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Home/ stevenwarran's Library/ Notes/ December 7, 2011,, Jonestown Massacre survivor Teri Buford O'Shea of Northampton recalls years of pain in Guyana, by Fred Contrada,

December 7, 2011,, Jonestown Massacre survivor Teri Buford O'Shea of Northampton recalls years of pain in Guyana, by Fred Contrada,

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December 7, 2011,, Jonestown Massacre survivor Teri Buford O'Shea of Northampton recalls years of pain in Guyana, by Fred Contrada,

Teri Buford O'Shea of Northampton holds the cover of the book she has written about her experiences as a survivor of the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana.

NORTHAMPTON – Teri Buford O'Shea still dreams about the “White Nights.” In her dreams, she’s back in Guyana, back in Jonestown, reliving the terror. Jim Jones is on the loudspeaker telling the community they’re under attack. 

“We will take our lives on this night in a revolutionary suicide!” Jones yells. 

Mothers feed cyanide-laced Kool-Aid to their children, then drink it themselves. Gunfire sounds in the dark of the jungle. O’Shea drinks the Kool-Aid. Jones laughs maniacally. 

“It’s only a rehearsal,” he tells everyone. 

O’Shea’s prayers are answered. She will live at least a little longer. 

O’Shea, who lives now in Northampton, wrote a poem about those terrifying “White Nights,” as the run-ups to the mass suicide were known. 

It's one of 40 poems in her new book, "Jonestown Lullaby." They came out of her like painful births in the years since the 1978 massacre that claimed 918 lives and horrified the world, the massacre she barely escaped. 

"It's like a journey through post traumatic stress disorder," is how she describes the book. 

O’Shea, 59, trembles as she sits in a conference room at the Star Light Center in Florence and tells her story. Her shaking, she said, is not a result of her Jonestown experience but a medical condition she has had for years. Star Light provides programs and services for people with mental health issues. O’Shea is a provider. She works as a benefits specialist for CareerPoint in Holyoke, helping people with disabilities. 

A Navy brat, O'Shea had a rough start in life, traveling with her parents from state to state and country to country. The transience might have been bearable if not for her mother's mental illness, which sometimes turned violent. 

“I woke up once and found her hitting me with a dog chain,” she recalled. 

O’Shea packed up and hit the road, hitchhiking across country from Pennsylvania to California. It was 1971 and she was 19. 

"Living on the street was getting very old, very fast," she said. 

One day in California, a van picked up O'Shea when she was hitchhiking and her life took a new turn, one that would prove even more painful than the horrors she had already experienced. The driver told her about a goat farm in Ukiah, where black and white people lived together in love and harmony. She could come live there, he said. So she joined the Peoples Temple. 

“I thought it was going to be this wonderful thing,” O’Shea remembered, “but when I got to the gates of Jonestown, it was a different story.” 

It wasn’t all bad at first. The temple ran school lunch programs and offered shelter to prostitutes running from their pimps. The leader was a preacher named Jim Jones, who had brought his congregation west from Indiana after prophesying that a nuclear holocaust would wipe out Chicago. Jones encouraged temple members to call him “Dad.” It just got worse from there. 

“He’d say he was the reincarnation of Jesus and Gandhi,” O’Shea said. “Whatever you wanted him to be, he was the reincarnation of.”

View full size The Republican | Don Treeger
Teri Buford O'Shea, left, is show during a trip to Guyana in the mid-1970s. The photo is from her book chronicling her experiences as a survivor of the Jonestown Massacre.

Like most of the others, O’Shea worked outside of the temple, turning in her paycheck every week in return for $2 spending money. 

By 1973, Jones had gotten more bizarre and paranoid. The temple bought some jungle land in Guyana, an English-speaking country in South America, and temple members went there to clear land, O’Shea among them. 

“It was breathtakingly beautiful,” she said. “You’d wake up to the sound of monkeys and toucans at your window.” 

The hundreds of children, black and white, thrived in the setting. But things soon got weird. Very weird. Jones would rattle on over the loudspeaker, day and night, and everyone had to listen. 

“You couldn’t talk while Jim was talking,” O’Shea said. 

There were no telephones, only a radio room where O’Shea worked. Jones had control of the radio, though, and you couldn’t use it without him knowing. 

