Using Peoples Temple to Tell a Story:
Jim Jones in Three Novels

In Steven James’ The Pawn, the reader meets a character named Aaron Jeffery Kincaid, who lived in Jonestown, Guyana when the murders/suicides took place. He was a child at the time, and had to outrun guards who were chasing him with guns, but he managed to escape. He was the only survivor of the murders and suicides that day. James gives us this much history, and then Kincaid disappears until the second half of the book. The author plots his novel this way so that he can use Kincaid as a red herring. The Pawn is, after all, in the mystery genre, and the overarching point of the book is going to be discovering “whodunnit.” Anything about Jonestown is going to be in the service of that quest.

The FBI is searching for a serial killer, and until late in the novel, both they and the reader assume it is Kincaid. The FBI does indeed catch the “real” bad guy, just as they catch Kincaid. But the irony is that Kincaid is far more evil than the serial murderer they were hoping to find.

Kincaid’s experience in the jungles of Guyana has shaped him in many ways. It may seem only commonsensical to imagine that a 10-year-old would take a radical turn away from a person or situation that almost killed him. But in James’ hands, Kincaid develops quite differently from what the reader might expect.

The character has not turned away from Jim Jones. To the contrary, Kincaid has founded his own church, though it is far smaller than Peoples Temple. He asks his own followers to call him “Father,” just as many of Jones’ followers had called him. The church members have heard Kincaid preach for years about the coming apocalypse and the need to be ready to take their place in the drama that their leader has sketched. They are so devoted to him that when he declares the beginning of the end, they do as he asks and turn their children over to be killed. Perhaps not surprisingly, after their children are dead, the parents seem to have little zest for life and are quite ready to sacrifice themselves for Kincaid’s cause.

The culmination of Kincaid’s plot is to start a soon-to-be global plague by disseminating a virus he had his church members create through genetic engineering. His members are with him, ready to do their part in both spreading the virus and, if need be, to kill themselves rather than be captured by the authorities. In the end, of course, Kincaid is thwarted. Most try to follow his last instruction to commit suicide, but a few from the group are saved, including the microbiologist who knows how to treat the virus.

* * * * *

While The Pawn is a genre novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, by Scott Blackwood, is literary fiction. The personalities and events surrounding Peoples Temple may seem at first glance to better suit the “lower” form of fiction, but Blackwood’s rather surreal offering makes good use of it as well.

We Agreed to Meet is quite different from The Pawn. Its point lies not so much in the plot as in the characters’ reactions to events in their small town: the death of a promising young woman, about to go off to college; the disappearance of an old man who suffers from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia; a child who breaks his arm.

In the midst of all these events, Jim Jones appears as a raconteur to Odie Dodd, a Guyana native who moved to the Texas town where the story takes place. His neighbors and friends have been watching him fight cancer and fear he has gone away to die. Odie’s claim to fame is that he was the first outside person to find the bodies at Jonestown. A medical doctor, he was on his way to inoculate the community’s children, but he was delayed along the way, and when he arrived, he was greeted by a camp full of death. In the novel’s present time, though, Odie has disappeared. His wife calls the neighbors, and they form a search party that fails to find Odie or his body. The search goes on for a few days until people tire of the effort, assuming that the old man must have died. The townspeople (and the reader) are astonished to discover, at the end of the novel, that Odie returns home in reasonably good health.

While Odie is gone, though, he has some remarkable experiences. One of these is to wile away his time in conversation with Jim Jones. This makes sense from a psychological point of view, given that, as his wife says, Jonestown is “the axis around which [Odie’s] life winds.” If a mentally confused older person were to imagine conversations with someone not there, it seems reasonable that his conversation partner would be someone from a central event in his life. At the end of the book, though, the reader is caught by Odie’s reappearance: where has he been all this time? And to whom was he talking all that time? It wasn’t Jim Jones, of course. Or was it?

