Preferring the living to the dead, I’ll start by thanking Johnny Cobb, James Jones, the good folks at Evergreen, and Mac McGehee – I’ve got to include Becky Moore here, regardless of her direct involvement in the memorial – for the compassion and courage you’ve all shown from the start. And thank you, Jordan Vilchez, for all that you have done to always create a lovely place and provide amazing food so that we can gather and commune. Thanks to all of you for your part in making a place where loved ones could be laid to rest and where those they left behind can come to pay their respects. You have extended yourselves and your resources purely from the goodness of your hearts, without concern for any praise or ridicule that might come your way. The love you poured into this is the unconditional love that has come out of it.
You have my admiration and gratitude. Always.
To finally see a memorial in place, a simple and lovely remembrance of each individual who died on November 18th, 1978 means so much to so many. To read the names, to remember their diversity, and to see that same diversity in the folks who came together in honor of those who died – we are still a gorgeously rag-tag group – is meaningful beyond words.
Perhaps more than anything else, though, the memorial lets us all, both the living and the dead, reclaim our humanity. We have gone from being viewed as a bunch of crazies who dutifully lined up to “drink the Kool-Aid,” to being hopeless victims who were tortured and murdered by one evil madman. Now, with the names of our families and friends chiseled in simple black letters on gray stone, like the rest of the names on the monuments across the breadth of the cemetery, maybe we can be considered human, landing somewhere around the messy middle, like the rest of our magnificent species.
May 29, 2011 was truly a sweet, healing gathering that easefully included folks who were never a part of the Temple, either directly or through family or friendship. We came looking for love, for understanding, for closure, and – a couple of us – for trouble. And, as far as I can tell, every one of us was glad we came and we left with a good dose of all of the above, except trouble. There may have been only one thing that hampered complete harmony and I want to shake that tree for just a minute.
So, with complete respect for and acceptance of all other views I’ve heard on the subject, I’m going to weigh in on the concern over my father’s name being included on the memorial.
Honestly, if Dad’s name hadn’t made it onto the marble slab, I would not have lifted a finger in protest – it’s not important enough to me to foster any ill will over – but now that it has been included, I’m glad. From the first mention of a memorial wall some 30 years ago, back when I was still enraged at my father, I felt it was best to include his name on any memorial for those who died in Guyana.
I have a number of reasons for this. Although it’s clear to me that the deaths in Jonestown would not have happened if Dad weren’t in the picture, everyone agrees that he didn’t get it done alone. Setting aside the many contributions of others to the climate of fear and despair that so pervaded Jonestown long before its final days and just focusing on that dreadful final night, we all know there were shooters at the airstrip, mixers and injectors of poison, armed guards, and others who facilitated the deaths, the killings, including those who physically restrained and forced…
I think I’ve made my point.
Who can judge who was a killer? Where do we draw the line? Who determines who deserves to be on a memorial and who doesn’t? There are former Temple members, among others, who ridiculously but passionately hold the U.S. Government, the press, and the Temple’s critics – defectors and apostates, members of Concerned Relatives and other family members – responsible for what happened. Does that also mean the people who were killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip – Congressman Leo Ryan, the three newspeople, and Patty Parks – should be left off the memorial?
Why don’t we rail against all of those Temple members besides Jim Jones who clearly facilitated the deaths in Jonestown? There is no one reason, of course, but I would argue that two main reasons are compassion – understanding that people lose their way, get swept up and along – and respect for their loved ones and family who have survived them. And the fact is, Jim Jones has surviving family. Forget me, forget my brothers and my sister, all of us who were once part of the Temple. There are Joneses with no direct connection with Peoples Temple or the man who led it. Jim Jones has grandbabies, and he will have great grandchildren, and the burden of his legacy will likely not stop there. Compassion and respect for these generations requires that I consider them.
Another reason to include Dad on the memorial, as I see it, is that if we continue to demonize him, to speak of and show only his ugliness and his wrongs, most people will continue to ask, “How could anyone follow that guy? Why would they listen to him for a minute, let alone devote themselves to his movement?” And they will rest easy in their belief that it could never happen to them. How in the world is that of service to anyone, especially the people of Jonestown?
I was once asked, “How can you ever be proud of your father?” Maybe it was the gentleness of the question or that Kali, my first child, had recently been born. Right up to that moment, I thought I hated my father, but the words that came tumbling out my mouth were, “I don’t have to be proud of him, I just need to love and forgive him.” I knew those words were true the instant I said them, and I set about doing whatever was necessary to reach that ideal. I won’t bore you with the years and details of what that was, but it was a journey that culminated with me weeping in front of the house in which Dad was born and at the grave of his father, who had been physically and psychologically devastated by his service in the first World War. It’s hard to describe the inter-generational connection and grace I felt when I read the words on his gravestone: “Everyone in the world is my friend.” And the most important thing I learned was the absolute power of love and understanding. And in close second was the realization that when I let go of being Dad’s victim – and of all the hatred and blame – and I really got him, really understood him, I was free of him and far more effective in standing up to people like him and to institutions and organizations like the one he started and destroyed. I was free to deal with me, to learn from all that has happened in my life, to be aware of and work to hand over to my Maker and transform those frailties that make me vulnerable to men like my father and that might even lead to me becoming one.
And I was freed to truly honor and celebrate the loved ones I’d lost, to do what I could to make the very best of – and to help us gain the most from – their sacrifice.
I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here with too many words.
When I die, I hope they take every inch of the body I leave behind that can be of benefit to someone, burn the rest, dust the ashes on the ground around the memorial, and let my grave marker be the tracing in black ink of the grooves of the “s” in Dad’s first name and the “j” in his last.
Those who matter to me most will understand.
(Stephan Jones is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. His other stories in this edition are Baby Toes and The Deluded Heir. His earlier writings for this website appear here. He may be reached at email@example.com.)