Recently, I was discussing the possiblity of Syria using chemical weapons and that I thought President Assad might be getting WMDs ready so that in the event it looked like he was about to be over-run, he could take the people of Syria with him. A friend of mine wondered if maybe Assad has “Jim Jones” syndrome. It had been a long time since I’d thought of the horror which took place in Guyana when “Pastor” Jim Jones convinced 900+ of his cult members to commit suicide. I remember listening to the radio that day about the tragedy in Guyana as I drove to ski in Ruidoso. The first reports mentioned Congressman Ryan and some others being killed at an airstrip, and as the day went on that some of the cult members may have died. With each report, the numbers grew until the unimaginable announcement that 900+ people had committed suicide.
I have had a life full (well, so far) of unusual experiences. A connection to the Jim Jones story is one of them. From 1980-1986, I worked for FEMA as a disaster assistance specialist. During that time, I did several things for FEMA, but for the last 3 years or so of that time, I was on the staff of the Federal Coordinating Officer, Bob Broussard. I was part of a small group of people who were always the first on the scene following a Presidentially-declared disaster. This small group of people was comprised of FEMA employees along with a few from the Small Business Association, Red Cross, etc…. The group was always the same, and we all grew close due to long hours, close quarters, and long periods of time on the road. I made some really good friends and got to know most of them very well.
One of those people was a woman who worked for SBA. She and I often worked closely together in the weeks and sometimes months following a natural disaster and I felt like I knew her very well. One day, during a disaster-related visit to southern Louisiana, I noticed that my friend (I’ll call her Joan) was not being herself. Joan was normally very out-going, funny and upbeat. This day, Joan was quiet, sullen…….depressed. I asked her that morning if she was feeling OK and she just brushed it off as being tired from the long hours and to not getting enough sleep. Her demeanor did not improve as the day went on and I got worried about her. I finally asked her again if she were OK and she again brushed it off and then thanked me for asking. I thought I knew Joan pretty well, what she told me late that night made me realize I didn’t….
That night, after an exhausting 16 hour day, Joan asked me if we could talk. This wasn’t unusual, and I said “sure”, not thinking anything of it. All the people I was working with were staying in the same hotel, so Joan and I found a quiet place in the lobby and sat down. What she said next sent shivers down my spine. She thanked me for being concerned about her and said there was a reason other than being tired for her mood that day. She asked me if I knew what “today” was. I had heard no news that day, nor did anything special come to mind, so I told her no. She told me that it was the anniversary of the Guyana Tragedy. I thought about how horrible that story was, but I didn’t understand why that would be enough to make my friend have such a bad day.
Joan went on to tell me that before Jim Jones had moved the “church” from San Francisco to Guyana, she had been his personal assistant. She told me that she was closer to him during that time than anyone else in the church. I knew Joan well enough that I knew she was telling the truth. I, of course, found it interesting as she went on to paint a word picture of a good guy gone bad. She told me that she was completely devoted to him in the beginning and was definitely under his “spell”.
Joan said that as the months and years went on, she began to notice disturbing things in Jones’ behavior. She mentioned alcohol abuse, drugs, dalliances with women of the church and financial improprieties. Jones’ paranoia grew as more people discovered his secrets and Joan said that was the main reason he decided to relocate his church to South America. A few months before the church left San Francisco for Guyana, Joan left the church and her boss, Jim Jones. Jones was furious about her leaving and threats were made. Joan found another job and stayed clear of Jones and the People’s Temple, though she remained closely tied to them from a distance.
During her time at the church, Joan’s mother and all 5 children joined the church. When Joan left, her family stayed. Like many of the cult members, they stayed because of their belief in the church but also out of fear of Jim Jones. Well, as you can probably guess, Joan went on to tell me that her mother and all 5 of her children died that day in the jungles of Guyana. I was stunned to hear the reason for her mood that day. I could not fathom the horror of such a loss. I was the first work-related friend she had told about her past. It was an honor that she trusted me enough to confide in, but it was almost something I wish I had never found out. I had no clue of what to say. None…
This was in the early ’80s, so I was in my early 20s. No matter what their age, who is prepared to comfort someone who has experienced such a horrific event in their life? I mumbled something I’m sure and Joan went on to fill in details of that time…… going to Guyana, bringing her family home, the funerals, and of her hate and disgust of Jim Jones. We continued to work together for another 3 years or so until I left FEMA. We talked occasionally about her family during that time, but Joan was strong and did not dwell on it or seek attention because of it.
I have lost touch with Joan, but when I look back, I’m always flabbergasted that she could be so normal after something like that. She was a person you would think did not have a care in the world, yet she had survived something incomprehensible. I think about Joan occasionally when things aren’t going my way. Even my worst problems pale in comparison to what she endured/endures. I hope Joan is doing well and hope to see her again someday. I think all of us can learn to judge the severity of our problems as they relate to Joan’s.
Life is good…….no matter what.