Living Memory

by Edward Cromarty

The living memory of those who survived Jonestown is one of the most important sources of knowledge of the movement that built the Jonestown Agricultural Project in Guyana. History is a gift given to us by memory, but history is still only something we read about, it is academic, a story told by someone else. Memory differs from history in that memory is the real experience of those who lived an event before it becomes history. Memory is alive, the experience and the identity of those who lived in Jonestown. Living memory is the experience of real people who worked, suffered, shed tears, have personal and community values, and shared their experiences of Jonestown with loved ones.

The majority of the people who lived in Jonestown where not highly educated. They did not speak of academic principles and psychology. The majority were women, children, and elderly of whom 70% where African-Americans. They lived the injustice and suffering of a life that led them to the promise of Peoples Temple, relocation to Guyana, and to the traumatic events that followed at Jonestown. Today, in a way that is similar to the memory of those who survived the Holocaust, the survivors of Jonestown are aging, and as the living memory of those who survived passes, we enter an age of “collective memory” and of “cultural memory” passed to a second generation through the memory of those who experienced Jonestown.

Connection memory, also called post-memory, is the trans-generational transmission of traumatic experience from the survivor to the second generation. It is the second generation who through communicative memory transfers this knowledge into history through family stories, images, and behavior. Survivors may want to archive their knowledge for future generations. Cultural memory is the archived knowledge of these survivors. Through the interpretation of social groups memory becomes language, belief systems, and is shaped into social narratives. An example would be the social belief systems resulting from the memories of those who survived the Shoah. Another example would be the social narratives that have arisen from the experience of those who survived Jonestown.

It is difficult for researchers to remain objective when studying a topic as emotional and traumatic as the events which occurred at Jonestown. When studying Jonestown the researcher enters into an emotional relationship which is created by a sense of place and community that may obscure the lines of subjectivity. The experience of those who remember Jonestown is therefore essential to keep the memory of what really happened alive. Without their memory Jonestown would cease to exist. The living memory of these survivors prevents those who would rewrite and revise history from doing so. The memory of survivors helps the world to reconnect, creating a continuity that assures that the world will never forget the values, traditions, facts, and existence of Jonestown. When a survivor transfers memory they are giving something that is real, they are preventing the death of memory, and helping make a better world. Their memories keep those who lived at Jonestown alive, that their ideals of social justice will flourish and grow.

Memory may be transferred in many ways such as art, film, books, poetry, novels, memoirs, photography, music, museums, audio, oral history, testimony, food, dress, and community. Memory guides our view of history. The memory of survivors is personal. It walks side-by-side with those who lived at Jonestown. It involves the sacredness of suffering, sweat, sighs, tears, joy, laughter, and the images of loved ones. Memory is alive, the living experience, the hard work, and the ideals of equality and social justice, of those who lived in Jonestown. It is the memory of those who survived Jonestown that helps provide the first-hand experience that is essential for those who study Peoples Temple.

(Edward Cromarty is a doctoral student at Northeastern University in Education-Teaching and Learning with emphasis in history and the arts, and has also taken doctoral courses in Urban Education-Teaching and Learning at CUNY. He has an MBA in Education from SUNY-Empire State College, the Professional Certification (PCHPE) in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education from the Institute of Education-University of London, a BFA in Fashion Design from SUNY-Fashion Institute of Technology, a BA in History from West Virginia University, and Certificates in Fashion and Art from the London Institute: Central St. Martins College of Art & Design. Edward has also studied at California State University Long Beach and Los Angeles.

(Edward is also a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His earlier writings are collected here. He can be reached at edwardcromarty@hotmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 28th, 2013.

Last modified on January 22nd, 2014.
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