I’m sure that in June of 1971, my mother (Maryanne Casanova) had many reasons to join Peoples Temple. As for my brother Donnie (9), myself (7) and two sisters, Angelique (5) and Sophia (3), we had no choice.
Jones used whatever he could to bait and hook people to join his personal and self-motivated revolutionary crusade. He used socially and politically attractive verbiage along with false promises and lies to manipulate people. He used every means at his disposal – including fear, intimidation and drugging – to control members. He appealed not just to the weakest or most vulnerable aspect of a person. Like most snake oil salesmen, he had something for anyone buying. He convinced them all that he alone was the answer to what they were looking for.
Peoples Temple and Jonestown did not come close to being a “Heaven on Earth” or a socially egalitarian community. Sleep deprivation, long meetings into the night, working from dawn to dusk (including the children), “white night” sirens blaring at any time day or night… and let us not forget the practice suicides.
These were just a few of the conditions lying underneath the welcoming embrace of brotherly love in Jones’ “utopia.” Jonestown was not a workable community, and more than 900 of its residents are now dead. His insanity and deceit did that. Are we still trying to sell the farm?
For some, reality hit, and they refused to live the lie of the “cause” anymore. We were told they were “defectors” (de-fect: to forsake a party, cause). Did they not care about injustice, racism or changing the world? Absolutely not. They refused to be a pawn in his sick game and refused to relinquish their power to him anymore. Or maybe they just got tired of the bullshit and left. What about those who spoke up and wanted to leave, but who were shackled and imprisoned or shot at the airstrip. What about those who never spoke up because they knew it was hopeless and if they did, life would be worse for them. I am sure there were those who wanted to live their life as it was, being totally controlled and oppressed by this insane, paranoid, pill-popping dictator.
We were pawns in his sick, demented game. Many accepted the position they played in it, knowing how sick, immoral, corrupt or wrong it was. Maybe they weren’t conscious of how wrong it was. Maybe they were only trying to find favor with their master, faithful soldiers for the cause.
For years I resented those who were in his “secretaries’ inner circle” or in a position to have seen and known many of the ugly truths about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. I have come to realize that we were all victims. Some survived with wounds that have not healed and will take many years to come, others have wounds that have healed but the scar is very deep.
For me, it’s the truths, facts and reality of what this cult was that has helped me heal and will continue to do so.
My heart is full of the memories of the friends I made during my eight years in Peoples Temple. Words cannot express how much I miss them and my siblings.
I have been asked many times, “Why did they do it? Why did they drink the poison.” Was it because they had found the only Heaven they would know on Earth, as Jones told them so many times, and that they thought it would be taken away from them? Did they think that their deaths would end world hatred, racism, hunger or injustice? Was it to prove to Jones and the world that they were loyal to the “cause”? For some who refused to see reality, those may have been the reasons. But I think others were just plain tired, tired of being oppressed, tired of feeling there was no hope of ever being able to get out just tired of being tired. So like a wolf that will gnaw off its leg to free itself from a trap, many chose the only option before them.
The goals and desires of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown to end hatred, racism, and injustice, will never justify the actions taken to achieve it. In my eyes, those actions – ending, but certainly not beginning on November 18, 1978 – nullified everything we professed to want.
(All three of Dianne Scheid’s siblings – Donald Eugene, 17; Angelique Marie, 13; and Sophia Lauren, 11 – died in Jonestown. Ms. Scheid lives in Southern California with her 14-year-old son. She may be reached at Diannescheid@yahoo.com.)