It has been 30 years since Jonestown. The hardest thing about being a “surviving” family member of Peoples Temple is that it is so public. The loss of a family member is usually private or contained within the family or community, but not with this tragedy.
At the most unexpected times, I am caught off guard by a reference about Peoples Temple. With no warning: a picture of the dead lying on the ground in Jonestown flashes on the television screen; a reference to a “cult” leader is accompanied by an image of Jim Jones. Like a hit to the solar plexus, I still lose my breath. My life has tilted and nothing will be the same.
In the 30 years since my brothers Tom and Dick died in the jungle of Guyana, I tried to find that one little piece of information that I needed to know, that they didn’t follow blindly, that at some point they objected to what Jim Jones was doing. I found that information on the Internet, that Tom was dedicated to teaching, and that he was disrupted and frustrated by Jones.
I now feel that my brothers were captivated and beguiled by the adventure of building a settlement in the Guyanese jungle. It must have held the same romance and adventure that the pioneers felt as they left the East Coast and headed West into the unknown to build a new life. In a letter written by my former sister-in-law, Sylvia Grubbs, she talks about the beauty of the jungle. “A sight to behold. So green and the most beautiful red birds that fly in flocks. Indians in their canoes and their pretty brown skin and black hair. It’s just more than one could ever put into words. Every time some-one leaves and comes back they can’t believe the change in the place, it’s constantly growing and believe it or not, becoming more beautiful.” What an adventure. The ambitions and dreams.
When my brothers died in 1978, I was 35 years old with teenagers. I am now a 65-year-old great-grandmother. There are no nieces and nephews. My children and grandchildren know my brothers through repeated stories and pictures. My grandson looks like my brother Dick, and has his teasing sense of humor. My son has found that he loves beautiful wood, and that he can make beautiful long bows. Tom and Dick both used the long bow. The circle begins to complete itself.
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The invitation to write this piece about the last 30 years hit me like one of those reference to Jonestown or to Jim Jones: sudden, abrupt, unexpected, awkward, even unwelcome. But I decided to put my thoughts on paper because my brothers can’t. I believe they found adventure, and yes, joy in breaking ground and building in Jonestown. They were carving an Eden out of a green, exotic jungle. Until the “snake” entered their paradise. Until a “killing” order was given, and there was no turning back.
Did I survive, or do I just keep breathing? My life has two points of reference: before Jonestown, and after Jonestown. Before the first pictures of Jonestown were transmitted on the television screen. Before the call from the State Department, and after, when I knew about Jonestown and Peoples Temple. When November 18th was just another day.
(Dea McConnell lives in Orting, Washington.)