Some Jonestown survivors will return to Guyana next year to visit the site where more than 900 of their friends and relatives died in America’s largest mass murder/suicide. My late wife, Patti Chastain Haag, was a member of the Temple, and she taught me something about it.
News of the trip to Jonestown reminded me of Patti’s father, Bill Chastain, who was a survivor too. Bill despised Jim Jones, and would never have joined Peoples Temple. But he was a survivor nonetheless.
Bill Chastain had been an American soldier fighting in Europe during World War II. He was one of the men who marched into the concentration camps at the end of the war and saw the horrors there. After the war he kept in touch with his buddies. When the 50 th anniversary of D-Day came, he didn’t hesitate to sign up for a trip to Normandy and a reunion with the remaining members of his company. What they had shared together, so many years before, had been the most defining moment of their lives. They formed a lifelong bond. The chance to see each other again and to relive the memories of that time was priceless. They had to go.
Who is a survivor? Why do we cherish our relationships with those who share the trauma of survivorship with us? Why do we feel compelled to remember the horrors of a war we fought or the struggles of life in Jonestown and the tragedy we narrowly escaped there?
There are many kinds of survivors, and many of them are represented by organizations. There is for example the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. As their website states, “The World Trade Center Survivors’ Network ( WTCSN) is the only organization created specifically to serve all those directly affected by the attacks on September 11, 2001. Our mission is to support and represent the interests of the survivors of September 11 and the subsequent rescue and recovery effort… The WTCSN provides survivors with community, advocacy and legacy… WTCSN welcomes all members of the extended September 11th Community including survivors, family members, and all those who wish to help.”
Perhaps a clue to the power of survivorship is the word “community”. A community is a group of people who share something of importance in common. This quality has been conspicuously lacking in our culture for a long time now. One can argue (correctly I think) that Jim Jones was successful in bringing so many people together because the Temple offered its members something that is of great importance to human well being and happiness: a strong community united with a common purpose and an ideology. The survivors of Peoples Temple, some of whom I have met, still share much of that ideology. Even more importantly, they share a unique common experience as survivors of the Jonestown tragedy. They share an experience that one could argue is almost sacred, sanctified by the blood of those who died in Jonestown. Some will go to Jonestown next year to remember the happy times and the not-so-happy times. They will remember their friends and comrades who died there, and they will honor their memory, just as the old soldiers who returned to the beaches at Normandy did.
While there is a similarity of Peoples Temple survivors with WWII soldiers, there is an obvious and glaring difference as well: the soldiers came home as honored heroes, admired by everyone, while the Jonestown survivors were reviled and held up as cultists and brainwashed dupes. This is a crucial difference, and it too has precedents in history.
Consider the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Their website shows an American Eagle carrying a bomb, the tattered American flag at Hickam Field after the attack, pictures of the ships burning in the harbor and a photo of today’s USS Arizona memorial at Pearl. The site concludes with the statement,
We are dedicated to insuring that this and future generations remain cognizant of the events of December 7, 1941 and that all Americans never are allowed to forget that ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of peace.’ Our Motto is ‘REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR – KEEP AMERICA ALERT’.
Groups like the Pearl Harbor Association (and the 9/11 survivors) enjoy the unambiguous respect and admiration of the American people. Theirs is a story of eternal good versus eternal evil. Not so Peoples Temple. Theirs is a very ambiguous story of victimhood tarnished with a troubling association with the devil in the person of Jim Jones. The values of Peoples Temple were not the red, white and blue values of mainstream America. After all, the move to Jonestown was itself a rejection of American values and of America itself. So how can America love Peoples Temple now and welcome the survivors back to the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Again there are parallels in history. We find that holocaust survivors, mostly Jews, have not always felt their story was welcome in America. Anti-Semitism has always been significant in America, especially before WWII but even today. Holocaust denial today is certainly a form of anti-Semitism. Moreover, the pain of the holocaust experience was so intense that reliving it was intolerable to many. As their website states, “A curtain of silence blocked out the past. The publicity surrounding Eichmann’s 1961 trial lifted it slightly. But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when survivors came to terms with their own mortality and public interest in the Holocaust grew apace, that America’s remnant of European Jewry took up the obligation to remember. Since then, the assault upon historical truth by pseudo-scholarly Holocaust ‘revisionists’ has only steeled their resolve to speak out. For Holocaust denial both defames the survivor experience and dishonors the memory of those who perished.”
Another group of interest here are the victims of the atom bomb explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their website includes a “Peace Declaration” delivered by Takeshi Araki, Mayor of Hiroshima City on August 6, 1990. It reads in part:
A summer day, a solitary bomb, a single instant; and Hiroshima was transformed into a raging inferno and a hell on earth.
Countless precious lives were tragically lost, and even those who somehow managed to survive have lived in constant fear of radioactivity’s grim after effects.
Over the last 45 years, Hiroshima has risen from the agony of its bombing and, firm in the determination that the evil never be repeated, has constantly pressed for lasting world peace and called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and the renunciation of war. Today, Hiroshima’s prayer has become the world’s prayer.
The long history of distrust and discord is drawing to a close, and there are finally signs of a new era of trust and cooperation.
Long the symbol of East-West discord, even the Berlin Wall has come down, the Cold War structures are fated to end, the quest is on for a new world order of peace, and mankind is taking the first steps toward altering its history.
