The Jonestown Chronicles, or on trying to write a book a little shorter than the Bible

by Kathleen McKenna

I didn’t know much about Jonestown growing up. I was a kid when it happened, and kids for the most part aren’t interested in things like that. And some of what I thought I knew, I really didn’t. Back in 1978, I first heard what I considered a great rock song, “Bungle in the Jungle,” by Jethro Tull. My older cousin told me that it was written about a guy named Jim Jones who had made a bunch of people kill themselves. The story isn’t true – it was written in 1974, four years before the deaths in Jonestown – but if you listen to the song, it’s hard to deny its prescience, and easy to see how a young tyke could get it all confused.

That was it for me and the story of Jonestown for thirty years or so. Then, I wrote my first book, and while I was waiting for an agent to tell me if it was worthy or representation, I decided I might as well see if I could write another one of those book things. The fact that I had written any book surprised me a great deal, but what to write about? It was puzzling. I had found my first story naturally. A beautiful woman, a vanished peer of the realm, this was stuff I liked, and I had at least been to England. So I was just aimlessly surfing the net, really looking for old stories about rich, good-looking people that had killed each other.

I came across an article about the upcoming 30th anniversary of Jonestown, but it was the connection to my beloved San Francisco more than anything else that got me looking up more articles. The more I read, though, the more fascinated, and – I hate to say – the more obsessively interested I became, but that would not be much of an exaggeration.

I read everything I could download, ordered out of print books on Amazon, and then discovered this site. After reading the articles written by several Jonestown survivors – and with no forethought whatsoever – I picked two of them whose stories seemed to epitomize what it was I was most curious about, wrote them some emails, and – lo and behold – the next thing you know, I got to talk to them. They know who they are, and I thank you both. One, a sort of lieutenant in Jones’ private army, was a veritable font of interesting facts and viewpoints, a strong man who, though he did not admit it, did, I believe, enjoy considerably the power he was given at that time and the trust that Jones displayed in him. I say this because, underneath all the horror, pain and regret, I could still hear a faint pride in what he had accomplished then, and his anger when he spoke of some of the subsequent Jonestown biographers was palpable. That’s okay, I don’t judge him, he was there, I wasn’t, and is it fair to have one’s accomplishments completely invalidated by the way something ended? If that were true, then few of us would be willing to try anything at all. He, strangely enough, seemed suspicious of my experience, telling me several times that I “sounded like a reporter.” It’s pathetic to admit, but I was flattered by that.

The next man I talked to had never been a key player in Jones’ inner circle, but ended up paying the highest price a human being can just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He reacted to my bumbling, poorly-prepared questions quite the opposite. Still in pain from past events in Guyana – that maybe can never really be past at all – he answered some questions, questioned me as well, and decided that after all, it might be better not to talk to me. That’s okay too. I have no idea, if in this man’s place, I would have been able to speak to me either.

By now I had gathered lots of material, listened to a hundred hours of FBI tapes, watched footage of the actual settlement, and even had the pleasure of receiving some letters from Stephan Jones, as well as having read some of his writings. That man can certainly write his way out of a paper bag! In addition to his talent, he is gracious, open, and unfortunately for me, he can ask some hard questions as well.

By the time I had written Stephan, I thought I had it: my story. It hadn’t been easy coming to that, but to quote Tim Carter, Jonestown can turn into a vortex. You have to filter it down somewhere, or you really will end up with a book longer than the Bible. Heck, maybe even longer than The Stand. I thought I had done a fine job with that. My book was going to center on six individuals and their lives in the months immediately preceding, and up to the final day. Obviously one of my characters is closely based on Jones, and gosh darn it, I had him. A really, really bad guy, plain and simple, the guy in the black hat, the perfect villain, no redeeming qualities, a madman, but a brilliant madman, who through his machinations brought about the senseless deaths of nearly a thousand people, several hundred of them being children and–

And then, Stephan: “Your challenge is to find out if it was really that simple, if he was, and if he was like that, then why did nearly a thousand people, good people, smart, educated, caring people follow him?” Damn! If there’s anything I hate, it’s a good question for which I have no answer. It put me back at the start. Oh, I’m still writing about six people and all that, but Stephan was right: the people who died in Jonestown weren’t a bunch of zombies or a bunch of freaks. For the most part, they were completely ordinary people who had ended up there in total ignorance of their situation because they had followed someone who they thought was extraordinary.

