And I know that things could be much worse. I don’t have a racist bone in my body; I’m not sure that I even notice skin-color when talking to people. I am very grateful for all that I have. I think that being without personal freedom and bare necessities in PT has made me appreciate all that I have and the personal freedoms that we all enjoy. The simple pleasure of a new kitchen utensil is exciting to me. I have instilled that gratitude in my children. I also encourage them not to trust too quickly and to think for themselves. If they carry that into their future, my life as their mother will have been a success.