'I Am a Survivor Of The Jonestown Massacre'

I was introduced to the People's Temple at 15 years of age. I had organized a march to walk out of school on Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, which was not a holiday at that time, and my mom could see that I needed some guidance. So, she suggested I went to see Jim Jones speak at a junior high school in 1972.

He had shades on, so I remember thinking he must be a gangster of some type. But it wasn't him that I focused on. What I focused on was all the young people and how it seemed as if they had a purpose and a vision.

Shortly after, my mom asked me if I wanted to go up to Redwood Valley, where the "mother church" Temple was located at the time. I enjoyed working out there in the open, but during the summer I was up there a woman who was part of the People's Temple made a snide remark about my mother, saying she was lazy, and I responded aggressively. That night, we were asked to leave the valley.

My mom continued going to the temple every weekend, and in the fall of 1975 she donated her house to the People's Temple. I was 18, and in junior college and I said I would move to San Francisco into the Temple.

Life at the People's Temple in the U.S.

Ollie and I became a couple once I had been in San Francisco for about a year. We saw each other every weekend, and then began going together. Then, she ran away from home to the Temple, she was in danger and marriage to me allowed her to be removed from that danger.

At the time, Jim Jones was traveling between Guyana and the Temple. The few times we did have conversations were because I was in some type of trouble that required I be in front of the audience. Wednesday nights included "catharsis" which was when issues would be worked out. You weren't allowed to defend yourself. You had to take the accusation and it would be discussed.

I had a reputation of being very focused and that I wouldn't accept a lot of things. In the end, that was a saving force. But I got called up on the floor a couple of times for fighting. Jim Jones would say, "Eugene, you're up here again?" But I communicated well and so I always had other counsellors who would come to my defence and Jones would look down at me and say, "Well, you're a good worker, Eugene, just don't do it again."

Jim Jones at Redwood Valley People's Temple
Jim Jones (center) standing with children at the People's Temple in Redwood Valley, California in 1972 The Jonestown Institute

Things that people got in trouble for, I didn't. I was never quite able to understand that until very recently, when someone went through all the records and letters that were written concerning me. The Temple's attitude was that they needed me because I was a poster child for them. I was educated and I wanted to be a revolutionary, but I was thinking beyond my years, so they couldn't control me in the way they controlled other young folks.

Because you were always being observed: what were his or her weaknesses, what were his or her likes and dislikes, what motivates them? The more dedicated you were to Jim Jones, you became part of the inner circle and the inner circle dictated what was going to happen to those in the outer layers of the community.

In files compiled by the Temple, that I was able to get years later, it says: "Eugene Smith will not fight for the cause, he will fight for his family." So they separated me from my family. They sent Ollie over to Jonestown first, she was 6 months pregnant at the time, as well as my mother and some of my friends.

I was not aware of the abuse that was going on in Jonestown, but I was aware that the promise had been made that the corporal punishment that was happening in the U.S. would not happen in Guyana because we would be within in our own system. Within 20 minutes of arriving, that idea was destroyed.

Arriving in Jonestown in 1978

After being driven from the port in Guyana to Jonestown, I got into the main pavilion and I saw my wife, friends and foes. It was exciting for about 20 minutes. Then they called up people who arrived when I did, and said, "We know that somebody is a CIA operative and they're going to be passing information via cassette tapes." Everybody knew that I was into music and so I had one cassette tape for every day of the year. That was the first thing they confiscated. I was p*****.

Then, they began calling up men who had cheated on their wives on the way from the U.S. and they started roughing them up. I remember saying to myself, "This wasn't supposed to happen here. He lied."

But I couldn't leave because I didn't know where I was. Except for the pavilion, you couldn't even see the jungle. It was so dark. And, I couldn't leave with Ollie, because she was 8 months pregnant. It was a quandary.

We also had "white night" that same night. Whenever there was a white night, which meant we were under attack and it's an emergency situation, everyone would run to the pavilion and Jim Jones would talk and prophesize and go off on his rants and raves for hours and hours. He was strung out.

Jonestown was crowded, but I had understood I was going to a jungle and I knew we were coming from a communal environment going to another type of communal environment. I wasn't surprised by the conditions, but the longer I was there, the conditions deteriorated so much that we used to make jokes about it. Every meal was rice.

What people weren't prepared for was the amount of mental stress. It was on so many levels that it was hard to comprehend. You slept four hours, worked for 8 to 12 hours, then you came home, showered, ate dinner and you'd expect it would be a relaxing evening but would be a white night.

But I had no personal interactions with Jim Jones or his inner circle in Jonestown. Even the people in his entourage who had defended me previously, were distanced. I don't know if they saw me as a threat then, but I knew that they knew I was not afraid. I had challenged everybody from Jones' son on down. I turned 21 in Jonestown and had a bad temper in those days. I knew how to handle myself, and I hadn't learned fear yet.

Life under Jim Jones

To me, Jim Jones was always a gangster. If he didn't like people, he would have them beaten up, or disciplined, or made to work harder. He was able to make demands, because there was a certain segment of people who believed no matter what. If you were in his inner circle, you were blinded by the light. As you got further away from that inner circle, the light became dimmer and dimmer and darkness was what you saw.

I was on the wood crew, so I was able to leave Jonestown every day and go out into the bush. But if you weren't able to leave, Jones babbled all day long about what was happening on BBC, how the U.S. was being destroyed and how you should be so happy you were there in the promised land. It was constant indoctrination.

