A Letter to Clifford Gieg from Jordan Vilchez

(Editor’s note: Clifford Gieg, who survived the death in Jonestown by being on the Temple boat, the Cudjoe, with Herbert Newell, died in October 2017.)

Photo courtesy Deborah Harper

Dear Clifford,

It was delightful to connect with you 37 years after I last saw you in Guyana. I was so pleased when your sister Deb let me know that you wanted to speak with me, as I had been wanting to converse for quite some time. I did understand that for you – as has been the case for others returning from Guyana after the deaths – it was easier to try leaving everything and everyone having to do with the Temple behind. It was far easier to do that than to go forward with friendships that had been established within our Temple culture of severe dysfunction. It really did make sense, although even then, I felt that it would be helpful for both of us to re-establish communication eventually.

We all were emotionally injured, and deeply so. Speaking for those of us who were children and teens in the Temple, we needed to get our sea legs and find out who we truly were, without any hint of influence from one another. We all had so much common and shared baggage, but like it or not, we were all going to have to lug its heavy load into our post-Temple lives on our own. It was our hurt, anger, and sadness that filled those bags to the brim. Still, all that raw emotion helped us stand in our shoes with some degree of robust personal power, because as we found out, life after Peoples Temple required a particular kind of stamina. As our new lives outside of the church unfolded before us like a surreal movie in which we unexpectedly found ourselves, our anger, sadness, and disgust at what we had grown up in, and the chill of tragedy so visceral, provided us with much needed fuel for moving forward, rather than crumbling in total despair.

So, after 37 years, it was hard to know where to begin our phone conversation. It took us a couple of hours to get a sense of what our lives had been like post-Peoples Temple. For me, couple of marriages, no children, but I do have my animals, my art, a 20-year job, schooling. And you, two lovely daughters, Michelle and Erica, you spending lots of time enjoying the outdoors, and being in the wilderness, (your way), and another experience of the loss of your beloved wife to illness. These are a few things that stood out from our conversations.

I enjoyed reflecting with you on our present perspective about the strangeness of our time in the Temple. Like how they had us get married in order to emancipate you from your status as a minor, to disable your father’s efforts to take you and Stanley out of the church. And how they threw us in a room together in the San Francisco Temple, just in case there was an investigation, so that we could prove that we were indeed living together.

I had no idea at the time why I had to marry you. Thanks for clearing that up. I didn’t even think about how odd it really was. We just became accustomed to doing things that didn’t make sense, not even thinking to question why. (Well, we knew we couldn’t ask why so we just didn’t even go there). We trusted because we were taught that all of the things we had to do were for the cause, and for good.

So we married. An arranged Peoples Temple marriage. It was awkward. Still, however, we weren’t about to play that game full out, as puppets for the agendas of others, were we, Clifford. No. Respectfully, we alternated nights when it came to who got the single bed we were given, you on the floor one night, and me taking the floor the next. We young people took so much in stride and followed what we were told to do like good young revolutionaries. What a joke.

I was so sorry to hear about how you were treated in those frightful days immediately after Jonestown. All you had done was what you were told to do, to take the Temple boat down the river with Herbert. And it didn’t stop there. After you returned to the US, a different kind of challenge presented itself to you. It was such a confusing time for all of us, each in our own way.

As our conversations progressed, I could feel that those little things I knew about you were present. Your sharp and unobstructed honesty about everything. I remembered that from back then, how your opinions were disguised in humor and the lightness of a teen, and I saw that now, some of those opinions still come flying forth, bold as a meteorite, breaking through into the Earth’s gravitational pull, crashing down with a bang. That was okay, though it pained me that you were still hurting so much. What diffused the more blunt aspect of your expressiveness and resentment in those calls was the other part of Clifford I knew, the soft and dewy boy, kind and gentle, sometimes saying the word “sweetie”, which made me blush and want to hang up the phone. But, really, it was fine. …It really was just fine. And I vividly saw in my mind’s eye, those big doe-like crystal clear eyes of yours, sparkling.

When I heard the news that you had transitioned into non-physicality, that your physical body had died, I was shocked and saddened. It was just a few months before the next memorial was going to take place here in the Bay Area, and I’m pretty sure that you were going to come out for it. You were surely gearing up for it, and you would see so many people for the first time since the deaths. I was so excited about you meeting people again, to feel the support that just pours out of people when we gather. I imagined the surprising and unexpected feeling of relief on your part, like a homecoming of sorts. I was so looking forward to that.

I was glad that you were pleased about the phone conversation that I had with your daughter Michelle. I think it was good for her to speak with someone apart from you who could talk about the Temple. She and probably her sister Erica need more of that, because it was such a shaping element in your life. In fact I had the idea of hosting a setting where your daughters could meet others in the Temple’s second generation, those who have been born to those who came out of the Temple. I thought that it would be interesting and helpful for them to understand what is – even if somewhat indirectly – a significant part of their past too. I will still think about how I might facilitate such a thing. I know you would really like that.

Wherever you are, Clifford, I hope you are feeling peace and that you really know the essential goodness of who you were and still are. I hope you know that your innate goodness outshines everything. In the drama of life, it is hard to see the perfection of our Inner Being, because we are all living out scenarios that take us down all kinds of paths and excursions that eclipse our knowing of it. We get so caught up in life that our innate wisdom often becomes hard to access, even without entities like Peoples Temple obstructing our path. But it doesn’t matter. I believe so completely that death is not the end; rather, there is ongoing continuity, with spaces and realms spent in the respite of joyful clarity. From where I stand, there is a good amount of mystery around it. Hopefully from your perspective, wherever it is you are right now, things are delightfully clear and beautiful.

(Jordan Vilchez was in Georgetown, Guyana on November 18, 1978, but her sisters and nephews died in Jonestown. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Caught Up In Living A Lie and Going Home to Guyana. Her earlier articles may be found here. She can be reached at jordanvilchez@gmail.com.)