My book has four protagonists, and as many voices. In addition, the words of Jim Jones punctuate the novel, adding point and counterpoint to the characters’ trajectories. Only one of the four portrayals attempts to imagine a person many readers in the Jonestown community knew and remember: Marceline Baldwin Jones enters the book on the day she meets Jim Jones in an Indiana hospital in 1949; she leaves the pages on November 18, 1978. Most of her narrative is written in third-person, as I found her the most difficult character of all to understand from the inside out, though I hope, by the book’s end, to have succeeded transplanting the author’s and reader’s sensibility from outside to inside her skin. Also in third person is the other female, an idealistic East Coaster named Truth Miller, née Elizabeth. More an ideologue than the others, she, too, was hard for me to inhabit, though not as difficult as Marceline, whose birth in 1927 forged her into a woman of a particular generation, one which often saw the marriage vow as lifelong and unbreakable.
Beginning the book in first person is the last will and testament of Virgil Nascimento, a character loosely based on Laurence (Bonny) Mann, Guyanese ambassador to the United States who dies not at Jonestown but years later, when he kills himself, his wife and child in a gruesome if unintended small-scale re-enactment of the Jonestown massacre. Virgil is like me in that he reads and reads in hope of finding answers to problems. Like me, he loves Camus and thinks an understanding of Jonestown might be found in the pages of The Myth of Sisyphus. Unlike me, he gives up. Lastly, the fourth narrator is Watts (née Roman) Freeman, a composite character based in part on those who fled into the jungle on November 18, 1978.
Resurrection City is dedicated to Christine Miller, and addresses those readers unfamiliar with the facts of Jonestown in a prologue, excerpted below.
from the Prologue:
“We were shown a bakeshop, a machine shop, a brick-making area. There were shoes in the mud and on the grass and in the fields. A disproportionate number were children’s shoes, sandals no bigger than the palm of your hand.”
— Rolling Stone reporter Tim Cahill, who visited Jonestown
with other reporters after the bodies were removed.
Thirty years later, what happened at Jonestown remains unilluminated for many. Responses at the time blamed a crazy, charismatic leader who led his unthinking followers — narcotized zombies in some accounts — to their chosen self-sacrifice. Other stories had the CIA responsible for the murders, and/or Jim Jones as a covert CIA agent and/or a drugged victim of CIA mind-control experiments.
Seven years after the events of September 11th, 2001 and the evolution of the suicide bomber as a principled career choice for untold numbers of men and some women, we must re-examine what happens when altruistic citizens – as were most of the Jonestown dead — are persuaded by compelling leaders to sacrifice their own lives and those of their beloveds and others to improve the world.
WHERE THE EAGLES GATHER, THERE HAS TO BE CARCASS,
AND WHERE THE CARCASS IS, THE EAGLES WILL GATHER TOGETHER,
AND I AM THE CARCASS, WILLING TO DIE THAT YOU COULD LIVE,
WILLING THAT YOU COULD EAT FROM ME
THAT YOU WOULD KNOW THE DIVINE PRINCIPLE
THAT WILL SAVE YOU AND SET YOU FREE.
Nov. 18, 1981
“How can I live, knowing what I know?”
Voila my clumsy translation of Camus:
Je veux savoir si je puis vivre avec ce que je sais et avec cela seulement.
You who read this document, you will attempt to compare me to Jim Jones. Am I as guilty as he? More so? Less? Or just another victim? Americans adore victims. They love seeing themselves as underdogs, as sadly wronged good guys. They who know so little of how the rest of the world lives and works. They who always send their soldiers overseas. Born in Guyana, I have witnessed carnage at home.
In the bedroom beside the study sleep Nancy and the boy, the boy who is my blood but who resembles Nancy more, his skin more white than black, conceived sometime during November of 1978. Nancy Levine-Nascimento, my wife of two years, formerly my mistress, was a chief lieutenant in the public relations army of General Jones. In her assigned Mata Hari role, she became my lover, and, after I divorced my Guyanese spouse of 22 years, my wife; together we made this boy. However, in my mind he is the offspring of Jonestown. Its issue, as the British say. Heir to the throne of Emperor Jones.
Each anniversary, revulsion returns. The sickness of the act. The horror. In 1979, I wanted to commit suicide but refrained. In 1980, I wanted to destroy my family, the surviving evidence of Jones and the Peoples Temple, their wrecking of my country; I destroyed nothing. This year, all of us – Nancy, former paramour of and true believer in the Bishop Jones, the boy who resembles the Emperor Jim, and myself, estimable and educated bureaucrat – shall be erased. We are anathema. My self, my family, my country. My countries.
First I thought to write this last will and testament on Embassy stationery; the Guyanese Ambassador to the United States makes his Official, Ultimate Statement! But my title, my Oxford degree, my fluency in many languages matter little, or not at all. Though he needed them, Jones hated intellectuals as rationalizers, relativists and do-nothings; I am coming to hate them too, myself most of all. But tonight, I will do something.
