So Kendall over at Confessions of an Odd Duck had a post last week that really moved me. His inspiration/prompt for the post was “the first time you …” and he wrote a really lovely story about his relationship with a child. And I liked the prompt, figured it would be as powerful as the ‘first memory’ prompt that gets used in writing classes all the time. Well, I’ve had many, many first times, and trying to pinpoint one gave me a headache, so I decided to let that prompt go.
Then the news began to fill up with some history reporting that brought one particular first time very sharply to mind.
Today is November 18th 2008. Thirty years after the killings and suicides in and around Jonestown, Guyana. This one event holds a few ‘firsts’ for me: first time I’d ever heard of Guyana, first time I ever had a real sense or understanding of a cult (I had known about cults before this, but had never read or seen much information about them), and first time I’d ever heard of mass suicide and certainly the first I’d ever heard of ‘revolutionary suicide.’
The biggest, most troubling first, however was that the Jonestown deaths made for the first time I would see death laid out on the news over and over again. I’d seen dead people before, but that had been at funerals, after they’d been made ‘presentable’ for public viewing. The dead at Jonestown were simply dead: bodies on bodies on bodies, bloated and anonymous, the signs of their death agony starkly visible. The images were everywhere — in the newspapers, on magazine covers on the nightly news. These aren’t images I ever wanted to see. I know death exists. Of course I know it. I don’t want to look it in the face.
Images like those stay with me much longer than is comfortable. They sink into some back corner of my brain waiting and waiting until a perfectly-aligned moment occurs when it would be particularly upsetting for me to have something painful flashed up from my memory. And there they are, fresh and new, keeping me up nights.
I remember the photos from Jonestown, remember being completely freaked out by them, by the entire story. The name gets called up often, used as an example or a bar against which other bad things are measured, so it isn’t as though I can claim to have forgotten about it between then and now. Hardly. But I can claim to have kept those images safely put away over the last three decades. And now here they are, fresh and new, keeping me up nights.