“How did you survive?” We have been asked that question countless times in the last 30 years. Our shorthand answer has been “family, faith, and community support,” but the readers of this report deserve more.
Members of our family worked through their grief in their own ways, all the while respecting and supporting each other. Barbara was the most hopeful. When we learned that Jim Jones had died, I knew that Carolyn and Kimo were dead, but held out hope for Annie. A friend imagined Annie leading the children away for Jonestown to safety. I heard Annie saying, “I’m all right.” We were in Davis for a memorial service when my brother pointed out a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about her death, and then the tragedy was complete for us.
Looking back, Barbara commented that the whole Reno community went through our experience with us. Our involvement and loss took the bizarre and tragic event in Guyana and personalized it for the community. A rabbi prayed during the memorial service. Colleagues from Northern California and Reno expressed their sympathy and many came to the services. The Nevada Episcopal bishop called at our home. Masses were said in memory of our daughters and grandson. Members of our church were especially supportive.
Barbara and I were making our Cursio retreat, in the Eastern Sierra the weekend that Congressman Ryan’s party went to Jonestown. On Sunday my sister tracked us down to tell us about his assassination. On our way back to Reno, our friend Mike said to us, “I guess that you are going to think about this for a long time. After a pause, he added “This is your calling.” I replied, “Yes, and it’s a shitty calling. We will live with this as long as we live.”
We were just coping day by day, not thinking thirty years into the future. But early on we made decisions that set the trajectory of our journey and that continue to this day. Sometime during the first week Barbara said, “Jim Jones murdered our children. I will not let him destroy my life.” I had felt that I had lived a protected and advantaged life, and reasoned that if Life had given me such precious gifts, why should I expect to be spared Life’s gifts of pain and suffering and tragedy?
Two passages of scripture came to mind: “Love never ends.” “Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ!” I did not spend much time with the WHY? question. Paramount in my mind was the question, “What will you do?” In the RSV Bible, Paul declares the God is always working to bring about good with other humans who worked for the same end.
The uncertainty that came in waiting for news about Carolyn, Kimo and Annie dominated our lives during that first week. For days I felt as though I had been hit in the pit of my stomach with a sledge hammer. Did Annie dispense the poison? I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.
We always have had guests for Thanksgiving dinner and Barbara was determined not to cancel our plans. During dinner Barbara, Becky and I excused ourselves to discuss how we wanted to respond to media questions. As surreal as it was, a guest whom we did not know well told us that she was grateful that she could be with us. A hostile reporter called to say, “I told you so!”
Concealment of our involvement with Peoples Temple was not an option. A reporter for a Reno paper was on the retreat. We were the local angle on the story for the Reno media. Furthermore, we wanted to publicly affirm the humanness of those who died and those who survived.
Others responded to us in a variety of way with such questions as, “Did you see this coming? Why didn’t you do something? How could you have allowed your children to join Peoples Temple?” A woman whom we had assisted in a crisis called Barbara to express her concern, but in the conversation she referred to those who died as “kooks.”
Nevertheless, we were compelled to pursue our calling. Within weeks of November 18, 1978, Becky referred in one of her letters to “the shelter of truth.” Like everyone else, we have learned more about the hidden Jim Jones and Peoples Temple since 11/18/78 than before.
For a number of years, I spoke to church groups and to high school and college classes. Barbara and I had letters and phone calls from parents of children in “cults” similar to Peoples Temple asking how to get their children out. Many came to our home where we listened and talked at length.
Various experiences triggered memories and feelings of November 18. As we listened to and watched the news – about Waco, for example – we felt with the people and were appalled that the government had not learned how to deal with such groups.
Until her death in 2004, Barbara and I were strength for each other. Becky and Mac have been each other’s comfort and strength, and now mine as well. Being upfront from the beginning about our ties with Peoples Temple and Jonestown has been a source of strength. I have seen myself as one actor in a tragedy of a thousand. I shared responsibility with all of the actors, but I have not felt guilty. Barbara did not feel the same.
My beliefs and faith now are what they have been since I was a teenager, although my understanding of beliefs and faith has changed – I’ll say “matured,” but that’s only because of my age – through the years. When Annie pleaded with us to join PT, we explained our “No.” We would not give our first allegiance to Jim Jones or any human.
And that leads me to the cautionary lessons of Jonestown, although in a way, they look like sermon topics.
• Be aware of the subtlety of compromising one’s ideals bit by bit until judgment hits as it did on 11/18/78.
• Appreciate the gifts of charismatic leaders, but beware that they themselves are clay. They can suck the soul out of followers.
• Recognize that the same forces – called “brainwashing” – are present in secular groups as well as religious. Look for them.
• Nurture within you strength to stand against peer pressure.
• Value friendships and good times, even in destructive communities.
It’s almost enough to make me feel like coming out of retirement.
(John Moore is a retired Methodist minister who lives in Friday Harbor, Washington. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)