Jonestown Massacre: Survivors Wrestle With Guilt, Shame

PHOTO: Leslie Wagner Wilson escaped from Jonestown with her son Jakari just hours before 909 died in a mass suicide. Her husband, Joe Wilson, shown here in Guyana, as well as and eight other family members perished that day in 1978.
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From the age of 13, Leslie Wagner Wilson had been indoctrinated in the California-based Peoples Temple, led by the charismatic Jim Jones, whose mission was to foster racial harmony and help the poor.

But on Nov. 18, 1978, she and a handful of church members fought their way through thick jungle in the South American country of Guyana, escaping a utopian society gone wrong where followers were starved, beaten and held prisoner in the Jonestown compound.

She walked 30 miles to safety with her 3-year-old son, Jakari, strapped to her back and a smaller group of defectors. But just hours later, the mother, sister and brother and husband she left behind were dead.

"I was so scared," said Wagner, now 55. "We exchanged phone numbers in case we died. I was prepared to die. I never thought I would see my 21st birthday."

Today, on the 34th anniversary, Wilson said it's important to remember the California-based Peoples Temple Jonestown massacre, especially the survivors who have wrestled with their consciences for decades.

PHOTOS: Jonestown Massacre Anniversary

Nine members of her family were among the 918 Americans who died that day, 909 of them ordered by Jones to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the largest ritual suicide in history.

Her husband, Joe Wilson, was one of Jones' top lieutenants who helped assassinate congressman Leo Ryan and his press crew when they tried to free church members who were being held against their will.

After arriving back in the United States, Wilson said she "went through hell" -- three failed marriages, drug use and suicidal thoughts she describes in her 2009 book, "Slavery of Faith."

"I was like Humpty Dumpty, but you couldn't put me back together again," she said.

Survivors, many of them African-American like Wilson, say they felt guilt and shame and faced the most agonizing question surrounding the nation's single largest loss of life until 9/11: Was it suicide or murder?

Full Coverage: Jonestown Massacre

In the now-famous "death tape," supporters clapped and babies cried as Jones instructed families to kill the elderly first, then the youngest in protest against capitalism and racism. Mothers poisoned 246 children before taking their own lives.

"We really can't understand the Peoples Temple without looking at the historical time period when it arose," said Rebecca Moore, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University.

"With the liberation movements of the '60s and '70s, the collapse of the black-power movement, the Peoples Temple was the main institution in the San Francisco Bay area that promoted a message of integration and racial equality."

Moore lost her two sisters and her nephew, the son of Jim Jones. "They were hardcore believers," she said of her siblings.

Jim Jones, who was white, came from a "wrong side of the tracks," poor background in Indiana where in the 1950s he became known as a charismatic preacher with an affinity for African-Americans.

"A number of survivors, including those who defected, believe to this day he had paranormal abilities," said Moore, who met him years later. "He could heal them and read their minds."

In the 1960s, Jones moved to San Francisco, where at the height of the Peoples Temple there were about 5,000 members.

WATCH: A Look Back at Jonestown Massacre

"They wanted my parents to join," she said. "Like most outsiders, we didn't have any idea what was happening outside closed doors."

Jones ingratiated himself with celebrities and politicians, mobilizing voters to help elect Mayor George Moscone in 1975 and becoming chairman of the city's housing authority.

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