Fathom These Events: Jonestown, a Novel
A writer’s journal, excerpts

“It will take more than small minds, reporters’ minds, to fathom these events. Something must come of this. Beyond all the circumstances surrounding the immediate event, someone can perhaps find the symbolic, the eternal in this moment – the meaning of a people, a struggle – I wish I had time to put it all together, that I had done it. I did not do it. I failed to write the book. Someone else, others, will have to do this.”

– from an anonymous document attributed to Richard Tropp, found at Jonestown
(Dear People: Remembering Jonestown, xvi)

Sangre de Cristo range, southern Colorado, Wet Mountain Valley, 9,100 feet, 35 acres, half a mile from neighbors, 5 1/2 miles of dirt and 11 miles of pavement to town, two hours to nearest airport, four hours to major airport and metropolis, myself and my son and my dog, and antelope, coyote, hummingbirds, red-tail hawks, mule deer, Rocky Mountain bluebird, plagues of mice and biting red ants. No land line (sometimes the cell-phone works); solar; propane; candles; kerosene. Completely off the grid, as they say. Here, I have chosen to spend the last year reading everything about Jonestown I am able to find, listening to Jim Jones’ voice on dozens of tapes, seeking solace in the land and sky.

Spring 2004. University of North Dakota Annual Writers’ Conference, where I am writer-in-residence for a week, giving a reading of my new novella, “The Closer You Were, the Less You Knew,” about a New York family (not my own) and its history, which happens to collide with the events of September 11th, 2001. During the 1980s, two daughters out of three join a cult in the Southwest, and the parents find a deprogrammer to “rescue” them. The hired man discloses that he has lost his own daughter in Jonestown. Otherwise, Peoples Temple is tangential to the story. After the reading, a friend comes up to me in tears, confiding he has a colleague whose two sisters and nephew died in Jonestown.

November 18, 1978: 918 dead; five murdered for sure; an hour on dirt from Port Kaituma; 26 hours by boat from Georgetown; an hour by plane from Georgetown; no phone at all; limited radio – as far as you can get from the grid.

Summer 2004. Portland, Oregon. Getting ready for my sabbatical in Colorado, where I plan, after five years of preparation, to begin my new novel, Hippie Ruins, about a commune in Huerfano County which began in the 1960s and whose residents, though dwindling, persist, surviving the pressures of poverty, bad health, growing old without health insurance. At Powell’s Books, where I am shopping for research material, I find myself drifting from “Communes” to “Cults,” its neighbor category down the aisle. I find several books on Jonestown and decide amid the sensationalist titles and grainy photos from Guyana, to postpone Hippie Ruins for another time, and to write my novel about Jonestown instead.

Cult Controversies; Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare; Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion; Communes and Cults; Death of a Cult Family; The Suicide Cult; The Cult That Died; The Cult Experience; Cults in America; Cults and New Religious Movements; Tragic End of a Cult; The New Religious Cults; The Cult Experience: Salvation or Slavery.

Spring 2005. I’m hiking with the dog on the bald hills of the Wet Mountain range, a French actor reading Camus’s Le Myth de Sisyphe in my ears, sometimes carrying the book in French, sometimes in English, sometimes both, sometimes completely textless, as I try to absorb the words. I feel sure that if I read/hear this essay enough times, enlightenment will follow. Il n’y a qu’un probleme vraiment sérieux; c’est le suicide. (“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” trans. Justin O’Brien.) This opening line of the essay was written in 1942, when the writer was a Resistance fighter against fascism, not only that of the Nazis but of his own government, the Vichy collaborationists. A mile from the cabin, I find two old troughs, constructed of heavy wooden slabs, perfect for the flowerboxes I plan for summer flowers. How to get them home? There is no road, so I find a rope and drag them, one at a time, up and down the cactus-speckled slopes, without benefit of wheels or pulleys; they are too heavy for me to lift. I have to laugh at myself, enacting Sisyphus in the flesh. Is this the task of the Jonestown novelist?

More Camus. Machiavelli’s Prince. Orwell. Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. Moby Dick. Dostoyevsky. More and more Dostoyevsky.

Spring 2005. An email arrives with the name of a major Jonestown writer as the sender, and the message line is: Jonestown Novel. “Dear Dr. Dawid,” it reads. “We have heard through the grapevine that you are writing a novel related to Jonestown” and goes on to offer me archival assistance. And access to recordings of Jim Jones and the people of Peoples Temple. I need to hear their voices so that I may be a proper conduit. Eagerly, like a child sending away for a prize, I mail a check for 20 cassettes, for starters.

Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Terrence des Pres’s The Survivor. Jean Amery’s At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities; Steiner’s Treblinka and Wiesel’s La Nuit. Nine hours of Shoah.

Planting or painting while Jim Jones speaks into my ear of Socialism and sky gods. To counter the voice, the deadly inevitable end, I must create, must grow. A few packets of seeds turn into a dozen, then two dozen. Jones berates Stanley and some anonymous “intellectual,” says the fascists are coming, and now they won’t let Black people into Canada. I paint flowerpots I’ve recycled from the detritus of my small town’s café. Cerulean blue, electric lime, stopsign red. Sometimes I agree with Jones’s words: yes, racism remains the scourge of our nation, thirty years later; yes, the poor are overlooked and uncared for, the elderly forgotten or ripped off, the children ignored while Capitalism waltzes on, the ship of state capsizing every day. John Deere green, woodstove black, lemon yellow. “Dad teaches us daily to think for ourselves,” insists one of the Jonestown residents. Furiously, I plant nasturtium, bachelor buttons, lupine, hollyhock, California poppies, foxglove, lavender, dill, basil, tomatoes and more tomatoes.

