Eugene Smith lost his mother, wife and infant son in the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, on Nov. 18, 1978. Repatriated by the U.S. authorities on New Year’s Eve, he broke a $50 bill stashed in his shoe to buy breakfast for himself and a fellow survivor. Approximately 70% of those who died at Jonestown were Black and yet "Back to the World: A Life After Jonestown" is the first book-length memoir of Peoples Temple by a Black man. The author will be in discussion with Christopher Fisher a faculty member in the history department at The College of New Jersey.
Returning to California at age 21, 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.” Smith's story is that 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. This is a memoir with powerful relevance to the deeply polarized America of today.
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 Nov. 18, 1978, the day of the tragedy in Jonestown. He retired in 2015 after serving 22 years with the California Department of Transportation. He lives in the Bay Area.
Christopher Fisher is an associate professor of history at The College of New Jersey where he specializes in 20th century American diplomacy, the Cold War, and race politics in the United States.