In the White House, on Capitol Hill, and at the State Department, people ask from where my “beautiful” accent derives. When I say Guyana, one of two answers is possible.
Isn’t that in Africa? As if my black skin could have its genesis only in deepest, darkest Africa. Perhaps they have heard of Guinea, or Guinée, mythical home of the enslaved dead beneath the waters, both those who died in the holds and those who threw their children and then themselves overboard, preferring death by drowning to life in the New World. My mother’s ancestors traveled those ships, died those deaths.
Isn’t that where the crazy guy and all his zombies drank poisoned Kool-Aid?
According to my personal tally, No. 2 is statistically eleven times as likely as number one. Before November 18th, 1978, only No. 1 existed.
What to call it?
The U.S. Congress calls it the “suicide/homicide.”
Familicide on a grand scale.
The triumph of the CIA.
The revenge of Capitalism.
The nemesis of Marxism.
The sleep of reason.
The death of hope.
The most racist murders of our time.
The most integrated mass suicide.
The end of the Civil Rights movement.
Huey Newton’s nightmare.
What to call Jones?
The Reverend – though revered for what, I couldn’t say.
In Guyana, he dubbed himself the Bishop.
Psycho. Devil. Charlatan. Megalomaniac. Monster. Madman.
Sociopath. Monomaniac. Ahab.
Messiah. Prophet. Revolutionary.
Christ re-born. Lenin reincarnated.
Guyana’s best American friend.
Human Rights Leader, as Indianapolis did in 1960.
Man of the Year, as the Black Press of America did in 1969.
Humanitarian of the Year, as San Francisco did, giving him the
Martin Luther King Jr. Award in 1977.
A combination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Chairman Mao, as California State Assemblyman Willie Brown did.
The man who fucked my wife – as he did most female members of the Peoples Temple inner circle.
The homosexual arrested in a Los Angeles cinema toilet for propositioning an undercover police officer.
High school teacher.
Head of the San Francisco Housing Authority.
Friend to First Lady Rosalyn Carter and the Governor of California.
Key vote-harvester for San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.
Healer of the sick.
Resuscitator of the dead.
At dinner, her mother told her father about the new male orderly, and his interest in hearing Pastor Baldwin preach on Sunday.
“What’s he like?” asked Laura, Marceline’s younger sister, who was already engaged, terribly romantic and impatient to see her big sister in love. “What’s he look like?”
Marceline’s father waited. “Well, Marcie? Laura and I are very curious.”
Marceline looked to her mother for help. Mrs. Baldwin shook her head. “You tell them.”
Suddenly her soup, Campbell’s tomato, seemed especially fascinating, and she searched its red-orange depths, as if seeking aid. She didn’t like this feeling of being observed as if she were a cellular organism poked and prodded under glass, the slightest movement prompting her observer’s delight.
“You’re blushing!” shouted Laura, pleased with herself. “Come on, Sensible Sister! Tell us already.”
Laura was the pretty one, the boy lure, as her parents called her – a term they’d shortened to “boiler” as a joke. The boiler wasn’t interested in going to college or having any kind of career beyond being a wife. When Laura had read Wuthering Heights, at Marceline’s insistence, Heathcliff disgusted her. “What a beast!” she said. “I can’t believe Cathy or any girl would want to be within a hundred yards of that guy. He’s awful!”
“Well, he’s got nice eyes,” Marceline said finally, more to her soup than her sister. “Big and dark.”
“And a good head of hair, too,” added Mrs. Baldwin. “I wonder what kind of blood he’s got in him – Black Irish, maybe?”
Marceline shrugged. What did it matter? “I have no idea, Mother. He was born in Indiana, like me.”
“Tell them when!”
Despite knowing her mother’s teasing was not malicious, she couldn’t help defending herself, and protecting Jim.
“What? Is he an older man or something?” Laura asked hopefully.
“No. He’s younger than me, that’s all.”
“He’s still in high school!’ announced Mrs. Baldwin triumphantly, and everyone laughed except Marceline. She surveyed the room, its well-appointed oak furniture and graceful pewter chandelier suspended over the dining room table. The Baldwins weren’t rich, but they were … tasteful, Marceline thought. If she continued to live at home after Laura’s wedding, Marceline feared she might suffocate.
“All right, Mother. You’ve had your joke. So, he’s 18. We all were, once. Laura’s only 19, for goodness sake. I think he’s pretty mature, really. I mean, he cares about the world, which you don’t find in too many people that age.” She glared at her sister, who was winking at their mother and didn’t hear, much less profit from Marceline’s jibe.
Pastor Baldwin sighed. “Okay everyone. Let’s stop making Marcie uncomfortable. I’m sorry, honey. It’s just that we’ve never seen you excited about a boy before. I don’t know about your mother, but I’m pleased you’ve met someone you like.”
“I’m sure he’s a fine young man,” said Mrs. Baldwin. “He’s just a boy, that’s all, and impetuous. But that’s all right. I think his heart’s in the right place.”
