Teri Buford O’Shea fled Jonestown three weeks before all its inhabitants committed suicide. Here, she explains why the tragedy should be a cautionary tale for everyday people.
On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones and more than 900 members of his People’s Temple committed mass suicide in the jungle of Guyana. Since that time, the event has occupied a grotesque but fringy place in American history. Jones’s followers are imagined as wide-eyed innocents, swallowing his outrageous teachings along with his cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Teri Buford O’Shea remembers things quite differently.
O’Shea was 19 years old when she joined the People’s Temple in Redwood Valley, California. It was 1971, and O’Shea was homeless when a man pulled up alongside her in a van. He told her about the community where he lived — a place, he said, where no one had to worry about food or housing. The leader was a visionary who was building a new future. O’Shea gladly took the ride. After all, she assumed, if she didn’t like the People’s Temple, she could always leave.
Forty years later, O’Shea is just beginning to speak openly about her seven years with Jim Jones, first in California and then at his compound in Guyana. Her memories of Jonestown are complex. Its inhabitants, she says, were warm people who worked hard to build a utopian community. Jones himself was passionately committed to civil rights — during the 1960s, he helped integrate churches, hospitals, restaurants, and movie theaters, and he personally adopted several children of color. (His only biological child, Stephan, had the middle name Gandhi.) The majority of the followers who died with him were African-American, and one third were children.
As O’Shea tells it, Jones’s idealism was a large part of what made him so lethal. He tapped into the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and 1970s, feeding on people’s fears and promising to create a “rainbow family” where everyone would truly be equal. He was charismatic enough to lure hundreds of people to a South American jungle, where he cut off all their ties with the outside world.
O’Shea, who escaped just three weeks before the massacre, recently published a collection of poems and photographs called Jonestown Lullaby. I spoke to her this morning about her memories of Jim Jones, including the mass suicide rehearsals he called White Nights. She described her dawning realization that Jones was going to kill her. And she explained why Jonestown should be remembered not as an American curiosity but a cautionary tale for everyday people.