Life in Jonestown

In Jonestown Lullaby, after the poems, are photographs of Peoples Temple members engaged in everyday life in Jonestown.  Children are playing in a playground, elders are working in a garden, people of all ages are tilling fields, planting and harvesting crops, preparing food and eating together.  The Jonestown settlers are young and old, black and white, friends and family members, doing activities common to community life. 

These photographs, taken by Peoples Temple members, reveal an aspect of Jonestown rarely seen, at least not in the often sensationalized media coverage of Peoples Temple.  They show that life for residents of Jonestown encompassed much more than the dark picture commonly portrayed.  In spite of the hardships, the overcrowding, the long days of labor and struggle for agricultural self-sufficiency, many Peoples Temple members felt a sense of hope and expectation that Jonestown would become a community that exemplified social justice and racial equality.  They worked hard to make it happen.

In a remote area of Guyana that was once only jungle, Peoples Temple pioneers cleared the land and constructed all the buildings for the settlement.  They built roads and planted fields.  Children went to school in one of the buildings and adult members taught classes; people took care of farm animals and participated in water brigades to irrigate the fields.  Medically trained members provided health care to residents, delivered babies and even held clinics for local Guyanese neighbors.  The Jonestown settlers also produced their own entertainment, putting on dance and musical performances.  Young adults played on a successful basketball team.

These depictions of life in Jonestown do not deny the horrific deaths of 918 people, nor the terror, abuse and deprivation endured by many members.  Rather, the photographs bring to light the neglected and complicated truth that life in Jonestown was more than the nightmare routinely portrayed in the media and more than what happened on its last day. 

When you look closely at the individual Peoples Temple members in these photographs and see their smiles, laughter, pride, determination and camaraderie, you get a glimpse of the community many Peoples Temple members envisioned and strove hard to create. 




 Sometimes, I travel to places I no longer am. It feels so real. As a survivor, flashbacks will always haunt me as they haunt so many others.

I lose myself
In a vision of
What I once was

As I stand on this
Unholy ground
I shudder and try to
Find my way home

The address
I have forgotten
Keys were lost years ago

I walk to nowhere through
Surroundings ever so familiar

What will become

I light a cigarette
Don’t smoke, never have

What door must I open
To extract myself from this
Soul-consuming process

Old friends speak but make no sound
I am an anachronism
Out of place, out of time

I panic, I know what’s next
I’m lost in memory
With no way out


Leaving & Surviving

After escaping Jonestown just three weeks before the massacre, I’m often asked how I found the strength to leave. I’d been a member for seven years. To leave I had to come to the point where I said to myself, “I would rather be dead than live another day like this.”

My life didn’t begin with Jonestown and it did not end with Jonestown. Many good things have survived from the Jonestown experience: a strong sense of community and an ability to think for myself while gathering as much information to make my decisions as possible.

I will not be influenced by those whom seem charismatic or powerful. I’ve survived and I’m stronger because of it.


Tall Grasses

I hold tightly to Mom
As we board
The flat-bottomed airboat
A gigantic fan at the back
Propels us across shallow water

We skim through
The tall grasses
Revealing the sweet salty estuaries
Of the lower Mississippi Delta

A mosquito
Skips across the water
Landing on an old coca-cola bottle
Strewn disrespectfully into
What was once a pristine
Refuge for my family

I came here before
With Dad, Grandmother, Grandfather
All gone now
Yet the spark of
Their bright souls still
Glistens in the water’s reflection

These green-blue waters
Beg me not to forget
My childhood laughter and joy
The angst of my teen years
Filled with sorrow and hope

We turn toward open water
Cut the engine…The boat jolts
Forcing me to hold
Even tighter to Mom
Lest she fall prematurely

The boat settles
I release my grip
And open a square box
Wrapped in brown paper
Tied with a string
Resting on my lap

The paper falls away
Unveiling a white Tupperware container
Reminding me of
The cookie-filled boxes
Mom made for school bake sales

I talk to Mom
About times past
And of future hope that
Flutters like a delta fish
In my expanding womb

I pull off the top of the box
A tear christens its contents
I lift my head
Tilt my hand
And release Mom
To the delta waters

Our family vigil thus honored
We head back through
The tall grasses
To what we once called home


Searching for Love & Acceptance

I lived all over the world as a child. My dad was in the Navy. Violence clouded my life. I became a street kid. It was then that I met Jim Jones. After seven awful years, I escaped Jonestown and started a new life.

It wasn’t easy. My boyfriend was hit by a drunk driver which left him severely disabled. We stayed together. Life is not always easy, but we must search for those who will stand by us and accept who we are.

Don’t give up when the road is hard. You will find what you’re looking for. You will get through your troubles. You will overcome.


In Memory of Jonestown

With deep love and respect for the people of Jonestown, whom I shall forever hold in my heart:


                                    Familiar with
                                                               Original pain
Squeezed my hand
                In one brave act
                                       Of forgiveness
So please
                             Hold me gently
                                                   In your soul
Teach me
                        The lost art
                                               Of living
                                                                            After death
                       Has ruled
                                            So long



He roars
I shake
My knees
Turn to rubber
I collapse

My best friend
I have abandoned
The Revolution

The Revolution
That creates

The Revolution
That steals
My freedom
My self
My unborn child

The Revolution
That estranges me
From those I love and hold dear
That makes my best friend
My most feared enemy

My comrades
Against me
For His bemusement

I wonder who among
Secretly wants
To leave too


What is it like to be a survivor of Jonestown?

I suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder. I have nightmares every night. In my dreams, I have conversations with those who died. Sometimes they rise from the dead to chase me. There are painful memories of Jones, such as the times he had us “rehearse” for so-called “mass suicide” or the time he held a gun to my head to try force me to say I loved him… and the moment of terror when I refused.

After escaping, I slowly pieced my life back together. I hope the poems in Jonestown Lullaby remind us all of the resilience of the human spirit.


White Night

Baboons howled in the jungle canopy
A dark night approached
The children were bedded down in their huts
Others exhausted from dawn to dusk work
Chatted among themselves
No star shined on the blackest of nights
“White night White night”
Jim Jones roared on the jungle loudspeaker
We were under attack
The end was near
Children and babies were pulled from their beds
Gunshots rang from the jungle’s edge
Residents ran screaming to the Pavilion
“We WILL take our lives on this night in a
Revolutionary suicide” Jim Jones yelled
Two women passed out cups of cyanide-tained Flavour-Aide
Some tried to run only to be stopped
By the gun wielding guards
Potion swallowed by all
We waited to die
Jim Jones laughed hysterically
“It’s just a rehearsal”
He laughed again clapped his hands and said calmly
“Go home my darlings, sleep tight”


I Write

I write from the poor side of silence
Of an unholy priesthood that
Captured my soul for a time
These poems
Neither confession nor biography
Follow the voyage of a lonely spirit
Into a realm where there are no answers