Judging Less, Understanding More

Sometimes a memory lies dormant for years before rising to the surface, demanding attention. So it was for me with Jonestown. A few months ago, I realized images from November 18th, 1978 had been haunting me ever since I’d seen them on TV as a teenager. Prompted by something-perhaps I’d subconsciously taken in reports of the 25th anniversary-I found myself suddenly obsessed with the need to understand what went on in Guyana. How did it come to this? Who were these people the reports called “cultists” and “victims”. Who was Jim Jones, and how and why did he do it?

The first thing I did was look up the story in newspapers from the period, but their depiction of events was typically shallow and sensationalist. They told me nothing. Next I got hold of the transcript of the “Death Tape”. That only deepened the mystery. It was a missive from an utterly alien society, but it was one I felt an even more urgent need to understand from the inside-as far as that is ever possible.

By this time, I was pretty sure I wanted to write about Peoples Temple. Although I plan to write it in novel form, I knew I could do it justice only if I could relate intimately to the people involved, up to and including Jones. I tried to suspend preconceptions while I read a dozen books and reviewed the material on the Jonestown website. I thought-I think-what happened has tremendous relevance to what’s happening in America today. (Don’t ask me how. That’s why this is going to be a novel, not a magazine article!)

Anyway, this is why I ordered tapes.

I wanted several things from them. I wanted to understand Jones’ charisma by listening without prejudice to his early preaching, and to track the changes as he acquired his following. I wanted to evoke the Jonestown scenes I’d read so much about, including the White Nights. I also wanted to fit Peoples Temple into context and to clarify the radical position of Jones, so I ordered a number of tapes of Jones reading the news in Jonestown and quizzing the members. I also tried to identify tapes that conveyed the everydayness of life in Guyana without the hysterical edge of 20/20 hindsight survivors’ reports.

As I listened, I became thoroughly immersed in my research and reasonably well informed. I expected a frisson, and I wasn’t disappointed. The level of connection I felt to these people multiplied off the scale. There definitely had been a point at which I thought I’d have to give up the idea of a novel because I couldn’t feel an iota of sympathy for Jones himself. If I couldn’t release my reflex to despise him, how could I possibly relate to the people who were drawn to him? Gradually, though, I managed to judge less and understand more, and the tapes helped immensely.

Currently, I’m finishing another novel (and, not being of independent means, writing stuff for a living.), so have had to put this on ice. I hope the delay won’t dim the passion-although there’s no sign of that happening so far. There’s one tape I still haven’t listened to, which I’m saving until I’m ready to dive back in and write. That of course is the “Death Tape”. And it’s partly thanks to the other tapes that now its transcript reads completely differently than it did a few months back.