Everyone in the village she asked to accompany her to Jonestown refused – even American dollars couldn’t sway them. She felt guilty waving greenbacks around to get what she wanted, so she was half relieved when no one took up her offer. Enough villagers told her the way, three of them pointing to the same muddy road, so that, after eating granola and sipping bottled water, and checking her knapsack to make sure she had more water and her rain poncho, her camera and notebook, she set off alone.
Lionel didn’t exactly accuse Truth of being crazy but had implied as much. Disappointed but not surprised, she walked away from town, tucking her curls beneath a bandana, as it was already stultifying, despite the early hour. Trying to quell the chatter in her brain so that she would be receptive and calm by the time she reached Jonestown, Truth walked slowly, but her internal conversation boomed louder and louder the farther she got from Port Kaituma.
“I’m not crazy. I’m not!” she said loudly, almost yelling. Truth liked the sound of her own voice and talked to herself all the time in her daily life in San Francisco. Generally, it was difficult not to speak her thoughts aloud; she was so used to being alone. But her babbling was one of the reasons people called her crazy. Her own parents did. Her teachers. Co-workers. Everyone but Jim. Jim razored through all the superficial nonsense. It was Jim who gave her the name Truth. “I can see so much good inside you,” he’d said to her on their first meeting, in 1970, “it’s radiating all around you.” She was 18, lonely, a freshman at San Francisco State, completely lost in every way, and he’d plowed through the morass inside her, plunging straight to the core.
“You’re a truth teller – I can see it in your eyes.” He looked into her dark eyes with his — that was before he wore sunglasses all the time. “You don’t like lies. And some people don’t like you for that reason.”
He was right. She hated lies more than anything. Though she had no proof of it, she felt the world had been lying to her since she was born. Her parents, school, the news media, religion – all lies. Immediately, Jim Jones had put his finger on what was most important to her. It was as if he’d known her always. “Authenticity,” he’d proclaimed, pointing at her heart. “That’s what turns you on.”
He’d preached at a church in the Black neighborhood called the Fillmore, which she’d never been to before, as she was living in the dorms by Lake Merced and had only been in the city a month. Normally, she didn’t go to church; her parents had dragged her to Universalist Unitarian services as a child, and when she’d turned 13, she refused to go anymore. But when she saw the flier on the bulletin board at the Student Union, the yellowing paper still taped to her fridge, she felt something – Jim’s invisible hand – reaching out to her, enticing.
PASTOR JIM JONES…Incredible!…Miraculous!…Amazing!… Most Unique Prophetic Healing Service You’ve Ever Witnessed!… Behold the Word Made Incarnate in Your Midst!
God works as tumorous masses are passed in every service… Before your eyes, the crippled walk, the blind see!
Scores are called out of the audience each service and told the intimate (but never embarrassing) details of their lives that only God could reveal!
Christ is made real through the most precise revelations and the miraculous healings in the ministry of His servant, Jim Jones!
This same spiritual healing ministry does not oppose medical science in any way. In fact, it is insisted that all regular members have yearly medical examinations and cooperate fully with their physicians.
See God’s Supra-Natural Works Now!
(Radio Reporter) So, did you join up that day – with your grandmother? You were twenty then?
(Watts) Old enough to know better. Nah, not that day. But Jimmie’s talking about how he’s a nigger like the rest of us, and how the government hates black people. He says look at the Japanese – they had money, he says, they owned a chunk of California – and they got put into camps here ’cause they’re not white. Not so long ago, either. Like the Jews in Europe. He says, don’t think it can’t happen here. And he goes on about how the white man wants us to be drunk and stoned and wasting our lives, and how we play right into their pale, ugly hands when we get messed up on dope and booze. Asks us who own all the liquor stores in the ghetto – white people, right? He’s still right. Anyway, he’s talking like his skin is as brown as mine or yours. Which I think is weird because the man is white; he’s not mixed, he’s not Indian, like he claimed. He a white boy. He got that dark hair from Wales, not no Cherokee Nation. (Laughs) Anyway, he’s talking about this program they have at the church to get people like me, like a lot of young folks, off the dope and out of jail, to help us be useful in the community. It’s not like I never heard what the man said before, but he got a good rap, and a seriously fine delivery, and it’s penetrating my doped up head. Then my grandma gets on me, and she won’t quit razzing me until I say yes. Now, I’d done rehab already, and I’d been to jail already, and you know, I didn’t have nothing going on that was worth keeping going on. My girlfriend say she don’t want nothing to do with me ’cause I’m too fucked up – sorry, too messed up – too much of the time. So, Grandma says I can stay with her if I enroll myself in that program.
So it worked? The Reverend Jones straightened you out?
Kenyatta – that’s your name, right? Kenyatta, you gotta remember I was very young at the time. And dumb. Dumb about dope, especially. But it wasn’t Jimmie who got me off the dope; it was the people in the Peoples Temple. Man, they were some fine people. Some very fine people. That’s what always trips me up. To this day it does. Trips everyone else up too. All those good people. Anyway, the nurses running the program, the other folks who were helping us get through the first days, like Jim McElvane and Archie, the other dopers, like Rufus – they got me through.