Writing about your past can be cathartic in some cases. But for me it is fraught with frustration and anger. I find forgiving is much more difficult.
I’m past being mad at individuals for what they did or did not do. It was the environment that allowed certain individuals to act out. That brings me to the present, 2013. I communicate with very few past members, by choice. It’s nice to hear about how folks have survived and thrived in some cases. It’s sad to hear that others haven’t done so well or, worse yet, they still believe our experience was something wonderful and should be replicated. No one (sane) wants to duplicate Jonestown or Peoples Temple. The idea of equality was a good one. The reality of Jonestown and Peoples Temple was a nightmare.
Peoples Temple was an adventure; Jonestown was the final act of that adventure. Before going to Guyana, Jim Jones used to say from the pulpit that we all would be associated with Peoples Temple, no matter what happened. Whether we left or stayed, made no difference, we would always be associated with Peoples Temple. That was years before the tragedy. Did he already know how it was going to end?
On a very fundamental level, my reason for not communicating has to do with … vibes. When a lot of us are together, there is a certain feeling I get that makes me very uncomfortable and a bit on alert. I think everyone in the Temple would acknowledge, there are sets of survivors: the Jonestown set; the Lamaha Gardens set (the permanent staff and residents of the Temple headquarters); the Georgetown set (those Temple members who were in the capital city by happenstance, like for a doctor’s appointment, or who were on work rotation there); the San Francisco Temple set; the Los Angeles Temple set; and multiple stateside survivor sets. And they all have distinct and different takes on the event. It’s interesting to run across members you thought were dead, but they know you were alive. We tell each other we are glad to see one another, and we are cautious.
With a few exceptions – those being the youngest who mercifully have few memories of Jonestown – the survivors are in their fifties and sixties, or older. I never thought that I would see 25, let alone 56. The years in between have been unplanned and surprising.
Peoples Temple kept me young, but Jonestown aged me tremendously. On November 17th, 1978, I was 21 years of age. On November 18th, I was 40 years old. That night, I was in Georgetown, at the movies, watching the World War II film Tora, Tora, Tora, with Stephan and Mike. I know there were other guys with us – members of Jonestown basketball team – as well, but I forget who. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor in the movie, when a young man who worked for the theatre came down the aisle to tell us that there had been a shooting at Lamaha Gardens. We all ran out of the theatre, jumped in the truck, and sped across town, back to the Temple’s Georgetown headquarters.
When we arrived, we learned there had been no shooting. However, there were four bodies in the bathroom upstairs, their throats cut. Folks were in shock. I was in disbelief as well as on full alert. The police arrived soon afterward. And the interrogations started that night until the next day and for a couple days after that.
On the morning of November 19th, I still didn’t know that “Jonestown” had happened, but I did know that my life and possibly the life of my wife and son had taken a turn for the worse. The first indication of that came at day’s first light, when we saw concertina wire surrounding the house, as well as a contingent from the Guyanese Defense Force just outside the gate, their guns pointed at us. They were not there to protect us. One of the police officers made that very clear. Quote: We don’t care if you all kill yourselves, but you killed Guyanese citizens, and you will not leave here alive. Since there were no Guyanese citizens in the house, I figured he was talking about Jonestown. I just didn’t know what he meant. I aged another ten years that day.
It wasn’t until the next day, November 20th, I knew for sure that Ollie my wife, Martin my son, Mattie my mother and Ollie’s grandmother were gone. By the time I had left Guyana on a flight back to the US, I was 60 years old. This aging was mental, not physical. Over the decades, the physical has caught up to the mental and passed.
When I look back, I am frustrated because of waste and carnage that I was exposed to at such an early age. But we were all exposed to carnage. And this was prior to Jonestown. Take my word for it, there were people/souls that were destroyed by Jones and his rhetoric years before Jonestown, folks whose children were beaten, molested, taken, hidden and eventually destroyed physically and mentally.
I remember one such incident in 1976 at the San Francisco Temple while I was living there. I believe it was a Wednesday night meeting, a members-only meeting. When you entered the Temple, you walked up a few steps to the gate and past a guard. To your right was the “red room,” where newcomers were greeted and asked for basic information like their names, addresses, and phone numbers, as well as more personal information that would be passed on to Jones for his “revelations.” Directly in front of you was an open space, and the dining room and kitchen beyond that. Back at the entrance, there were stairs on the left side that curved to the right and took you to the second floor, which was the main floor. At the top of the stairs, the room where I lived was to your left and the main room was directly in front of you. As you entered the main room, you would see folding chairs on different levels (the room was stepped). To the left there was the pulpit and stage, or the floor, as we called it.
When you were or had gotten into trouble you would be called to the floor or on the floor. On this particular night, someone had reported or seen this boy being molested on one of the Temple buses. The molester was in a position of trust; he worked with the children as well as supervised children in a commune. There was immediate anger. The boy, his mother, and his sister came to the stage. The mother was clearly distraught and angry, righteously so. Other Temple members were yelling too, that we should call the police, that the perpetrator should be arrested, that he should be kicked out of the church. When the perpetrator came to the floor, I recall that the mother slapped him, but the boy himself was ashamed and embarrassed, and his sister was quiet. From the pulpit, Jones announced that a terrible thing had happened and that perpetrator should be punished. However – a big “however” – Peoples Temple would not turn its members over to the police here in Amerika, and the situation would be handled internally. What the fuck is this? I fumed. He doesn’t deserve to be a member, we should snuff his ass.
The more Jones questioned, the angrier members became, the angrier I became. Then Jones offered himself to the perpetrator. By then, I was truly baffled. Members are yelling, “No, Father.” Jones replied: “I must be all things to all people.”
I had to leave the meeting after that.
They all perished two years later in Jonestown, the accused molester, the young boy, his mother, his sister, all of them. Where is the fairness in that?
Time isn’t so funny anymore …
(Eugene Smith was in Georgetown on November 18 clearing items from customs. Numerous members of his family – including his mother, wife, and infant son – died in Jonestown. His other articles for this edition of the jonestown report are Johnny Brown: The Passion and the Revolution and Hunting Time. His previous articles may be found here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)