35 years after Jonestown – two survivors speak out

(This article was originally published on the website www.fritanke.no on 15 November 2013 and has been translated from the Norwegian by Rikke Wettendorff. The editors are grateful to both the author and publisher for permission to publish this translation here.)

 18 November 1978, 909 people died in the jungle in Guyana. Around 300 of them were children who were killed by their own parents. Jordan Vilchez and Leslie Wagner-Wilson survived.

18 November 1978, 909[i] people died in the jungle in Guyana. They all belonged to a religious group known as Peoples Temple, led by the charismatic preacher Jim Jones. The event is variously described as a collective suicide and a massacre. The tragedy happened in Jonestown, an agricultural colony that Jim Jones and Peoples Temple established in Guyana in South America in 1977.[ii]

But how has life after Jonestown been for the small group of members who survived but lost family members, friends and the entire foundation of their lives on that tragic day? What do they think about what happened and about Peoples Temple today?


Angry at God because he let her live

For most people Peoples Temple is the horror story about a “cult” that went off the rails. About a religious leader who abused the faith of believing people and about religious insanity. For the few people who survived it is so much more; it is their story, the grief for dead family members and decades of trying to understand and coming to terms with what happened.

“Because I didn’t trust anyone, I wasn’t capable of seeking out the help I needed when I came back to the USA. I knew I was in a bad way but I wasn’t able to put a label on my problems. I spent most of my time drinking and for a short while I did drugs as well. I just wanted the pain to end. For many years I had so much anger in me, but I didn’t know why. The only thing I knew was that I was angry at God every day when I woke up because he had let me live,” says Leslie Wagner-Wilson.

She was in a group of 11 people who managed to escape from Jonestown in the morning of 18 November, just hours before the tragedy took place. In total 87 members of Peoples Temple who were in Guyana survived, the majority because they were away from the settlement on the day.

Jordan Vilchez, who was in the church’s headquarters in Guyana’s capital Georgetown when everything went wrong in Jonestown, has also struggled with being a survivor of the most notorious collective suicide of all time.

“I, and many others who survived, have had feelings of guilt and shame. Because I grew up in Peoples Temple I had to build my own personality from the ground up and find out who I was outside of the mould I was cast in previously. To be connected with Peoples Temple and that horrible last day, has caused a complicated mixture of emotions,” says Vilchez.

Today she feels that she has made peace with the past. But it has been a long process.


Community and meaning

For someone who does not know the background it can seem completely absurd that so many people chose to follow a preacher from the USA to a poor South American country, cut off from the outside world and with guards who made sure they stayed put. And then end their lives on the command of this prophet. The story of Peoples Temple, however, is complex and did not start with the idea of collective suicide at all. On the contrary, in earlier days the church had been well-known and respected for its social work.

Peoples Temple began back in 1954 when the preacher James Warren “Jim” Jones started the Community Unity Church in the American city of Indianapolis. The church changed its name several times and became Peoples Temple in 1956. From 1965 the church had its headquarters in California. Its message was a combination of charismatic Christianity and radical socialist ideals.

Both Vilchez and Wilson joined the church with their families when they were in their early teens, around 1970. Vilchez moved in with her older sister and her two young children.

“At that time there was more cheerfulness in Peoples Temple, and there was a lot of singing and entertainment in the church. There was a band that played, and the members did short, funny skits. Outside the meeting hall, which most of all looked like a social studies classroom, there was a large pool. After the services everyone gathered to eat together and the children would jump in the pool. The church gave me a community and a sense of belonging to something that was larger than me, and I felt a sort of pride in that my life had meaning. Together we would work toward making the world a better place. It gave me, who was so young then, strength and it was exciting,” she says.


The paradise that turned into a nightmare

In 1974 Jim Jones started laying plans to move his congregation to the South American country of Guyana. In the summer of 1977 the mass exodus began to the new settlement which would become known as Jonestown. It was located in the middle of jungle, far off the beaten track, and everything had to be built from scratch.

