The Memories That Sustain Me

30 Years After Jonestown

It’s been thirty years already since the loss of more than 900 beautiful souls whose lives were taken without their consent, whose lives were cut short because of the greed of another human being. Lives that will never see their children grow up to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, factory workers or whatever they choose to do. Young lives that won’t experience a high school prom, football game, or graduation, going on to achieve their dreams with a college education. Lives that will never witness how far technology has come and how fast the world continues to move. Lives that can never again share their tears of pain, their joy and laughter, their thirst for knowledge or their passion for love with any of us again. Lives that leave us a tremendous number of memories which we hold on to and which keep us going day by day. Thirty years since that dreadful November day.

I was sixteen at the time and was in Georgetown for major dental work. We had a staff dentist in Jonestown but lacked the equipment for certain procedures, therefore we were sent to Georgetown. I never thought I would be back in the United States because Jonestown was home, Jonestown was a way of life, Jonestown was my future. At least this is what I thought. After everything happened, I didn’t know where I was going to end up, or who I was going to end up with. Although my grandmother was there with me, I wanted to go back to California with James Jones Jr., Johnny Cobb, and Tim Jones, who had all become my big brothers, but of course my family wouldn’t have it. I still talk to the guys periodically through e-mails. I love them very much and will always love them as my brothers.

The first few weeks back in the U.S. were scary and strange because so much had changed and I didn’t know what to do. The emptiness I felt for the loss of my mother, two sisters, and two cousins grasped me every night, and I cried myself to sleep. Of course my family and friends had a lot of questions, but my grandmother and I kept quiet for the first few months, consoling each other and keeping our own little world of thoughts, secrets and memories. We moved to Houston with my aunt – my grandmother’s daughter and my mother’s sister who lost her only son in Jonestown.

My grandmother often blamed herself for getting my mother involved and taking us to Jonestown, since she was the one who discovered Peoples Temple and encouraged us to join. But I told her that she – like everyone else – thought we had reached the Promised Land and that she shouldn’t blame herself. It took her several years before she stopped.

I later moved to Gary, Indiana with my father, stepmother, and stepbrother. Although everyone naturally had questions, no one really forced me to talk. They were always very patient with me. I finally began to live a normal life and went back to school. But then it hit the local newspaper that my mother, sisters and brothers were killed in Jonestown, and that I – a survivor – had moved back to Gary with my dad. For the most part everyone who knew me and my family were very supportive, but there were those who would make little snide comments, like we were a bunch of crazed psycho people or we were brainwashed and deserved whatever happened. These words hurt because I was young, and I didn’t know how to share the cherished memories about the lovely souls whose lives were lost. I wouldn’t volunteer to anyone that I was a survivor of Jonestown but as I got older, I felt more comfortable telling certain people, choosing whom I felt I could trust, who would not ridicule me.

When I mention my life in Peoples Temple to people these days, they are always supportive and encourage me to tell my story, which at this time I am working on.

One of the things I feel I missed out on was learning more responsibility and being properly raised by my parents. I feel with this in my past, I should be able to handle certain things with a greater sense of perspective, such as finances, raising kids, etc. I don’t say I’m a bad parent, it’s just certain things a parent teaches you that at the time that you may not seem to hear but after a while you get it.

One of the hardest things is my mother not being here to see her grandkids or her great-grandkids, because she loved kids. I tell my children all the time how much she loved kids, which makes it a lot easier that I can share her memory with them.

My next task will be to visit the cemetery in Oakland, because there is a sense of loss when I can’t go to the grave and at least say a proper good-bye, which is one of the things that hurts me quite often. I never got to say good-bye to any of my loved ones or my cherished friends. I just have kept their memories alive for the past thirty years.

Thirty years ago we lost some tremendous people who will never get to see the world as it changes, as it grows, as it prospers. My heart is forever changed by their memories that carry me through each day. I love and miss them all.

(Dawn Gardfrey can be reached at