This March, the renovation of the Atomic Bomb Dome was completed with the generous contributions and the fervent wishes for peace from all over the world. Annual admissions to the Peace Memorial Museum topped 1.5 million last year. And the number of cities sympathizing with the Program to Promote the Solidarity of Cities towards the Total Abolition of Nuclear Weapons has grown to 287 cities in 50 countries worldwide. All of this is testimony to the depths of the popular longing for peace.
Hiroshima will continue to lay the grim realities of nuclear attack before the world, and we are promoting the establishment here of an international peace research institute to make the world more aware of the need for nuclear disarmament.
Hiroshima’s heart also goes out to all of the oppressed people everywhere who are victims of starvation, poverty, the suppression of human rights, refugee status, regional conflicts, global environmental devastation, and other problems, and we earnestly hope that the international community will cooperate for the earliest possible solution of these problems.
Today, in this Peace Memorial Ceremony to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we express our heartfelt condolences to all of the victims of that bombing…and we rededicate ourselves to the cause of peace.
Mayor Araki’s heartfelt statement cannot help but move us. Yet its message is still controversial. We may feel sorry for the victims of Hiroshima, but they are not heroes. Many Americans still believe that “the Japs had it coming” after the atrocities they committed on American soldiers during WWII. Many Japanese would prefer to forget the pain and humiliation of that war, the bombing of their country, and the total surrender that followed. Remembering Hiroshima is inconvenient for many.
Not long before Hiroshima, on the islands of Okinawa, an event occurred that was to be a precursor to the deaths in Jonestown 33 years later. As the Americans invaded, the Japanese soldiers were instructed to hand the Okinawans grenades with which to blow themselves up and to commit suicide. If they were captured by the Americans, the people were told, they would be raped and tortured before being brutally killed. “All were the slaves to death,” said Shigeaki Kinjo, 76, a clergyman who witnessed a mass suicide on Tokashiki Island, the largest of the islands. “Men cut off the heads of their escaping children with sickles and hit their wives with stones while crying bitterly.” (More information about the Okinawa suicides appears here.)
Today the survivors of Okinawa face a dilemma: to forget the past or to remember this painful event. The dilemma is made more difficult by the fact that the Japanese government recently has expunged references to the suicides from school textbooks and is attempting to suppress any evidence of this shameful incident from Japanese history. Those who do remember it face censure in Japanese society.
The organization Survivors International has a message that is more likely to reach sympathetic ears. Their mission statement reads as follows, “Survivors International, founded in 1986, grew out of the need to serve the population of refugees and immigrants who had survived torture and/or war trauma in their home countries. While the torturer’s aim is to destroy the victim by inflicting excruciating physical pain and terrifying mental abuse, the goal of Survivors International is precisely the opposite: to strengthen and rebuild a sense of self and trust in humanity. We are a multi-disciplinary network of professionals and volunteers from the fields of medicine, psychology, social work, public health, and human rights dedicated to helping those who have been affected by torture to pick up the pieces after all sense of basic trust has been lost.”
Even so, many people are ambivalent in their feelings about those who have been tortured. While we may feel sorry for them, we also don’t want to have them over for dinner. In other words, we don’t want to think about torture. As a society we are still in denial about torture and those who have been tortured.
We have somewhat the same reaction to those who survive suicide. Their website says, “ The purpose of Survivors Of Suicide is to help those who have lost a loved one to suicide resolve their grief and pain in their own personal way. The grief that survivors of suicide experience is unique. The questions often left behind are at times unbearable. It is my hope that this site will offer information that will help answer some of those questions, as well as provide a safe place for survivors and friends of survivors to share their struggle and pain and offer comfort and understanding to others who have experienced a similar loss.”
Like torture, suicide is something most of us prefer not to think about. We may feel sorry for the victim, but mostly we don’t understand how anyone could do that. If we are religious, we may consider suicide to be a terrible sin. Those who have survived others’ suicides may be tainted by their association with the victim or even blamed for contributing to the victim’s malaise in some way.
Being a survivor is not the same experience for everyone. The psychodynamics are complex. As they say, “It depends.” If you are a 9/11 or a Pearl Harbor survivor, you will more likely feel entitled to an unambiguous sense of self-respect and honor founded on the beliefs of your countrymen as reflected in the media and in every other way. You are held up as a hero or as an innocent victim of the evil perpetrated by our nation’s enemies.
If, on the other hand, you are a survivor of the holocaust, torture, suicide or Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, then watch out! Many people may not accept you. You are not “one of the tribe.” They will not understand you or what you have been through. You are suspect. We all know this, perhaps unconsciously, and we keep it to ourselves if we feel unsure. This has a price. We remain outsiders. We cannot count on being accepted by others. Vigilance is necessary to avoid judgment and rejection. Our community is fractured.
Irving Goffman, the sociologist, knew all about this. In his book, Stigma, Goffman points out the there are those who wear their stigma on their sleeve, while for others it is hidden but discoverable. The survivors of Peoples Temple are in this latter category. They may choose to reveal their identity or not. If they do, they may face a mixed reaction, rejection or even condemnation. But they may also transform the stigma of the Temple by educating others or simply bearing witness to their essential humanity by being themselves and still standing after all these years.
Websites of interest:
http://ww2.vet.org (WWII Veterans)
www.survivorsnet.org (World Trade Center Survivors)
www.holocaustsurvivors.org (Holocaust Survivors)
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/ (Okinawa Suicides)
www.survivorsofsuicide.com (Suicide Survivors)
http://traumarecoverycenter.org/services/survivors-international/ (Torture Survivors)
http://www.has.vcu.edu/wrs/profiles/PeoplesTemple.htm (Peoples Temple)