No two people have the same experience, even if they are in the same place at the same time. In Paradise Undone (Inkspot 2023), Annie Dawid uses a unique narrative format to demonstrate just how true this statement has been about Peoples Temple. Historians, writers and documentarians, skeptics, and others have attempted to extract The Story of Peoples Temple since the Temple’s tragic end in 1978, and all have inevitably failed.
So it is here. Readers who select Dawid’s novel to sort out The Story should look elsewhere, because the novel is no more finite than the literature that precedes it and not finite as the language in its title might suggest. The title calls the Paradise that was promised “undone” – and this may be the novel’s opinion – but the text is mostly about the Paradise’s ongoing undo-ing.
No question the novel’s sympathies are in plain view (you’ll have to read for yourself to find out what they are) but thanks in part to the novel’s structure, Dawid allows readers to decide if they share them. Importantly, the structure makes room for the plurality of Peoples Temple and its story. Chapters are delivered in various formats – a media interview, a suicide note, journal entries and omniscient narration – that introduce the major characters and their various undoings. Each format is assigned to a specific character to precisely pull at the loose strings that represent the undoing. And each of the highlighted characters in Paradise Undone is a thread in the Peoples Temple fabric and for each there is a pulling. None, however, unravel quickly or easily.
Dawid’s characters include fictional ones like survivor Watts Freeman, a Black Temple member who lived in Guyana but escaped the final white night. “Jonestown had been good to him” as a young drug addict and general knucklehead, but his disillusion with its innerworkings saves him. Dr. Kenyatta is the ambitious young Black journalist who doesn’t have to work very hard to pull Watts’ story from him. Virgil Nascimiento, a tormented Guyanese government official and student of philosophy – especially Camus – left his wife for, but is unhappily married to, one of Jim Jones’ lovers. Truth Miller is a “hopeful and hard-working” composite representation of survivors who remain possessed by the promises of Jones and Peoples Temple during and beyond its demise. As the narration explains: “Truth belonged to the other element of the Temple, the educated white kids, who wanted to save the world and believed they could, via the quasi-Marxist Peoples Temple.” And Marceline Jones, Jim Jones’ devoted and tortured real-life wife, plays herself in the text.
Their individual unraveling is the unraveling of the Paradise promised by Peoples Temple. For Dawid does not simply begin and end in the Guyanese jungle. Instead these characters exist before Guyana, during Guyana, and years later, in the 1990s, revealing the progression of the undoing. When Virgil complains about the Peoples Temple impact on his formerly colonized nation; as the chronology intersects with the Columbine massacre; when the epilogue lands at the 2018 anniversary in Oakland, the undoing reveals itself and shows Peoples Temple as more than a singular story of history, but part of its continuum that demands reckoning again and again.