Jonestown pictured from above
An aerial view of Jonestown, Guyana, taken after 18 November 1978 by FBI agents in Jonestown. The pavilion can be seen in the top right of the picture. The Jonestown Institute

Then, in August 1978, I was approached by one of the counsellors who said "Eugene, we want you to go to Georgetown to replace someone." I said I wasn't interested because I had just had a baby, Martin was a couple of months old and I didn't want to leave Ollie.

Two weeks later, I was told: "Father wants you to go to Georgetown to replace somebody." At that point, it was no longer a request, it was an order. I said that I needed to be able to speak to Ollie every day via shortwave radio and I needed to be able to hear my baby. I was told I shouldn't be there longer than a few weeks.

I don't recall my last conversation with Ollie, other than kissing her goodbye and saying take care of the baby. I didn't feel anything imminent or ominous was going to happen. The white nights had lightened up a bit. So I left for Georgetown a few weeks later. Ollie and I spoke everyday, they kept their promise. Except the day of the incident.

Georgetown, Leo Ryan and November 18

I didn't have the feeling that the situation at Jonestown would devolve until Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Georgetown with concerned relatives. Even then, I didn't see a mass murder-suicide happening. It got tense, but the incident I felt would happen was that Leo Ryan and the concerned families would be refused entry. And based on that Leo Ryan would contact the state department and they would demand entry for concerned relatives. And after that I saw there being a standoff. But not an armed standoff. I thought the worst case scenario would be that those people who wanted to, would leave and after the fact, Jim Jones would talk about how he was betrayed and those who left were all agents of the system anyway.

I spoke to Ollie on the 17th, but it was brief and on the evening of the 18th, I was at the movie theater when the usher came down and told us there had been a shooting at Lamaha Gardens. I was thinking that it had to be an errant bullet because we were across the street from the defence force base. When we got there, I could hear people calling my name; two of my friends were in the elephant grass. I asked what was going on, and they said that they were killing the children upstairs.

I went upstairs into the front room and I remember looking at one of the seniors and her eyes were like a bloodhound's, she had cried so much. Everyone was standing there in shock. I walked down the hall into the room, looked in the shower and saw four bodies there. I saw Sharon Amos and her children, Christa and Martin Amos and Lianne Harris. I wanted to know who had done it, and why? This was 5 or 6pm in the evening, so Jonestown had already happened, but we didn't know that. A few minutes later, Guyanese police showed up and started corralling us together upstairs on the balcony, talking about how we had killed Guyanese citizens. That's when I knew something had happened in Jonestown.

The morning of the 19th, we were told that they hadn't found any children or babies at Jonestown, but they had found some people. On the morning of the 20th they said they had found more people and children, but they hadn't found any babies. Then on the 21st, we were told that everybody was dead. So we didn't know until three days after the fact.

I died that day. I say I woke up the next morning and was reborn, because I wasn't the Eugene I was the day before. I had no fear but I had lost every single person and all the items that reminded me of them. I had lost everything in my life that was valuable.

Jonestown After The Jonestown Massacre
Valium Used in The Jonestown Massacre

My belief is that my mother most likely took the poison, but that Ollie didn't and she wouldn't allow Martin and they were two of the murders; the people who were injected with poison. But I never got to bury them. It was not possible to go to Jonestown to identify them, and many cemeteries or churches in the U.S. would not accept the bodies from Jonestown. Eventually, Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland accepted hundreds of bodies in a mass grave.

Life after Jonestown

I was held in Guyana until the end of December 1978, because the people that escaped Jonestown would not fly back with me on the plane. I had been labelled one of the "avenging angels." They had heard that I had been instructed by Steven Jones to bring down the plane and make sure there were no survivors. How the hell was I supposed to do that? It was so illogical.

In my mind, the fact that some of us survived was a happenstance, it wasn't a choice. Because I believe the large majority of survivors would have rather been there fighting and resisting than having been removed and not being able to do anything.

But had there been no one going back to the U.S. to tell the story, there would have just been whatever writings were left in Jonestown. I believe that us coming back gave people a reason to hate, and to hate a type of political movement, and it allowed people to justify their fears of others being different to them.

I dealt with what had happened by coming back and getting off the plane in L.A instead of San Francisco. But the FBI wanted to talk to me and get a handwriting analysis. I was told they had read a memo from the Temple that said that if I couldn't couldn't bring down the relatives on the plane, I would be tasked with assassinating the president of the United States or other politicians. Of course, this wasn't true. But the Leo Ryan murder case didn't end until 1989, so for 10 years there was scrutiny.

Jonestown Massacre Survivor Eugene Smith
Eugene Smith was a member of the People's Temple in Jonestown. He survived the mass murder-suicide on November 18 as he had been moved to work in Georgetown several months prior. Eugene Smith

Now, I deal with what happened by putting it on the shelf that's far, far away. It only gets pulled out every few years when November 18 comes around.

I never remarried or had children. I'm not ashamed to say it, but I failed at my most basic responsibility, which was to protect Ollie and Martin. For me, it was the most tragic mistake of my life and I couldn't afford to make that mistake again.

Some survivors had very troubled lives. Hopefully the book I have written about life after Jonestown will give people something that causes them to look deeper into what happened. I've been lucky in the sense that I had a mindset when I came back that I had to find a job with benefits, but being under scrutiny for a decade made that difficult.

And, from being in the Temple during my earlier years, there were things I had to learn, even though I was intelligent and educated. I had never learned how to save and I had never had a bank account. Things that people learned at 15, I learned at 25. But there are things they'll never know, that I know. Yet I didn't give up, so it is what it is. I've now gone past existing and surviving to living.

Eugene Smith is a Jonestown survivor and now lives in the U.S. He is the author of Back to the World: A Life after Jonestown which is available through Amazon here or through Tamu Press here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.