Blue Smoke and Mirrors:
An Exploration of a Novelist’s Mind

by Arnold Ludwig

ludwigAll right, now repeat after me.
All right, now repeat after me.

Don’t pray to the Sky God to do your bidding.
Don’t pray to the Sky God to do your bidding.

You don’t need to do what society says you should do.
You don’t need to do what society says you should do.

God meant for you to take control of your own life.
God meant for you to take control of your own life.

            – Rev. Jim Jones, Jonestown, Guyana

If you had done what you’d been told to do, you would have reacted much as members of Peoples Temple did to the Reverend Jones’ instructions. Not that you were being abnormal in any way. You simply were being human. You didn’t realize there was a contradiction between what you were saying and what you were doing.

A South American Tragedy
Special to the Washington Daily Beacon
by Walter Cress and D. L. Hodgekiss

JONESTOWN, Guyana, Nov. 19 – Officials of this small South American nation reported that several hundred members of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ were killed and several hundred more may have committed suicide in the isolated community of Jonestown yesterday. The group, led by founder Rev. James Jones, had been under investigation for several years by United States authorities and the press over reports that Jones and Peoples Temple officials had conspired to commit numerous acts of fraud in violation of U.S. laws.

Jones and several hundred of his followers relocated from San Francisco to Guyana in 1977. The massacre in Jonestown may be related to a fact-finding mission undertaken by U.S. Representative Leo J. Ryan of California’s 11th Congressional District. Ryan had flown to Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana, on November 14. He was accompanied by several “Concerned Relatives” who complained that some Jonestown family members had been subjected to widespread abuse and human rights’ violations. Accompanying Ryan and his entourage were several local newspaper reporters and a television crew from NBC-TV.

Congressman Ryan and several members of his group were reportedly killed in an attack at the Port Kaituma airstrip while preparing to return home to the states.

From similar accounts, I learned that well over 900 members of Peoples Temple had swallowed Flavor Aid® laced with cyanide that day. They did so at the behest of the Reverend Jim Jones. Two others were shot.

In one of many acts of atrocities, a mother in the capital city of Georgetown cut the throats of her three children before killing herself in an act of “revolutionary suicide” meant to send a message to the world, although the nature of that message remains unclear.

Ostensibly, the act represented a protest against racial inequality, persecution, and injustice in America. What it failed to explain was how so many intelligent, sincere, and well-meaning men and women hoping for a better life – not the “crazy kooks” or “weird cultists” that subsequent news reports made them out to be – could engage in such unnatural acts as poisoning their own children before killing themselves.

My interest in Peoples Temple and the Jonestown affair was far more than idle curiosity. As a freelance journalist, I felt that if I could uncover the underlying reasons for such an inexplicable event, I would be able to make sense of the many problems that plague us today: the suicide bombings, the purges, the massacres, the sectarian conflicts, the wanton killings. It was with that motive that I began my investigations several years ago. As it happened, the more I learned, the more confused I became.

With all the conspiracy theories, contradictory reports, inconsistent findings, and difficulties in obtaining critical information, I was about to give up my quest as hopeless until an unexpected event occurred. After having spent an entire weekend at home futilely trying to locate certain key documents from various websites, I left for a short trip and returned several days later to find something amiss in my study. Two of the folders in my file cabinet were out of alphabetical order; and my computer, which I had left on Hibernate, had been turned off.

My initial thought was Had somebody broken into my study? Then I learned from a computer-savvy friend that my computer was being monitored. After the initial shock wore off, I realized I was onto something.

Big!

Since that time I have taken advantage of the passage of the Freedom of Information Act to accumulate thousands of pages of FBI documents along with countless other heavily redacted texts, tapes, and reports from various other agencies. The very extent of the missing and censored information (which the agencies withheld under the Act’s “privacy exemptions”) suggested that they had something to hide. Halfway through reviewing the reports, I stumbled upon a huge packet of notes, which I recognized to be shorthand. But, even though I had a passable knowledge of the notations – many of which I had once used myself to take notes during my college days –I could make no sense of them.

At first.

And then it hit me.

During a course I had taken on the structure of written languages, I learned about boustrophedon, a type of bidirectional text that mimics the turning back and forth from left to right, and then right to left, of oxen during plowing. But what the writer was doing to disguise his commentary was using an even more complex form of this script known as reverse boustrophedon or rongorongo, whereby the text in alternate lines is rotated 180 degrees instead of being mirrored.

Eureka! No wonder nothing was blacked out on those pages. Whoever reviewed them couldn’t figure out what was written down! Once I began deciphering the notes, I realized I had discovered the modern equivalent of a Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian who told the tale about the 960 Sicarii Jews at Masada who held off the Romans for several months and who killed themselves in 73 CE rather than surrendering.

The previously anonymous writer/survivor at Jonestown who had written an eyewitness account of his prior experiences in Peoples Temple explained precisely what had happened there and why! After years of litigation, I finally was able to secure portions of typed reports from various governmental agencies alluded to in those cryptic notes.

Because so many of the witnesses’ personal notes were fragmented, missing, and disjointed, I have tried to provide a more coherent portrayal of the writer of those notes and his observations by making use of other previously classified documents available to me. These include data such as medical records, audio recordings, and surveillance tapes, along with other pertinent information. I also was able to discover what eventually happened to him. However, whatever the limitations on my account, they should not detract from the import of his findings. As will become evident, there was good reason that the truth was hidden from the public for so long. What this writer had uncovered and discovered will shock the nation.

