Life is for the living. It seems important to record that my life has been blessed. Wives and Sweethearts (serially), Children, Grandchildren, Family, friends and associates. I enjoy good health. I have sailed the oceans, weathered its storms, and soared the skies from Alaska to Mexico, traveled the world and climbed my mountains both allegorically and for real. In short, I am a normal family man albeit shocked to discover myself a septuagenarian.
Further – let me be clear – while I have known great pain and loss, I am not now nor have I ever been a victim. Likewise, my daughter Liane, with a backbone of steel, a stubbornness shared by all her family and an intelligence and sense of purpose awesome to contemplate, would not have seen herself as a victim. In fact, although reflected in my thoughts and feelings, this story is not my story but rather belongs to my daughter who is no longer with us to tell it.
Almost thirty years have passed since the holocaust in Guyana. However, the horror of those events remains still vivid, the sense of loss palpable. My daughter Liane Harris, along with her mother and half brother and sister were killed, their lives squandered in support of a cause that to this day defies rational description. The megalomania, ego and madness of one man dominates the rationale. Understanding the willingness of hundreds of his adherents to follow is even less clear. However, I must believe that Liane believed she surrendered her life for something worth dying for. The ensuing years have shown the survivors to be – like my daughter – people of character, intelligence, purpose, ability, commitment and good will. How much greater the loss! It is not for me to understand the dark forces at work in those years.
There exists many reasonably accurate accounts of that period, and I feel no need to at this time to retell them. I was present in Guyana November 15–26, 1978 and present in California for the 10 years preceding and through the almost 22 years of Liane’s life.
From the moment of her birth, when I held her in my arms, I knew for a certainty that this tiny helpless being was completely dependent upon me and could look to me for love and protection as long as I lived. I knew that if need be, I would give my life for her. All doubt I may have felt as a young nineteen–year–old father that I would be able to care for her with the strength, love and responsibility shown me by my parents, fled. I was completely committed. I loved her. Through the years, I watched her struggle through a heart condition as a “blue baby,” survive an experimental open heart surgery on the newly invented heart/lung machine and later as a teenager immobilized in a cast for months after surgery for scoliosis never losing her cheerful, sunny disposition Her strength and courage were manifest. She had silently suffered extraordinary pain for years never complaining. What a warrior!
What I am sure of and what drove me to action in those years, to form the Concerned Relatives organization along with another father and then another, was that love for my daughter. Like for her siblings, my son and surviving daughter, now middle-aged, that love has never wavered. Experiencing love in the face of efforts by Jim Jones to destroy my relationship with Liane through the years, had me knowing, despite his efforts at secrecy and the acclaim he was achieving, that there was something greatly wrong at Peoples Temple. It’s strange how one can always feel it when one is being lied to.
However, I was isolated in my criticism. I was reviled and considered a crackpot, even by those I had considered friends. Efforts to obtain support yielded little fruit. Even my mother, since passed, may God love her, questioned my concerns, saying “Sherwin, they seem to do such good works.” Of course, being the wonderful woman she was, she did support me anyway. The power of love as Liane’s father is what sustained me.
Love of family, friends and country is what binds us. Anything less opens doors to the darkest sides of our nature. We have the power to choose who we are and create the society we wish to live in. We must struggle for wisdom. True wisdom is the amalgam of love and knowledge. Ergo, we must educate ourselves. To this end it is paramount that we choose the right teachers. In this light, Jones was an exceedingly poor choice. This I believe.
There is hardly a day that passes that my thoughts are not churning with the issues evoked by the massacre so many years ago. The lies they told! The people they slandered! The first casualty is always truth. Feelings of frustration and rage color many of my memories. The themes of personal responsibility or the lack thereof on the part of all the participants emerge. Questions, questions, questions…What is it that had we but known before would have prevented the tragedy? Could anything have prevented it? What can we learn from it that would preclude a similar re-occurence in the future?
Writing these few imperfect lines offers me no solace. It is not cathartic. I am able to offer no brilliant perspective that will clear away the cobwebs and expose the self-serving machinations of demagogues certainly operating today. History has shown that there is usually no shortage of them. I will continue to live with my memories. However, I am convinced that this story must be told over and over and by everyone who was involved. That if there is a value, it’s in its ability to stir the awareness of people who may be sucked in by similar liars. Believing that there be no higher calling than that of being of service to others, I have dedicated my life that my daughter’s memory be honored. Her death should not have been in vain. She would wish it.
Just call me
(A collection of articles by the Family of Liane Harris may be found here.)