How to stop the nightmares

Recently I noticed I was no longer having nightmares about Jonestown and auntie being tortured. How did this happen? Was it talking to Stephan about his favorite memories of auntie and developing such a beautiful friendship with him? Or was it sitting with Tim as he proudly opened his wallet to pull out a picture of Malcolm? Maybe it was talking to Claire and Neva about how we constantly search film footage and pictures for a glimpse of our loved ones and how we never see them. And what about the look of love in Grace’s eyes as she listened to Tim describe his last memory of her son John? Maybe it’s my conversations with Mac and Rebecca, getting advice or simply having an ear to listen to my emotional roller coaster and hearing the correct diagnoses for my symptoms, which is the “Jonestown vortex.” But what if it’s the emails from Laura, who always lift my spirits with her infectious energy and who always makes me feel very welcomed? Maybe it was an email from Andy saying he remembered auntie and how proud she would be to see the work done on her behalf. Maybe it was that great conversations with Mike, who spoke about transforming the wild jungle into a beautiful habitat. Maybe it was hearing Odell’s voice, realizing he is a real person and no longer a myth. What if it’s the beautiful emails from strangers who read the jonestown report and simply want to reach out to me, to tell their stories of grief and hearing how my writings helped them. Maybe it’s former Peoples Temple members who thank me for giving my auntie a voice and tell me they never have they discussed their past with the Temple because of shame and fear, hiding themselves until they stumbled across the website, found the friends they left behind and saw the names of their loved ones on the “Who Died” list.

Of course, one reason I may not have any nightmares is because I don’t sleep as much! My ideas, my full time job on how to bring others out of hiding, keeps me from sleeping. My days and nights are consumed with taking everything to the next level. What happened is I found a cure: writing and talking about Peoples Temple, without lowering my voice in fear of the “death squads” (a fear has been replaced with the understanding that, if there were ever a death squad, its members would be in their late 50s and early 60s, and frankly I think I could take them!).

The best medicine is simply talking about my auntie, giving voice to the images that are starting to disappear. No longer can I hear her laugh, but when I close my eyes, I can see it and feel her touch. Honestly, I am no therapist, but I am a humanist, a human being, with a load of life lessons under my belt. Writing is cathartic for me, it gives me a sense of healing, because there is still a lot of pain. I cannot understand why this task has been given to me, except to believe that God and Aunt Pearl have a reason, they chose me to deliver the message that all lives matter.

Yes, a big hurdle for me was accepting the demons within my family. These demons existed for years. They allowed auntie to lay underground without being recognized, this hurts, but now that hurt has been replaced with pride. Her granddaughter, whom auntie wanted to know so very badly, now knows about the very special shopping spree auntie went on to purchase clothes and stuffed animals for her before leaving for Guyana. I remember the excitement in her eyes as she sifted through the baby outfits, looking for the perfect one for her grandbaby. These memories need to be shared. They prove that her life was supposed to continue past November 1978.

What must be understood is my faith has been strengthened because of this journey. Never before have I prayed with such determination and belief. Never before have I seen the benefits of the same. My sharing with readers is a testimony, helping to break that cycle of silent, shame and fear. One step at a time will lead to a victorious march, heads held high in unison with those who are just as proud to speak the names of their loved ones.

Mary Pearl Willis’ names rings throughout my body. I simply shiver and closed my eyes exhaling a sigh of relief because she has been recognized as an individual. One of my tasks has been accomplished, and I await the next phase of this journey with open arms and a desire to share the goodness!

(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