By Tanya Silverman
Photos courtesy of Symphony999.
Next Monday, Nov. 18, will mark the 35th anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy, in which 918 American citizens died in Guyana.
A cult communal village in Northwest Guyana, “Jonestown” was named after Reverend Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple. Jones began the Peoples Temple in Indiana in the 1950s, preaching racial integration and social equality, moving the Temple to the state of California in the 1960s, and to the city of San Francisco in 1971. Though the premise of the Temple’s ideology was based on positive ideals like diversity and aiding the unfortunate, the news media eventually began to publish allegations of fraud, violence, sexual abuse, and child mistreatment. This made Jones paranoid and influenced his decision to set up a separate society in the jungle of northwestern Guyana.
Aimed to be a utopia, member mistreatment continued in the jungle of Jonestown; people were subject to long days of manual labor, as well as physical and sexual abuse. They were not fed properly and faced harsh punishment for failing to comply to the expectations set by Jones. Becoming addicted to pharmaceutical drugs, Jones was also growing increasingly paranoid about the American government.
On Nov. 17, 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan traveled down to Guyana with several journalists to investigate conditions at Jonestown. When they were leaving the following day (and taking several Peoples Temple members who wanted to escape), Jones arranged Temple members to follow them to the airstrip from where they were supposed to depart and kill them. After this, Jim Jones thought it unsafe to continue activities at Jonestown, and ordered everyone to commit what he termed to be a “revolutionary act” of suicide, by drinking deadly Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and sedatives.
Leslie Wagner-Wilson, author of Slavery of Faith, is a Jonestown survivor who was indoctrinated in California with her family at age 13. At first, she says she looked at Jim Jones with love, and recalls times he would convince her of his good intentions – but this perception changed over the years.
“As I got older I began to see that there was no need to beat people into submission or have sex with people outside his marriage to ‘save them.’ The very freedom that we said we stood for was not the freedom we experienced in the church – as it was ruled mostly with fear,” she tells BTR.
In 1977, Jim Jones and Leslie’s husband, Joe Wilson, kidnapped her son, Jakari, and relocated to Guyana. She followed to Jonestown based on a feeling that she needed to be there for her child.
Upon arriving to Jonestown, Wilson tells BTR: “In the beginning I was glad to be there as I wanted to redeem myself. The first months were hard adjusting to this new lifestyle, but I was proud to see that Jonestown was built by members of the Peoples Temple.”
Wilson believes that people wanted Jonestown to succeed, as they were disillusioned by the United States, and wanted to prove that they could live elsewhere in a utopian society. The reality, however, was quite different.
In 1978, Wilson decided she wanted to leave Jonestown, and joined a secret escape group commenced by Richard Clarke, who had cut an escape route through the jungle. Clarke told everyone they would escape Jonestown on November 18th, figuring that everyone would be too distracted by Congressman Ryan’s visit to acknowledge their absence. Going on a picnic was the excuse.
“That was our story and it was so ridiculous that my husband Joe did not even react to the idea we could actually go on a picnic,” she says. “How do you have a picnic in Jonestown where you could not open up a refrigerator and take food out?”
Joe Wilson at first denied her request to go on a picnic, and took Jakari away; he later returned her son “with instructions not to go on a picnic, as today was not a good day.” As soon as Joe left, Wilson followed Clarke with the rest of the group.
Trekking over 30 miles through the jungle, the escapees journeyed toward Matthews Ridge, a small Guyanese town none of them had seen before, but the only direction they could travel. Along the way, the group got lost and had to walk through the rain and heat until they were able to be picked up by a train.
“Once we stopped in Matthews Ridge a stranger on the train took us to the police station because we wanted to call the U.S. Embassy,” Wilson says. After they arrived in the police station, the officers drew guns on them; Wilson, Clarke, and the rest of the group were unaware of the killings of Congressman Ryan and others.
“We were confused and scared because we had no idea what would be going on in Jonestown,” Wilson recalls. They found out the details early the next morning.
Nine of Wilson’s family members died in November 1978. Her husband, Joe Wilson, was a top lieutenant at Jonestown who helped assassinate Congressman Ryan.
Though she returned to the United States, Wilson’s readjustment was not so easy, as she went through years of “Post Traumatic Stress, survivor’s guilt, and drug addiction,” but at this point, says she is grateful for her life.
“Accepting the fact that I survived when my family did not, I finally moved forward through forgiveness; first, Jim Jones and those who had a hand in this; and finally, myself,” she says. “Once I was able to do this, I tapped into a spiritual side without an intermediary.”
There are times when Wilson is reminded of her life in Guyana: when she stands in lines, she sometimes recalls having to wait behind others to eat, shower, or use outhouses at Jonestown.
Leslie Wagner-Wilson realizes, though, that she is a part of history, and feels a greater responsibility toward humankind.
“One person who read my book came up to me at a book signing and said ‘Dear, you have had such a horrible life.’ I looked at her in a very loving way and said, ‘I never thought of it like that because without all of it, I would have never reached a point of forgiveness, faith, and joy.’”
Andy Silver is another former Peoples Temple member who joined in California in 1971. Finishing up college, he was facing being transferred to serve in Vietnam, and not receiving exemption support from his family. Upon looking for alternatives, he was impressed with the reputation and accomplishments of the Peoples Temple, but recalls sensing a bad feeling about Jim Jones “from the first five minutes” of meeting him.
Nevertheless, Silver joined the People’s Temple and was a member for 7 years and 2 months, remaining in California the entire time.
“I tried to find a way to create a job for myself, so I would never be sent to Guyana,” he tells BTR. He figured out a way to aid the Peoples Temple jungle community by shopping around the Bay Area for construction, industrial, and medical equipment to send to Jonestown.
Immersed in Peoples Temple activities in California, Silver recalls November 1978: “I had just happened to watch TV and there was a report of 900 people turning up dead in the jungle.”
While this event was shocking and horrifying, Silver tries to explain the strange mindset he had cultivated, following years of working long days, being deprived of sleep, exhausted, and unable to think straight.
“In addition to the news being shocking, we [Peoples Temple members] were just numb, and it took quite some time to get in touch with my release, and realize that I would not be dying as a member of that church,” he says.
To date, Silver has attended survivor events and stayed in loose contact with other Peoples Temple members. He describes the remaining community as “people who really appreciate having a second chance in life” that “have a strong work ethic,” and pay attention to matters of social justice and diversity. From his personal story, Silver has concluded not to make important decisions when one is vulnerable, and advises people to pay attention to non-verbal signals with others. He also calls for mediators and checks of power in organizations—whether it’s a church, a company, or the government— so that no one member can become as influential as Jim Jones was in the Peoples Temple.
An official 35th Annual Jonestown Children Remembrance & Victims Memorial Service will commence in Oakland, California, in honor of the children, families, and Congressmen Leo Ryan and his accompanying news crew at Evergreen Cemetery.