How it began

by Lela Howard

“Mom, why do you cry whenever Aunt Pearl’s name is mentioned?”

That’s how it all began. My son’s question prompted me to understand why and how to introduce him to my beloved aunt, who died in Jonestown and who is missed so very badly. My tears come from her not knowing my son, to my guilt for not giving her that last hug. She was such an important part of my growing years, and then all of a sudden she was gone, surrounded by clouds of mystique and conspiracies.

That is how the silence began. Growing up with the “Kool Aid” jokes and all horrible reactions from others who had no compassion for our loss. Hearing others without any connection or regard for our loved ones who felt it was their duty to educate us on why all those crazy people killed themselves. We didn’t need to hear these folks, we didn’t want to hear these folks, but like good Southerners, we listened and never spoke up on auntie’s behalf, thinking our quietness would end the conversation.

I remember the first time I saw my auntie’s photograph on this website. It brought back to my memory all the images that had dimmed over the years: her smile, her scent, the sound of her voice. That photograph was like a gush of wind. Then guilt set in. For 28 years she’s been blank without a touch of love, no mention of family, no loving touches. She must have been thinking that no one cared. Next I was crushed under another guilt: how can I cram all the love for her, making up for the years of absence? I jumped in the deep end without a life preserver and floated to the top with a smile!!!

I talked 24 hours, seven days a week with mother, my two sisters and my auntie’s daughter. Mother cried, thinking her belongings were being held somewhere and anguishing how they should be divided. Her diamond ring must go to her daughter, pictures must be added to our family photo book, and clothes hopefully containing her scent would need to be worn to feel her. Hearing the news that none of these items were available was incredibly heartbreaking and raised the voice of doubt within mother. She is angry and believes Peoples Temple and everyone involved is responsible for auntie’s death. As painful as her words are, I realize that her talking about her feelings is a sign of healing. Most importantly, the discussions about auntie and her childhood in Louisiana are fun to hear. No longer are there tears when we hear her name! Those tears were replaced with determination to correct the wrongs done to her in life and death.

Mother gave me the report from the State Department of “Death of an American Abroad.” I took that form and started calling telephone numbers at the Guyana Embassy and State Department, requesting autopsy reports or any form of files they had on her death. Talk about a runaround! Everybody told me the same thing – “we no longer have those records” – but my belief was somebody had to have something. Even after I learned that only seven autopsies were performed, and that auntie was not one of them, I figured there must be some form of records of her time within the Temple and life in Guyana. Basically I wanted anything that touched her hands and mentioned her name. This would make her no longer a dream, but a real person who loved me. The least that could be done to repay that love is to bring her to life, sharing and introducing her with my son.

Last October was the first time I learned of two television projects being made about Jonestown, and smoke started coming from my ears! Who were these people, why were they doing the project and most importantly were they trying to put them in a bad light, with the “crazy zombie cult members”? I persisted until I spoke with both for Wolochatiuk and Stanley Nelson, peppering them with questions: “Why are you doing this project?” “Who are you interviewing?” “What angle are you taking?” Stanley was so tired of me! He invited me to the screening to prove he was sincere and not trying to do another distasteful project. Tim spoke to me while carving Halloween pumpkins for his children, assuring me that his project was not like any other. Looking back, they both must have thought I was out of my mind!

The UCLA screening of Stanley’s film, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, was like exhaling after holding my breath for hours! There was a question-and-answer panel afterwards, but I had decided not to participate until I heard my son say, “Mom, you just have to say something.” The last thing I remember was walking to the front and being handed the microphone.

From that moment on, if I see there is an audience, a small gathering of people or even one individual willing to listen, I am more than willing to speak about the individual, Mary Pearl Willis, and how precious she was and is to me. The following nights and weeks I brought a picture of her with me, holding it up to the audience to make her real to them. Following the last Los Angeles screening, a beautiful woman approached me in tears saying she read about the screening in the newspaper and decided to come. Neither her family nor her friends knew anything about it, but she wanted to thank me for making it real to her, she lost family in Jonestown and had never discussed it with anyone! We hugged and cried. That’s a moment that’s embedded in my heart and has directed many of my footsteps since that night.

(Lela Howard is the niece of Jonestown victim Mary Pearl Willis. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at lelavhoward@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on October 4th, 2018.
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