Missing Pieces: A play in hibernation

by Anna Costello

I don’t normally write about my writing process: it can be messy, too personal, motivated by ego rather than by an honest need to convey information. I’m not good at boundaries. I am either an obelisk – a rock with no foothold, no gate, no clue that there is even anything living and breathing within – or I am a babbling brook, spilling my fears and desires and past traumas and wondering why everyone is suddenly running for higher ground. I write this now because I feel compelled by energies just outside the reach of my conscious mind, but validated in the flow of my life.

Several years ago I wrote a play about the survivors of the Jonestown Massacre called Missing Pieces which made it to the semi-finals in the Eugene O’Neill New Playwright’s Competition. The play is stuck, temporarily abandoned, and I am beginning to understand what I need to do to finish, but before I can revise the play I have to do a little reckoning with the past.

I’ve always hated when writers mixed their therapy in with their writing. No, I’d protest, writing is art, it’s pure, it has nothing to do with your petty human insecurities. What a fool I was. And that’s the key today. The key that lets me out of the rock-solid cage of my own fashioning. The ability to admit I’ve been wrong.

That doesn’t mean the play was a mistake. I read it now and am astonished at how relevant it is to the world today, my own personal world, the world of Peoples Temple, the bickering red state/blue state USA world, the fascinating world of quantum mechanics… I could not have written that play from my singular conscious mindset. I am relieved to find that somehow, without understanding the process, I let my inner artist open up to forces I had no way of understanding in a rational sense. Trusting the process.

There is a huge story here, and it’s not mine – not mine alone, anyway – but that’s where synchronicity comes in. Or maybe it’s serendipity. I will say I was once a pre-med major and actually attended a year of law school and finally ended up as an registered nurse, so you know I have an appreciation of the rational. But there’s that Uncertainty Principle, Chaos Theory, Quantum Mechanics, Einstein’s Fudge Factor (I think that would make a great flavor of ice cream).

I was in high school in Pennsylvania when Jonestown happened. I didn’t know anyone who died, or anyone who survived. I didn’t even know most of the members of Peoples Temple were black until after I handed the first draft of my play to a mentor for proof-reading a couple decades later. She wondered what the connection was. I said I’d read an interview in the Advocate magazine by a survivor that touched my heart. That was the simple answer.

Rationally, things don’t always add up. Never, when you are dealing with the human condition. I was made painfully aware of this very recently when, after living with a spouse who had an undiagnosed but textbook obvious personality disorder (obvious to anyone but him and me, that is) for 20 years, I was kicked out of my home early one morning by a sheriff’s deputy, with a $900 disability income and 15 minutes to gather everything I would need for an unknown length of time.

Anyone who understands Inner Child Therapy would understand that what I did to deserve that treatment was the desperate third-time-going-under cry of a child being relentlessly drowned in her own toxic shame by an imperious, cold-hearted tyrant posing as that child’s greatest champion and protector. Fooling the judges, the sheriff. Sound familiar? Maybe like the folks crying for help from Jonestown?

There’s the link. That’s why I wrote the play. But this only happened years after I set the play on a shelf, believing what my spouse told me, that it was only a semi-finalist, and therefore worthless, that it was too morbid, that I was wasting money and time on something that I would never follow through on. That I never followed through on anything. That I was always in crisis, that I would never get well.

My spouse hated everything about the Jonestown play. Only now I understand in terms of his disease, what he hated most was that I was so close to being successful. And in the narcissist’s world there is only one star: all competition must be eliminated. I didn’t know that then. I thought he meant it when he said he supported my desire to be a writer. I didn’t know how he lied, lied about everything, because that is what people like my spouse and Jim Jones do.

He swore he hated the play because it was bad for me. Naive and stubborn, and driven, I pursued the path into the Jonestown vortex, because instinctively I knew there was crucial information there. I created my main character, not knowing he had prototypes. Then in conversations with a survivor, I realized my fictional young man was not unlike two real life young men who lived at Jonestown, one who survived and one who did not. My character has PTSD and studies quantum physics at Cornell University.

I traveled to San Francisco and met some of the people still connected and looked at the records. My spouse allowed me five days. I got a free ticket anywhere in the USA by taking a bump on a different flight to see my family for Christmas. I wasn’t let out of my gilded cage without damn good reason and pleading. My spouse controlled the money, and spending it on researching this play would not be acceptable. So we negotiated a hotel room because my ticket was going to expire and I’d never get a chance to see San Francisco because he was too sick to travel, and I’d pay to have someone stay overnight in case the house burned down and his cell phone died and he couldn’t call 911 or something. I mention this because it sounds so like the maneuvering people in Peoples Temple would have to go through to get any freedoms or special items sent to Guyana or visits home.

