A close friend referred a woman who had suffered through an unbelievably horrific cult experience. The woman is on her own survival track, but is trying to help some others who experienced the same cult. In her group, the daily offenses were beyond our wildest nightmares. She was referred to me so that I could make some suggestions on how to survive it all. Here is part of what I wrote to her:
I do know that there is a very thin line between good and really evil behavior, and that it is too easily crossed.
I don’t pretend to have the specific remedy for you to forgive yourself and to move on in your life. I can only share my own process and you can pick and choose the things that fit for you and your friends who have suffered so horribly.
The first and main thing that made the most difference in my survival was to get away from everyone involved in Peoples Temple so that I could find out who I was. Most survivors, and certainly my family, couldn’t imagine how I could look to and join another group. Both fortunately and unfortunately – I have forged my own path in my life. I found really good friends in Synanon who were nowhere near as crazy as I was, and they just supported me through the guilty and self-destructive period. I really had to get to know myself. I had to do the work, but I was surrounded by community members, from a different community, who understood much of what is required by a participant in a controlling community.
A second part of my survival was giving myself time. Everyone told me that “time heals all wounds.” That was never true. Never. Over the first three years or so – I didn’t feel any better, but I had decided to survive myself at that point. After that, the horror was spread out more. I could see the sunrise through the night. It started slowly at first, but then I had more sunlight in my life.
After getting my internal and emotional life somewhat in order, I started putting my practical life together. I started my family, finished my education, and began in my profession.
The most significant part of my healing and surviving has been my introspection and reflection on what went wrong and my support of and from other survivors of Peoples Temple. We know how things went and we know much more about the details of why. The level of secrecy still surprises me, as do many aspects of the whole movement of Peoples Temple. But, I know enough of the details to logically put together a framework of understanding. I now discuss the whole experience and my thoughts and understanding continue to evolve. That is a huge part of moving forward for me.
The final piece that has allowed me to live a good life is that the experiences I had in Peoples Temple, and really Synanon and everything else, is that they are all integrated into who I am today. I am a conglomeration of all of those things – good and bad, crazy and sane, committed and flaky – that is me. And, I like who I am today, imperfect that I am. I know that IF I had died in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, and IF I could have gotten a message to those who survived, I would have told them to appreciate the life they were fortunate to have. I would have reminded them that life is fragile and that you only get one. I would have wanted them to live their lives to the fullest. I know that.
I know that we each have a path that might make our lives a bit easier – my path wouldn’t have worked for everyone. Some are still searching for their paths. I couldn’t wait. Some don’t want to go public. I feel a burden to remind people about what we lost, who we were, what potential we had. I feel that burden and still live my life, and I have a rich, wonderful life. I am surrounded by a wonderful family, and, a humungous extended family from all parts of my life. In addition to that – since I am not one to sit on a front porch and knit at this stage of my life – I am an activist (and Quaker and teacher) and I pursue justice and integrity.