It takes courage to sit down and write the often painful memories of our Peoples Temple experience, and I applaud all those who have taken the time and summoned the fortitude to draft a remembrance. No matter how misshapen by faulty memory, any incident may be the very touchstone which brings to mind other memories. And isn’t that really the point? For if we ignore that simple memory, other memories of those we have loved may well evaporate and be lost to time.
In this last edition of the jonestown report, I would like to recount just such an occurrence which inspired my first reflection in 2005 about my dear friend, Harriet Tropp. In mid-2004, the California Historical Society in San Francisco opened its photo archives to friends and families of those who died in Jonestown. That was where I came upon a photo of Harriet. As I studied it, the memories flooded in, memories I hadn’t had for decades. At the same time, I could hear her voice, as clearly as if she were standing there next to me, telling me (if you knew Harriet, you knew this was how she phrased her requests) I had to contact her brother Martin Tropp and let him know her deep feelings for him and her regret about not having told him herself. Her voice stayed with me that day, the next, and the next. Indeed, it was relentless.
I had never met Martin and had no idea how to contact him. I was aware he had written a scholarly work on Frankenstein, and I had met Harriet and Martin’s father on a trip to NYC in 1974. I knew he had lost his only siblings – his younger sister Harriet, and his older brother Dick – in Jonestown. But that was it. I was at a loss to satisfy the Voice. I was torn because I did not want to bring possibly unwanted memories to someone with whom I was unacquainted. Perhaps he had made his peace with the past. Perhaps contact with a stranger, like me, would be unwelcome. Worse yet, how could I explain a sudden wish to make so painful a contact after thirty years? But against all these concerns and doubts and questions was the Voice.
It turned out to be easy enough to find him. He was a distinguished English professor at Babson College in Boston. His scholarly writing revealed him to be smart, accomplished, and funny as hell. Just like Harriet.
I discussed my dilemma with several friends and decided to resolve it in a couple of steps. I would prepare a detailed letter, in which I would explain my friendship with Harriet, offer some of my memories of her and most importantly, let him know about his sister’s profound affection for him and how much she missed him. Rather than send it to him directly, I thought I’d e-mail him and let him know I had some information about Harriet he might like to have. If he was interested in it, he was encouraged to contact me. Yep, that seemed like a plan.
My e-mail went unanswered and I took that for Martin’s answer: He’d obviously addressed the loss of his two siblings in his own way and wanted no other input. I had done my duty and that was that, or so I thought.
But that damned voice continued to haunt me.
At about the same time, I happened to be scrolling through the Jonestown website and noticed the recently-completed photo section. Beneath each photo was room for a posting a remembrance. It occurred to me that I could recast the letter as a remembrance, prominently feature Martin’s name, and, given the magic of Google, perhaps someone who knew Martin would find it and share it with him. I rewrote and submitted it, and the voice disappeared. There was no thank you or “hug,” it just disappeared. However, I sensed that Harriet’s spirit would now be at rest and – to be honest – that I, at last, could sleep at night.
About a year later, as I was going through my incoming e-mails, I was astonished to see an e-mail from Martin Tropp!! My plan had worked; Martin had even blogged about my piece. We made arrangements to speak directly. I learned that Martin had not received my earlier e-mail.
I also learned how little information he had had about his brother and sister. He knew that Dick was the school principal and that Harriet was a church lawyer, but that was about it. Dick had seemed like a stranger in their stilted and brief phone calls, and his contact with Harriet had been even more limited. Then after the massacre, he heard nothing from anyone about them. It was if they had just disappeared. I was able to share my knowledge of their lives and deaths and, most importantly, to address his many unanswered questions. Most unexpectedly, I was able to help Martin re-frame his dismissive view of his older brother’s actions during the massacre.
Until my call, Martin had assumed that Dick had gone meekly to his own death and, worse yet, simply stood by while hundreds of adults and children died in agony. I had learned though others who had been in Jonestown on those last days, that in fact, Dick, a leader in the community, fought the idea of the suicides, and had been murdered before the large-scale poisonings began because Jim was afraid of Dick’s impact on the community. Based on everything I had learned, Dick had died a hero’s death. Perhaps even more important than sharing my memories of Harriet, I was able to restore Martin’s admiration for his “big brother.”
And then Martin told me something important about himself – he was suffering from terminal cancer – and in fact, he died within six months of our contact. I was shocked at how close this story came to being one of those many things I wished I had done but had just never gotten around to. That I was able to offer Martin some comfort and closure about this dark aspect of his family history as he faced his own destiny means so very much to me.
So you see, your memories have an unexpected and extraordinary impact if you capture and share them when they come to you. Otherwise, they’re nothing but evanescent bubbles, which, though beautiful, are gone forever, in seconds. What’s more, consider the impact that writing a remembrance has on you as you write it. I’ve found it to have an utterly transformative and clarifying power upon myself and my view of those I knew so long ago.
As I read the remembrances and reflections of all those with whom I have shared the experience of Peoples Temple, I am compelled to consider the meaning of that experience in ways I’d never contemplated and feel its power in ways I’d never anticipated. The poet T. S. Eliot expressed this sentiment much better than I:
- We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.