The events at Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978 hit the media like a storm. Time Magazine’s cover photo showed the infamous vat of a dark fruit punch laced with the cyanide that killed more than 900 people. Jim Jones called it “revolutionary suicide,” though we now know that not everyone went to their deaths willingly.
What is less well known is that many of Jim Jones’ followers were not in Jonestown that day, but were living in Temple facilities in San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere. They survived. But the psychological trauma they experienced after Jonestown was profound and long lasting.
Imagine for a moment that you were a member of Peoples Temple living collectively in the San Francisco Temple in 1978. Imagine that you were totally committed to the Temple philosophy and way of life, and that you loved Jim Jones and believed he was a visionary and gifted leader. You had devoted your life to the Temple and all that it stood for, turning over all your assets and earnings to the cause, until that day in November. Suddenly all this was swept away and you were left with nothing.
As if this were not enough, everyone in the Temple facilities was soon forced to leave and find places to live elsewhere. Already profoundly traumatized, they had to pack up their few belongings, leave their friends behind and venture out into a world that had been consumed by the news of the horror of Jonestown. They had survived one terrible disaster, only to become pariahs, aliens, and outcasts in their new lives, unwelcome nearly everywhere they went.
The term “Post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD is relatively new. Soldiers who fought in World War I were known to return with symptoms of what was then called “shell shock”; veterans of World War II were said to suffer “battle fatigue” or “combat stress reaction.” They were often dazed, disoriented and unable to function. During and after the Vietnam War, however, these symptoms began to be recognized as a legitimate psychiatric disorder. In the early 1980s PTSD was formally placed in the American Psychiatric Association’s authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or the DSM-III. PTSD is now a widely recognized psychiatric disorder that is known to be caused by extreme stress and is experienced not only in war but also in civilian catastrophes such as the events at Jonestown in 1978. It is no longer viewed as a myth or a fraud perpetrated by scoundrels and liars. It is an established medical illness with professionally recognized therapeutic methods leading to recovery. It has been a long time in coming.
The survivors of Peoples Temple certainly suffered from PTSD after the events of November 18 and their subsequent expulsion from their havens in Temple facilities. Nevertheless, most survivors never received formal psychiatric treatment for their disorder. They were left to struggle through and reassemble their lives on their own without medical or psychiatric help.
Patti Chastain Haag, whom I met and married several years after Jonestown, was one such survivor. She had been living with a group of others in the Temple headquarters in San Francisco when the news came of the deaths at Jonestown. After their eviction, they were left homeless on their own to find food, shelter and to rebuild their lives. Patti’s efforts to find employment were complicated by the fact that, as a graphic artist, her work consisted of articles and images of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. When Patti went out to job interviews, prospective employers were shocked when they learned that she had been a member of Peoples Temple. And none of them had any interest in hiring her.
Patti became suicidal during this time. She was forced to return to the home of her parents who took care of her. Slowly she began to recover from the trauma of Jonestown and to put her life back together. She returned to college and completed a degree as an Occupational Therapist. She found a job. She got married. As Patti put it, she had found “a life restored.”
When I met Patti in 1983 she had never been to the memorial service which is held every year at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California, where more than 400 people who died in Jonestown are buried. Like many Temple survivors at that time, Patti was afraid to show up at public gatherings of former Temple members for fear that the CIA would be looking for her. Finally I persuaded Patti to go, and she loved it. She loved being reunited with her Temple friends and to be able to see them and talk to them after so long apart. After that Patti attended these gatherings at the cemetery every year.
Patti was only one of many survivors who went through the hard work of emotional recovery and were able to build a good life out of the ashes of the Temple. She and the others unquestionably struggled with PTSD, despite never having been formally diagnosed, much less treated for it. They obviously would have benefitted greatly from professional help with the tools available today.
PTSD will only become more widespread in the years to come. Human suffering in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere will continue to feed an avalanche of refugees with PTSD. Many of the two million refugees who have already fled Syria and who are finding their way to safety in Europe and elsewhere will certainly be found to suffer from the illness. Effective and widespread treatment of this disorder is essential if these people are to lead productive lives in the future wherever they may eventually settle. It would be a mistake to den the effects of these traumas, as surely it was a mistake to deny their effect upon the people of Peoples Temple.
(Michael Haag is a social psychologist and widower of Patti Chastain, a former member and survivor of Peoples Temple who died in 1995. His complete collection of writings for this website may be found here. He can be reached at email@example.com.)