My two brothers – Tom and Dick Grubbs – died in Jonestown. I survived them, and for a long time, I don’t know how or why. It occurred to me recently, I have lived with their deaths and the knowledge of some of the things they reportedly did, for longer – decades longer – than they were in Peoples Temple. That’s why I’m writing now. Someone should stand for my brothers, to remind other survivors of the hope and belief that they were so full of at one time, before it all went bad.
Tom, especially, seems to have been singled out as someone who mistreated others during his time in Jonestown. Every book I have read states that my brother was the one who built the box used to discipline people who disobeyed Jim Jones. Another member told me that Jones asked Tom to make a three-tailed switch to beat people with. He did make it, according to this woman, but he didn’t tell Jones that he had, hoping Jones would forget about it – which he did – so Tom never had to give it to him. Another book claims Jones ordered Stephan Jones to arrest Tom, and Tom told Stephan that he should do it, because no one could predict what Jim Jones might do otherwise. I also read that Tom finally stood up to Jim Jones, but it was too close to the end to do any good.
It seems that everyone else out there accused of wrongdoing is able to duck it, and Tom – who is dead – is still out there taking the flack. Maybe some of it is true. Maybe all of it is. I remember when I read about him in that Penthouse article a few months after everyone died, I got so angry with Tom, that he could and would participate in hurting others, my anger overwhelmed even my grief. It took me over five years to decide that judging him wasn’t for me to do. I hadn’t “walked in his shoes.” I still haven’t, because I can’t. I am not a follower, and certainly wouldn’t have followed Jim Jones. When I read other people say “That could have been me,” I don’t understand where they’re coming from. I wouldn’t have followed Jim Jones across the street, much less out of the US, and into the jungle of South America.
Tom Grubbs acted on orders from Jim Jones, but that sure isn’t what is standing out there. He has no defense, as he is dead. So his name stands in print for all time. He built the box.
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The path of a survivor is a rocky one. Even if you haven’t been in touch with members of your family, you are still connected, and when that connection is cut, you feel cast adrift.
My new husband turned from me on the deaths of my brothers. His words were, “Okay, so you’ve cried. Get over it.” It seemed like everyone thought – and sometimes said – that they got what they deserved, doing such a stupid thing. Turning their back on their families, their country, and joining some “weird” church. They deserved it.
But I know what Dick and Tom were looking for. A Father. A good father. One who loved them. And I believe they found it. For a while. Till they found themselves facing too many white nights. After you die once, what does it matter if you die again. “That wasn’t so bad. We can do it again.” Until it didn’t matter if they lived or died.
Tom was an idealist. Dick just loved Tom. That they died together gives me something. I hope they died with their arms around each other, saying “It’s been a good life, bro. See you in the next one!”
Living up here in Washington, we didn’t have news in our papers about Peoples Temple during its years in San Francisco. I didn’t know about the move to Guyana, and I didn’t know where Tom and Dick were – I never received even one letter from Jonestown – until I saw the news reports that the people from Peoples Temple were dead in the jungle. I called the local station for information, and they told me how to get in touch with the State Department. All I could tell people in Washington was that I thought my brothers were there, that they had both been in the Navy, and all their information would be in their service jackets. The “secret-keeping” caused a big rift in our family, because the ones in California who might have known something didn’t tell us up here, since Dick had a warrant out for him. I know my sister in Willits saw them, and was in touch with them until they left the States, but she never shared anything with me. She wouldn’t even share her tears with me, and I was left up here to mourn my brothers alone. My new husband didn’t know them and had no compassion for them. My three kids didn’t remember them. When I remember that time, the tears still come.
It was so hard, but in 1979 I went back to college and got my nursing license. In ‘82, I had to withdraw from school. I was diagnosed with a thyroid tumor, and spent a year in bed before surgery removed most of my thyroid. Grief turned inward can destroy the body, and I was doing a good job destroying mine. Then I read something that stopped it all, something about “people being able to accept physical pain, but not grief.” That was an “Aha” moment for me. I took back control of my life, and decided to find out what made me happy. I converted our summer house at the ocean into a little B&B, and for almost ten years (1993-2000) discovered joy again. I also made my peace with God. I had been angry with Him, as I had felt that I had entrusted the boys to Him, and He had done an awful job watching over them. Standing on the seawall, crying at the stars and God, got that all out of me. I still love my brothers. I miss them daily.
How can I say this without seeming to have a closed mind – which maybe I do when it comes to Jim Jones – but most words in sympathy with Peoples Temple are probably wasted on me. No matter what Jones intended to do, or started with, he ultimately did a lot of harm. He didn’t do it all by himself, I know. My brothers surrendered their will, thus becoming part of what happened. Whatever led them to join Peoples Temple doesn’t matter. The best intentions in the world can’t cover what happened. Or the loss in my life.
Idolatry and paranoia. I would have thought that the boys heard the same things growing up that I did, about “worshipping false Gods.” Why didn’t they remember that? Why did they think their only way in life was through a false god? They were so strong and full of hope and the belief they shared with me in acting against injustice; how and why did all that go bad? When Jonestown was coming apart around them – and surely they could see that – why didn’t they try to get home? I guess saying “Why” just about covers everything, doesn’t it?!
My middle daughter, who was 14 when Dick died, and I were sitting in chairs with our feet on the hearth one night, and she told me she had something she had to tell me. She said she had asked God if she could talk to her Uncle Dick (This from a girl who had had no religious training because of the bad experience I had growing up). She told me that her bedroom got warm and lighter, and Dick stood at the foot of her bed, and told her that someone wasn’t letting him go, that he hadn’t wanted to take the poison, and that he had been scared. She turned to me and said, “You know who that is, don’t you, Mom?” I told her, “Yes, I do, and I will let go when I am blank blank good and ready.” I didn’t doubt for a minute that she had spoken with him. She was too innocent of knowledge of religion or ghosts. I have since read that when the death is sudden and violent, the loved one often comes back to finish business. I hope he’s passed over since, but I sure didn’t let go of him that night. Maybe he heard my answer, had a chuckle, and finished up his business here on earth.
I still can’t do churches, but my God is above me, and I talk to him a lot at night when I can see the sky and the stars. This weekend my son took our travel trailer and camped up by Mt. Rainier. We joined him for the day. It snowed some. What a way to get out next to nature. Quiet and beautiful.
(Dea McConnell can be reached at ctr06374@CenturyTel.net.)