It is in instances such as this that psychology can offer answers to difficult questions. Jung, especially, would find this particular question to be quite sensible in his worldview. According to Jung, each and every human being carries archetypes, which are symbols representing experiences, emotions, and relationships, common to all human beings in the collective unconscious. For example, the Mother is one archetype held by all human beings, in that all humans have mothers. The archetype is not solely formed by the particular mother one individual knows, but instead all the experiences of all mothers through the centuries of human existence. Some modern people object to this view of the archetype because, as they say, the idea of the “perfect” mother varies from culture to culture and from time to time. There is no reason to think that our archetype is normative for everyone. In fact, it may be the case that close attention to archetypes can reveal important principles that underlie a culture’s ancient perceptions of mothers.

Of course, readers who do not hold with the tenets of psychology may find this kind of approach unconvincing. But the basic messages drawn out from a Jungian view are very close to those from a faith or literary view. The Judeo-Christian tradition does not espouse archetypes, and while some literary criticism could and does, it tends to be a rather unpopular way of finding meaning in a text. But readers of all three approaches named here could probably agree to some of the themes found in this novel, no matter the theoretical foundations from which they come.

One of the most important ideas in this novel is that there is no solid demarcation between “good” and “evil.” Instead, the line between the two becomes fuzzy. From any perspective it is easy to understand that Jim Jones is portrayed as evil; it is more difficult to make a case for a “good” Jim Jones. Theologically, though, traditional Christianity and Judaism hold that there is good and bad in each human being; the only perfect humans were (in the first case) Jesus and (in the second) Elijah. From a literary perspective, Jones and Odie end their last conversation with a discussion ofthe time when Odie came upon Jones, sitting amidst all the dead bodies of hisfollowers, with a gun pointed at his own head. Odie says,

You hesitated. Lost your nerve. Your hand was shaking.

Jones sighs. At least any old someone would have remembered what actually happened. Would have given us the ending we deserved.

I grabbed your arm.

You were supposed to tell the story, not be in it. What about your Hippocratic oath?

The gun went off.

Do you know what it’s like to hear a whistle and realize it’s the wind blowing through a hole in your face? . . .

You were still breathing, lying there, Odie says.

The weary old contingent world wobbles on like a bad tire. Do no harm, they say, but how can you not?

You begged me to kill you, Odie says. I picked up the gun off the floor. I pulled the trigger.

Worlds fail, Odie.

Not always.

You had malice in your heart, Jones says. Who could blame you? All those little ones, dead?

I had pity in my heart, Odie says. The bullet loves the wound that begot it.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here, 137-8

By no means does this conversation excuse Jones from his actions, nor does it portray him as a wonderful person. But it does suggest that there is in Jones at the very least the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective (in this case, Odie’s), which is the foundation of empathy and the movement away from interpersonal evil.

Indeed, Jones still feels sorry for himself, and he still resents Odie, but surrounded by more than 300 dead children, he is finally able to admit that any sane person would have probably done what Odie did.

To be thorough, it is important to note that Odie also has good and evil within him. He knows very well what the “right” thing to do would have been when he discovered Jones as he did: turn him over to the “proper authorities.” But Odie, whom the reader has already judged to be a good man, shows that something dark does indeed lurk in his heart. Coming into contact with great evil is what moves Odie from his good self – the one that controls him most of the time – to the bad.

* * * * *

In The Pawn, the author presented the reader with a portrait of a follower of Jim Jones, one who took up his pastor’s task in order to finish it. In We Agreed to Meet, the author provided a Jim Jones in an undetectable form: is he a ghost? a soul in purgatory or hell? a figment of Odie’s imagination? But in Armistead Maupin’s Further Tales of the City, the reader meets Jim Jones, in the flesh, for his second act.

Maupin’s Tales of the City series, of which Further Tales is the third, presents stories of a group of people connected to an apartment house in San Francisco. The characters appear in each of the books, but all take turns as the focus of each book; a character may have just a small role in one novel, then a starring role in another. In this volume, Maupin offers the story of DeDe Day, who had joined Peoples Temple when they were in the San Francisco area, and moved to Guyana with them. There she knew Jones, and he doted on her and her twins. DeDe managed to escape death and finally made her way home.

