I no longer hear Jim Jones in my ears, no longer listen to the Peoples Temple Choir belt “He’s Able” as I hike the hills, no longer catalogue my cassettes of Temple voices, no longer dog-ear my books with titles like Peoples Temple, Peoples Tomb. After six years, three of those years with a finished novel, Paradise Undone, failing to enter the kingdom of print – yet – I have finally moved on to new work. Not without regret.
Marceline, Watts, Truth and Virgil, the four protagonists of P.U., or “pee-yoo!” in my affectionate abbreviation, don’t live in my dreams, or make me laugh with their jokes. I don’t get angry at their stubbornness or want to shake them for their inability to change. The agent who believed in the book gave up after 40 rejections. I send the novel to contests – a semi-finalist last month, a finalist the month before. At least some reader saw merit, somewhere.
My new research brings me volumes from far-flung bookstores, like The Muses Flee Hitler and The Refugee Intellectual, yet when I went to my Jonestown shelves to sell no-longer-needed materials to finance the new BookSearch.com pilgrimages, I found it hard to part with Jesus and Jim Jones and Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. I am unwilling to send my hard-to-get copies of Journey to Nowhere and Hearing the Voices of Jonestown out into the cyberworld of used book sales. Will I ever read Let Our Children Go or Strategies for Survival: The Psychology of Cultural Resilience in Ethnic Minorities? Most probably not, but my bookshelves tell their own stories, narrate my history, with or without publication of the fruits of my own work.
Recently, I re-connected with a very old friend, or, more accurately, a sister of an old friend. Both sisters had been involved in a “community” for over 25 years, shunning their parents and people from their former lives, including me. My friend died during that time, apparently of natural causes, and a short while later her sister fled the group, leaving behind her child and the child of her sister. She now says, “I didn’t even know I was in a cult.”
That word choice prompts varied responses, especially when used in light of Peoples Temple. (I made sure not to use that word when speaking to her about her experience.) She read Paradise Undone: A Novel of Jonestown and later wrote me that it spoke to her of the huge chunk of her life spent with many wonderful people in the community. The leader was the problem, she said, echoing the Jonestown member who said, “The only problem with Jonestown was Jones.” Like Jones, the leader of this group brooked no resistance. My friend had begun to question, according to her sister, just before her death, whose circumstances remain murky.
One day, perhaps, if Paradise Undone is a judge’s first choice at one of these book contests and finally gets published, I hope it will speak to others, to the survivors of Jonestown as well as to those who have experienced “communities” like my new/old friend, people still mulling over what happened and why.