According to Webster’s Dictionary, “it” is a pronoun used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified: “a bucket with water in it.”

Peoples Temple is notoriously known as the cult of all cults. It is It.

It’s been 40 years since one of the most atrocious experiences of my life, and I find that I still don’t know whether to be angry, hurt, or sad about it. I’m also trying to decide what angers, what hurts, or what saddens me most.

Is it the anger I felt the first years after the tragedy occurred? Was it hearing the endless Kool-Aid jokes? Am I angry for not seeing us as victims, but instead believing what the world said, that anyone stupid enough to fall for that bull deserves what they get! Maybe I’m angry that perhaps we should have known better? At times I’m even angry over the uncountable “what ifs” I’ve played like a loop in my brain for decades.

Or is it the hurt, and the fact that I can’t decide what hurts more? Being wrong? Being wronged? Losing people that didn’t even know they were lost until it was too late? I’m hurt as much as angered that the Kool-Aid jokes still have the power that they do. I’m hurt that an apathetic culture denies surviving victims the right to grieve with dignity. To grieve, period. Maybe I’m hurt, because 40 years later, I realize that I never have. Grieved. Grieved it.

Or is it that I’m saddened? Saddened that when Jonestown was mentioned 40 years ago, people would stop in their tracks and listen as if E. F. Hutton were talking. And yes, I’m very saddened that today, when I mention Jonestown in the presence of younger people, they ask, “What’s Jonestown?”  How does something you long to forget make you feel the same feelings and emotions whenever it’s not acknowledged?

It’s also hard to believe that after only 40 years – just one or two generations – the remembrance of the massacre has lost its power to make people stop. Stop what they’re doing. Stop what they’re saying. Stop what they’re thinking. Stop everything, except the pain it caused some of us. Ah yes, the pain, the pain, the pain…

Just thinking about any pain I’ve held on to for 40 years makes me need to pause and get my emotions in check, so bear with me as I filibuster a bit and reel my thoughts back to the present…

I’m a true Theologian and am fascinated by Biblical facts. The number 40 is mentioned more than 100 times in Scripture. In general, it symbolizes a period of testing, trial, or probation.

Consider this:

  • Noah warned a sinful world before it rained 40 days and 40 nights.
  • Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in the desert before God selected him to lead his people out of slavery. He was also on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, on two separate occasions, and sent spies for 40 days to investigate the land God promised the Israelites. The children of Israel were punished by wandering the wilderness for 40 years before a new generation could possess the promised land.
  • Jonah warned ancient Nineveh that its destruction in 40 days would come because of sin.
  • Ezekiel laid on his right side 40 days to symbolize Judah’s sins.
  • Elijah went 40 days without food or water at Mount Horeb.
  • Jesus was tempted by the devil during the 40 days and nights he fasted just before his ministry began. He also appeared to his disciples and others for 40 days after his resurrection from the dead. Just days before his crucifixion, Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, and 40 years after his crucifixion in 30 AD, the mighty Roman Empire destroyed the city and burned its beloved temple to the ground.

I have indeed experienced four decades of probationary testing and trials, living as if I’ve had to pass, prove, or earn a right to move past it. I wasn’t thrilled about reflecting about how it impacted or changed my life. My daughters have dreaded me opening this Pandora’s box because I haven’t forgotten but learned to suppress it. Flashbacks often plunge me into deep, wide, and seemingly insurmountable holes of dark pain. Pain so real that I physically ache at times. Though it still hurts, I feel like I dishonor my loved ones if I only focus on the pain.

I decided to reflect this time after watching some 40-year-old newsreel footage that captured the re-entry of some survivors back to the United States after the Jonestown massacre. An old friend of mine appears in that clip, and seeing her brought years of memories back of fun times we shared together. Heartwarming and bittersweet memories of her raced back to me, and I felt like I wanted – or needed – to have at least one person understand a few things I am coming to terms with in getting over it.

First, and foremost, I wish at least one person would understand who these people were. They were real people, with real goals, real dreams, and real hopes. They were flawed, yes, but they were real just the same. They loved, hated, cheated, and lied, just like real people do. They made mistakes, made bad choices, had regrets, and felt remorse, just like real people do. They made people laugh, made some cry, encouraged some, and ticked off more than a few, just like real people. They had fears, battled demons, and cried, just like real people. They loved life, they loved living, and loved giving. Just … like … real … people … do.

Being real people means they are not mere ghostly, black and white passport photos of random people from unknown origin. Neither are they an abstract chart of demographics for some sort of research on why horrific things occur. They have names, individual identifiers, genealogies, roots, families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, all the kinds of things real people have.

I reflect and write this in July 2018, the anniversary that I’ve celebrated in silence the last 40 years. More so in silence than even the celebrations I have done for the needless loss of lives on November 18, 1978. This time I choose to do so with others who are brave enough to open their own Pandora boxes.

I celebrate in July because I was scheduled to go to Jonestown a few days after July 4, 1978. My footlockers and duffel bags were packed and labeled with the names of my infant and myself in black permanent marker. I thought I was ready to get away. Away to whatever, wherever, anywhere. It really didn’t matter. Looking back, I realize that not much of anything really mattered to me July 1978.

