Writing Jonestown Book Nears Its End

I’ve been working on a book about Jonestown for the past three years, and am almost done. I told my publisher I’d finish in 18 months, but it took a year just to read through the FBI files and organize them. At the beginning, every time I ran across a new name, I’d felt compelled to look up the person on this website to learn whether they’d survived. More often than not, they had died, and I’d feel a pang of sadness.

In the middle of writing the book, I got pregnant and had a baby – I already had a toddler – and reading about the kids who were killed in Jonestown was particularly tough. I was able to listen to the “death tape” only twice; it made me rush home to embrace my own children.

I realize there can’t be one book that encompasses the whole story of Jonestown. There are as many stories as there were people who lived there. By focusing on four of the people, though, I hope to offer a glimpse into the reasons why people joined Peoples Temple, and why they went to Jonestown. Two of the people I’m profiling are still alive, and I became close to them, and see them frequently. The other two are deceased. I only wish I could sit down to coffee with them.

Edith Roller is one of those people. She kept a daily journal from 1975-1978 that has been a boon to my research. She was smart as hell. I tried to get to know her as best I could by reading her journal, interviewing people who knew her, and visiting the places she lived or frequented in San Francisco. I went to the library at San Francisco State (now SFSU), where she graduated with an MA in Creative Writing in 1966, and pulled her Master’s thesis, “The Myth Awry,” about the role of mythology in literature, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I ordered The Identity of Yeats, a book that she was reading in Jonestown, and had the same problem. But I did know Edith didn’t want to die. After one of the numerous suicide drills in Guyana, she wrote to Jim Jones about her plans for the future — she wanted to teach, to write, to raise a kitten.

It’s hard to live in the Bay Area and not run into people who have their own recollections of the Temple or its members. For example, the produce manager at my local supermarket in Berkeley fondly remembers Magnolia Harris, who sold her carrot cake at the community grocery in the Haight more than thirty years ago. It flew off the shelves, he said. She came in one day and told him, with much excitement, that she was to be going to Guyana. She never returned.

It is my dearest hope my book pays tribute to those who died in Jonestown and corrects some of the misperceptions about the community which have persisted through the decades. I’ll argue that the people who migrated to Jonestown were idealists who craved a better life for themselves and their children, but who were thwarted by the madness of Jim Jones. How terribly they were betrayed.

I would be deeply remiss without adding my deepest gratitude to all the survivors who talked to me about their experiences in Peoples Temple and their years since the deaths. Each of you has given me a unique and powerful story, and has helped to shape the book into the finished work it will be. Thank you!

(An interview with Julia Scheeres about her book appears on the Writerland site. She can be reached at Juliascheeres@gmail.com.)