Upon reading the latest version of my Jonestown novel, a new friend remarks, “It seems you’re closest to Marceline of the four main characters.”
“What?!” I sputter. “How can you say that? She’s the one I have the most trouble with!”
Autumn 2007. The fourth year of my life-in-Jonestown commences, the novel wending its way through a final round of publishers courtesy of my valiant agent, its fifth title —Fathom These Events: Jonestown, a Novel; Fathoming Jonestown; Jonestown Perfume; Resurrection City; Paradise Undone – and umpteenth draft.
However, the four main characters have remained the same throughout. Two come from Jonestown’s history: Marceline Jones and the Guyanese ambassador to the United States, whom I call Virgil Nascimento. Two are of my own invention: Truth Miller, a white female Temple member who works in the radio room at San Francisco Geary Boulevard headquarters on the last day of Jonestown; and Watts Freeman, a black Temple member who escapes on that final day and spends a great deal of time in the next thirty years trying to describe to the media what Jonestown was like.
When I started researching this book in the summer of 2004, I knew Marceline would be crucial to the story. Although there’s a dearth of information about her in Jonestown literature, she was integral to Peoples Temple in its rise as well as its demise. But what had I in common with Marceline Baldwin Jones?
Nothing on the surface. She married and stayed with her man to the bitter-tasting end. In contrast, I have never married nor wanted to, though I gave birth to one fabulous son in 1999. For 29 years, she remained in the shadow of her charismatic life partner, despite the fact that without her massive energy, devotion and love, Peoples Temple might not have accomplished all the good it did, and what evolved or devolved might have done so in a different form – whether more or less toxic, we shall never know.
For me, a woman taking a husband’s name has always been anathema – akin to the practice of slavery – and the actions I have undertaken thus far in my 47 years (Marceline was 51 when she died, Jim 47) have been my own, with the name I was born with, for better and worse. As a feminist, I found the protagonist Marceline my most painful act of character inhabitation.
On the other hand, Virgil, like me, devotes himself to the life of the mind and looked to literature and art for answers. Unlike me, he exists solely in this realm and lacks a grounding in the gritty business of daily life, such as caring for a child, for instance, or tending to family. This deficiency proves integral to his doom. However, I could easily nestle in Virgil’s brain: he wants answers to problems, like most of us, and without them, he despairs. The fact that he ends his life as a murderer did not keep me from empathy.
Truth (née Elizabeth) Miller is also an ideologue, though unschooled at the beginning of the story. She meets Jim Jones and joins the Temple in 1970, when she is 18. For decades, she huddles under his political umbrella – even after Jonestown. However, she is not exactly a follower. Until joining Peoples Temple, she sees herself as an outsider, like me, someone who never fits in, someone who always has to make her own way. Like me, she is passionate and at times excessive. She is loyal – to a fault – and fiercely devoted to her son. Her little boy, Cuffy, has more than a few traits in common with my own child. Although she never entirely sheds her naiveté, Truth comes to value education and balance as she ages.
While Watts might seem the longest leap for me – he grows up in poverty amid the projects of Los Angeles, and comes from a fractured family life depleted by drugs, alcohol and racism – I like him most of the four and hope I share with him a love of the truth and an aversion to lies. More than the other three, he is practical, and guided – once free of narcotics – by common sense. Like most of us, he is not noble or valiant, but he loves life in all its horror as well as its wonder. Like me, he is a storyteller and wants to communicate what he perceives to be the truth about Jonestown and the people who died there. He is especially concerned about those who remain, thirty years later in 2008 – when I hope my book will be published – gravely misunderstood and/or forgotten by the American public.
So how is it that my new friend could think me most closely connected to Marceline? The wife and mother and stand-by-your-man-while-he-cheats, behind-your-man-while-he-gets-all-the-credit heroine?
When I think of what is best about Marceline – her great love for others, her loyalty to the elders and the sick and the children – then I wish to be someone with those same traits. When I consider her terrific energy and desire to help other human beings, I hope I have a fraction of that desire within me. When I reflect on the way she took in so many children and old people who were not blood relations and treated them as her own beloved family, I aspire to such largesse of heart.
But when I imagine the last day of Jonestown, and her apparent – though not proven – lack of resistance to the poisoning plan, to the mass murders and suicides of nearly a thousand people, two thirds of them elderly or children – then I pray I haven’t the slightest drop of Marceline Baldwin Jones residing anywhere inside me.
Intuitively, I relate to the surviving narrators of Paradise Undone, who, like Ishmael inMoby Dick, live to testify about an ordeal now part of American mythic history and testify in order to live.