I didn’t know what postpartum depression was at the time, but today I recognize that I was deep in its throes. So, there I was, 18 years old with a nine-month-old baby, and barely making ends meet in a small third-floor studio apartment. I was renting from Peoples Temple and glad to have a place of my own. I didn’t see things turning out that way – I never thought I’d be living like this – but I was determined to give my daughter a better life despite it. Going to Jonestown was as exciting to me as going to the laundromat. If I had a choice to go anywhere else, didn’t matter where it was, I’d have gone. I was that tired. That hopeless. That depressed.

I was still feeling very ticked off about the way my best friend Toni had left for Jonestown a month earlier. And I was incredibly sad. I felt alone, and I missed my friend. I missed having someone to talk to at 3:00 am about anything, everything. I missed listening to “As” by Stevie Wonder a hundred times a day – Toni almost literally played it that much! – I used to yell and beg her not to play it again, but now I missed hearing it. I missed going to Chinese restaurant row in Los Angeles on San Pedro and eating the best fried Won Tons and Chicken Chow Mein at Man Fook Low. Funny how Chinese food never tasted the same after she left.

Darlene Ramey • Photo courtesy of California Historical Society

I was also angry because I didn’t like the way my sister Darlene had left for Jonestown. I can’t decide if she fled or was exiled by default in August 1977, just weeks before my eighteenth birthday. We were both pregnant when she left and were looking forward to our kids growing up together as a new generation of cousins. I didn’t even know that she was gone until several weeks after she left. I never had a chance to say goodbye. I can probably analyze my anger a little better if I trace the root of it and can better understand how being separated abruptly from family and friends never allowed me to close doors that were left wide open.

Darlene’s leaving reminded me of another door left open. After Toni left for Jonestown, I found out that Newhuanda, my best friend in Redwood Valley, had also left without saying goodbye. Newhuanda, or “Newie” as I called her, and I became close our freshman year at Ukiah High. We learned to stand together and defend ourselves from a lot of bigotry and racist attacks on the school bus and at school. I can still remember how happy she was that she had a Black person she could sit with as we were bussed into the city.

The white kids wouldn’t move to let us sit, and often tried to trip us as we moved through the bus trying to get a seat. It was a sick game they liked to play. At least until Newie and I started riding the same bus. Newhuanda was from Oakland and I was from South Central Los Angeles, and that combination wouldn’t back down to anyone.

We used to get so many write-ups at church for having bad attitudes and not being good socialists and humbly endure the blatant racism in the community. We weren’t very nice, but then again, neither were they. If someone kicked us, we kicked back harder. If they spit on us, we spit back. We weren’t exactly turning the other cheek.

I was sad and heartbroken when I learned that Newhuanda was in Jonestown. I saw her for the last time when I found out I was pregnant. She and her family were living in one of Peoples Temple’s communes in San Francisco. This struck me as odd. Her mother was very independent and up to that time had never lived in any of the Temple communes. We had previously lived in Redwood Valley – that was the last time we had a real chance to talk – and had sought out private places because we were always downing the church and its rules. That was why I was thrown off by the crowded flat they lived in with several others on Divisadero Street. There were so many kids in there, and it was noisy.

Newhuanda asked me to step outside so that we could have some privacy. Once we were out of earshot of anyone, she told me they hated it there and had planned to flee the church. She said her mom, Velma, had started hiding some of their stuff to pack in her station wagon, pretending that they were going to take a brief cross-country trip to connect with family before going to Jonestown. Their plan was to meet with a relative and go into hiding while making a permanent break from Peoples Temple.  Velma had had enough, Newie said, and she was getting out.

Newie asked me not to say anything and said that she would connect with me somehow after they were safe. I told her I was not in the least surprised, that I myself had come to see her before I made a break back to Los Angeles. I was being pressured to move to Jonestown so that I could give birth in the “Promised Land.” I told her I wasn’t feeling it, because as far as I was concerned Jim Jones wasn’t Moses … but I would like to ask her opinion before I did anything. After she revealed their plan to me I knew I needed to get a plan B in place soon. She grabbed my right wrist and told me with urgency to leave while I had the chance and not come back.

You can only imagine how I felt getting a letter from Newie in Jonestown. She wrote me to tell me in vague terms that they never got to make the cross-country trip, and their plans got changed suddenly. She said how cute my baby was, and something very odd. She said, “Please lose as much weight as you can before you get here.” I remember thinking, “What are you doing…preparing me to starve or something?” Little did I know…

It was only a week or so later that I received a letter from Toni. In ways that only she and I understood, she warned me not to come there.

July 1978. I celebrate my sister each time I see the generations of cousins born since the day she left. I celebrate her laughter, her antics, her zeal. I celebrate the nephew I never knew. I celebrate my best friend for saving our lives. I celebrate the nurse she wanted to be, and the children she never embraced. I celebrate her birthday every July, and recent years wondered which one of us would have the grayest hairs. I celebrate Newie for all the hopes and dreams lost the day their Plan B failed. I celebrate all the joys they brought to the world. I celebrate their courage, what they endured to try to make it back home.

