There are those connected with Jonestown who are still wounded, who still grieve. For some, their greatest comfort is the empathetic ear of a stranger and the kind word in response.
Jacinta Powers, the sister-in-law of Michael Simon, is among those who still grieve. Michael was a Jonestown resident who was receiving dental care in Georgetown on the day of the deaths. Because of his absence, he was spared the fate of those in Jonestown, but he lost his wife Melanie and their two children. After returning to the States, he made one brief visit to his wife’s surviving family… and then he disappeared.
Nearly 40 years later, his sister-in-law still grieves, not only the loss of her sister, but the second loss of Michael, who would be 63 years old now and – as far as Jacinta knows – is still alive. She aches to express herself to him, and just to be able to hug him and tell him she loves him would give her peace. If by some miracle, you are reading this and know something of Michael Simon’s whereabouts, please contact me or the editor of this journal. We will get the message to her.
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I remain in sorrow and my heart is broken over the unchangeable. It is a sorrow I have learned to carry over the years. I was six years old when the tragedy occurred. I have no real recollection of any of it, because for me there was no jungle or heat or madness or horror or death. I was safe, half a world away, oblivious to it all. If there was even any mention made of Jonestown within my surroundings, it would have been as the background noise of an adult conversation or an evening news broadcast, that the mind of child, enviably, simply filters away.
But since I became aware of it a quarter of a century later, Peoples Temple has affected me profoundly, rolling in like a tide that has yet to ebb. In recent years, I have read news articles and books such as Raven and Seductive Poison, studied countless pictures, and listened to every declassified FBI tape, radio interview and recorded phone conversation that I could find. The faces and voices are familiar to me now.
I have reached out and communicated with survivors or those connected with them, after finding their information on this website. I continue to be amazed by the diversity of responses and conclusions they have reached. They range from continued patient acceptance of Jones and his message, to abject rejection and disgust. I have discovered a few who still miss the crackling energy and atmosphere of the earlier Temple days, and who even express remorse that they have yet to find an adequate replacement. Some have found solace and forgiveness in a relationship with Jesus Christ; others believe that there was never anything wrong with the Jones’ socialist message, only the insane deliverer of it.
Like so many – from survivors, to relatives of the Jonestown dead, to former Temple members, to former six-year-olds – I am simply trying to understand all the “why’s” and “what-ifs” of Jonestown. I also know that by now, most if not all the facts are now present. Everything is exposed. Jones cannot hide from us. We are not cut off from the truth, even as we labor under the monotonous drone of his message.
But even with all this knowledge, I keep going back to Jonestown, and the more I visit, the more I consider who I am, who we are, what we can become.
For me, Jonestown is a concentrated template all that is human. Heroes, villains and victims are all present. All of life’s vices and virtues live side-by-side in Jonestown, like cancer cells next to healthy cells. Life and death. Love and apathy. Generosity and greed. Truth and deception. It is all there to explore, and if we are willing, Jonestown also gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves.
What would we have done or said? Would we have fought or succumbed? Are we more like those who left or fled, or would we have stayed in line and swallowed the bitter poison given to us, even if we knew better?
Or perhaps we should ask the most grotesque question of all: Are we anything like Jones himself, who was the ultimate example of self-love taken to such an extreme that people became his possessions, and when his deadly game was over, who put the pieces away as well. Jones did not give up his life for his people, the way he said he did on so many occasions. In truth, he compelled others to give up their lives for him. That is the opposite of true love.
What can be done with such understanding? Ecclesiastes 1:18 tells us, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” And no matter how much I discover, research, re-listen or replay it all in my mind, I cannot stop Jim Jones or rescue the doomed children of Jonestown.
For me, part of the answer of what to do comes in responding to something Jim Jones said on the infamous death tape. As he unraveled his final and most horrific deception to those assembled in the pavilion before him on November 18, he said “I’ve never lied to you. I never have lied to you.” In reality, that was the ultimate betrayal. Jonestown was built on Jones’ lies. The people were there because of lies, and they died because of lies.
And the response? If he deceived, we must tell the truth. If he stole, we must give. If he was apathetic, we must love. My 14-year-old daughter now asks me about Jonestown, and I answer her as openly and honestly and with as much love as I can, so she can be wary of its deceptions and traps. The profundity of the tragedy is worth starting that conversation.
(Pete Wypyszinski is a retired member of the US Air Force and Coast Guard where he served as a rescue swimmer and corpsman. He is married, the father of four children and resides in New Orleans, LA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)