It has been nearly 35 years since I witnessed and experienced the events of November 18, 1978. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago, other times it feels like yesterday. I am struck that when it feels like yesterday, I feel 15 again. As I prepare to turn 50, it occurred to me there are things I need to speak to that 15-year-old girl. None of these words can change the past, but they can help her step out of the shadow of Peoples Temple, and that crime scene in Georgetown, into the safety of what has become her life in 2013.
You are scared, tired, and confused. You feel alone. And just as isolating is the sense that no one sees, hears or will protect you. What you need to know is that you have very valid reasons to feel this way.
You are scared because you live in an environment that is filled with the constant message that the world is out to get you, that you and the community you live in are constantly under siege, that your own family isn’t worthy of your trust.
You are terrified because you’ve heard Jim Jones claim – repeatedly – that he has eyes and ears amongst the members, and you don’t know who might be watching and listening to you. It could be anyone – a relative, a friend, a co-worker, a classmate – but whoever they are, you have been told they have been sent to test and seek out the ones loyal to the cause, to discover who the traitors are.
This is the message echoing in your ears when Christine Talley calls you to her bed in the medical unit. She asks if you would get rid of the pills she has not been swallowing but hiding in her cheek. She tells you she’s been watching the other person in the unit who has also been drugged, as they intended her to be, and has been mimicking her. She tells you that the reason she has been sent there was her refusal of Jim Jones’ sexual advances.
You wonder if she’s one of those informants you’ve been told to expect. If you do as she asks, will she turn you in? Or are you so afraid that you’ll refuse and betray the friendship you forged with her in Redwood Valley? If she’s not an informant, where did she find the courage to trust you? Knowing what you risk, you choose to help your friend and throw the pills down the latrine. Neither of you are found out. It will take many years, but you will eventually let go of the guilt you carry that you should have done more to protect her.
You are scared because you are required to travel for nearly a full day in the hull of a boat to reach Jonestown. In your lap is ten-month-old Raymond Xavier Fitch. You had only a bottle full of milk that has long since curdled in the South American heat. You try your thirteen-year-old level best to soothe the hungry, crying baby for the long, long boat ride. You will carry a belief for many, many years that you are a failure and incompetent.
You are scared because you have been forced to participate in suicide drills. Although only a child yourself, you determined you wouldn’t participate and sat with your sister on your lap to protect her. You are terrified but try very hard not to let her know. While unsure of it yourself, you assure her all would be all right. You don’t know it yet, but that resolve will serve you well very soon.
You are so very, very tired. For years, you rode buses every weekend up and down the coast of California, most of the time all night long, and arrive at school every Monday morning without the physical, mental or emotional energy to learn. You have lived many years sleep-deprived.
You are confused because the constant claim you hear is about all the “good” that the community is doing, about brotherly love, about the virtues of socialism. The primary objective, you’re told over and over, is to make the world a better place. This is clearly not an idea you feel safe to disagree with, yet you don’t experience this “good.” You determine this does not include doing “good” for the helpless children who have no voice.
You feel alone. This is because you are. One of your first experiences is to be separated from your siblings, to be sent to live with strangers, and then be told the “cause” is more important than anything. This “cause” doesn’t have arms to hug you, loving words to speak over you, or laughter to share with you. You need people to do that… but the adults are distracted by the “cause.”
What is this “cause” they speak of, anyway? You have no political concerns. You are a child of seven the first time you hear of it. Eight years later, you still have no political concerns, just a soul made empty by the lack of loving arms, comforting words, or protection. The “cause” has become the only child worthy of protection, where all loyalty and love is to be lavished, leaving the hearts and minds of the children barren. This “cause” feels like an enemy, because it is.
Before you even learn your siblings have been murdered, you have the blood of ten-year-old Stephanie smeared all over your clothes as you attend to her wound. Fear will cause you to take her and hide in a closet. You feel the “cause” has become the pit of hell, and for good reason.
You will spend many years trying to heal. You will feel some success in that effort – sometimes – but mostly you will struggle. You will hide from the world because the message that the world is scary, that no one can be trusted, has taken hold of your heart, and you will believe it to your own detriment.
You will also discover some truths along the way. You will become a mother. As you love your son, cherish him and do your best to provide a safe environment for him, you will understand more deeply the profound effect living in the shadow of the “cause” has had on your soul. As these understandings grow, you will begin to want to live again. You will long for more than just being a survivor.
Because you will live again. You will be loved and find the courage to trust. You will love and desire to forgive. You will learn to hope. The journey back to rescue you will be filled with fear, pain, great sorrow, and, at times, great darkness. You can trust that I will not give up. It will take many years, but the rescue you long for will come. What you don’t believe now is that you are worthy of rescue. But you are. You will eventually understand this.
You will find your voice, and you will learn to use it. You will get the opportunity to speak against the message that the “cause” was worth any of it. And it will feel like a voice speaking for the helpless, innocent babies and children whose lives were cut short, who will never go to college, marry, have children or grandchildren, and who will never be afforded an opportunity to choose a “cause” of their own.
You will become the voice for the children.
(Dianne Scheid’s previous article for the jonestown report is The Plain Ugly Truth. All three of her siblings – Donald Eugene, 17; Angelique Marie, 13; and Sophia Lauren, 11 – died in Jonestown. Ms. Scheid lives in Southern California. She may be reached at Diannescheid@yahoo.com.)