Or was he? After further reflection, I’ve come to believe that maybe once upon a time Jones was somewhat extraordinary, but that it had vanished or – this is closer to it – disintegrated long before he ever arrived in Guyana. That’s how I’ll write him now.

Before I tell you my opinion of how it all went down, I should give you a contextual note about me, to put this in perspective. I believe in God. I believe in him strongly, as a matter of fact. I wouldn’t call myself religious, but I’m not irreligious either. What keeps me as far away from organized religions as I can get, is my firm belief that if God did indeed design us in his own image, then the marvelous free will that is the gift of each human, is something we should cherish. It’s interesting to me that having free will, the first thing a lot of people do with it is try to abdicate it. If the real God won’t take it away from you, then they’ll find some idiot in a bad suit who will. It makes them feel better, now they have someone telling them what to think and do, and what God wants for them. This sort of thing is, of course, best found in a church or church-like structure. As for me, I think the earth itself is a fine church, and tend to have my best moments with God in all sorts of places that he left for me to look for him. If you have ever been to Alaska, or Northern California, or the coast of Maine, you know that it’s easy to fall on your knees, either literally or metaphorically speaking, and that’s without leaving the United States! I bet the rest of our planet has some pretty nice “churches” where you can see God at his finest as well.

I know though that this is not something that a great many people are comfortable with. They continue to seek God in the voice or voices of men. And not always, but sometimes that doesn’t turn out so well. When it doesn’t turn out, you know – like in the case of Jones, or Charlie Manson, or L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology, or Warren Jeffs and his FLDS – well then, he must be the devil. These guys are little more than lunatics, probably all suffering from schizophrenia, and in the case of Manson and Jones, were known drug addicts as well.

So then what happened in Jonestown, or in Waco, or out at Spahn ranch? For the most part, I think, a nice bunch of people looking for direction got hooked up with one of these poor crazy, but very charismatic losers, and found themselves going along for the ride. When the ride started to turn really bad, then they couldn’t leave. Not that they thought it was too late – although in reality it probably was – but in our wonderfully human capacity for denial, who could really imagine that it would all go so wrong?

We know now, of course, that it did go wrong, and in a horrible manner. That’s not what I’m going to focus on though. It’s how it went down that interests me. After it was over, the whole world eagerly demonized Jones, the monster. But really, that’s as ridiculous as saying that Manson stabbed Sharon Tate. He didn’t. You can make one man bear responsibility for these horrors, but can one man really be responsible for them?

This answer is, no. He can’t. Not physically, not even charismatically, not even competently. Jones was a drug addled, shambling, slurring shadow of his former self. One of the men I talked to said that by November 1978 no one was really listening to him anymore, and somehow I actually believe that. What happened in Guyana could never have happened at all without some planning, some really good organizational skill sets, some groundwork done by a bunch of other folks, and that’s what nobody likes to think about. It’s much more palatable to see the face of evil as a madman like Charlie, or a sad Elvis impersonator look alike, as Jones was, than to see it as the clear-eyed, unlined face of a bunch of attractive, educated, privileged young people. But those are just the kind of people that killed Sharon Tate, and whose hands wrote out the orders for the cyanide, and with such competent chill, mixed up the Flavor-Aid, and who organized the lines, and who held the rifles, just in case…

The whole thing gets pretty complicated in a big hurry, which may augur badly for a short neat book as well. No matter how hard I have tried to filter down the Jonestown story, there is a lot to say, and a lot to remember, and that’s what I will be writing about. And it will be shorter than the Bible.

Yes, it does return to the Bible connection. It’s a big book, and it does have a lot of boring parts with all the begatting. But there’s some nice stuff too. I like the Psalms, and the Golden Rule is a pretty sensible way to live your life. The Ten Commandments aren’t bad either, once you get past the heavy-handed sound of them: But the one I think of when I think of Jim Jones is: “Thou shalt have no other God before me.” Except it really needs to be amended to read: “Thou shalt have no other God before me, because it’s a really, really bad idea.”

(Kathleen McKenna lives and writes in New Mexico. She can be reached at khewtson@me.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 25th, 2014.
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