JONESTOWN SURVIVOR – Two Survivors Revisited Jonestown in March 2018

Jonestown Survivors Revisit Jonestown

As a member of Peoples Temple for seven years here in the United States, I moved to Guyana in March, 1977. March seems to be my month for moves. I moved from Connecticut to California in March 1970. Then, I left California for Guyana in March of 1977. I lived in Guyana – in both Georgetown and Jonestown. When my wonderful friends and adopted family members, and others, died on November 18, 1978, I happened to be living in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Within weeks of that horrific event, most of the survivors living in Georgetown returned to the United States. Many of us received a welcome of a subpoena to appear before the San Francisco Grand Jury investigating the deaths and the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan. That was forty years ago, this November.

About five years ago, twenty survivors decided to take a trip back to Guyana. We had several different media outfits promise to fund the trip, to go along, and to film everything. The first one fell through, then the second, and finally, we gave up on outside funding sources. Jordan Vilchez and I decided to take the ball and run with it. And, we did it.

So, I want to tell you about my first return trip to Guyana in 40 years.

My fellow survivor, Jordan Vilchez, and I returned to Guyana early in March 2018. We had been attempting to put together this trip back for some years, but finally just decided to rely on ourselves and we got it done.  

Jordan and I were temporarily living in the Lamaha Gardens house in Georgetown on November 18, 1978, when 918 people died in Jonestown, at the Kaituma airstrip, and in Georgetown. I was 31 and Jordan was 21 when we survived.

If ever you meet up and engage in a conversation with the survivors from Peoples Temple, you will immediately see that we often have polar opposite, or at least, disparate opinions on almost everything related to Peoples Temple. So, I write and express my thoughts and reflections as only mine.

Six months ago, I began making firm plans to go back to Guyana, including the plan to go back to Jonestown. As the time drew closer – I was more and more emotional about it. I was still teaching and going about my business, but more and more aware that it was impacting me more than I expected. It has been forty years!

Jordan and I arrived in March – exactly 41 years after I moved to live in Guyana for the rest of my life, I thought.

This trip, I traveled with my husband and 28-year-old son. We had all become survivors, since my husband of 35 years, and my son – born about a decade later – both lived with me. As I moved from an ambivalent survivor, to workaholic to get my life in order and grow up, to author, public speaker, and more – they were there every moment. When I spoke about going back – they said, “OF COURSE! Count us in.”

So, on March 10, my family and I arrived in Guyana. It was everything I had loved when I lived there. From the greeting at the airport, the conversation in the taxi going into town, and the hotel – just as I remembered it. A wholly-diverse nation with so much potential, such genuine generosity of spirit, was welcoming us.

The next day, we flew out to Port Kaituma, a group of seven of us who had traveled to Guyana for this meaningful return. We did hit the ground running. We dropped off our belongings and went out to Jonestown by jeep. We had the best of the best from Guyana with us – a driver very familiar with the Jonestown trip, and two guides who were Jonestown neighbors from the earliest days, and who were part of Jonestown history. They had helped clear the bush and had helped us get started and trained to do the work. They knew the earliest Jonestown settlers and had wonderful memories, and terrible memories. They graciously shared both with us.

When I got to Jonestown I had so many different emotions. I was delighted that I had lived there, and that miraculously, the jungle seemed to forgive us our abuse and destruction. It had grown back densely and fought our re-entry. From the last “cleared” road leading into Jonestown, we had to walk on possible paths. They were so overgrown, slippery, covered with vines trying to trip us, that we kept plunging forward rather than stop. The tiniest ticks you ever saw seemed to drop from above and spot our clothes, heading for our skin. There were black hornets’ nests and beehives which amazed us with their structures, and scared us at the same time. So, we slowly walked about a quarter of a mile into the heavy bush, to find our first recognizable location – the Jonestown headstone that reminded us of the many who lost their lives that day in Jonestown. Jordan and some others kept walking on animal tracks or indistinct paths.

I stayed at the tombstone to journal and have some time to myself. My husband stayed out of sight and hearing, but nearby. It was not a safe or comfortable feeling – the jungle seemed alive and not threatening, but not embracing us. To me, it seemed like it was on alert either because we were humans or because we were associated with Jonestown and Peoples Temple. I am not sure.When I arrived in Guyana and Jonestown, all those years ago, I thought it would be my forever home. I was energetic and positive, and I loved nearly every experience in Peoples Temple. Those things I did not love seemed to be fixable over time. I didn’t know I did not know that I was heading into a catastrophe, into a community that would ultimately die. I didn’t know that Jim’s insanity would progress to the point of no return.

Please remember that today, if someone joins a cult, everyone freely reminds that person about Jonestown, about what can happen in a cult with an undiagnosed, mentally ill leader. We learned a horrific and important lesson – no one can be trusted completely. Critical thinking can never go on a vacation. Never give up your right to reflect, question, seek answers, objectively study what is being done – not what is being said. Words are cheap. We learned in Jonestown that con artists and others think long and hard about ways to hook you in – and there is no such thing as being too alert.

As I stayed at the tombstone, I realized that I had left my old me there. From November 18, 1978, or from whatever date the enormity of that event did absorb into the person I was then, I had taken a 90 degree different course. I would never again be a follower. I would never again laugh as if I lived in a glorious egalitarian and free world. I lost my naivete and my comfort. I had been grossly fooled. Yes, I let myself be fooled. Never again. I reflected about how delighted I had been every day in Jonestown, and in Georgetown when I lived there for a year. I hadn’t seen or taken notice of the many warning signs. When I looked back, I could see them. I became even more of an atheist. How could any god let my wonderful friends and adopted family die like that? There was no good answer. If there is a god, that god failed us.

During that time in 1978, I changed dramatically. I had thought goodness and Light and best intentions, and integrity were possible in Jonestown and in Peoples Temple. I thought that if we could demonstrate that to the world around us, people would acknowledge that it was possible and follow our modeling. I thought all things were possible. I worked as hard as I could to bring that Utopian community into reality.

And then, I realized that there is and will continue to be an ongoing battle to live with dignity, to express it, and to include others in that protected circle. It will be a long uphill journey, with no “top of the mountain.”

When I returned to the United States in late November, 1978, I was traumatized. I spent a year with my fellow survivors, trying to get my life back. Then I moved into another community, Synanon. I lived there for ten years. I married my husband Ron there in 1982, and my son was born while I lived there, in 1989. They helped me get my life back.

Then, in 1990, I went to work for myself and my family. I went back to school, finished my Bachelor’s Degree (Philosophy and Psychology) and got my California Clear Teaching Credential. I started teaching in 1994.

In 1998, I went to my first survivor gathering, for the 20th anniversary of Jonestown. My healing started then. We met and discussed the details we knew and put together a deeper understanding of what went right and what didn’t. We realized that we had lived through a cover-up of Jim’s insanity, his abuse, and his addiction. So much that we didn’t know because there was a “Code of Silence” practiced by Jim and his closest mistresses and secretaries. We learned, we discussed, we argued, we reflected, and we understood some hard lessons. We had been too naive, and too trusting and we had stopped watching.

In 2010, I published my book JONESTOWN SURVIVOR: An Insider’s Look. I have done many interviews, documentaries, papers, and conference presentations over the years, and I continue to. But, I am a work in progress. As I reflect on new info, or think more about old info, my point of view shifts.

Now, in 2018, I am teaching through June, but I am putting ideas on paper for my 2nd book. I am also putting together a Free Book Give-Away to be done in Port Kaituma, Guyana, next December. It is a way for the PT survivor community to give a little back to the community in Guyana that we so abused, and that we have so ignored as we went through our own grief process in the United States.