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A Conversation With Jonestown Survivor Yulanda Williams

A Jonestown survivor's insights on trauma, connection, resilience, story, and hope.

Key points

  • Trauma often involves dynamics of power and control, making empowerment key to healing.
  • Maintaining individuality is key to social and emotional health; cults prey on this dynamic.
  • Making sense of and sharing one's story can play a role in recovery after trauma.

Lured with a vision of a paradise land, in the 1970s, more than 900 members of what was known as The People's Temple arrived in the jungles of Guyana to a place that became known as "Jonestown." On November 18, 1978, 918 of them died after being given Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

Jim Jones, the founder of The People's Temple and master of the unthinkable torture that occurred through it, sought to attract individuals who had experienced oppression, particularly racism, offering beautifully described resources and opportunities. The settlement these partitioners arrived at, however, was a barbaric trap with a sadistic leader who held them captive.

At age 12, Yulanda Williams and her family became involved with The People's Temple.

Her family found release from the jaws of the scenic prison a few months before the massacre.

They were of very few to escape the heavily guarded compound.

Not only did Yulanda survive upon her return to the United States, but she also flourished, serving the San Fransisco community for 32 years as a captain in the San Fransisco police force. She is a living model of resilience after extreme trauma.

I met with Yulanda to hear her story and to better understand how she sustained her body, mind, and spirit. Her account is one of beauty, illustrating the potential strength of an individual and family. She gives a message that we can all appreciate and learn from.

Power and Control

In sharing her story, Yulanda repeatedly discusses how Jones used power and control to manipulate his members. She shares how Jones initially provided a deceitful, "concern for the people at the time," showing awareness of the oppression many faced, but ultimately demonstrating that he was, "no better than all the people he was saying were trying to harm us."

She discusses his use of fear, humiliation, and isolation in meshing the minds of those he captured. All incoming and outgoing mail was censored making it near impossible to connect with the outside world. Yulanda shares that people would be led into a "kind of giving up, a loss of spirit or desire."

As well, her words also detail horrific physical abuse, including depriving people of basic needs, contamination of food, and drugs.

As Yulanda speaks, I am shocked yet subtly reminded of a less severe version of these dynamics in abuse that many individuals I have worked with have reported. For example, in homes of child abuse, there is often a message that no one would believe the child, and that if they were to share, they would be betraying the family.

Similarly, in domestic violence, a common thread is that a person is criticized to the point of ultra-low self-worth while simultaneously being separated from individuals who care for them and who might inspire them to challenge their abuser.

Yulanda shares that a message was given repeatedly to the members of Jonestown: "Your family doesn't love you or want you. I'm providing for you." She discusses this and hierarchy in the making of a terror, that Jones had a way of "disconnecting people from their roots."

Peace of Mind

Even across our call, I can sense Yulanda's strength. How does someone make it through something like this? She shares that "it took years of survivor's guilt to use what I learned for good."

Yulanda did not experience the traditional American growing-up experiences of teenage proms and dances. Still, upon walking again on U.S. soil, she took every step to celebrate her independence and move toward those things that mattered to her.

She shares having to learn life skills not taught in Jonestown, like writing a check. And, somehow, she did, progressing to a 32-year career with the San Fransisco police department that ended with her serving as a police captain.

I can only imagine Yulanda's appreciation for her freedom after her experiences. I have often been in awe of the strength of individuals I work with who, like her, have gone through traumas of all kinds.

The more time goes forward, the more I am convinced that if someone is curious and determined enough they can figure out a path to almost anything. When put to the test, I believe that a person's integrity to make whatever choices they have is one last right that is indestructible.

Fortitude of Family

I asked Yulanda directly how she kept her integrity through everything. She answers immediately: "Family." Yulanda discusses that Jones divided many families; however, hers was one of the few that remained united. She credits this for their endurance through the nightmare.

Yulanda shares, "I want people to know that when someone loves you unconditionally, that protects you." She emphasizes the importance of surrounding oneself with people who allow us to be ourselves and shares stories of many who have provided her with encouragement and acceptance.

Maintaining Individuality and Telling a Story

Abuse, cults, and severe oppression have ways of confining a person. Yulanda shares that upon returning to the United States, "I found peace of mind in being who I wanted to be, going where I wanted to go." She shares that this individual choice is crucial.

Yulanda shares that it has been meaningful not only for her but also for her daughters, her family, and those more than 900 people who never left Jonestown. She shares that she is not just living for herself but for all these people. "Neither mine nor my daughters’ spirit and soul resonate with Jim Jones."

Initially, upon her homecoming, Yulanda kept her time in The People’s Temple secret. She feared that individuals would judge her as foolish despite the reality that her family had been preyed on by the organization beginning when Yulanda was incredibly young. Yet, she has since found that telling her story has been empowering, meaningful, and healing. She will appear in an upcoming National Geographic docuseries, "Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown," this August.

Yulanda emphasizes that this story “can only be told by those who were there,” again striking a theme that survivors of severe situations have declared repeatedly—namely, the power of narrative. Through reclaiming one’s account and sharing it through words, arts, or other means, many gain an increased sense of agency followed by healing.

Indeed, many trauma-focused therapies rely on a narrative component in the therapy process where one can repossess their autonomy over their own story and receive validation that had been denied.

In Closing

I am immensely appreciative of Yulanda's willingness to talk to me and of the beautiful advocacy she has done since leaving Jonestown. She is a living portrait of resilience whose story can teach us volumes about the human ability to recover after severe trauma and all our opportunities to make meaning in life regardless of circumstances. While her experience is extreme, she shows us that healing is possible after even the most dire of events.

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