I hosted an author’s table this weekend (June 4 and 5, 2016) at my second Bay Area Book Festival. I set up a table with photos of Peoples Temple. I had an aerial photo of Jonestown in 1978, which shows how much hard work we put into creating the community. I had photos of the Evergreen Cemetery tombstone and the newer panels listing the names of all of those who died in Guyana. I had photos of some of the ceremonies and gatherings we survivors have held over the years. And, I had a copy of Kathy Barbour’s lovingly created book, Who Died? The weekend is both cathartic for me, and heart-wrenching. Many people asked me why I ever joined Peoples Temple. I pointed at my pictures and said that I was looking for a wonderful family just like that. Pictures so easily showed the reason – those photos of people I loved and love. I continue speaking about it because I know that the lessons from Jonestown have not been learned yet. And, I don’t want my friends who were murdered in Jonestown just written off or forgotten so easily.

                My friend Janet N. Lynch was there at the event, too. She is the mother of my son’s earliest real friend (Sean Lynch). After meeting me, she was inspired to write her book Wheel of Fire, a fictional book about harsh realities of cults and avoiding them. She has written many other teen books, including Messed Up, and Peace is a Four Letter Word.

                I let friends know about my plans – Peoples Temple survivors and former Synanon, and others. None of my contacts came, but I saw several Quakers I know, Phyllis Olin, a former Synanon member I did not know, and many people who knew Deborah Layton, a friend, a fellow survivor, and author of Seductive Poison.  My friend Norma Chavez from the ACLU was at the Festival, but we didn’t meet up. Friends and co-workers of other survivors came up and spoke to me often.

                There were many people who had seen me in documentaries. One person came and seemed very emotional, but I didn’t have a chance to speak with her more since I had a big crowd at the time. Others spoke about different parts of the programs that were significant to them.

                I met many people who remember many aspects of the involvement of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones in the Bay area. I met lawyers who worked with the Conservator who dismantled Peoples Temple Assets at the end, activists who remembered us joining the International Hotel protests to keep seniors in their lodging, and people who worked with so many of those who lived and died in Jonestown. One woman had worked with and so appreciated Maureen Fitch, another went to law school with another woman who quit to go to Jonestown. I wasn’t sure who that was since it was not Harriet Tropp. I met people who had participated in the visits between Peoples Temple and the Nation of Islam next door to us on Geary and Fillmore. I met a woman who stopped by my table, and who looked in Kathy’s book – and who teared up and had to walk away. She just said that she had found her friend.

                I met a former student of Dr. Rebecca Moore, my good friend and the founder (with her husband Fielding McGehee) of the Jonestown Institute. The student had her as a teacher in North Dakota years ago, but said that Rebecca was a breath of fresh air in North Dakota and made a huge difference in her life by affirming her value as a person of integrity. She was shy, so her partner did most of the talking.

                A former cult member came up to speak to me. She said that she had left a cult and that it was really painful and lonely for her. I asked her how she did it, and she said that one day, she just knew that she had to get out of there and left. She was far from delighted with the decision when we spoke because she was still raw. I told her she was an inspiration! I asked her if people told her that, and she said no. She inspired me. I told her I wished I had had that same instinct many years ago.

                A Guyanese woman came up to me. We spoke for a long time. She said that she could not bring my book into her house. We were both teary-eyed. We agreed that not only did the events of November 18, 1978 murder wonderful, committed, and mostly-American members, but it forever changed the world’s view of Guyana. We spoke and hugged for a long time. She told me that she appreciated that I continue to talk about the events of that November.

                At least six people asked me about Jonestown being a CIA Mind Control Experiment. I told them I wished I could blame it on the CIA – I would love to blame it on anything I could find. But…, I watched the decline. I watched Jim from early in 1970, in rural Redwood Valley. I saw him climb into the powerful San Francisco society, with friends in high places, I saw his control over every aspect of our (members) lives, I saw him grow into a powerful man and then get corrupted by the power, and I saw him in Jonestown as he fell apart with drugs, mental and physical illnesses, and more. He was a “home grown” terrorist. Much as I would like to blame it elsewhere, I can’t. That is not to say that we weren’t monitored and spied upon. That is documented in the newly-released information from FOIA documents now posted on the Jonestown Institute website. But, Jim was always a borderline personality disorder who was both a genius and effective leader.

                One of the conversations I had was with a Veteran. After we spoke for a while, I mentioned to him that when I give library and university presentations, I often have Veterans come to my programs. One time, a soldier came up to me afterwards and told me how glad he was that he had come. He said that he could tell that I understood PTSD – that I could identify it and talk about it. Because, obviously, I had it, too. We had a powerful connection.

                At the end of the two days, I had addressed comments ranging from racist to endearing, from curiosity to someone else’s insistence on how things were. Somehow, while touching on every deep topic, people feel free to share about other deep thoughts in even unrelated areas. A drug counselor who knew about Synanon shared some of the things he faced with his job. An attorney working with troubled youth spoke about his challenges. A retired cult scholar was interested in the Communal Studies Association, where I am a Board member. The Communal Studies Association primarily studies historic American communities like Oneida, Amana, LDS, etc. A Native American man was interested in the historic perspective when Peoples Temple was created. Parents of teens who walked by took a moment to discuss Jonestown, or had me do it.

                At each of my presentations around the country, I always explain that before the deaths in Jonestown, there had never been a time in U.S. history when a “benevolent” leader had killed nearly 1,000 people. Never. So, I never saw it coming. There were certainly flags if I had been watching. It is so clear, looking back. But, I never believed it at the time. Some did. Some were much more astute. I did not. How did so many of it miss those obvious clues? We worked non-stop, we focused on that work. We did not “waste” our energy of reflections or critical thinking. During those busy years, we never took a step back from the trenches. And, there was nothing in recent history that would support our concerns. In Synanon, we had a phrase, “Reality check.” We didn’t have time to take our Peoples Temple “Reality check.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,