So, here we are, forty years after November 18, 1978, a date so far in the past I marvel at the continued interest in the horrifying topic of the Jonestown massacre. In preparing to write about the import of my survival all these years, I reread Life Worth Living, the reflection I wrote on the thirtieth anniversary. Frankly, not much has changed.
I sometimes feel as if I’m living under a bright star, piloting my little craft down life’s river, buoyantly navigating the occasional shoal or turbulence. I continue to pursue a highly successful career in corporate America. I’m in a loving, long-term relationship, which looks to go the distance. My daughter has matured into a fine, courageous and thoughtful young woman. She’s married to a terrific guy, enjoys a fulfilling career in health care services and is an attentive and caring mother to my two adorable granddaughters. Even though I may not deserve any of this, I don’t mind having it.
With all this in mind, I wrestled with the question of what I might offer of merit or consequence for anyone who reads this missive. And I think I just may have something of value to relate.
In all the personal reflections I’ve written, it’s been easy enough to cast cool, critical glances at others’ interactions with Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Yet, never have I cast a critical glance in my own direction. To be sure, the clear and obvious criminal in all this is Jim himself, and nothing written here or elsewhere will diminish his guilt; nor do I intend to do so. However, perhaps, it’s time to “out” myself, not to atone but to share insights, which might yield similar considerations for you, dear reader, as you plot your life’s course.
The decision to reveal more of my personal conduct as a Temple member had its genesis in President Trump’s comment during his candidacy to the effect that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” and still retain his supporters’ unquestioning loyalty. When I first heard this, I smirked that it was nothing more than a thoughtless expression of dark humor and a gross insult to his supporters. Later on, it dawned on me his remark could easily be applied to the “me” of 45 years ago with respect to my devotion to Jim Jones. Like today’s supposed “Trump Base,” I held Jim to a zero standard of moral conduct, excused his financial charades, and fully approved his efforts to destroy “defectors.” Why, oh why, would I, a relatively rational individual, give my absolute loyalty to a narcissistic sociopath like Jim Jones?
Well, I suppose it’s because I believed in the “Liar’s Motto: The End Justifies The Means.” As Jim implied in nearly every sermon, our “ends” were so important, they justified his doing pretty much anything that would secure their accomplishment. Thanks to the guidance of my great friend and fellow survivor, Garry Lambrev, I came to realize that ends and means are not separate, stand-alone concepts. Rather, they’re a never ending continuum, such that a sullied means necessarily compromises any “end,” no matter how grand. In its turn, any such compromised “end” becomes yet another sullied means. Thus, we must never rely on “Great Men” to justify compromising our own moral center.
All this seems obvious now, but I assure you it wasn’t back then. I was complicit in much more than my willingness to believe Jim’s version of the Liar’s Motto. And, here we arrive at the heart of this reflection.
One of my duties as a member of “staff” was managing the waiver process whereby individuals would waive their rights to any legal damages for injuries incurred in the public beatings, which were at the core of the Temple disciplinary process. I drafted the waivers, made sure the about-to-be-injured parties or their guardians signed off, and audited the waiver file to ensure its completeness.
Of course, I stood and watched as adults and children alike were beaten, often to the point of injury and insensibility. I was sufficiently disturbed by these violent punishments to approach Jim about the “inadvisability” of our waiver process. I explained our waivers were legally worthless because they were obtained under extreme duress and evinced our guilty knowledge (ah, the value of a legal education). He dismissed my concerns. The waivers, as he saw them, were a powerful psychological deterrent to future complaints, and given his lofty social position and limitless access to legal counsel, he believed he could easily defeat any legal challenge. With that, I continued collecting signed waivers, albeit with a guilty conscience.
Never once did I express moral outrage at such heinous treatment of adults and children (our friends and family, for God’s sake). Never once did I refuse to obtain the “necessary” signatures. Never once did I disclose this massive physical abuse to any authority, which could have stopped these travesties. I simply avoided as many meetings as possible until I finally left several months before the mass emigration to Guyana. Plain and simple, I was culpable of grievous moral cowardice. That I was shocked and dismayed by such violence, makes my guilt all the greater.
So, why mention it at this remove? Certainly not to clear my conscience or obtain any sort of absolution. My moral failures in support of our “Great Man” have earned me my irredeemable self-contempt. Forty years haven’t bled out the stain on my character but rather have made it a permanent blot. All the goodness and beneficence of my wonderful life notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure my shabby conduct will be among my last memories as I pass into nonexistence.
Perhaps, by ripping off my own moral scabs, I can best reveal the ugly personal consequences of uncritical worship and support of any “Great Man,” who, given his celebrity, oratory, or pretended interest in some “great cause,” deludes his supporters and followers about his near infallibility and the necessity of his solitary leadership. And maybe, just maybe, I might help a reader or two avoid suffering the enduring shame, which will always shadow me no matter my other accomplishments.