After my essay on my young adult novel about Jonestown was published in last year’s edition of the jonestown report, I felt good. By next year I would have a decent draft I could write about. It would be hard going, but it would be a story about my journey going into the abyss.
And God laughed. He chortled, giggled. Man, did he laugh.
I wrote fifty pages. They were terrible, but it was a start. Then a perfect storm of misfortune befell me: My checkbook was stolen. I had to go close my account, start a new one and oh did I mention several bad checks were written in my name? No money was taken but it was aggravating.
Due to a misunderstanding, I was verbally attacked in a letter due to something I wrote. I got in several disagreements with friends – nothing earth shattering, but both sides felt bruised. A close family friend died. Although her death was expected, it was still a shock. My cat Felix was suffering from seizures. Just when I was going to schedule an appointment with our vet, he disappeared and didn’t came back. I felt terrible. I was profoundly unhappy to the point I was waking up in the middle of the night feeling like I couldn’t breathe.
One afternoon I tried turning on my laptop. It was dead. No lights, nothing. It was dead. I felt like Job. My fifty pages? Gone, not saved off anywhere. I also thought maybe I wasn’t meant to tell this story. Writing about a genocide of 918 people wasn’t going to happen.
And as I went through my Jobian streak, Jonestown was back in the news.
In January, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot, the first member of Congress hurt doing her job since Congressman Leo Ryan. Jackie Spier was everywhere, talking about her former boss, the late congressman. She hosted her own meet-and-greet in San Mateo. She would not let the bastards get her down. I admired her bravery. She reminded me not to give up, to fight the good fight,
In February, billboards went up for a Mexican food place in Indiana. The billboards read: The food is so good, you’ll want to drink the Kool-Aid. When I heard this on NPR, I nearly fell out of my bed. I was so angry. So utterly angry. I was angry for the people I met during my journey writing and researching: Laura Kohl, Tim Carter, and Jordan Vilchez. All three of them lost family and friends in Jonestown, and this was opening a new scab. I thought of Judy and Patricia Houston, smiling shyly for NBC’s camera. I wanted to send a picture of them to the advertising people behind the billboards and ask “Look at these girls. They could’ve been writers, artists, photographers. Their deaths shouldn’t be used to sell burritos.”
Yet could I write a novel about Jonestown? Was it possible? Couldn’t I be like Meg Cabot who wrote about princesses and superheroes? Or Stephanie Mayer? Couldn’t I write about cute vampires/werewolves and the girls who love them?
Around the same time I was talking with a friend of mine about everything going wrong. My niece listened as we talked. Then she said “Jennifer, you have to remember what Anne said.”
I looked at her. “Who’s Anne, sweetie?”
“Anne of Green Gables. She said every morning is a new start. A chance to get it right. There are no mistakes.”
On November 19, 1978, 918 people were denied the chance to get it right. They were denied the new start. Mistakes were made, and kept being made due to ignorance and fear. Yet for me, I could start over. I had a chance to make it right. My story is not one about princesses or cute werewolves. It is a story about trying to find hope when everything feels hopeless.
I started researching again. On my new laptop, I made a collage of people in Jonestown. I looked at their smiles, at the hope in their faces. I made myself start over, but slowly. I wrote a page a day. I know one thing: the book will be dedicated for my niece, who reminded me about the chance to get things right. It will be for my nephew who loves to be a knight so he could save people. If he was there at Jonestown, I know he would’ve tried to save the other children. It is for their brothers, born a year apart.
* * * * *
In Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (the movie of the book was one Edith Roller saw and documented in her journal), the protagonist’s sister Etta wanted to go to Hollywood. She’d gotten a letter from movie star Jeanette McDonald saying if she was in Hollywood, she could come over and go swimming in McDonald’s pool. She knew she’d find paradise if she got to swim in Jeanette McDonald’s pool.
We all want to swim in our own version of Jeanette McDonald’s pool. It’s my job to write about twelve hundred people who tried to find McDonald’s pool in the jungles of Guyana, and the many of them who never came home.
(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. A sample chapter from her novel appears here. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)