I Survived Jonestown

Leslie Wagner Wilson endured being held captive for sixteen months in a jungle compound known as “Jonestown”. There she witnessed suicide drills, worked all hours in the jungle heat and had her dreams of medical school stolen. She watched those labelled “high risk” be denied medical care and some get medicated for fear they were a flight risk – all under the leadership of a madman, the preacher Jim Jones. Leslie escaped the day of the infamous murder suicide referred to as the Jonestown Massacre on November 18, 1978, carrying her three-year old son over thirty miles to another town, only to arrive and find out the next morning that Jonestown no longer existed due to the death of all of its remaining 918 members, including her mother, sister, brother, husband, niece and nephew, and the many she had grown up with since the age of thirteen. The background to the massacre can be found here on BBC’s Storyville. The Editor of Country Squire Magazine, Dominic Wightman, interviews Leslie about her experiences, about coping with major trauma and the healing power of forgiveness.

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DW: Why did you join Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple?

LWW: My mother was at her wit’s end due to my sister Michelle’s involvement with heavy duty drugs. This was the era of the Love and Peace Movement, mind expansion drugs. My sister was using, running away from home and even ended up in Juvenile Hall for stealing and crashing my mother’s car. A friend of hers who was also a Residential Care Homeowner told my Mom about a church called Peoples Temple in Redwood Valley, California, which had a drug rehab program for youth.

DW: You say you were “enthusiastic” about the People’s Temple? For what reasons?

LWW:  Well, I grew up in an interracial family. My Mom was Black, and my Father was Caucasian. We lived in neighbourhoods amongst Japanese, Russian, South American, White and Black. The church was racially diverse. My mom was also a woman that helped those that needed help. When I entered the church, I was shocked that the members were multi-racial, but also about the message Jim taught, which was to care for the poor, the disenfranchised and those in need. Because I grew up in an upper middle-class family, I never knew that children went to bed hungry, that the elderly were left behind, and that the world contained so much suffering. I thought Peoples Temple was the difference in people’s lives and could make a difference in the world. At the age of 13, I wanted to be a humanitarian.

DW: Did you really see Jim Jones as “Father”?

LWW: Yes, I did see Jim as Father. However, not in the context of THE FATHER. I believed he could heal, but I never thought he was God.

DW: Jones talked of “socialism”. That was his blueprint for Utopia or his excuse for keeping the church together, as if his power-grabbing needed some kind of ideological base to it, or because that was the zeitgeist at the time?

LWW: It was the Zeitgeist of the time. Jim was skilfully able to capture the spirit of the time which was chaotic and transitional; we had the cold war, the Vietnam war, love and peace movement and people were seeking a meaningful experience in which they could give of themselves and find a cause larger than themselves.

DW: Have you ever witnessed a more charismatic speaker than Jones, and if so, who?

LWW: Not yet.

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DW: The move to Guyana – to Jonestown – was expedited because of pressure on Jones back in the USA, from lurid headlines, the IRS and even CIA interest. The negative headlines and coordinated escape to Guyana didn’t open your eyes a bit to Jones’ con back then?

LWW: Good question. At that time, I had one foot in the Temple and one foot out. I began to have doubts at 15 years of age; his faked assassination and telling us afterwards that he needed a Mercedes Benz to protect himself – I thought “why would you need a car to protect you, if you are all powerful?” And then I began to question the healing of cancers – why do they all look similar and when the supposedly sick members went into the bathroom, I wondered where do the cancers come from – how do they come out of the body? Remember we did not have Google at the time! However, you were taught not to doubt, not to question. And as I looked around at other reactions from other people, they seemed fine with it so I thought “It must be me… I must not be faithful enough.” So yes, I saw signs, yet being literally brainwashed from 13, it was difficult for me to fully admit.

DW: Your whole family was with you right to the end in Jonestown?

LWW: Yes, they were with me.

DW: To start with the socialist experiment of Jonestown – a bit like Venezuela, I suppose – worked well and you had enough to eat, as well as a lot of fun. Then – due to lack of farming expertise –  the top soil wore thin, crops failed, and you relied on rice meals three times a day. You say Jones’ paranoia then grew out of control and he set up a spy network to keep you from fleeing Jonestown, which your husband belonged to. Do you think Jones’ paranoia grew more from what people were saying about him back in the US or more from the realisation that, as the Utopia failed, he could see his power draining? Narcissism or fear?

LWW: Goodness, another great question. It is my belief that Jim never intended to stay in Jonestown. Gone were the accolades of the political elite, his presence diminished and the light that shone upon him in the States had faded. Most of the congregation did not know he was on drugs in the U.S. Had that been exposed, there would I believe have been very few members following him. So, he found himself really like a caged animal, hence we joined him. The paranoia heightened since he could move freely, and some that he trusted had exposed him in the United States.

DW: Jim Jones started talking about revolutionary suicide back in the States or just in Guyana?

LWW: My memory was only in Jonestown. I have heard stories of those on the Elite Planning Commission who were induced to participate in a suicide drill. Jim spoke of revolutionary suicide in the States, but I never participated in or witnessed a practice drill while in the United States.