“It was virtually impossible to have any communication with the outside world,” she said. 

Jones had a harem of women in his house. His wife, Marceline, lived in a separate cottage. O’Shea was sometimes one of Jones’ women. 

The Peoples Temple still had sites in California, and O’Shea was among those who traveled back and forth. She was working the radio in San Francisco one day when Jones’ voice came over from Guyana. He wanted her to ship him guns in crates with false bottoms. O’Shea pretended they had a bad connection. 

“They don’t need guns down there,” she told the women who were with her.

That turned out to be a big mistake. One of the women returned to Guyana and reported the betrayal to Jones. O’Shea was sent for. When she got to Jonestown, she was put under 24-hour watch. 

“I was persona non grata, and it was terrible,” she said. 

Her break came when the woman who reported on her defected. O’Shea did lots of lying, convincing Jones that the other woman was the traitor. It worked. When Jones sent his lawyer to the U.S. to get information on an upcoming magazine expose, O’Shea persuaded Jones to let her go along. 

She was the last temple member to defect before the massacre. 

On Nov. 17, 1978, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, at the urging of family members of Jones’s followers, flew to Guyana with some reporters to investigate Jonestown. Some in the temple asked to fly back with him. As they arrived at the airstrip to leave, a truck with armed guards from the temple drove up and opened fire. Ryan and three others were shot to death. The carnage was only beginning.

View full size Associated Press 
Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple sect, is shown in this November 1978 photo taken in Jonestown, Guyana, shortly before five members of Congressman Leo J. Ryan's party were slain. (AP Photo/San Francisco Examiner, File)

Back at the Temple compound, Jones called the ultimate “White Night.” Mothers were forced to feed their babies cyanide. Those who refused were held down and made to watch as the children were given syringes with the deadly poison. Jones killed the children first, 303 of them. The rest of the adults drank the Kool-Aid or were shot. In all, 918 people died in the massacre. 

O'Shea had packed up as soon as she got back to San Francisco and left to start a new life in Washington, D.C., under the name “Kim Jackson.” Three weeks later, the massacre occurred. 

“I freaked out,” she said. 

O’Shea feared not only the judgment of society but the wrath of the remaining temple members in the United States. Her fears were justified. Her apartment was ransacked. The FBI found her soon after, and O'Shea began two long years of answering questions. Jones, it turned out, had taped the massacre, and investigators made her listen to the cries and screams to see if she could identify the voices. 

"It was horrific," she said. 

Some years later, O'Shea was fired on the spot from her job in the New York schools when it came to light that she was a Jonestown survivor. She got another job at a publishing house and kept her secret for nearly three decades as she raised her daughter, Vita (not Jones' child, she is careful to add). 

In 1989, O'Shea and her daughter moved to Northampton. Three years ago, MSNBC contacted her for a documentary it was making on the Jonestown massacre. O'Shea decided it was time to let go of her secret. 

"I said, ‘Why not?’ Surprisingly, people were very supportive and understanding. It was really refreshing to be welcomed with open arms." 

She has subsequently reached out to other Peoples Temple survivors as well. A few years ago, they all met in San Diego. There were hugs all around, including one from a woman assigned the task of getting O'Shea killed. This Memorial Day, the survivors gathered for a service at the California cemetery where the victims' bodies were buried after they were flown back from South America. 

“It took them 32 years to get a gravestone,” O’Shea said. 

Even now, O'Shea suffers indignities when she talks about Jonestown. During one radio appearance, she overheard the hosts joking about asking her to drink Kool-Aid. 

“They just don’t understand what it’s like to lose 900 of your friends and family that you’ve lived with for seven years,” she said. 

“Jonestown Lullaby” is available at and at the Barnes & Noble website. Locally, it’s stocked by Broadside Books in Northampton. 

Flipping through her book, O’Shea stops to talk about a poem titled, “I Do Not Love You.” It refers, she says, to the time that Jones had his followers hold a gun to her head and told O'Shea he would have her shot if she didn't say she loved him. She knew he could tell she was lying if she said yes, but feared they would shoot her if she said no. O'Shea finally decided on the truth.

I don’t care 

If you pull the trigger 

This is the one thing 

You cannot have

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