Jonestown quickly became a living and vibrant community with children who played, adults who worked on the land, care homes for the elderly and entertainment. But Jones had problems that most members knew nothing about. He became increasingly paranoid and irrational, due in part to heavy drug use. At the same time he tightened his grip on Jonestown’s inhabitants with punishments and security teams.

“While we were in the USA we could still go around town even though there were restrictions. Right from the start in Jonestown we were locked in unless we had an approved assignment that required us to go elsewhere. I made sure I got fundraising assignments in the capital and in other places,” says Vilchez. Even though she was not happy in Jonestown because of the tight monitoring, she never thought of running away.

“I felt that I had to dedicate myself to the cause. I had also been convinced that the world outside was nasty and without hope.”


Planned the escape for a long time

There were others however who defected and there were more who wanted to escape from Jonestown. Leslie Wagner-Wilson was one of them. In the morning of 18 November, just a few hours before the plan to commit collective suicide was put into motion, she ventured into the jungle with a group of nine people in total, five adults and four children. She knew nothing about Jones’ plans for the fatal day; the escape had actually been planned for several months.

The opportunity however arose when American Congressman Leo Ryan came to Jonestown along with a group of journalists and concerned relatives of people in Jonestown. That would draw attention away from what the individual members did. They met two more people on the way and together the group of eleven put Jonestown behind them, not knowing that the whole community would be annihilated before nightfall.

Meanwhile, in Jonestown, the visit from American visitors went terribly wrong. A number of members had requested to leave with Ryan and his entourage. It led to violence, and as the group reached the airstrip to fly home, a truck with armed Peoples Temple members drove up to them and started shooting. Ryan, three members of the press and one of the members who had defected, were killed before the assassins returned to Jonestown. There Jones’ closest associates was mixing a soft drink with poison. All of the inhabitants were called to a communal meeting where Jones told them to commit “revolutionary suicide.” In a sound recording that has been released, a woman can be heard arguing against that order, but the vast majority seems to accept it. Parents gave the poison to their children first and then took it themselves. A few, especially in the leadership, died from gunshot wounds.[iii]


The survivors

When this was going on Leslie Wagner-Wilson was on the run with her three-year-old son, while Jordan Vilchez was in Guyana’s capital Georgetown along with other members of Peoples Temple. Wagner-Wilson and her group learned about the assassinations that same evening, and the next morning they were told by a police officer that there were around 500 dead people in Jonestown and that just as many had fled into the jungle.

“I was put out and started to pray that my family would be among the 500 who had fled into the jungle. At the time we thought we had been attacked, not that a collective suicide and a massacre had taken place. We were all very worried as we all had family members in Jonestown or others we cared about. We were shocked, and I think we tried to deny what had happened for quite a long time. No one knew the magnitude of it until several days later,” she says.

In Georgetown the members of Peoples Temple who stayed there received a call over the radio from Jonestown. They were told that they too should commit “revolutionary suicide.”

“My first reaction to the things that happened in Jonestown while I was in Georgetown was shock,” says Jordan Vilchez. “First and foremost because a woman who was extremely, extremely dedicated, Sharon Amos, killed her three children there, in the house in Georgetown. She told us that we should commit suicide too, but none of us did.”

Only four[iv] people in Jonestown survived when the plans of revolutionary suicide were put in motion.

Both Vilchez and Wagner-Wilson have thought about what would have happened to them if they had been there on that fatal day.

“Had I been in Jonestown that day, I would in all probability have died, as dissent was not allowed and seeing everyone die would have been so terrifying,” says Vilchez.

Wagner-Wilson believes she would have fought against dying, but she thinks that she most likely would not have survived.

“There is no doubt that I would have had to fight because of my husband and I could have been killed. I would not have taken the poison willingly. I have always wanted to live and I would have fought for my own life and for my son, Jakari’s life, who was three years old at the time.”

When it comes to whether or not the event can be characterized as collective suicide or murder, the two women do not agree as much.

“My opinion is that by and large it was mass murder, because there really wasn’t anyone who wanted to die that day,” states Vilchez, but, “there was an escalation toward this possible outcome where people were being conditioned to the idea.”

