Cult Observer Archives

Psychological Manipulation, cult groups, sects, and new religious movements

The Cult Observer
November/December 1988

Survivors Remember People’s Temple, Jonestown

From "Jonestown Survivors Haunted," By Marshall Kilduff, San Francisco Chronicle, November 18, 1988.

Bay area survivors of the People’s Temple met for the first time since the disaster, at a picnic this September, and for most, the shattering experience is embarrassing and wounding to recount.

"There were good things at the beginning, really there were," said one former member. Nearly all have careers, lead separate lives, and insist that the deaths of 913 relatives, close friends, and acquaintances no longer haunt them.

But it bothers them that outsiders think Jonestown was nothing more than a freak show. "I turn on the TB and I see the Rajneesh people [and] it all looks so familiar. Don’t people learn?" says Grace Jones, an ex-member (not related to Jim Jones) and suburban mother of two married to another ex-member.

"Almost a thousand people died, and no one gives a damn about what happened." Said Dale Parks, whose mother was among five people killed by temple gunmen, along with Rep. Leo J. Ryan, in the last hours before the suicides. Like some others, he cut the interview short, saying, "It’s a painful memory and I’m not interested in reliving it."

Debbie Layton, who fled Guyana two months before the end, said: "I don’t think about Jonestown all the time. It’s in my past." Her brother is serving a life term for conspiring to kill Rep. Ryan. "As time goes on, you forget. You move on. You’ve got to." She added that a newspaper interview she gave on the subject left her sleepless and anxious for several days.

Unlike most other ex-members, former People’s Temple attorney Tim Stoen, who broke with Jim Jones before the removal to Guyana, where his own son died, has spoken openly and at length, especially about the "good" side of Temple life.

"You took a lot of very well-meaning people, and by the end Jones had them killing children," said Robert Bryan, one of Larry Layton’s attorneys. "These people [the survivors] strike you as quiet and composed, but inwardly they are upset," he said. "They have got to be thinking, ‘why wasn’t I able to see it and stop it.’"

"It’s as if they were scammed by a used care salesman," said another lawyer trying to describe the ex-members’ attitudes in conversation about the terrible episode.

Another attorney who represented former members is amazed at the low-key, almost detached personalities of some of the survivors. "They don’t want to talk about it or deal with it," he said.

According to psychologist Chris Hatcher, of the University of California at San Francisco, who has followed the lives of over 300 former temple members, few have serious psychiatric problems, and their suicide rate is low. Hatcher says that the survivors know that their experience was at "the far end" of the cult scale, and that they were "pushing the limits of human morality. It is not an experience that most people can cope with," he added. "It is a great unanswered question why they have not had more.

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