Recovery from Jonestown

(Ed. note: In addition to being a regular contributor to in the jonestown report, Phyllis Gardner is a recovering alcoholic with 23+ years of sobriety. The ideas she presents here are based on her own experiences in recovery and her perceptions, as a sociologist. They are not sanctioned as advertisements for God, Alcoholics Anonymous, any other Twelve Step organizations, or religion.

(Dr. Gardner can be contacted at Her other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Peoples Temple: From Social Movement To Total Institution.)


In 1992, I became personally acquainted with a survivor of Jonestown. We became pretty good friends, and by 1995, he had slowly started telling me his story. By the end of 1996, I had several hours of audio recordings which eventually became a part of my doctoral dissertation. Over these last fifteen years, I have read everything I could get my hands on related to Peoples Temple and Jonestown, I have had personal communications with other survivors and family members, with varying degrees of intimate disclosure, and I have noticed some interesting patterns among the survivors. Some have choked off their memories and emotions with alcohol and other drugs; and some have made it beyond that dark place and into recovery. This essay discusses the principles associated with that kind of recovery, as well as my take on how others who have NOT been chained to substance abuse or dependence can benefit from the wisdom of a twelve step program. It is not my intention to preach, but instead to inform and provide readers with a background in an important lifestyle choice that is usually reserved only for the most desperate among us.

People Who Normally Wouldn’t Mix

Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, once said that alcoholics in AA are a group of people who normally would not mix. They come from all walks of life, and although many of them have some common experiences, they would not have met, if not for their common purpose of recovery. I think the same is true of the members of Peoples Temple. Although some would argue that there were factions of believers with different motives, they shared certain ideals and might have never met in Peoples Temple if not for those goals.

Fast-forward to Jonestown and its conclusion. Feelings of anxiety, guilt and self-loathing are abundant. These emotions are common to family members of anyone who commits suicide; it stands to reason that they find a home here. Many of the people who survived Jonestown seem to have experienced this variety of toxic emotions. It is a pattern that they share with alcoholics and other drug addicted individuals.

A New Way of Living

When an alcoholic or other drug addict reaches out to recovery, the changes are often dramatic. For most, it is a series of twelve steps that guide the individual through a process of self-discovery, acceptance and forgiveness. To the uninitiated, these steps seem to have nothing to do with surviving Jonestown, but surviving any trauma that others did not survive causes tremendously destructive emotions to fester within. If left unchecked, those emotions have accompanying behaviors that are equally dangerous and self-destructive. The twelve steps outlined here are a formula for facing a past which we have no power to control or change. They also offer a manner of living that, while demanding complete honesty, offers personal serenity as a reward. The rest of this essay is devoted to those twelve steps and their application to recovery from Jonestown for survivors and their families. The steps themselves are offered in their original form for alcoholics, with the relevant application beneath.

One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. Simply substitute the word “others” for alcohol. Powerlessness is difficult for any of us to accept. Who wants to admit that there is absolutely nothing they can do to alter a situation? For some, in this case, it is not unlike any other survivor of suicide. “What could I have done differently?” “If only I had…” The reality, though, is that it is over. We cannot change the past, and to continue to dwell on it serves no purpose other than self-punishment.

Self-punishment is an unmanageable aspect of existence. It is about self-loathing. There is no shame in believing in Peoples Temple; there is no shame in surviving madness. Once in a while someone says, “But the things I did to survive…” My response is found in the fourth and fifth steps – which are designed to address those issues. The point of Step One is simply to admit that you have no power over others or your own past, and your feeble attempts to have such power have left you in a perpetual state of personal chaos.

Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. There are two parts to this step, and neither one goes down smoothly. First, we are asked to believe that there is a power greater than ourselves. Next we are asked to consider ourselves to be insane. Let’s take each part separately.

For most alcoholics and other drug addicts, this first part usually takes the form of a belief in God. Others, however, cannot swallow such a concept. I am not here to convert, so my suggestion is that survivors who are not comfortable acknowledging an omnipotent being use the same approach that other “non-believers” have found so helpful: Any supportive environment is more powerful than an individual is alone. For many people, there is safety in numbers; isolation is the enemy. We must learn to accept the emotional support and constructive guidance available to us from others who have traveled our path.

That we must think of ourselves as insane is sometimes a bit more difficult. In this case, insanity does not have to mean that we are raving lunatics, but rather that we have plenty of irrational moments and sometimes our judgment is not the best. In that context, it stands to reason that we can benefit from the guidance of others.

Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him. There’s God again. And once again, for those who cannot grasp a concept of God, there is a workable substitute. If we must, we can think of God as merely an acronym for “Good Orderly Direction,” which brings us back to the idea that we must learn to trust in the guidance of others who have already found peace, that they will teach us how to do the same. This step is especially helpful if we notice that all we are really asked here is to make a decision. We have not yet been asked to take any action.

These first three steps are about realization that there is a problem as well as a solution, if we are willing to take a leap of faith and follow the guidance of others through the remaining steps.

Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. What a scary thought. Just the use of the word “moral” implies a depth of self-examination that requires courage. I often hear people say that we should never explore the mind without an escort, because it is a dangerous place to go alone. In the many decades since the inception of Alcoholics Anonymous, volumes have been written about how to properly take this step. In my opinion, parsimony should rule the day. One suggestion on how to proceed comes from the Book of Alcoholics Anonymous itself. Begin by making three lists: fears, resentments and sex conduct. Why that third area? One reason is that many people use sex as a means of escape, or as a means of finding something – and that something is intimacy, which they believe is lacking in their lives. Making a list of fears shows us exactly what we think we are dealing with and how those fears are affecting our daily lives. The purpose of the resentment list is not to list all the wrongs perpetrated against us. Rather it is to look objectively back at that list and learn to separate what we have done from what has been done to us – the faults of the others belong back in the first step – and to offer us a chance to take responsibility for our part.

