On writing a novel about Jonestown, in retrospect

It’s been almost three years since I finished Corners, the fictionalized manuscript that describes my bystander’s brush with one of the greatest mass tragedies my generation has known: Jonestown.

For a while, I just let my manuscript sit and simmer, the experience of having let my memories flow onto paper having been enough for me. After some time had passed, I reread what I had made as an observer. And somehow this act of observing helped me to see where I fit into the larger fabric of my time, to see what I had learned from having occupied my small place there, and why Jonestown is important to me, important enough for me to try to sell this book.

My people, whether natural born or adopted into the tribe known as the love generation, had a unique hunger and thirst for justice in the ‘70’s, as do all children. And we were children, indeed, and large as a generation, almost unmanageably so.

Yet even being children, our sheer numbers gave us power, and the innocence of a child’s perspective somehow reigned over the nation, giving America a collective idealism it had not had in recent memory, if ever.

We believed with all of our hearts that we could make a difference, but we did not know how to put feet to our dreams. We eschewed our parents’ advice. Some of us ran away from home. Some of us violated the law in the name of justice, or pleasure, or both. And in the certainty of our ability to rise and transform the society, many of us fell to our knees instead. Some of us took others down with us.

Corners is the story of three lost girls and their friends, and how their collective idealism and naiveté, and that of those around them, synergizes to allow the worst to happen. Being rebels, they have either left their elders behind or been abandoned by them; and in their rudderless enthusiasm, they chase beautiful, impossible dreams. Most of them dance too close to the fire.  Almost all live to know better, but some do not.

In Corners, there is faith even in the face of frailty. And in the end, there is redemption. Below is the last chapter; really, you know how this book ends anyway, so I will let you begin at the end, bearing in mind that the end is not the end, but really a beginning. When all is said and done, isn’t the learning to be found somewhere in the middle? I invite you to explore that in-between place with me.

I have blogged my whole book at http://sylviasmith.blogspot.com/, where it will remain for a limited amount of time.


Journey to the center of the earth


It wasn’t until after dark when the delegation arrived, and Roger was already exhausted from the intensive drilling they had been subjected to ever since the visit was confirmed. Jones’ endless chatter on the PA system had become white noise for him, punctuated now and then by one thing or another that caught his attention.

Just a few nights ago, for example, Jones had been carrying on, reading the news out loud and then ranting about it. Then, for a minute, it almost sounded like he was getting ready to sign off, way too early for his usual pattern. For a moment, Jones spoke thoughtfully, almost gently, and it caught Roger by surprise, but it was only a second or two before he resumed his rabid diatribe.

“I love you very much,” he had started, softly, ardently. “Stand true to socialism. It requires much sacrifice. I’m preparing to make great sacrifice. I know what it requires. I do love you.”

Then as suddenly as it had softened, his tone returned to high-pitched and frantic, accusing Ryan of being a fascist and of backing the Pinochet regime. The ranting faded, and he told them again, gently, softly, that he loved them – very, very much. And then the chatter went back to normal. The strangeness of it had sent a chill down Roger’s spine.

But that was Monday, and this was Friday, and the last of Ryan’s delegation had just gotten off the truck from the airstrip. There was no time for a chilly spine. Roger’s crew was on full alert, hanging back on the edge of the jungle and armed to the teeth, in case the sign was given that something unauthorized was going down. They had instructions to use all necessary force.

But it looked like so far things were going without a hitch. Twinkle lights glinted in the distance like fireflies. Sweet soul music wafted out from the Pavilion, and after that, the upbeat tones of strangers on the microphone, praising the music and the ambience and recognizing that this place, this time, could truly be the best thing that ever had happened for everyone here. The cheering, the applause, was outrageous, endless, fanatical. The crowd, Roger could hear, was pumped, empowered.

His heart ached, knowing that the scam was in action, still praying that someone would see, someone would hear, someone would tell what was under the surface. Praying that someone would come and rescue them, here and now. Please don’t leave us out here this way. Please.

But then some news broke. Word got out to Roger and the others that Gadney had passed a note, and that some locals, including a policeman, had approached the media when they arrived at the airstrip, telling them about the beatings and the torture hole they had hidden at the edge of the jungle, the hole where they dropped naughty children, screaming into the pitch blackness where they said “Bigfoot” lived, as punishment.