And possibly even the entire world.

The Author

* * * * *

And so begins the Foreword to my novel about the Reverend Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and other relevant figures – an undertaking for a writer, some might claim, that might likely generate enough frustration to cause him to suffer from his own suicidal impulses, perhaps much like those that bedeviled the members of Peoples Temple in Guyana.

Suicidal?

Well, not really. But metaphorically speaking.

But why?

Because of the enormity of the task. Also because of my wondering if I had anything more of importance to add to what already had been said.

So why all the hoopla about Jonestown? As it happens, there have been more books, articles, documentaries, essays, and newspaper articles dealing with it than all of the other mass suicides combined throughout the world. These include the Jews at Masada; the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; members of the Order of the Solar Temple in Canada and Switzerland; and of Heaven’s Gate near San Diego, California. Several movies and a musical have been inspired by it. So what more was there for me to say?

Actually, there was a lot to say. Why? Because of all that had been left unsaid or unexplained.

In my view, the biggest reason the Jonestown massacre has drawn so much attention has to do with the inconsistency and unconfirmed nature of the information available about what actually transpired. Here are a few examples:

Jones supposedly committed suicide after all the other members died by putting a bullet in his head. But certain sources claimed that when he was found on the platform of the pavilion, his head was resting on a pillow. What? Another source reported his gun was 20 feet away from him. How was that possible? Although Jones was right-handed, the autopsy report indicated the bullet entered his left temple. Hmm! Certain survivors who escaped before the massacre claimed to hear helicopter blades overhead when the last gathering took place. Interesting. During Jones’ last speech, he clearly called out for Dwyer to leave. Dwyer was later identified as a CIA agent. Huh? On and on. One unexplained fact after another.

No wonder so many conspiracy theories had been advanced to account for all these discrepancies. Since the event occurred during the Cold War, it was natural for certain observers to blame the Ruskies for what happened. Others blamed the CIA, even the FBI. Also the Green Berets. And the Guyanese government of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. Then again, since it was so unnatural for parents to poison their own children – almost an act against Nature – others even wondered if that very claim was a ruse. If so, then Jones himself might have been set up as a fall guy, and the real perpetrator could have been a disenchanted, former PT member who employed poison gas–or used some other kind of secret weapon. On and on.

Given this situation, I faced the dilemma that any new plot twist or conspiracy theory I concocted, no matter how ingenious, would likely suffer from the unforgivable sin of redundancy!

Since I had no desire to write a potboiler about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, I wrestled with my motivation for taking on this project. Then, only after writing several drafts of my book, did I realize the real impetus for writing my novel. I did have something to say. Something very important. Something never considered before. It had to do with tapping into the thoughts and aspirations of key members of this drama: why they did what they did if they actually did it. Interestingly, my insight came from an experience I had with this website after the publication of my interactive article titled, Marceline Jones: Saint, Sinner, or ….? Invitation to a Dialogue.

Here is the printed excerpt taken from an early version of my manuscript. The description is given by the protagonist in my novel. The imaginary interview with Marceline Jones takes place after the massacre.

With her braided, straw-colored hair wrapped about her head like a crown, her erect posture and her hands calmly folded in front, Marceline displays a frail majesty. Her special vantage point makes her input essential. She of all people knew her husband best. She of all people had suffered most from his erratic and erotic actions over the years. She of all people knew of his obsession with dying. She of all people knew of his wacky ideas. I even once overheard her telling him so. Surely, with her loving and kindly nature, she could not have sanctioned these heinous acts—the deaths of all those members who trusted her as well as those of her own children.

My question to her is simple: “Why?”

I then invited readers on the site to share with me their notions about what excuses Jim Jones’ almost-saintly wife offered to justify her actions. I expected to be inundated by all kinds of insights and opinions. As it happened, from the lack of responses I received, it was obvious that my special interest represented an almost completely unexplored area.

Then it hit me. I discovered the real reason I wrote my novel. It was to bring the key people in this drama to life again to tell their story about what really happened and why. For all that had been written about the key personnel in Jonestown, little had been said about what really went on in their minds.

So how best to do this? No need for nonfiction. Nonfiction in many ways would be ideal, but it is limited by the facts. In my estimation, Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People is the most definitive account of the history and events at Jonestown. But even he, with all his first-hand knowledge and research, acknowledged that many mysteries remained. Given this reality, I became convinced that only fiction represented the ideal vehicle for telling the story. As many other writers have said in various ways, fiction is the lie that best allows us to tell the truth when what is known and proven is insufficient for doing so. With that decision, I had many other judgments to make. The biggest challenge I faced was how to make the story about such grim events original, gripping, and entertaining, especially when almost every kind of plot device has been used before. I also aspired to tell a story that had relevance to many of the events transpiring today.

As it happens, I believe my novel meets that goal. Now the real story of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown can be revealed. And, paradoxically, it can only be told through the observations and commentary of the fictional protagonist, Dwight Urban, who often has difficulty expressing himself.

(Blue Smoke and Mirrors is under consideration for publication by Elektra Press in 2017. Arnold Ludwig can be reached at arnold_ludwig@brown.edu.)

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