Not Surviving Jonestown

by E. E. Smith

The year 2018 is an odd year with an even number.

Forty years have passed so fast, yet at the same time, they have dragged. There are folks I haven’t seen in 41 years, and there are others I see on an irregular basis. This anniversary is a moment in time as well as timely. We’ve all matured and have become individuals, versus being lumped together as “members” of Peoples Temple.

I see November 1978 with completely different eyes now in comparison to what I saw then. I aged 40 years in a single week. Now 40 years later, my body has caught up to my mind and eyes that saw so much when I was 21.

What’s odd is that I feel younger in my mind now than I did at 21. Life is a funny and sad journey. Here I am at 61, retired, less tolerant of bullshit but understanding that when it comes to life, it’s necessary to live it rather than exist and accept.

I am no longer ashamed of Jonestown, but I am deeply saddened and haunted at times. I’m happy that some years I have forgotten the anniversary date when it passes, but haunted by the fact that it happened and I was defenseless to change the outcome. I have moments of guilt that destroy my soul for days at a time. I look back on occasion and see Ollie, and I think of how I failed at the most basic responsibility of protecting her. I look back at my son, whom I barely recall and cannot remember what he looked like. Some years I forget both of their birthdays. I don’t have any pictures of them. All the ones I had were with my mother in Jonestown. None were ever returned.

All I have are memories, remorse, guilt, and moments of elation followed by unbridled anger. Part of that anger stems from my realization that the world at large doesn’t get it.

The difference now is that I realize that the majority of so-called survivors were traumatized teenagers and young adults who were expected to come back to a society that shunned us in 1978, and that still stares at us in 2018. We never meant any harm to the USA. All I wanted was to be treated as an equal and allowed to grieve openly. Neither happened then. I’m not sure whether it will happen now, 40 years after the fact. I’m not sure it will ever happen.

The media wants our story every year or so, especially on the anniversaries. They ask sometimes, they demand at other times, they want the story not yet told to be told just so they can get it before any other media outlet does. Never do they ask, how can I help you for sharing this? How are you doing?

None of us survived Jonestown – none of us – because the world ended on that day. What we did survive was returning to the United States and being criticized for 40 years, getting a job, restarting a family, being an asset to society, helping children, joining community organizations, fighting individually for civil rights for all.

We are still alive, but we did not survive.

(Eugene Smith was in Georgetown on November 18 clearing items from customs. Numerous members of his family – including his mother, wife, and infant son – died in Jonestown. His previous articles in the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at eugene.e.smith@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on September 25th, 2018.

Last modified on October 9th, 2018.
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