November is when the Jonestown massacre happened. It was 1978 and the worst fall San Francisco had ever had. Harvey Milk and George Moscone had been assassinated, and so very many people died under Jim Jones’ hand. The People’s Temple had been a Bay Area institution, famous for varied and controversial acts, but this final act was too gruesome to imagine, and the horrible images of all the bodies were beamed back to us on television screens and magazines and everywhere in between.
Jonestown was the ominous name, uttered in the thick, nighttime fog of a San Francisco November of my youth, and it hung in the air like the clouds of my breath. Later, as an adult, I would hear the audio tapes from that night in Guyana, where Jim was telling the mothers not to cry, and everyone was weeping and weeping and then dying. It is too terrible to picture, more awful than anything, these mournful screams like a sonic grave, an aural sepulcher. Things in my ears that I can hear scare me more than what I can see or feel, and suddenly I’m like a kid who can’t go to sleep at night because something is under the bed or in the closet; there is evil around, and there is nothing you can do but stay awake and fear it.
There’s less news about religious cults nowadays. It’s more about terrorism — that is where religious extremism plays out in society today and is seen and heard. In the ’70s and ’80s there was a lot of talk of cults and deprogramming and parents on Donahue trying to get their kids back. In a way, I always felt I was pretty susceptible to cults because I always wanted to belong to something, have an allegiance to something, keep a secret, stay in the know, be one of them, whatever “them” was, a group, a whole. I don’t know anything, so I want to be with people who do know. They seem like they know. I want in. I am so unsure of life. I am constantly looking for reassurance, even if that is false, even if it’s a lie, even if it’s a means to an end. At least it’s sure. At least they seem sure. I am so fucking, goddamned unsure. It’s like I am constantly at a bus station or airport, arriving or landing with a suitcase and a pillow, and I’m a teenager, feeling like Iris from Taxi Driver or Kristy Mcnichol or Linda Blair or Linda Purl from a ’70s movie about young girls losing their way and drinking too much or getting abducted. I’m in shorts and a hat, and I look lost and easy to manipulate and in need of guidance, and so I am always at risk.
I read a book once about how cults would give you lots of sugar, like ice cream rolled in M&Ms, and that sounded so delicious. But the sugar would make you hungrier later, and then the cult would withhold food to make you docile, to make you listen, and that was mind control. And to think it started with a yummy dessert.
My grandparents came to America to live with my family in the mid ’70s, and they had been there caring for me and my brother fairly without incident, until my grandmother slipped and fell on a TIME magazine and fractured her hip. I am not sure if it was the one with the Jonestown massacre on the cover. I want to think that it was, but that might be too glib and convenient. But I really think it was, and I think that is why what happened happened.
My parents felt so guilty about having left the magazine out on the floor that they went to great lengths to celebrate my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. The People’s Temple had been recently vacated, and being the unsentimental and non-superstitious type of immigrant folks they are, my parents rented it out. Now I look back and cannot believe that they did this, but at the time, it was completely normal. There seemed to be a lot of death around then, but we had no idea what we were in for in the following years, when the plague of AIDS would claim the most lives of all.
The People’s Temple was too large a venue for such a truly humble event, some semi-poor immigrants celebrating nuptials half a century past, but my parents actually put up streamers and tinsel and cut-out-paper “HAPPY ANNIVERSARY” banners and draped them all over the hollow and haunted halls. The guests were few, and there was too much food, which seemed to spoil unnaturally fast in the cold, refrigerator-like air of the temple, or tomb, as I liked to call it. Nobody wanted to eat, nobody wanted to do the hokey-pokey. All the hymns sung inside sounded flat. Our voices could not be raised to God, for we had come to a Godless place, where God’s name had been taken in vain, where God had been impersonated to a deadly, devastating end. But the party was considered an unprecedented success, as we were not party people and had nothing else to compare it to.