I was 24 years old in 1978 and had been a defector from Peoples Temple for nearly five years. My family had become members of the Temple during its earliest days in Indianapolis, so I had spent a majority of my childhood and youth as part of the church. The decision to leave PT was an extremely difficult one for me, but once I did, I became determined to establish a new life. My goal was to distance myself from any and all previous involvement with my past, to establish an anonymity for my future. I didn’t talk about PT, not even with my parents. I wanted to experience life as if the Temple had never existed.
But of course it had.
In 1978, I had a husband, a child, a home, and new friends on the East Coast who knew only the me they saw, not the history that helped mold me. When asked about my childhood, or how I ended up in California, I replied with vague generalities. I realized that the less I said, the more people would fill in the blanks with what made sense to them. As a result, most people believed that my days in California were a temporary and convenient relocation for my family. They assumed that my father’s job had necessitated various moves. I never challenged their conclusion. Even now, for those who are not my most intimate friends, my anonymity and myth prevail. I still keep that portion of my life as separate from my current life as possible. Still, my dreams and thoughts are haunted by the memories of those childhood years on nearly a daily basis.
The newsflash of the Jonestown tragedy in 1978 was mind-numbing and heart-breaking. I silently suffered my agonizing feelings of loss with each newscast that followed. As each shocking detail unfolded, the revelation of the unraveling of Jim Jones, the man who called himself God was laid out for the world to see; the man who began the dream that so many had embraced, had become a paranoid tyrant who exemplified authoritarian megalomaniac behavior; the man who had started his ministry on the principles of social and economic equality, forgiveness, freedom, that the greatest tribute to God is service to your fellow man, the Golden Rule, no longer existed in those final years of Peoples Temple and Jonestown.
In the early years, Jim often preached on the pitfalls of too much governmental power. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” How many times did we hear that from the pulpit? How ironic – how grotesque – that at the end of his life, he succumbed to the very evil he claimed to fear and despise. He used to preach that it was the God in you that was the hope and glory. However, over time his declaration became that he was God, the only God. And, like so many other Gods throughout history, the masses had no control. God’s actions, desires, wants, and needs were the rule, and the people either suffered or benefited accordingly.
What do I believe the world will remember about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple? Sadly, I believe the phrase, “drink the Kool-Aid” speaks volumes. The tragedy of Jonestown will not be revered as one of revolutionary death or sacrifice for a cause, but rather a nightmare born out of one man’s paranoia and control. The original teachings that inspired so many wonderful people to live a life of giving and sacrifice, to exemplify God through good works and service to their fellow man, has been diminished by the tragedy of Jonestown. The days of soup kitchens for the hungry, the adoption of a rainbow family in a culture of bigotry, the fight against social injustice and racial inequality have been dimmed by the garish color images of Jonestown’s final days. These facts have become a burden of frustration and sadness for those who once believed in Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, those who gave their everything in an effort to fulfill the original dream, but survived only to have the good works forgotten and replaced with the legacy of insanity. Perhaps as it searches to understand the complexity, corruption, and ultimately the demise of what could have been, the world will come to understand the inspiration that stirred so many to give their soul and everything they possessed to obtain the dream.
I have known the thrill of working with others to try and create a better world, the sharing of complete happiness while working for a common goal, the absolute joy that comes from feeling that you are a part of something that is both really good and beyond yourself. I also know the feelings of desolation, despair, and failure when the very foundation of your ideal begins to show cracks and flaws in front of your eyes, turning the dream into a nightmare of destruction. The sense of personal failure and moral dilemma that hits you when you realize that the dream has become more of an illusion, and replaced with a nightmare of fear, is pretty mind boggling. Do I face reality, make the decision to go and preserve myself, or do I try to live the illusion, knowing the existence of deterioration to the foundation and fundamentals that initially powered the movement?
Five years before Jonestown, I chose to leave. I couldn’t live with the Wednesday night meetings that had become more a focus of public humiliation for some, or public spankings/beatings, rather than the cohesive bond of harmony that we once shared as a group working for a common goal. I no longer found solace and joy with people that I loved and thought loved me. Over time, those feelings were replaced with fear of betrayal or misunderstanding for any minor infraction that was randomly deemed unacceptable. There was no longer a sharing of family, trust, and acceptance. It was replaced by the antithesis. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t condone the changes that were excused by the slogan, “the end justifies the means.”
I have been asked, what wisdom and understanding have I gained over the last 40 years following the tragedy of Jonestown. The thoughts and emotions that this question evokes are so complex and deep, it is hard for me to answer in any succinct terms that satisfy me. I can’t say that the negatives of my experience in Peoples Temple outweigh the positives, because that is not true. Despite my reasons for leaving, I can honestly state that much of my time as a member of Peoples Temple will remain as the most meaningful and happiest of my life. The friendships and the good times were beyond rich. Acceptance is a beautiful feeling that enables you to love with abandon. I felt acceptance. I can honestly say that I adored Jim and Marceline. They represented perfection in my young mind. They made me want to reach beyond myself and be more. It was a beautiful life… And then, sadly, it wasn’t.
I suppose the ultimate lesson I have learned in my life, but particularly over the last 40 years, is the value of gratitude. I can honestly say that I am grateful for the life I now live each and every day. The lessons, good and bad, that have impacted my actions and thinking that have led me to this point in my life have been a blessing. The acceptance that I once craved from others, I now have within. Many of the goals and aspirations that attracted me to Peoples Temple still resonate as vital and true to me. I still believe in the Golden Rule and that when you do good for others, you are giving homage to a higher power. I may not be able to eliminate social injustice, bigotry, economic inequity, hunger, or any of the many human plights on a worldwide scale, but I can make sure that they have no place in my day-to-day life or the people I come in contact with. I address and fix the problems that I can. I try to live a higher standard in my treatment of others. I like to think that my individual acts of kindness may create ripple effects and get paid forward.
These are the truths I carry within me. And I am grateful.