The effect was electric, throwing everyone armed out on the perimeter into high alert. A few were called in closer by radio to be on standby in case anything went down that needed containing. But finally, the evening just came to an end, except for the fact that Roger and three others were to be stationed near the cottages where Ryan and his people were spending the night. This was nothing new for Roger, though. He was used to staying up through the night and into the next day. It was his job to be on call.

Besides, he was enlivened by the fact that Ryan and his people were still here at all. Still here. They were not yet abandoned, all hope was not lost, at least not tonight.


Sometime early the next morning, security got word that a group had escaped into the jungle along the railroad tracks near Matthews Ridge in the pre-dawn hours, unbeknownst to them, and were nowhere in sight.

Roger was thankful that he had been on duty at the delegation’s cottage and was not responsible for this lapse, because he was sure that, had he been on guard at that end of the compound, his diligence would have caused him to notice the defection. And he had now come to the point where he would have had to keep silent and let them go free at the risk of his own life. Quietly, he prayed for whoever they were, and that they would go the distance and find their way back home to their loved ones somehow.

From Roger’s viewpoint, the day rolled on almost uneventfully, punctuated by alerts that the media had arrived, and then that Jones had released first one family and then another to leave with the delegation. A second plane had even been ordered. His hopes began to run high. But soon word came that these decisions were designed to buy time: no one was really to be released in the end. Things had officially gotten out of hand. By the early afternoon, Jones was sitting on a bench in the pavilion, confused, begging to be left in peace. Their level of alert was the highest.

And then, out of nowhere, the sky went black. A somber rumbling rolled over the tops of the trees from a distance, and it came, gushing, hot and straight down from the mouth of heaven in a torrent, rain as if to end the world.

And as quickly as it came, it stopped, leaving a damp discomfort behind it.

About 3:30, major alerts started coming one after the other over the radio, and guards were being deployed in pairs: first a truck was headed for Port Kaituma airstrip with defectors and the delegation, following a melee out by the gate, families screaming and clinging to each other, divided in what they should do. Then Mother sent everyone to their cabins to keep order and an armed party was deployed to assist with that. From the airstrip again, Sly had tried to cut Ryan’s throat. Then Larry Layton, one of the defectors, opened fire inside one of the planes. It was hitting the fan. It was out of control.

Then came the news. Ryan is dead. Media are dead. Patty Parks, dead. Such a sweet lady, thought Roger. Such a sweet lady. The little girl saw. She saw her mother’s brain.

And still Roger was out at the perimeter, within eyeshot of the Pavilion, where he had been since his night mission, waiting with his radio for directions. Waiting.

Then Jones came on the PA. The vats had been filled. This is not a drill, this is not a drill. Hope is gone. A few of his brothers were called in for assistance. He could see it coming together, his brothers pushing the mothers to inject the drink into their babies’ mouths, injecting it into their arms. Out of control out of control out of control. This is real. He could smell it. He could taste it. He was frozen. “Mother, mother, mother, mother, mother, mother . . .” came the voice, manic, despairing. Babies foaming at the mouth, children screaming, mothers wailing, old women being dragged to the vats and ordered to drink, those who wouldn’t injected in the back as they struggled. Those who slipped through the grasp of their captors and made the clearing, shot. Bodies dragged back to the Pavilion and arranged as if they had landed that way, naturally.

And just as many simply took their cup, and drank, and then lay down for the last time, holding hands.

Unsurpassed evil. Incomparable suffering. My God, my God, why have you forsaken us? Why? Where are you? Roger dropped to his knees into the mud, warm wet patches spreading across the knees of his pants.

Then, beneath him, he felt a movement, as if a crack in the earth were moving toward him from a great distance. The earth became as warm as blood under his knees, and it rippled softly up and down, not jarring, but kind, like a mother rocking her baby. He felt drawn to look at the sky, and above him he saw a host of translucent, opalescent shapes, hundreds of shapes, nearly a thousand, knotted together, swooping, soaring, like swallows looping and diving as they return home at the start of a verdant spring, their faces fixed on the sky above them. Over their heads hovered a crown of tinier shapes, hot white points of light like fireflies mingling and rising to a supreme light above them, wings batting, now and then diving down among the others, kissing their opalescent cheeks with their wings.

