Breathing Normally

It’s been several months since a number of former Peoples Temple members and relatives gathered for a reunion over the Fourth of July weekend in San Diego. Over time, the warm fuzzy feelings of the weekend have begun to fade. But I still remember the sense of family. I smile when I think about the warm greetings at the appearance of each of the participants.

This Fourth of July get-together was upbeat, unlike the somberness of the November 18 gatherings. When we talked about PT, the conversations were not only informative, but we expressed views that were thought-provoking and stimulated further discussions. I have only attended two of the November assemblages, but it seemed to me on each occasion that there was an apologetic tone to the conversations (although that could just be me projecting my feelings). The atmosphere in San Diego was not so much festive as it was like being with family on a holiday, just like normal people. That is not to imply that we are not normal, just that we have survived a very abnormal event.

For me the weekend was especially meaningful, since I live so far away from everyone and am totally without family. The night I arrived in San Diego and saw Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee waiting for me, I knew then that I had made the right decision to find the money and join the party. What a feeling of finally being at home. Like a child, I had a difficult time waiting until the others showed up. It was even harder to part just for overnight.

We went to the San Diego Zoo, and while it was great seeing all the different animals, the thing that I enjoyed the most was just being together. All of us with the same life-altering experience truly made us a family. The only other thing that could have made it a truly perfect weekend would have been if more people could have attended in a mix which represented our one-time multiracial family.

As I sit here writing about the weekend I find myself laughing out loud about our shopping spree. Can you imagine a group of PT folk freely shopping? For fun? Well, shopping with this group was a riot. And before that, we ate at a restaurant. For people not familiar with the lives of PT members before November 18, 1978, shopping for fun and eating out was something you did only if you needed a reason to feel guilty and you were brave enough to believe you could get away with it.

I really wish I could explain just how wonderful the weekend was and what it did for me. Perhaps my feelings are best captured in the title of a recent film, Waiting to Exhale. For so many years I held my breath, just so that I could get from one day to the next, just so that I could be prepared for any comments made about Jonestown, just so that I could hide my feelings about how the past affected me, just so that I could reasonably function at holiday gatherings with people who are my very good friends but are not like me. That Fourth of July weekend in San Diego allowed me to exhale that long-held deep breath. I think that I need to be with people that I feel comfortable around in order to breathe normally.

(Nell Smart was a member of Peoples Temple for five years in Los Angeles until she left in 1976. She now lives in Indianapolis. complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)