In this story, Jim Jones is still alive. He survived November 18, too, went on to have substantial plastic surgery, and changed his identity to a that of man named Luke. Eventually he finds himself a tiny shack in a park where he takes up residence and is discovered by a character named Prue. A convoluted plot finally brings Jones/Luke, Prue, DeDe, her twins, her mother Frannie, and her friend Mary Ann to the same cruise to Alaska. While on the cruise, the women discover Jones’ true identity when he kidnaps the children. They are unable to find him for quite some time; when they finally do, they learn that he has a plan to give Peoples Temple – or rather, Peoples Temple redux – a second try, with Prue as his wife and DeDe’s children as his own. Once all of them understand who he truly is, the women involved have no interest in being part of Jones’ fantasy. The problem is that he has the children, and they are terrified he will harm them unless everybody plays along. Eventually, the group of women is able to work it out and Jones is finally shot and buried in a garden behind one of the women’s house.

* * * * *

It is no surprise, perhaps, that all three of these novels feature Jim Jones, as opposed to the congregation of Peoples Temple as the central representative of what we know as “Jonestown.” While Further Tales includes much more information about the group in Guyana than the others, still it is Jones who is the central character in the drama. The obvious reason is that the people of the congregation are dead. So is Jones, but we see that Maupin was able to work around that reality nicely. The others could have done so had they wished. But apparently these authors saw Jones as the focus.

This is no surprise, really. Even when news about Peoples Temple first broke in the media, people concentrated on Jones rather than the members of the church. Many people offered interpretations that explained how something like Peoples Temple could occur, but certainly at the beginning, and in these novels, the main reason offered seemed to be Jim Jones and the “fact” that he was insane.

This, in and of itself, is not enough to explain the phenomenon. There are plenty of Christian congregations with crazy ministers, but they do not end up with their own version of the final White Night. Clearly other factors were involved. Nevertheless, it is easiest to blame Jones: anyone who is a church member can ease their fears that something like that might happen to their congregation by reminding themselves that their minister is not “another Jim Jones.” When considering the “question” of Jonestown, for most people the answer lies in the very name: Jim Jones.

The Pawn draws a portrait of a follower of Jones who both hated what Jonestown became (armed guards chasing him through the jungle) yet still yearned for Jones himself. In order to become a “new” Jones, he spent years developing his plans and the practical tools he needed to make it happen. The Jones in Maupin’s novel is less threatening – he does not create a “disciple” who carries on his work. Instead, he somehow survives and remakes himself so that he can give Peoples Temple another try. The idea is chilling, but the fact is that even in that novel, Jones is dead at the end. He may have been scary, but by the time the book ends, he is, at last, out of the picture.

We Agreed to Meet offers the reader the real Jim Jones, if by that one means “the man and not one of his followers.” The reason he is less threatening than either Jones or Kincaid in The Pawn is that he seems to be either a ghost or a figment of an old man’s imagination. But saying that Jones is “just” a ghost – or whatever else one may choose to call him – does not lessen the anxiety his presence may cause. Part of the message in the novel seems to be that Jones is not a separate person, nor some floaty, haunting ghost, but a part of each and every one of us. Given that as the case, then the truth seems to be that anyone can “be” Jones. Each of us can follow in his footsteps.

It seems likely that more novels will feature Jim Jones and Peoples Temple in some way as time goes by. It is clear that the phenomenon has entered the popular imagination. Young people with no clue about the events of Peoples Temple say, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” even though they know nothing of what it actually means. As the culture becomes more and more comfortable with the event, it will appear more frequently in literature.

Given that our culture is struggling mightily with questions of what makes a “good” person, it is possible that Jonestown could become a touch point for discussion. As we have seen, this question is addressed at some level in just three novels here. There are already more novels that make use of Jonestown, and doubtless more to come.

(Karen Stroup, Ph.D. was an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – serving on the board of trustees of the Disciples Historical Society for six years – and was a professor in religion and psychology. She was also a regular contributor to the jonestown report . Her articles appear here.

(Dr. Stroup died on January 21, 2012 at the age of 54.)