Finding Truth in Fiction

As a writer, I often refer to or use historical events to provide context or enrich the fiction I write. Sometimes this involves research; sometimes it involves memory and experience. Writing “The Devil’s Inkwell,” the story of a girl who goes to Jonestown, involved both. This is not to say that I went to Jonestown – that’s where the research came in – but I once attended a Peoples Temple rally, though “observed” might be a more accurate word.

Attended? Observed? What exactly was I doing there? That is a question I wrestled with as I recalled the experience and began to render it in fiction. One thing I knew was that the main character – known only as “the girl” – would find her way to Peoples Temple in San Francisco and then to Jonestown in Guyana. As I wrote, I struggled with bouts of writer’s block brought on by another question. Could I write the story without exploiting the lives of the people who had made that very real journey? As I wrote and researched, I began to trust my instincts about the girl. For she is, in some part, me.

I spent my first summer home from college taking drugs, getting drunk and riding around on a motorcycle with a boy I had known in high school. I lived on a farm in southeastern New Mexico. My family was not poor in comparison to others in the rural community where I grew up, but my mother – divorced from my father – worked hard to provide the things we needed. Neither of my parents had graduated from high school. I felt very privileged to be attending college, but I also felt I didn’t belong there. My friend, who lived in a wealthy neighborhood, attended an Ivy League college, played tennis at the Country Club, was the son of a prominent lawyer. He was as confident in his future as I was insecure about mine.

In the parking lot of a shopping center I overheard people talking about a rally: great music, California, social justice. I caught only snippets, but I was intrigued. Even though I told myself I had no use for religion, no use for clubs or communities, no use for anything that involved responsibility to others, I was drawn to this gathering and talked my friend into going. He judged the people attending by their clothes, their cars – even the way they spoke. Embarrassed that I identified with them, I pretended not to. I don’t know what would have happened if I had gone on my own. In the end, I rode off with my friend well before the rally ended. A few years later, I moved to Berkeley and began following the frequent newspaper stories about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. In 1978, along with the rest of the country, I read about the horror of Jonestown.

But Jonestown isn’t where this story begins. What I hoped to do when I began writing “The Devil’s Inkwell” in 2000 was portray one vulnerable person, one person looking for a place to belong and something to believe in. In broad terms, the search for identity is a common theme in American literature; in specific terms, I had yet to see it represented in relation to Jonestown. When I began submitting the story to magazines, the rejections were fast and often furious. Do you really think this is an appropriate subject for fiction? How dare you exploit the tragedy! Distasteful!

Editors never commented on the writing, they merely reacted to the word “Jonestown” as if it were unspeakable. Only in their response did I begin to understand the depth of shame associated with the event. As shocked as they were that I would create fiction from this tragic moment in our history, I was shocked that they could only recoil from it.

In 2005, I attended one of the first public performances of The People’s Temple at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I sat in awe as I watched actors represent the communities of Peoples Temple and of Jonestown. During the intermission and after the play ended, the lobby and auditorium filled with talk: some of it hushed and reverent; some of it urgent and joyful. The last time I saw . . She was . . . He was. . . Do you remember?  Some were relatives, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of people who had died at Jonestown. Some were people like me, people for whom the story of Jonestown continues to resonate for personal as well as historical reasons. Inspired by others who acknowledged and embraced the individuals, the real people – the humanity – portrayed on stage, I renewed my determination to see “The Devil’s Inkwell” in print.

Again and again it was rejected. But finally, in 2008, the editor of The Gander Press Review, where the story was first published, accepted it, commenting that he didn’t know much about Jonestown. He was entirely unaware of the approaching 30th anniversary.

I continue to be baffled by the absence of Peoples Temple and Jonestown in our understanding of the social and cultural history of this country. I can’t watch news about California Congresswoman Jackie Speier without thinking about Jonestown. The history of Harvey Milk is incomplete without knowledge of his association with Peoples Temple. Add San Francisco mayors George Moscone and Willie Brown to that list. The web of associations includes ordinary people and public figures alike, residents of the Bay Area and California, and people throughout this country as well, including a young girl in New Mexico.

Jonestown happened in Guyana, but it happened to us. We might not yet understand the meaning of this American story, but we never will if we are too ashamed and afraid to explore it.

(Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at