A Peoples Temple Survivor Gathering

A Gathering of Peoples Temple Survivors, Family, and Friends

Those of us who are victims – that is, those of us who were in Peoples Temple and survived, those who lost loved ones, and those who befriended us and have understood at a deeper level about the losses, spend time together in many configurations. Many of us gather in Oakland for the anniversary each November 18. We communicate often by phone, email, face book and other electronic media, and some even write letters! Some live close enough to others to share other parts of our lives. We also share our writing and journaling in the annual Jonestown Report, published in hard copy and on-line by The Jonestown Institute. And, in addition to that – we go on with our lives.

About seven years ago, we tried spending more intimate time at a different time of year – just time to relax, reflect or not, and appreciate the friendships that we paid a costly price for. For the first four years, those of us living in San Diego hosted guests each 4th of July weekend. Then, we gathered in Richmond for a few years either in July, or like last year – over the Memorial Day weekend. We had panels with the names of all those who died in Guyana placed at the gravesite at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland in May 2011. This year, we once again met in San Diego.

Each time we do meet back together – the word “reunion” doesn’t really express the flavor of the gathering – it is completely different. This year, our group included former members of Peoples Temple, family members, and long-standing friends. In many parts of our lives, and in many of the activities of former members, we share our stories and our friendships with new acquaintances. My Author Talks about my book JONESTOWN SURVIVOR: An Insider’s Look is a perfect example. I discuss everything, and then open up for extensive discussions. I want to answer the questions people have on their minds.

However, on these “family” occasions, we survivors are unavailable – we are taking care of and nurturing ourselves. I am exhilarated and exhausted by these gatherings. For me, it is such a learning time. It gives me a closer look at some reality. Instead of holding up my fellow survivors on a pedestal, I am reminded that we are all human, and imperfect. I need to be reminded that sometimes even WE are boring, abrupt, unsure, unemotional or emotional, disorganized, and just normal people. It gives me a needed perspective. I think that I can be too Pollyannaish. When the deaths in Guyana seemed to suck the very life out of my heart, my response was to vilify Jim Jones, and exalt the whole Jonestown community. I couldn’t touch that mindset for a long time. It was an unbalanced view of my experience.

Eventually, more than twenty years later, I had to review and change that mindset. I couldn’t really ever move on if I had such a misconception about that part of my life. For me, at every Peoples Temple survivor event and contact, I realize we are normal people who fell in love with a dream and then got “taken.” At the same time, I face some facts. I know, undoubtedly, that some of the finest and most visionary people I ever met were at my side in Peoples Temple. I know that many obstacles we face are less threatening if we agree to work as a group to overcome them, and as a group, we attempted to work together in the Temple. I know that the racism that is running rampant in our country can and must be remedied for our country to survive and be the best it can be. I know that each one of us can be so much better than we could ever conceive of. I’ve seen people come close to being the best they could be. It just takes the right environment and guidance. In many ways, I was the best I could be in Peoples Temple. I was actively engaged in making the world better, for those of us in PT and outside of it. I didn’t live in a “me” world where I could continually question if working hard, or in the primitive community in Jonestown was best for ME. But, I need the reminder that we are human with human failings. Our gatherings keep me balanced as I integrate my memories and experiences from the past with the life I live today. It helps me that my memories are more realistic. When I interact with my fellow survivors who I love with all my heart, I get refreshing reminders of our shortcomings and I can live with that.

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