Eugene Smith lost his mother, wife, and infant son in the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. Repatriated by the US authorities on New Year’s Eve, he broke a $50 bill stashed in his shoe to buy breakfast for himself and a fellow survivor.
Returning to California at age twenty-one, Smith faced the daunting challenge of building from scratch a meaningful and self-sufficient life in the American society he thought he had left behind. “My first responsibility as a survivor,” he writes, “was not to embarrass my mother or my wife or my child, and to set an example that can’t be questioned.” Back to the World: A Life after Jonestown is the story of a double survival: first of the destruction of the idealistic but tragically flawed Peoples Temple community, then of its aftermath. Having survived, Smith has hard questions for today’s America. “It’s irritating to me that, four decades later, like a broken record, we’re going through all this all over again,” he writes.
EUGENE SMITH was born in 1957 in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in Fresno, California. He was working in Georgetown, Guyana, for Peoples Temple on November 18, 1978, the day of the tragedy in Jonestown. He retired in 2015 after twenty-two years’ service with the California Department of Transportation. He lives in the Bay Area.