JONESTOWN SURVIVOR Contacted by Vietnamese student from Florida for a Research Project

In the last week, I was contacted by a Vietnamese student living in Florida for some first-hand information for a research project she and her friends were completing on Peoples Temple. Here are her questions and my answers:

– How would you describe Jim Jones as a leader?
Jim had two sides to him – on his personal side, he had mistresses and secretaries who really did anything he asked up to and including getting him drugs for his addiction in Jonestown. With these most intimate followers, he insisted that they remain single and in direct contact with him, and they led exhausting lives working around him. He had a tremendous ego, and required all of their trust. ALL of this was hidden to most of the rest of us.

Jim’s other side was thoughtful, inclusive, very determined and persuasive. He lived the life he expected us to live. He lived simply, didn’t accumulate riches – fancy cars, housing, jewelry, etc. He projected concern for everyone and expected us to always do our best. He was a teacher in many ways. He would never allow prejudice or meanness – whether we were in the actually building or anywhere else. He really did re-train us to live harmoniously even though we had different economic, racial, professional, and educational levels. He would never treat one person differently than another. And, wouldn’t allow the rest of us to do it either. We all knew we had grown up in a racist country and we didn’t want to perpetuate it in our community.

– Was there anything you would’ve done differently?
Once I had watched Jim for a few years – his coming and going, his treatment of his family and others, I stopped watching with a critical eye. I assumed that he would only do what was best for us – I wish I had watched more carefully. He never allowed anyone to question him – which is absurd. I know that on my best days, with my heart in the right place and everything, I still do hurtful things that I regret. It is ridiculous not to get feedback. I learned a good lesson. He often preached that “the end justifies the means” – an excuse many famous dictators have used. I agreed with him too much so stop looking for flags that would alert me that things had become too extreme.

– How did Jim Jones have so much influence over many of his supporters?
Jim helped almost everyone in Peoples Temple. He got relatives out of jail, people off of drugs, children out of harm’s way by moving them to Redwood Valley, or into other homes. He set up programs for free legal help, free doctor consultations, free nurses to check on the sick, free tutors for kids, free letter-writing for people who needed references. He moved people into communes so that they could support each other and everybody would have enough food to eat, and have a safe place to live and raise families. He had done some sort of good deed for people who joined Peoples Temple, and those who just attended from time to time.

– What kind of legacy do you think Jim Jones left behind?
First – he taught all of the survivors and all of the family members that someone could fool us into believing in the person – and then that same person could have masqueraded his insanity and devastate us and crush our families and our dreams.
He also showed us that we could live in a totally racism-free communal society and get what we needed. He showed us we could and should move beyond prejudice and keep working at it so that it was gone. He showed us that we could make a difference in the lives of others by hard work. He certainly showed me – 36 years after surviving – that I can survive anything. I learned I am strong – much stronger than I ever would have imagined. It took all I had to keep going. But I did. Today, my Peoples Temple life is part of the person I am – but not all. Also, the friendships I have with my fellow survivors nourishes me and keeps me going during hard times. He was able to draw a wonderful group of committed and hard-working people to create a better world. Most of us survivors keep working on it. We won’t give up.

Finally – those who joined Peoples Temple wanted to change the ignorance and violence wa saw all around us. We thought Jim would provide a safe way for us to do it. We put our trust in him and thought he would protect us. When we went to Guyana, not knowing how his personality disorder and drug addiction had already disintegrated his physical and mental health, we thought we could demonstrate how to live better. NO ONE THOUGHT THEY WERE GOING TO JONESTOWN TO DIE. We were as caught off guard as the rest of the world.

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