Upon turning fifty, a bank attorney remarked that he sensed a bulls-eye had been painted on the back of his shirt by his employer who was known to downsize long-term employees to avoid paying retirement benefits. As a Temple survivor, I have imagined being a target, the first one to be questioned if crimes against people or property were to occur and my identity were known.
One healing symbol, the carpenter’s bubble, visually helps me locate if I am staying between the lines or if I am being hypo- or hyper-vigilant. As a Temple member I was in denial about a very real danger, a crazy minister. As a survivor I am learning to appropriately state things.
I spent seven years in a culture that trained me to be politically correct; during the next thirty years I perfected the art. Being so intently focused on living with “principle” served a purpose then. Today, it hijacks my recovery.
Last summer my then-nine-year-old granddaughter who identifies with mermaids far more than Disney intended was innocently standing in ankle deep water at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. The adults chatting nearby slowly became aware of the scared look on her face when she was suddenly swept fifty feet out. Her mother, uncle, and grandmother dove in to pull her out and almost didn’t make it because the rip tide was that strong.
This child felt that the ocean, her best friend, had betrayed her. Visiting another beach this summer, she will hopefully venture into the water under close supervision, proof that she has recuperated.
I ventured into the warm welcoming group of the Temple that turned into a fatal riptide for those who died and a nightmare for those who survived. It has taken decades to soften the labels and nuances that have separated all of us who remain: former members, survivors, defectors. I have grown to appreciate that whatever label is stamped on your “life passport” is enough. Spending the July 4 weekend with PT friends in San Diego has helped me look under some of my protective thinking acquired during the past thirty years. There is some inexplicable benefit from being with like-minded people that is invaluable for seeing things that I am too close to or can’t talk about.
If you are alive, it means you belong, and it would be wonderful to get to know you again.
(Andy Silver, a former member of Peoples Temple, is now a divorce and federal mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)