Eugene Smith's memoir 'Back to the World: A Life After Jonestown' chronicles the reentry into civilian life after surviving the mass suicide of over 900 people in Guyana. (Texas A&M University Press; Getty Images)
Originally based in San Francisco, the People’s Temple Agricultural Project aimed to practice “apostolic socialism” following the guidance of their leader, Jim Jones. Instead, in 1978 and in one of the largest losses of American civilian life, 909 people died in Guyana under Jones’ direction in what he called a “revolutionary suicide.” The handful of survivors returned to a firestorm of U.S. media coverage that, among other things, declared Jonestown a “cult of death.”
Back to the World: A Life After Jonestown (Texas A&M University Press; $24.95) is the side of the story that sensational headlines and previous historical records have not shown. After years of silence, Bay Area author Eugene Smith recounts his path to Guyana and the course of his life after returning to the United States. With the kind of reflection that only time can bring, he describes moving to Jonestown with the hopes of joining a politically innovative community—only to lose his mother, wife, and infant son a year later, when he was only 21.
Like many Americans, I learned of Jonestown as a historical event retold and magnified so many times it had become almost mythical. I didn’t expect to see myself in Smith’s descriptions of his life in my hometown of Oakland, or to hear my thoughts echoed in his concerns about revolution in the social media age. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by how similar we were. Listening to him speak felt like speaking to a version of myself from a different time and circumstance.
Eugene Smith is a survivor, yes, but that is hardly the most interesting thing about him. After building a life again from scratch, dedicating years to public service, and overcoming some of the most arduous obstacles life has to offer, he has a wisdom that we can all learn from.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What you want a person with only a casual knowledge of Jonestown to really understand after reading your book?
I want them to understand that Jonestown, in a very unique way, was a microcosm of society. It wasn't homogenous. Not everybody agreed with everything. The people at Jonestown were described by the media as zombies, to a certain extent. And that’s not the truth.
Hopefully my book will bring that forth, because I'm describing intelligent individuals that made a choice to join People's Temple, but made that choice based on the idea that People's Temple was helping change the world, or at least the United States, into a better environment than it was at that particular time.
Since 1978, you’ve been a very private person. In the book you talk about your desire to avoid being identified by this one event for the rest of your life, writing that you were “tasked with being a survivor.” Why come forward now? What changed for you?
Time. Time changed. It has been 40-plus years since “the incident,” as I call it. I have lived a lifetime in between then and now. It's also allowed me time to look back at it as a matured senior versus a very young man at 21 years of age. And being able to look back at things that you've lived through, that you survived, allows you to have a clearer grasp on the rest of your life.
As survivors, we've all been fairly secretive. There's been a couple of books that came out about Jonestown, but as far as I know, I'm the first African-American male to write about it. I want people to know that we were individuals. We didn’t all have collective thoughts, as we’ve been described.
Many people don't know that the majority of people at Jonestown, over 70%, were black.
The majority of people there were black for multiple reasons.
People were there because they thought he was going to give America an example of what a interracial community could look like, and what a very intelligent political community could look like. I think the thing that enticed black people to join was the fact that Jones could get away with saying many things that a black minister could not get away with saying. And it can be attractive when you find a spokesman who represents your point of view, who says things the way you want them said.
You write about how People's Temple was the first place where you felt like you were allowed to be a revolutionary. We live in a current period of a lot of political frustration, and there are a lot of very politically angry young people who are seeking outlets for that anger. Do you think that there are better outlets now for that political frustration than there were back then?
The first revolution that you have is when you change your mind. When you change your mind about something, whether it's an individual or a cause or a purpose, that is revolutionary.
The second revolution is what you do once you've changed your mind. Are you going to spread the word? Are you going to become involved in terms of marching, in terms of protesting? Are you going to write letters? Are you going to try to influence people to do the same? Revolution can mean multiple things. For me, revolution was becoming as intelligent as I possibly could, knowing as much about the world as I possibly could.
Now we have more information, but I think in some sense that young people, especially those that are computer-savvy and into social media, might be getting overwhelmed because there are so many points of view that are being thrown at them. But nothing replaces researching, so you can come up with your own conclusion. It’s difficult, but it’s worth it. And I think people want things to be easy, so they don’t research what they hear.
With the COVID 19 pandemic, so much of life as people knew it vanished before their very eyes. For a lot of people, this has been an especially powerful lesson in accepting and dealing with loss and change. You wrote about how in one day, with one event, the entire world that you knew vanished. How do you think this impacted your experience of the pandemic?
It definitely affected me. And I was speaking to some fellow survivors about this in the midst of the pandemic. They told me they had the same feeling that they had the day after “the incident,” and the month after. When we had to come back to the US not knowing what we were facing, our whole world was changing. The people we knew were gone. The people we cared about were gone. The businesses that we used to go to are gone. Things that were normal are no longer normal. This pandemic was stressful in that sense, but it also brought out the coping mechanisms of some survivors and myself as well in terms of dealing with this.
The difference was this was a disease that you could catch, versus when we came back, the change was because of a hatred of us. People called us programmed, they called us murderers.
And being like that, you had no one to depend on but yourself, so you self-isolated, such as during the pandemic. For people who have never had to isolate on their own, for any reason, the pandemic was a shock to the heart because it took away everything that they knew, that comforted them. So this pandemic was stressful in that sense, but the difference was that this time, with this emergency, I already had coping mechanisms.
'Back to the World: A Life After Jonestown' is available now. Details here.
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