Fourth of July Gatherings Provide Safe Environment for Former Members

The second annual Fourth of July Peoples Temple gathering took place in San Diego this past summer, and I’m glad I attended both. My feelings after returning home this year were different than when I returned from the first gathering. I think because it was primarily we felt safe (because we are!), which in turn made it a very comfortable get-together. Part of that came from the fact that we had the same people as last year – Don Beck, Neva Sly Hargrave, Laura Johnston Kohl, Becky Moore and Mac McGehee hosted the out-of-towners, including Grace Stoen Jones, Claire Janaro, Liz Forman, and me – but there were other reasons too.

Several people have said that the main reason the two gatherings have been such a success is that – unlike the get-togethers for the memorials in San Francisco and Oakland – it isn’t PT all the time. In the course of the weekend together, we do other things, like going to the zoo, going to the beach, watching fireworks, hanging out at different people’s houses, drinking beer, and eating (don’t forget eating!). Along the way, we learn who each other is now. The gatherings are more casual and less structured, and in that atmosphere, when conversations do turn to heavier topics (as they always do), we can talk in a much more collegial way. By confronting the issues in a sideways manner, we work our way through them.

Take, for example, the question that has come up in both years: Were we brainwashed in Peoples Temple? With the group gathered in San Diego, that bone of contention is, was and will forever be. It would be very interesting to know what others who did not attend think about the subject, and we certainly hope to see more of you at next year’s gathering when the subject will undoubtedly come up again.

As for my view, I don’t think that any layperson can explain brainwashing anymore than they can explain being in love. What I am reasonable sure of is that it was not the matter of brainwashing alone that ruffled feathers, but rather the statement that one must take responsibility for one’s own actions. I believe each of us wants to think of ourselves as a good person, so it is hard to admit that any bad deeds done while in PT could have been done by the good person that we think we are. The only way to accept that is to believe that we must have been brainwashed. And if we have to bear the responsibility for our actions, does that not also mean that each of us is in part responsible for what happened on November 18?

(Nell Smart is a former member of Peoples Temple. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)