“Those of us who grew up in Peoples Temple were indoctrinated to think that one day we might have to die for the Cause. But I always thought it would be by forces outside of us, not inside,” says Wagner-Wilson.

In hindsight she thinks that she should have seen it coming.

“At the same time, those of us who didn’t know how things were with Jim, didn’t know how mentally unstable he had actually become. I have come to think of the tragedy as a combination of collective suicide and a massacre. Children don’t commit suicide. More than 300 children died in Jonestown. They didn’t kill themselves.”


The way back

Jordan Vilchez lost two sisters and two nephews in Jonestown as well as her entire network of people she had grown up among and lived with. Leslie Wagner-Wilson lost her husband Joe, her mother, sister, brother, a niece and a nephew.

When they returned, they had to start over. In the media the members of Peoples Temple were portrayed as brainwashed cultists.

“In the beginning we were stigmatized by the media as crazy followers of Jim Jones. There was very little sympathy for us,” remembers Wagner-Wilson, who thinks that this has changed for the better over the years.

Another problem was that autopsies were performed on only a very few of the bodies in Guyana. With that the cause of death was never established. Today many of the victims are buried in a mass grave in California with a marker that bears all of the names. The identification of the victims was very haphazard.

“My mother, my husband, my nephew and my niece are all buried in the mass grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California,” tells Wagner-Wilson. “The bodies of my sister and brother were released to our father who had them buried at a cemetery outside San Francisco. The caskets were sealed, so we couldn’t actually identify them. I know that the caskets cannot have contained my siblings because my brother’s casket weighed more than my sister’s. My sister was approximately 1,74 m tall and of quite a stout build, whereas my brother was 1,64 m tall and of a slight build, so that is just impossible. I sometimes visit the graves, but first and foremost I have their pictures around me in the house and I carry the good memories of them with me.”

Both have in recent years had some contact with other former members. Vilchez says that she was not up to it in the early years because she needed time away from that part of her life to be able to find a new direction.

“We share a past that we can speak to each other about without having to explain like you would have to with people who have not experienced it”

Both today feel that they are ready to make peace with the past, but it has been a long journey.

“It has taken time to sort through the emotional chaos; the grief, the shame, the anger, the desperation and the betrayal,” states Vilchez.

“I felt like I had been broken into a thousand pieces and that it would be impossible to ever put them back together again,” tells Wagner-Wilson. “So I did lead quite a self-destructive life in the first years after Jonestown, and just hoped that someone would kill me so I wouldn’t have to live with the pain. In the end I wanted to get better, so I started by forgiving Jim Jones. After that I was able to forgive myself for being alive. It was a long process. I became a vegan and opened myself up to the spiritual side of life and I began to pray and meditate. Finally one day I felt like I was on firm ground again and had made peace with myself, and I was able to forgive and be happy again.”

Every year on 18 November, the anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy, there is a memorial ceremony by the mass grave in California. This year marks the 35th anniversary. Wagner-Wilson will not be taking part. She plans on spending the day on voluntary work.

“I am going to sign up as a volunteer for a project that donates food to the poor people in my neighborhood. And I will think about and remember the family that is not with me any longer, but is always in my heart,” she says.

Jordan Vilchez on the other hand is going to speak at the memorial service.

“I think that the best way I can honor the people who died is to be a happy person myself, a compassionate person, and live a life filled with joy,” she concludes.


Notes from the translator
[i] In addition to the 909 people who died in Jonestown itself, 5 people died at the Port Kaituma airstrip and 3 people in the People Temple headquarters in Guyana bringing the total to 918 deaths.

[ii] Peoples Temple acquired the land several years earlier and began developing it in 1974. Its highest influx of residents occurred in 1977, when nearly 1000 people emigrated from the US to Jonestown.

[iii] A total of two people – including Jim Jones – died of gunshot wounds.

[iv] In total 7 people survived the deaths in Jonestown: Stanley Clayton, Odell Rhodes, Grover Davis, Hyacinth Thrash, Mike Prokes, Tim Carter and Michael Carter. The last three were sent away from Jonestown by the leadership while the deaths were still going on.