On the day the radio message came through from Jonestown, coded as it was, I was among the few people in the radio room of the San Francisco Temple who recognized what was being said. To my best recollection, the message was something like, “We are going to go see Mrs. Berry. You go see her too.” Then the radio went dead, and contact could not be regained.
Fear mounted exponentially. The silence dragged on. The people in Jonestown were dying. Members remaining in the San Francisco Temple were being told to destroy ourselves, even as our friends and loved ones were being destroyed in Guyana. There are no words to describe our emotional and mental state as this crushing awareness took hold.
Forty years later, what do I remember about that day? I remember lying flat on my face on the floor of the third story office. The classical music radio station was playing Edvard Grieg’s “Ases Tod,” a dirge. I remember Stephan Jones’ repeated telephone calls from Georgetown, begging us not to do anything: He knew what instructions we had received. As word spread among us in the Temple building, some thought “Father’s” order should be carried out. Some started thinking for themselves and said they would not comply. Stephan kept calling.
Within hours, the San Francisco Temple became a crucible of questions, fear, grief. All of us were melting in it. By the next day, as news of the deaths became known to the world in large font headlines and shocked voices on broadcast media, the Temple was surrounded by people screaming “baby killers!” I recall LuVee Davis wandering the halls, wailing in grief for her children and grandchildren she feared were dead. Throngs of media, police, community, and those soon to be known as Survivors, all demanding answers. No answers. There were no answers.
I remember Charles Garry steering me into the midst of world media, the auditorium full of reporters yelling questions, accusations. I remember yelling back that the privileged white world was living at the expense of the dispossessed and Third World countries. Only the woman from Pacifica News Service was interested. Interviews with the FBI, Secret Service, lawyers, grand juries, Time Magazine, The LA Times. Members desperate to locate family wanting information. There was so little information.
I remember Patty Chastain trying to organize a Thanksgiving dinner for those left in the Temple building. She gave out new socks to everyone. I remember talking to Mike Prokes when he returned from Guyana. He was burdened with the task of justifying the mass murder that was Jonestown, but even he was starting to realize that everything good we thought we stood for was negated by the end. The burden never lifted, and four months later, he took his own life. I remember Archie Ijames trying to hold us all together: We could still further the cause of socialism. Despite his passion, our ideals were succumbing to fear and gradually giving way to old fault lines of suspicion and distrust.
After a couple of weeks of being holed up in the building, we were invited to a breakfast hosted by Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco’s new mayor after the assassination of George Moscone. In attendance were Police Chief Charles Gain, Pastor Cecil Williams, a counselor who was made available for anyone to talk to, and others I cannot recall. Though we were pariahs, we were made to feel welcome. For me, it felt as though the bottom had held, and I was being invited back out into the light, into life.
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Flash forward to 2004. Life was busy with family, home, and ownership with Tim of our small printing business. John Kerry was running for president against George Bush. Because my name was listed as president of our business, I was invited to a community business women’s gathering with Democratic supporters of Kerry. Attendees were to include California Representative Jane Harman and now-Senator Dianne Feinstein. Such an opportunity to make contact with Senator Feinstein would likely not come again. I drafted a letter to give her, explaining that I had been present at the breakfast that morning and that I wanted to express my gratitude for her compassion more than 25 years earlier.
Having arrived early, I sat in the front row of portable chairs that had been set up in a small downtown restaurant. A few moments later, Senator Feinstein came in and sat down in the adjoining chair.
There was no one else near us. I gathered courage to introduce myself and handed her the letter. She listened to me describe the desperation of those of us who had been left, and how her gesture of inclusion and kindness to the survivors of the tragedy had possibly saved some lives. She turned, looked at me full in the eyes, and said, “We had heard there was a hit list. We didn’t know whether to reach out to you or send in a SWAT team!” It is stunning to think what we were spared.
* * * * *
How to conclude? Ripples from the enormity of the events we experienced continue to this day and will spread into the unforeseeable future. I don’t ask for answers anymore, nor do I have any. I have seen them, though, our beloved families and friends who died. They were gathered in a green meadow on the other side of a wide, quiet river I could not cross. On a brilliant blue-sky day, they walked and talked together, smiling, and at peace. It is my hope for fellow Survivors that the assurance that the light has – and always will – overcome the darkness, and will help bring us all some peace.
(Jean Brown Clancey’s other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Flo and Forgiveness.)