Rounding The Corner:
Reflections On Writing About Jonestown

by Sylvia Smith

Last year I had the dubious privilege of losing my job. It doesn’t really matter how or why. But after 21 years of me being in the right place at the right time, a new CEO came and replaced me with a handsome, strapping young man – someone in stark contrast to my softer, aging female-ness.

At first, the sheer pain of watching myself erased laid me low. I was banned from the sprawling institution where I had served as a shepherd for those 21 years. My value as a person had been hacked away in a single stroke.

But then the blessing came.

One day I stopped staring into blank space, and began reflecting on my life, and the many experiences that had made me who I had become, who I still am today – a public servant, a champion of the poor. I didn’t have to turn too many corners to find where Jonestown fit in my spiritual fabric, and how it had gotten there.

One day in 1974, I met a girl on a bus who was on her way to the first day of French class at Cal Berkeley, just like me. Her name, I’ll keep to myself. But she and I shared the same warm, steamy niche on that bus every day for a while, pressed in amongst the same 7:00 am half-sleeping bodies, and thusly shared our nineteenth year. Now and then she would invite me to her church on Geary Street. But since I already had a church, I always declined. On that bus, and on our daily walks up the hill past Tolman Hall to Dwinelle, we found ourselves to be soul sisters, sharing the same values – socialism, service, the end of suffering, peace. It was a year of idealism and pride for us, pride in what we already knew we would surely accomplish, pride in how we would one day change the world with our own hands.

I lost touch with my friend after that year. Then one day in 1978, I saw her again from a great distance. There she was on television, eyes haunted, gaunt, reflected on a backdrop of raw pain. Jonestown. Jim Jones had surrounded himself with bright, beautiful young women, and she had been one of them. And she had survived, was still standing, even after the great hole had opened up in the world. But while she lived, nearly a thousand of those whom she had spoken of with such hope – the souls she had set out passionately, feverishly, to help Jones shepherd some five years before – had perished.

I will never forget her eyes that 1978 day, flickering in black and white from across time and space, as long as I live. All these years I have missed and hurt for the pixie-ish nineteen-year-old I knew back in 1974. And so, blessed with a paid year of freedom at 55, I dived deep into the collected writings and tapes of this website to find her.

While I did not find her specifically, I found much more: hope, redemption, sorrow, sin, neglect, pride, naiveté, altruism, faith, arrogance. Consummate evil, and consummate mercy. I found her in spirit, and in finding her, I found my youth – myself. Recalling this time of discovery recalls days of airlessness, an airlessness with the sharpness of stone that carves pain as it passes.

The result has been a book, a historical fiction novel entitled Corners. In it is featured the fictitious diary of a girl, among other stories, stitched together from young women I found in the voluminous material stored on these web pages. She and her diary were created for my friend, the friend I wasn’t there for, because I didn’t look close enough. Her words tell the story of how a dream sprung from innocence turned sour, curdled by the poisonous vinegar of her leader’s vanity, addiction, and insanity.

My friend is one of the very few people in my life who have taught me never to walk by on the other side of the road, not when I suspect there’s a genuine need on this side, and that I’m the one called to hold out a hand. That’s what she was trying with all her might to do – hold out a hand – back when she was nineteen, before she rounded the wrong corner, following the wrong man, and got lost.

In many ways, Jonestown reflects who all of us were, and could have been, in those days and in that place. We wanted the world to be fair, like all children do, and we had theories about how to make it so. But we loved our theories, the remote perfection of them, more than we loved the lives we enacted them upon. Believing we were leaders, too often we were really followers, leaning to the simplest, loudest voice that promised the most. And in numbers, we were just so many, the largest generation of impressionable, idealistic, activist youth in our nation’s history. Because of us, the whole country found its youth again, in thought and in deed. Jonestown. There but for the grace of God went each of us.

Corners tells about one everyday young life in 1970’s San Francisco, and Jonestown is shown in its context, a window in time and space. It walks the reader around the corners and through the neighborhoods our generation populated back then. It takes us – I hope – through the looking glass, past the white rabbit, to a place where we can breathe a little, a place where the glass clears and we can see. At least, that’s what I tried to do.

Still editing, I plan to submit Corners to agents soon. And although I genuinely hope it will be published, the act of writing it, all by itself, has blessed my life in ways I never imagined.

(Sylvia Smith can be reached at sylviasmith411@yahoo.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on January 22nd, 2014.
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