After seven years as a member of Peoples Temple in San Francisco, and another 40 years after the events in Jonestown, this is what I have grown to realize about the tragedy: Jim Jones’ blind spots – his prescription drug dependency; his sex addiction; his rampant paranoia that turned his closest allies into his enemies; the poems written by his mother that he was the messiah turning him into a poster child for martyrdom – grew into cataracts over his vision for the church. Either his vision for civil rights was a front so that he could have unlimited access to more victims. Or he may have once been truly committed to a civil rights vision and assembled a real team, but as his cataracts robbed him on his sight – especially after he moved to Guyana and was restricted to Jonestown – he eventually resorted to his personal exit strategy: mass murder.
And here is what I offer as recommendations if you want to join a church or affiliate with a non-profit or corporation run by a charismatic personality
- Trust your gut feeling for any hidden agenda (especially since, as Bill Gates once said “Every good corporation is run like a cult”).
- Put trusted friends from outside the group on speed dial for a reality check as necessary.
- Articulate an exit strategy for the time that you need to quit, when the days of total loyalty are over.
- Choose leaders who are accountable to someone – a board of directors, a governing body of some sort – and who have a history of owning wrongdoing as part of transparency.
- Work on your own blind spots, learn how to have a difficult conversation, and build bridges with adversaries.
* * * * *
I have often wondered what other survivors who have spent these past 40 years, rebuilding their lives, have regarded as their most prized possessions and inner qualities.
One hurdle I needed to overcome when I arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina in the early 1980’s was my disappointment in myself. I had first seen Jim Jones from the back of the Benjamin Franklin junior high school auditorium on November 5, 1971. I was late in arriving, and it had been raining heavily. Soaking wet, I sat on the back pew. When Jones stepped onto the stage, I was filled instantly with a sense of dread along with a sense of how familiar he looked. It was confusing. I had been in California for only three weeks, and this was my first time seeing him.
My disappointment in myself is that when dread screamed “Run,” I stayed. I stayed because of that feeling of familiarity, as if I had known him. I was also drawn by another tug, the church’s civil rights message. My second disappointment is that I should have known better. In high school, I read Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority, about his experiment in groupthink, and yet I didn’t recognize groupthink when I joined the Temple.
One of my fields of study in the intervening decades has been how intuition works within me so I can pay attention to the warnings I receive. Twenty years ago, I was approached by five or six friends to join a multi-level marketing company. I initially considered the proposal, but heeded my ambivalence and decided against it. The company turned out to be an illegal Ponzi scheme, and two friends spent six years in prison. I am so grateful that had I learned that anytime I feel pressured to do something and feel ambivalent, my answer needs to be “No.”
That dread I felt the first time I saw Jim Jones, and that intuition I had to turn down my friends’ offer have led me to take extensive training in intuition and later to become a professional intuitive. As a 20-year divorce mediator, it took courage for me to announce this new service. But after 37 years of living in Charlotte, where people have come to know me, my readings have been well received.
Baseball’s great Ted Williams was asked once how he was so successful at the plate,. He answered that of the 27 positions that the ball can cross the plate, he could consistently hit the ball in only four of those positions, but he knew which ones they were. These past 40 years have been about identifying my strengths – my version of Ted Williams’ four position – and learning how to play to them. In the past three years, I have conducted 5300 sessions in which I attempt to offer clarity regarding the workplace, personal relationships, and deceased loved ones. I never discuss matters involving health, legal, coastal flooding, life or death, or the lottery.
I compare my work as an intuitive to someone who shows up every day for archery practice blindfolded. I am grateful for my regular disciplines which enable me to have faith in the unseen. These disciplines include swimming, prayer, reading uplifting literature like Anne Lamont, attending a self-help group, spending time in the company of peers, tithing time talent and treasure, and having fun.
My guiding light over these years has been the prayerful words of journalist Irma Bombeck, who asked to be allowed to use up all of her talents before she died. In the early 1980s, I had no idea about my talents. To date I have been cultivating mediation, hypnosis, intuition, writing jokes and performing stand-up comedy.
In closing, here’s a few one liners that occurred to me when swimming where I think about George Carlin and Robin Williams, my two role models:
Public education has outlawed spanking: therefore, we are out of whack.
An attorney and a dry cleaner both press people for answers and put them on the spot.
As a mediator, a good day is when parties end up in a compromising position.
Medicine has its roots in witchcraft since blood is occult.
A weight loss program contract had better offer some wiggle room.
The kid with ADD can’t learn math: he can’t give it his undivided attention.
Tattoos raise your IQ, so you can know more than an inkling.
(Andy Silver is a former member of Peoples Temple, and is now a divorce and federal mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina. His poem in this edition of the jonestown report is If Robin Williams were still alive. His complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)