After all the attention around the 25th anniversary of Jonestown, I participated in several projects, the play, two documentaries – one that got made and one that didn’t – a movie for Canadian Television, and oh yes, A Lavender Look at the Temple. What a journey life has been and continues to be.
Yes, I am a survivor of Jonestown, of AIDS, of my alcoholism and drug addiction. A survivor of all those demons and ghosts that chased me through my dreams and waking states. I am glad and grateful to be alive and conscious, far healthier mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically than I ever thought I would be. Two wives, two husbands dead, countless friends dead from AIDS or addictions, my son, Mark and over 900 of my Temple family gone.
I am still here. Why? I will never know. There is a grace I don’t understand or deserve but gladly receive.
Each breath, each day, every touch of a loved one. So precious and priceless. Temporary. All things rising and falling away.
What would my life be like without the Peoples Temple and Jonestown? I can’t even imagine! I would be a different person completely. That experience and the death of my son brought me to the very depths and the deepest darkest corner of hell. To be here today as I am, I had no choice but to go deep within myself to survive and live. I found a strength and courage I didn’t know I possessed. A divine intervention, by the great Spirit, higher power, God, Goddess, by whatever name… I know all the experiences in my life have created the person I am today… and that is good. Acceptance has been a long road for me. In degrees.
Just as these events forced me to go to places within myself I probably wouldn’t have gone, so has my recent experiences with these Temple-centered projects prompted me to re-examine things. It started with A Lavender Look at the Temple. I shared from my soul. I got naked. Then my veracity was challenged. Was I telling the truth? That wasn’t the way that others remembered it. Who was telling the truth?
In families, the accounts of “what happened” can be vastly different. One sibling may relay stories of horror while others deny any such thing happened. Mother was abusive, Mother was loving… Who was right? Who was telling the truth?
To myself I said, but I had to be right! I had to be! It was so important to me that I was.
The truth is (oh yeah! The truth!) Is that I had my journey in Jonestown and it is not about being right. I have my own unique experience. Every policeman knows how faulty the human memory is. Ten witnesses to one crime can have ten different versions on what happened. As an officer going to my first murder scene, getting an accurate description of the suspect was challenging. He was Filipino, he was white, he was tall, he wasn’t tall, his hair, his age. What the hell did the guy look like? All viewed the event from the different filters of each individual, their memories, the events that shaped their life thus far.
And so with me.
I had my experience. I had layered on that my judgment of those experiences, my opinion, my outlook, my viewpoint, the Vern angle. Shaped by the past there were many reasons each of us were drawn into the Temple. For me, part of that draw was that I was that lost soul looking to put his world back together again after my wife, Cheryl, was suddenly in a vegetative state. Wanting her and our life together to be restored to its former vibrancy. Wanting to make a difference in the World. A respite from the racism and bigotry of my own family. Acceptance with that beautiful extended family. Unified. Believing in what could be. Keeping the demons of my own budding alcoholism and drug addiction at bay. Giving purposes and meaning to life. A family, a real family. A sense of belonging. A seemingly powerless person a part of something powerful, direction, a deep connection. Socialism, a life lived on principle. And on and on and on. And then the human memory with it’s faults, holes, niches, and blank spots.
But in my mind I has to be right. My judgments, I was really attached to those. If I let go of those, what did it mean about me? Traitor, disgruntled, marginal member, concentration camp, armed encampment, grand daddy cult, mind control, brainwashed, zombie, sleep depravation, violence, bad food, physical punishment, isolation, separation …
The breathtaking beauty of the jungle. Surrounded by beauty and then the ugliness. My position in the community. I wasn’t a lieutenant, a counselor, a trusted confidante, not a security with a gun, not a lover of someone important or well connected. I was on the bottom looking up, nice view. And as every survivor has a unique experience, so do I. Of the Survivors, at least the Temple survivors that escaped 11/18, 1 was one of the few people besides Monica who was shot. Shot and left for dead. That does change one’s perspective, I tell you, makes those edges sharp, very sharp, less forgiving.
And what about my son Mark? The one I left behind in Jonestown? A child with no choice who was murdered there. Will I ever fully forgive myself? As much as I’ve tried, probably not. Saved myself and not him. That I will live with for the rest of my life. There is no rewind button, no erase, No would da, could da, should da. A dead end path so many of us have been down.
My judgments, my layers, my protective layers. I needed them. ‘Cause what does it mean about me? About who I am? What does it say? So raw.
Back to the projects: Even those people I got angry at were a gift to me. They moved me when I didn’t want to move within myself and if possible created a space between my experience and the actual events. A place to look from. An observation point if that’s possible.
Some things seem like a dream, another life. Lying in that tent in Port Kaituma. Gasping for breath. Shot in the diaphragm, stomach, spleen, collapsed lung. Gasping. Then the plane came to take us away. Jackie Speier first, the newsmen, the others. Then me last. Why last? The Guyana Defense Force soldiers carrying my body from the tent to the plane. Stealing the tennis shoes off my feet. The doctor giving me an aspirin. Placing me on the floor of the plane. Gasping for breath, hearing the chatter of the other passengers. The story! The story! Lying on the floor gasping for breath. Each breath a monumental struggle. But invisible. No one spoke to me until I got to Georgetown and got help. Did it really happen like that? Like a dream from long ago.
I recently told someone I like the present much better. This frightening world we live in? Terrorists. Taliban. Al Qaida. War in the Middle East. Oppose the Government, and you are called a Fascist. That present?
After all it is better for Vernon to stay in the present. Be in the now as much as I can. Live today to the fullest. Live like there is no tomorrow and look to the future with hope. A thread of hope maybe, but hope.
When I look in the past, I am far away from that young man who believed in Socialism. I am the capitalist I loathed. Yet I respect the past and the person I was and aspired to be. Learning to stand up, to grow up… the dream that died.
There was a time and a window that was the Peoples Temple. Some say they have never known the camaraderie, the closeness.
On that grand scale, no. But I have joined with others, lived in community, known family with others. I am fortunate to have a large network of friends, support and connection with the community I live.
I am grateful for the life I have today and those who push me to grow. Even when I don’t want to. The journey continues. Hopefully with an open heart, I honor all those who have walked this path no matter what your experience, and I pray we find a level of peace in our lives.
(Vernon Gosney left Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978, and was seriously wounded during the shootings at the Port Kaituma airstrip. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report is here.)