Roger raised his eyes to the supreme light, the one that pulled the undulating shapes into itself inexorably, and opened his mouth. “Jesus,” he said. “I am,” the light replied.

Roger’s heart opened wide, and he felt words being gently mined from within it, rising into his consciousness like a song. “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

Then, audibly, over the cries of the broken and the songs of the rising, over the opalescent forms still undulating overhead, a sound as of thunder rumbled from deep in the canyons of heaven, speaking words in a language no one understood – no one, that is, except Roger.

“Bemot t’illa mekakkel ‘inkwa bihêd: ante ke’inê garr nehinna kiffun aliferram, beterhinna mirkwizih ‘innersu yats’enannuññal: befeetê gebbetan azeggajehilliñ: bet’ellatochê feet lefeet; rassên bezeyt qebbah ts’iwayêm yetereffe neuw:: bechernetihinna mihiretih behiywetê: zemen: hullu: yiketteluññal; be’igzee’abhêrim bêt lezellalem ‘inorallehu.”

Roger threw down his weapon and began translating desperately, arms in the air, screaming to a face that only he could see, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Forever! Forever and ever!”

A deep voice barked from somewhere downwind, “Take him out! Take him out!”

A shot rang out, a flash of light, and then Roger was one, one with the opalescent undulation as it rose above the jungle floor, steam rising, waves of heat obscuring the sorrow, the grasping cold fingers of evil that pulled the curtain shut below them, blocking out the pain as they rose, at last one, for the first time really a family, into the arms of Jesus.

* * *

Out there in the cold distance


“Bob?” I called. “Come quick. Quick!”

I turned my back on the stove, leaving the green bean sauté to wilt in the pan, and ran to grasp the TV with both hands, as my secret part-time lover ran around behind me and locked his eyes on the set, his arms around me.

“That can’t be?” he asked, yet still knowing, as he watched the hollow eyed, scruffy young woman, furtive and tired-looking, her hands cuffed behind her back, being pushed into a squad car, the officer’s hand on top of her head. “It isn’t . . .”

I stood transfixed, my throat closed, a hot tear rolling down my cheek. All dead, they say. The children, they say.

“It’s Jacki. Jacki,” I whispered, ashen. And in my heart silently burned the words – Jacki, the friend we let down.

We had known since October, when Bob had last seen her, that Ryan was taking a delegation to Guyana. I remembered my rooftop dream, flying above a crown of lush green. The bodies. And then Jacki, kissing her fingertips. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” Quietly, Bob squeezed my hand and breathed in steadily, out softly.

And across town in their Potrero Hill apartment, Barb and Yonas, their eyes rimmed with red, so near to us yet so far away, were absently picking at their dinner while their baby ate heartily. They had known since early that afternoon that something was seriously wrong. Yonas had come home early, and he and Barb had prayed clear through until they could pray no more, while Amira was napping.

And somewhere across town, Ray and Bruno stood side by side, afraid to look at each other, and wept.


It hardly seemed any time had passed at all since the great hole had opened up in the world. Still, only days later, Bob and Russ and I found ourselves standing together amidst a cluster of patrons at Toad Hall and watched still another hole ripped in the firmament, right there on national television, ripped right down the middle of where it all began.

My mayor was dead, shot, and Harvey Milk with him.

And there was Bruno, standing inside the flickering box behind the gallant Feinstein who stood in the gap, blood still on her hands from where she’d held my mayor’s heart together gamely as long as she could. There was Bruno, weeping as if his heart would break.


So came childhood’s end. Each of us had struck out on our own and landed in some corner of the universe. We had experimented with flight in our unique ways, and had found the height at which we fell from the sky, wings dripping with wax, a few of us even learning to correct our course before we crashed to earth.

And we had discovered that the best answer to gravity was to embrace it with arms open wide, digging deep into the earth instead of fighting it – holding on to each other, staying rooted and deep until a day came when we would rise up together without trying, opalescent and undulating, effortless and free, into the light.