(Jennifer Gibbons lives in Lafayette, California. She is the grand prize winner of the Red Room Housewarming contest and one of the winners of the Summer Reading Experience Contest. Her other articles are Retrieving the Names and The Guyana Tragedy Myth. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It was an accident that made me decided to write about Jonestown, an accident that has started me on a journey that scares me. Yet it’s one I know I have to go on.
It was early evening when I had the accident. Except for bruises, I was physically fine, yet I felt shaky and scared, vulnerable. I had to deal with my cracked laptop and ruined jeans. The party responsible for the accident would not accept responsibility for what happened. I consider myself independent, yet at the time I wanted someone to take care of me, to take care of the situation. I was lucky that a lawyer friend helped me with the situation, but still I felt wobbly.
It was around then I watched Stanley Nelson’s Peoples Temple documentary. I found myself drawn to two people: Tim Carter, who saw his wife and son take the poison; and a young man seen in footage with Edith Parks. For months I called him The Boy in the Blue Shirt, but I soon found out his name was Christopher O’Neal. What struck me about both of them was how brave Carter was, and how young O’Neal was.
Suddenly I understood the need to be taken care of. If I belonged to Peoples Temple and I had the accident, there’s no doubt Jim Jones would’ve made sure that the responsible party acknowledged and honored that responsibility.
Eventually the turmoil surrounding my accident settled. Yet I found myself still interested in Peoples Temple. Then a thought came to me one morning: you need to write about this. You need to write a young adult novel about Jonestown.
My first thought was, are you out of your mind??? Me, write a novel about Jonestown?? That’s like Heidi Pratt writing an updated version of Anna Karenina, or Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends performing in The Women. For the past two years, I had been writing essays on such varied subjects on how I cannot find a decent purse, Mad Men, Josephine the Plummer, and the Muppets.
Still, I found myself doing the research I needed to do. I read Deborah Layton’s memoirs, along with Laura Johnston Kohl’s new book. I listened to the death tape and wept. I went on long walks, wondering how could I do this? How can I write about something so raw, so terrible?
Several things helped convince me. I heard two television hosts – one liberal, the other conservative – say, “They shouldn’t drink the Kool Aid.” I became furious. How can they trivialize something so awful? Never would anyone make a joke about the Holocaust; why was it people could make flippant remarks about Jonestown?
I then remembered the day in my high school history class when the teacher showed us footage of Jonestown. The room became very quiet. The only other time it had been that quiet was when we saw JFK being shot and Jackie in her pink suit. The difference was, for many of us, this was the first story we remembered. More than that, it was personal. Many of the victims were from the Bay Area. It hurt us where we lived.
Characters flashed in my mind, but doubts remained. In the young adult fiction genre, there must be at the ending a glimmer of hope. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it needs to give the narrator something to cling to, a hope that the next day will be better. One of the things I love about fiction is to see how ordinary people have to face the worst that life could hand them, yet muddle through, trying to get to someplace better. I remembered Christine Miller’s to Jim Jones on the death tape: “As long as there’s life, there’s hope.” Could that be the glimmer of hope? That somehow a family survived Jonestown, and lived?
My new nephew was born in late March, and his mother sent me a picture of the baby with his older brother. The shocking thing about the photo was that my older nephew looked just like John Victor Stoen. I cried again, but this time I knew why I had to write a book. I wanted to write it for my nephews and niece. I knew I would never want him or my niece to think what happened in Jonestown was a punchline to a joke. I wanted them to know that there were good people and bad people, but they were people. Moreover, what happened on November 18, 1978 was a holocaust, pure and simple.
It was then I realized, okay, God. I’ll write the story. Let me get it right.
* * * * *
Months later, I was talking to my friend Laura about the new project. “When did you want to write about Jonestown?” she asked.
“Late November, after I had my accident.” I then covered my mouth. “My accident. Do you know when I had my accident?”
“November 18th. I had it on November 18th. It was early evening when the deaths started. That’s the same time I had my accident.”
Silence. “That was no accident,” she said.
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t.”