THE MORPHING OF PEOPLES TEMPLE SURVIVORS

THE MORPHING OF PEOPLES TEMPLE SURVIVORS

As always when I write, I represent only my own opinion about things I see and reflect on. Some of what I say may not match your perspective – as fellow survivors or close friends.

We survivors and family members just held the 35th anniversary gatherings of the calamity of Jonestown. Each year, the actual dynamics of the events on the anniversary vary widely, depending on who shows up to our community dinner and to the cemetery. The tone of the gathering really depends on those who are in the room or at the cemetery. But, there are some predictable aspects. Over the day or two around the date of the 18th of November, people show up to a gathering, or make contact with some who show up, or call friends, or email. It is a time of making contact in whatever way people feel comfortable. There are many who feel uncomfortable visiting the cemetery on that day, and who then visit on their own on important dates during the year – birthdays of loved ones, or other dates. There are some who can’t bring themselves to the cemetery at all.

We survivors have all “moved on” with our lives – with the breathing and living. We have jobs, families, many loved ones, and new concerns. The non-PT times of our lives have become larger and have taken up more of our energy. Really, our continuing survival and interaction with our world has filled the terrible void left by Jonestown.

For me, over the past 35 years, one essential aspect our yearly gatherings has been the chipping away of my illusions about Peoples Temple and Jonestown. I needed it. I was entranced while a part of Peoples Temple. It was everything I thought I wanted – a socialist group of activists, well-integrated, political. I had not only illusions, but delusions. I bought into the line that the “end justifies the means.” For the most part, that never put me in jeopardy. I was happy in Peoples Temple, and consequently, rarely tested the clear guidelines. Those who strayed – maintained their own independence – felt the weight of the community trying to crush out independence. I only learned that afterwards, through my many years of frank contact with other survivors.

I am very lucky! I am in contact – through many forms of communication – with survivors, family members, and close friends of survivors and of those who perished. The friendships I have with my fellow survivors are unlike any others I have and I cherish them. I live in San Diego but frequently go up to San Francisco, and am in contact with many survivors throughout the year. The people in the Bay Area are able to see each other from time to time, might run into each other at concerts, or can hear updates from other survivors, so, in a way are less dependent on the yearly gatherings. They have wonderful friendships, but don’t need to depend on one or two days a year to reunite. When I send out photos or news, often those who most enthusiastically respond are those isolated in other parts of the country, or those who don’t have that chance occurrence. The events in San Francisco – in a strange way – are more for out-or-towners and for relatives who don’t have the same survivor contacts.

This year, survivors and family came from all over the country as well as from the Bay Area. Many missed some of the more recent yearly events and made a point to come. Some survivors and family members came for the very first time this year. Some from around the state and country could not manage the trip. And, some who have come regularly in the past found new or different ways to honor their loved ones. Our own needs for a way to spend the day have changed significantly. I sensed this year that some who have come consistently for the last ten or more years are beginning to feel a different calling. A few survivors who live far away didn’t make the trip at all. Some who live in the Bay area felt they wanted to set up their own, more personal way to spend the anniversary.

My own journey is very personal also. I wrote my autobiography about four years ago. That was essential for me, for my moving on. I have also made many presentations in universities, libraries, and other venues, in the USA and in Mexico. Each of the presentations clears my head a bit more, and the questions asked by the different audiences are wonderfully probing and thoughtful. Each event helps me manage my survivors’ guilt and airs my process.

I have gone to the yearly survivor potlucks and Evergreen Cemetery events to reflect on the anniversaries in Oakland for the past fifteen years. I can’t imagine being anywhere else on that day. I expect I will continue to go.

I also feel some responsibility to be there if family members and friends of those who died in Jonestown come there on the 18th. This year, and almost every year, that happens. I feel strongly that I don’t want a family member or fellow survivor to show up and be alone. It is the least I can do. If I were in their situations, I would hope that some dear friend would be there for me that first time.

But, I sense that the same “traditional” ceremonies that we have come to expect over at least these past fifteen years have morphed into a more individual and private time for most of us. Our needs are different, and we have found our voices and our most meaningful way to spend our days. In the years to come, I expect the crowds of survivors and friends who come to Evergreen dwindle in size due to our aging and our personal needs on that day. Just as I insist on equanimity and thoughtful exchanges, I find I know how I have to spend my day. After the trauma we have lived through, we all deserve that.

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