DW: Absolutists like Jones – like some Salafi preachers for example – see the world as being against them. Death is their currency of fear but inevitably also the only way out for them when things go wrong. If the caliphate fails – no worries – there’s always the afterlife. How did Jones portray the afterlife for those in the Peoples Temple? Did he dress it up at all?

LWW:  Not that I remember.

DW: A culture of fear, paranoia and informants was the backcloth to the mass suicide. Did it succeed as a mass suicide out of fear, loyal obedience to the crumbling Jones, or because the people had been sold a picture of some promised land in the afterlife?

LWW: It is my belief that he prepared us for this all along. It was the strategic breakdown of the human spirit. We worked 10 -12 hours day, had very little nutrition, and stayed up at all hours of the night after he decided that he needed a live audience to vent to and spew more lies to about our inevitable demise – we were exhausted. He broke us mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally. Towards the end, I would not doubt that people were so tired, they were willing to end their lives. Children however do not commit suicide, that was murder. I believe that many fought for their lives and those of their children. There was a witness who stated that my sister Michelle fought. That would be her nature.

DW: You were there in Jonestown when the first attempt was made on Congressman Leo Ryan’s life?

LWW: No, we had already escaped.

DW: You told your mother you were off for a picnic and hugged her goodbye, as it turned out for the last time. So, you escaped – separate from Congressman Leo Ryan’s party – before the massacre?

LWW: Yes, I was in a party of nine others, who snuck out the morning of the massacre and made our trek 30 odd miles to the next town, Matthews Ridge. The leader of our group, Richard Clark, thought that day would be the right day to escape. God’s intervention prevailed.

DW: So, luckily, you were not on the runway when Jones’ henchmen appeared and shot Ryan dead, along with many of your friends?

LWW: No, we were miles away when the Pt. Kaituma shooting occurred. We did not learn of the shootings at Pt. Kaituma until we arrived at the next town late in the evening of November 18.

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DW: When did you find out that the massacre at Jonestown had occurred?

LWW: We ended up at a Police Station in Matthews Ridge and we were told the next morning by the Captain that a report came through – 500 dead and 500 had escaped into the jungle.

DW: You say you went immediately into denial as a means of coping with the massacre?

LWW: Yes, my mind could not grasp the gravity of the massacre. So, I believed that some of my family had escaped to Venezuela and were living there.

DW: You changed your name. Was that part of the survivor’s guilt you felt?

LWW: The name change was for protection. Rumours began circulating that those that survived were on a hit list for death. No one knew me as Fortier, my birth name before my dad adopted my sister and me. It was for protection.

DW: Your recovery from these traumatic events started, you have said, in 2007. You forgiving Jones started the healing? How on earth could you forgive a man who many have described as the Devil and who effectively stole the early part of your life and the lives of your family?

LWW: Even before I began my serious Christian walk, I believed that I had to forgive Jim. It was my atonement to my own healing. He did not move alone, there were so many others that enabled him to thrive amongst his sins. Those included me. Had I spoken up to my dad during this, would this have saved my brother – would my mother have been allowed to take him to Guyana? You see the secrets we all held, they assisted in the awful outcome. Many stayed silent and they compromised everything. Me forgiving Jim allowed me to forgive myself.

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DW: Now you offer others counselling. You call this Soul Restoration. You share with others the resiliency of the human spirit and the work it takes to bring you back to centre. What form does this service take and can it be accessed remotely, say from England?

LWW: It took years for me to understand and arrive at the place I am here today. Yes, this year is the time for international access. In the next few weeks, there will be more information on my website how individuals can reach out to me and speak on a one to one basis. When I wrote Slavery of Faith, I made a promise to God that I would leave myself open to help others.

DW: How does Jonestown make you feel about other cults?

LWW:  Unfortunately, we still have many cults in the U.S. There have been families that have reached out to me about a church their children were attending and wanted me to research to see if it was cult or cult-like. So, I am aware they still exist.

DW: Are you suspicious of politicians promising the earth through socialism?

LWW: Another good question. I believe that if we do not follow the teachings of Jesus who had pure love – then we will not succeed. Love is the answer – that is the only label I believe in.

DW: Do you think Jones would have been successful if the Internet had existed in the early 1970’s?

LWW: To imagine the far reach Jim would have now – that the world wide web enables – is utterly frightening. He would be able to harness all those souls looking for something to fill the gap in their lives. I do not believe Jonestown would have happened, there would have been the ability to re-direct and build mass denial for every accusation. He was an evil, evil person….

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DW: As you mentioned, Leslie, you have your debut book published. It is called Slavery of Faith. Was writing the book cathartic?

LWW: Yes, it was healing. I was not sure if I would ever publish, my soul was crying for me to write. There was no other choice.

DW: What are your plans for the future, Leslie?

LWW: My desire is to continue the work, to broaden my reach and to continue to be an example of God’s love. It was not easy developing my Faith, it took years and many tears. I just want to offer Love.

DW: Many thanks for taking the time to be interviewed and good luck in the future. Your story is amazing and it was my honour to interview you, Leslie. Thank you.

Slavery of Faith by Leslie Wagner Wilson The Untold Story of the Peoples Temple from the Eyes of a Thirteen Year Old, Her Escape from Jonestown at 20 and Life 40 Years later is available on Amazon here.