Conversation with a JONESTOWN SURVIVOR

For nearly the first twenty years after I survived the deaths in Jonestown, Guyana, I didn’t tell close friends or acquaintances about my decade in Peoples Temple. My fellow residents in the Synanon community knew, as they had seen me drag myself in the door after my very rocky first year home, trying to survive in San Francisco. I couldn’t talk about it without sobbing, and I didn’t want the inevitable questions, or possibly scorn, from those who found out. That was true for my first ten years in Synanon, and for the next ten years after I came out of that community. For the next decade, I slowly came out of that mindset, and began sharing more about my past with close friends.

For almost fourteen years, I have worked through that. I freely tell most people I converse with about my past. It is part of who I am. After many documentaries, interviews, presentations, articles, and finally writing my book, I am comfortable talking about my life.

I used to painfully sit through boring, inane, and superficial conversations because I didn’t want to bring up my painful past. I let others lead the conversation. Now, I appreciate a very special quality in my conversations with others. Once people know of my background, or perhaps because of my more honest presentation of who I am, I have wonderfully deep communication with people, both old friends and new acquaintances.

Just this week, I had a significant conversation with a fellow writer at a local authors’ gathering. She has written her book in her head, but not yet on paper. She is writing about her tragedy as I did about mine. One of her precious children died of cancer. There is no justice in who dies from cancer and the many other deadly diseases. As we were talking, just briefly, she mentioned that she moved out here to San Diego because her son loved living out here, and spending time in our Pacific Ocean. On the evening of her arrival, she felt she HAD to go to the beach near his home here, and go into that same water. Her friends tried to dissuade her – it was too cold, it was night, no one else was swimming, she was tired from her trip. All of those obstacles. Yet, really, she was determined to do what she had set out to do, probably from the moment she decided to move out here. She was going swimming THAT night. Period. I loved that our conversation started at a deep level, since we’d both been traumatized by our experiences. And, we quickly allowed each other to share a poignant moment that we couldn’t have shared with someone with a different frame of reference. I feel enriched by her thoughts.

I think that is the inner voice that we survivors have come to listen to. We have affirmed that we have an inner voice and that both our mental health and physical health depend on us standing up for that voice. We couldn’t have survived with others deciding for us, or speaking for us. The tragedy has already happened, so it is too late to try to protect us from it. We only survived because some inner strength flexed and grew strong –in us.

Recently after a library presentation, a holocaust survivor came up and was moved to speak to me about a deep connection she felt during my presentation. We spoke about guilt, and how we lived with survivors’ guilt on a daily basis. We have integrated that into our inner cores. Sometimes, like that evening, someone told me not to “feel guilty.” I can’t so easily ignore the guilt I feel. I just have to accept that is part of me, and move on. It doesn’t disable me, it doesn’t stop me. But it is there in me. She told me that people have told her the same thing. We don’t have survivors’ guilt by choice. It is out of our control. All we can do is continue on our paths with the guilt in our pockets, carried along.

During my recent visit at Penn State University, a man with PTSD made his way up to share some thoughts with me after my presentation. He too felt he could talk from his inner truth, about some of his personal thoughts and expectations. He asked me how I had survived on a day-to-day basis. It is such a difficult journey. I was able to put myself in his place.

My life is enhanced by those who share their experiences with me. People often tell me that they felt the same about me sharing my story. Some friends told me that they knew that there was something “unique” about me long before I ever disclosed details of my life to them. I feel fortunate that I can have this sacred sharing with others. It makes my life so much more meaningful and enriched.

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