Beyond Jonestown; The Secret of Jonestown; Jonestown Massacre; Jonestown and the Manson Family; Jonestown in American Cultural History; Unraveling the Mysteries of Jonestown; Hearing the Voices of Jonestown; The Untold Story of Jonestown; The Jonestown Letters; The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown; A Sympathetic History of Jonestown; The Untold Story of What Happened Before – and Beyond – Jonestown; Jonestown & Other Madness; Remembering Jonestown; Surviving Jonestown; Behind Jonestown; From Babylon to Jonestown; The Assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana Tragedy; Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides; From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate; The Jonestown Tragedy, What Every Christian Should Know; The Children of Jonestown; The True Story Behind the Jonestown Massacre, including connections to the Kennedy and King assassinations; A Jonestown Survivor’s Story; The Jonestown Guyana Holocaust of 1978; Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment?

Hiking down the arroyo to the creek, Walkman in my ears, I listen as Joseph Campbell lectures on the facets of the hero. Is Jim Jones a hero? Are his followers heroic? What of the quest for self-knowledge? Did he or they achieve it? Meanwhile, monsters and tyrants figure in every myth. Like the Minotaur, Jim Jones hails from Crete. His mother nurtures visions of grandeur for her offspring – heroic, outsized visions.

Hold Hands and Die!; Deceived; Our Father, Who Art in Hell; Let Our Children Go!; Six Years With God; A New World Tragedy; The Broken God.

Who will populate my novel? So many possibilities: Hyacinth, Odell, Marceline, Lew, “Bonny,” Eugene, Harriet and Dick, Rose, the Doctor, the Nurses. The dog and I travel the cow path, finding ragged cooking pots ravaged by wind and age, a pioneer washtub, cowboy coffee tins; all this flotsam of dead homesteaders will float back into use as containers for vegetables and fragrant floral mixes to attract butterflies and hummers.

People’s Temple, People’s Tomb; Peoples Temple and Black Religion; The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana; Life and Death in the People’s Temple; A Sociological History of Peoples Temple.

At night, my five-year-old son and I watch movies while I hook rugs of hot pink, burnt orange, mustard yellow and a panoply of greens. I must have color to offset the horror, the recycled photos of bodies rotting in the jungle, corpses in metal boxes sitting on the runway, awaiting a flight home, awaiting identification. Will my book identify them? Can I?

The Strongest Poison; Seductive Poison.

Everything in the world represents some aspect of Jonestown, or so it seems to me. George W. Bush and his fearmongering; the bombers in Iraq and the London Tube; all the animals in Animal Farm; the population of Narnia and nearly every children’s movie and book which grapple with the meaning of good, the menace of evil. Ahab leads his crew to certain death in his quest for vengeance against the Leviathan, a monster embodying all his demons. The sailors go along because they have to; out on the Pequod, far from the world, they follow. Only Ishmael survives to testify.

The Tragedy of Jim Jones; Jim Jones: Christian or Antichrist? Charlatan or Communist?; The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones; The Life and Death of Jim Jones; Jesus & Jim Jones; The Story of the Layton Family and the Reverend Jim Jones.

Months pass, and the novel evolves in my head, chronicled in my process notes. The books and tapes keep arriving to my post office box. While listening to Jim harangue Marceline, I grit my teeth. Suddenly I hear myself cry out, “I hate you!” to this man who calls himself “Dad,” who seems a copycat Father Divine after I finish reading the same biography Jones had on his shelf, the 1953 edition of Sara Harris’s book. I cry when Sharon Amos’s children talk about why they should die for socialism.

Salvation and Suicide; On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death; Le Suicide; Suicide in Guyana; The Suicide Cult; Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides.

My son has brown skin. I am a Jew, a third of my European family killed in the camps. Jim Jones is right to distrust the government – then and now. The so-called Patriot Act makes my library record suspect: amazingly, I can get Huey P. Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide” on interlibrary loan here at this tiny county branch. A news junkie, I find each day’s headlines overwhelmingly dire.

The Nation; The New Yorker; The Atlantic Monthly; Harper’s; Times Literary Supplement; Mother Jones; Speakeasy; The New York Times; Ode; Truthout.

And yet. As the monsoon season fills the huge skies with cumulonimbus, and the thunder crackles across the range, my flower troughs burst in voluminous blossom. Electrifying colors glisten in the rain. While the dog and I hike, voices whisper in my ear.

(Annie Dawid’s last book is a collection of stories, Lily in the Desert. Forthcoming publications include “The Closer You Were, the Less You Knew” in Glimmer Train Stories. Three sections of her historical novel about her father’s European family, And Darkness Was Under His Feet, will be appearing this fall in Poetica, Paper Street and Out of Line, an anthology of peace and justice. She can be reached at annie@anniedawid.com.)