Here’s how I choose to get over it. Imagine that ten people witness a car crash. A drunk driver broadsides a van and takes the lives of eight people, five in the van and three in the drunk’s car. All ten people will give a different version of what they perceived. If someone viewed from an angle where all they could see was the side of the van as it was hit, they’d probably see the whole tragedy as the act of an irresponsible drunk who chose to use his vehicle as a lethal weapon and caused the death of innocent people. If they saw it from an opposite angle, they might see it as an accident that could happen to anyone. If they viewed it forensically, they might consider factors from both angles. They’d consider what caused or could have prevented the collision, and even placing responsibility on the victims. Advocates of alcohol rehabilitation might see the drunk as a victim as well.

Here’s the point of my illustration: After 40 years, I have come to understand that, despite how awful, horrific, and evil I think it is, there will always be someone who will view it from a different angle than I. If I can understand that it’s their right, and that I can’t make people believe something they choose not to believe, or see it only my way, then my journey in getting over it will eventually lead me to a place of peace and forgiveness.

I’m a “meme-aholic.” One I often reflect on says, “People who view the cup as half empty or half full miss the point… It’s refillable.” This is how I choose to get over it. The cup that I drink from daily is refillable, and I get to choose what I want in it. Yes, there have been situations and circumstances that I’ve experienced after November 18, 1978 that have impacted and influenced my life as well. Some in different ways have been almost as caustic, piercing, and blasting as the poison, knives, and bullets that took so many lives that day.

But you know what? I wouldn’t trade any of it, if it meant that I’d never get to drink from the cup allotted me. To be denied the love, joy, and fulfillment I’ve refilled my cup with, despite it, is more of a massacre than Jonestown. The awesome expressions of love given and shared with family and friends since that fateful day in immeasurable. I choose that day as a day I’ve turned from a day of fate to a day of faith. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the True, and Living God who has kept all that He’s promised me.

The births of my children, and their children. I’d take a million more cups before I missed that. Witnessing the transformation of my three little girls grow into beautiful, strong women; women of integrity and full of compassion. A Pharmacy Tech, a Nurse, and a Teacher. Wow! I wouldn’t have missed that for the world! Gifted grandchildren who embrace life with a grip of steel and fill the earth with remarkable treasures from God. They tutor, run track (I’m preparing to travel to Iowa to watch one run in the Junior Olympics as I write this), they sing, (one has made two rounds on The Voice!), they play football. They dance, they cheer, and design. Wow! I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

The 40 years have had ups and downs, joys and sorrows, sickness and health, life and death, marriages and divorces, homes and homelessness, jobs and careers, friends and foes. Wow! I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

Blessed. 40 years of blessings. Blessings that I wouldn’t trade for anything, not even if it meant November 18, 1978 never happened.

There has been one thing I have hoped this tragic event would accomplish. For 40 years, I’ve prayed it would prevent others from making the same mistakes that we did. Sadly, Heaven’s Gate, Waco, and other extreme cultic groups have failed to use it as a learning tool. Let’s pray their survivors come to their own terms of getting over what prevents peace in their lives.

Reflecting on the last 40 years also reminds me of my sister Myrtle’s journey. My sister was a real mover and shaker, a true go-getter. She began a career in nursing as a volunteer in high school, studied to become an LVN, became an RN, morphed into a Certified Nurse Midwife, degreed into a teaching Nurse, pioneered with the original Renal Transplant Unit at LAC-USC Medical Center, and ended her career as a hospital inspector for the County of Los Angeles.

Myrtle died in November 2000 from an aggressive type of brain cancer – it was only two months after her diagnosis that she died – and God blessed me to walk with her through her journey. I remember how she used to have me read her Scripture everyday and sing her a song of praise as she was transitioning from this life. You know she had to be on her deathbed if she wanted to hear me try to sing. It was difficult for me to watch someone who was so full of energy rapidly waste away in pain. It was difficult keeping a stiff upper lip, because it seemed that the harder we prayed, the sicker she became. I guess I wasn’t hiding how I was feeling one day, because she asked me to pick up her Bible. “You’re always reading to me,” she said, “but today I want you to read something from me. Read Romans 8:18.”

So I read, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” She took her Bible from my hand and said, “Sing me a song.”

Those words from Romans are on her headstone. They remind me that if we focus on the here and now, or on things that have already occurred in a negative way, we’ll miss the greater reward. I’ve come to learn during these last 40 years that the greater reward far outweighs any sufferings life throws my way.

To all survivors: I pray that you enjoy a lifetime of peace and joy. I pray that you may exhale and release all pain, guilt or shame that hinders you from living your life to the full. I pray that the cup you drink from is filled daily with the goodness of God which He intends for you each day. I pray for you what my sister Myrtle blessed me with years ago. Reckon within yourselves that no matter how much you have suffered, it will never compare to the glory that God will reveal in you one day soon.

God bless each, and every one of you!

(Glenda Randolph Bates was the sister of Darlene Ramey, who died in Jonestown. Glenda’s numerous articles for this site appear here. She died on March 29, 2022 from pancreatic cancer.)