I was lucky. I got away with my life. I’m not saying my spouse had murderous intent, but the extent of my naiveté, my willingness to play along with the insanity astonishes me now.

My own PTSD was not diagnosed until after I set the play aside. Odd how I diagnosed, and cured myself (spoiler alert) without realizing I was even sick. And yet I despised people who mixed psychotherapy with writing. I am happy to be such a fool today.

I’m not sure exactly how I regained interest in the play. A phone call dropped last winter, someone connected to Jonestown who was asking me for information I didn’t have and whose name I never got clear. I contacted Mac, to try to find out who the woman was, and in the process told him a little bit about what was going on in my life. He proposed I write something about my divorce when I mentioned the eerie similarities between Jim Jones and my spouse with narcissistic personality disorder.

I will confess I almost did not write this. I was sidetracked by a John Bradshaw book I picked up off a 12-step clubhouse shelf about championing your inner child. When I meant to write a darkly moving masterpiece of the inner workings of my mind, I instead opened that stupid book randomly.

I hit a speed bump doing 90 when I read that human emotions cycle every 13 years or so, so age 13 is utterly crucial. After a long painful illness, my mother passed away when I was 13, and it was only recently that the word “mother” would make its way out of my throat. I’m 48 years old. That painful.

I didn’t stop in my tracks, helpless, and cry for an hour out of pity for the woman I am today.

This is crucial to understand. I am happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. Exhilarated, even, that I can finally understand why an adult woman having a perfectly good day would break down sobbing over the artichokes when a certain song came over the grocery store intercom. I don’t have to do that anymore.

No, I cried for the 13 year old girl who never had a chance to cry, whose only consolation when her mother died was to “be strong.” Be strong and shut up. I wasn’t beaten or assaulted. I was left hanging on the edge of nothingness, silently screaming a pain I couldn’t begin to understand yet had to pretend did not exist. No woman stepped in to help. It was a different time. No pink ribbons on yogurt for my mother. I’m glad now things have changed. I’ve done nothing for that cause, which might make some sense.

Instead I wrote about the Jonestown massacre. Just this moment, now, in my car in a rainy parking lot getting Wifi from a business secure enough to use their phone number, painted in big blue letters on their front door, as their Wifi network password, I finally grasp the significance. Because a little girl was not guided to express her fears, her tears, her subconscious mind, through the filter of an artist’s drive to create something that makes sense from a tangle of emotions and sensations led her to this place.

A natural death from cancer morphed into a massacre in a foreign jungle. Or at least that’s part of it. Wasn’t this about my divorce? The human condition is like that. Tangles upon tangles. I can accept that today. It doesn’t have to drive me mad. I’m not arguing a case in court – I don’t have to pretend to be objective or rational. If I sound like a fool, terrific. Shakespeare’s sharpest characters, his touchstones, were his fools.

I hope I get this play performed some day, and I hope it is significant to the people whose lives were touched by Peoples Temple, and meaningful on a more universal level of human relations. I know it has been a beacon in my own personal journey to figure out why people do what we do and behave the way we do, even when we should know better.

Ten years ago, I might have been stopped by accusations of exploiting a story that was not my own. Today I understand the emotions are universal, current, and desperately urgent. We can learn from the past. But we have to be willing to take a good long look at it first, starting, and probably ending, with the person in the mirror. She’s the only person I can change.

The tragedy of the narcissist is not in loving himself too much, it’s in loving himself to the exclusion of others. It’s an attitude of entitlement, a willingness to inflict pain to satisfy a desire, then to turn around and blame the victim for being too sensitive, or selfish. The narcissist will go to any lengths to be right about your life, will tell you the sky is green when it’s clearly blue and dare you to contradict him.

That’s what I did. I started speaking the truth in my own home. It didn’t go over very well. But at least I made it out alive. I am not being flip here. I was so naive, such a nice person myself I could not be made to understand when the writing on the wall was 40 feet high that this person who vowed to love and honor me forever was my most dangerous opponent. A predator to my prey, and my sanity, if not my life, depended on getting away from him at any cost.

09d-05-flvoraid

I was in the grocery story yesterday, all these thoughts flowing through my head, when the song came over the intercom, “Life without you is gonna be bluer than blue,” and I sang my own silent verse spontaneously, “Life without you is gonna be like Guyana without Jim Jones or purple Kool Aid.”

And shortly after then I saw, for the first time in my life, a display of the infamous Flavoraid, the actual drink used at Jonestown. It really wasn’t Kool Aid. But until last night, I had never ever seen Flavoraid except in articles protesting the use of “Kool Aid” when referring to that toxic mix.

Even managed to get a picture from my cell phone before they had to peel me off the ceiling. Synchronicity. I might be on the right track after all.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 27th, 2013.
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