Five: Admitted to God, to ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Some people say that you are only as sick as your secrets. Facing our past – especially our faults in our past –is painful, but it’s actually a pretty amazing and cathartic experience. No one can adequately explain how it feels to unburden oneself once and for all. In the case of Jonestown, whether a survivor or family member, perceived faults may be in the nature of informing on others to curry favor or feelings that enough was not done to dissuade a loved one from going to Jonestown.

Chances are that discussing these things out loud with another person will take away their power. In many cases it allows us to see that there really was not as much “fault” as we convinced ourselves there was. I once was honored to work with an alcoholic who chose to organize the results of her fourth step lists into the seven deadly sins. She examined all areas of her life for patterns of behavior that she considered to be wrong and how they affected her ability to lead a happy and fulfilled life. Hers was an amazing journey of self-discovery.

Six: Were entirely ready to have God remove our defects of character. Once again, the steps allow us to move slowly and deliberately through the process of recovering. Note that no action is required here, just a willingness. Again viewing God as “Good Orderly Direction” allows even the most atheistic among us to succeed. Under either belief system, the idea is that admitting to having faults is not the same as actually doing something about it. It requires a willingness to change. Sometimes this is a difficult step to take, because whatever our personal defects are, they are ours. We have our own ways of dealing with life, however dysfunctional they may be. Releasing toxic patterns of behavior, we fear, will leave a void.

Seven: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. Only an omnipotent being has the power to unilaterally remove our shortcomings, but all of us, including atheists and agnostics, can rely on what we have learned from others to assist us in charting our own course. The idea is that we reach a point where we ask for help in leading a different kind of life. If not from God, that help can come in the form of reminders from others. Being around others who are attempting the same journey gives us a common language. As a woman in recovery, when I am behaving selfishly, I can count on at least one of these people to chide me with something like, “Oh, yes! It is, after all, all about you!” Such a statement is meant to humorously remind me that I am not the center of the universe, something I can easily forget if I am not living by the principles of recovery, as I have committed to doing. I get this kind of good-hearted ridicule when I misbehave, because I have asked for it through Step Seven.

Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. As with a few previous steps, this step requires primarily just an attitude adjustment on our part. We are not asked to do anything here except to develop a private list and to become willing to make amends to the names on that list. Often, the answers lie in the resentments we uncovered in Step Four. As previously noted, those resentments we harbor usually include an element of fault on our part. Sex conduct is another gold mine of names for many of us. If we used people for vain attempts at intimacy or purely for physical gratification, we were probably not honest with them about it and have hurt them in the process.

Nine: Made direct amends to such people, wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Amends, whenever possible, means a face-to-face admission of our responsibility in a situation. It may mean some sort of restitution. In some cases the people to whom we owe amends are not available. Many addicts and alcoholics have no real way to make amends to their children. Sometimes people we have harmed in relationships have moved away or, in the case of Jonestown, died. Some people suggest that in such cases as these, we resolve to find some other way to make amends. We can resolve to be a better person today. We choose to be kinder and more honest in our current relationships as the only way to make some sort of amends for our past. AA suggests that some people cannot be seen, so we send them an honest letter. There is a caveat: except when to do so would injure them… We may not unburden ourselves at the expense of others. If someone had an extramarital affair that is long since over, telling the spouse about it now would do exactly that – injure them for our own purposes. This is the final step in what we come to know as “clearing the wreckage of our past.”

Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. This is one of the most amazing and liberating parts of the recovery process. Once we rid ourselves of the see-saw of selfishness and self-loathing, we are more capable of the courage it takes to simply say, “I was wrong,” when appropriate. Such a simple statement immediately relieves that nagging feeling in the pit of our stomachs that serves to remind us of our shortcomings.

Eleven: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. Most people who earnestly work these steps eventually discover that they feel so much better; it surely must be a miracle. God has done for them what they could not do for themselves. Nonetheless, for those who still cannot bend their minds around the idea of a God, once again, “Good Orderly Direction” is something worthy of contemplation. Meditating on the idea of orderly progress allows the atheist or agnostic to continually seek to improve.

Twelve: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs. As with the first step, simply remove the word “alcoholics” and continue. Spirituality is not about religion. It is about the unique spirit of the individual. A spiritual awakening is not necessarily a thunderbolt from above. It may be a gradual realization that life is definitely better. It is also an acceptance of self without lingering regret. It means understanding that each of us has the right to be right and the right to be wrong in how we choose to live our lives. That understanding leads to forgiving ourselves for our wrongs, for our past, in some cases, our very existence.


The Twelve Steps are about healing. In first few, we admit that we are in trouble. Next we honestly face our past, followed quickly by a sincere attempt to make right what is wrong – where we can. Next, we work to maintain a lifestyle that requires us to examine ourselves on a daily basis and admit our mistakes quickly. Finally, we realize the benefits we have received from such fearless self-exploration, and we commit ourselves to helping others follow our path.

It is often said by “twelve-steppers” that anyone can benefit from our way of life. I believe that this is especially true of those who have survived trauma. I know of several survivors from Jonestown who turned to alcohol and other drugs searching for relief from their own minds. The way out for them is also a way out for others.