On either side of the darkness:
Review of two new books on Jonestown

Citizen Lane by Mark Lane (Lawrence Hill Books, 372 pp., $26.95)
Season of the Witch by David Talbot (Free Press, 452 pp., $28)

We fear the darkness not because of what we know is there, but rather that which we have yet to imagine exists. And good journalism, all good writing in fact, is nothing more than a walk through the darkest places of our past in an attempt to find something new, something closer to the truth. Anything other than an honest and often painful examination becomes useless. And while I would hesitate to call Mark Lane’s autobiographical book Citizen Lane useless, in terms of its contribution towards the understanding of the events of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, I can hardly come up with a better word.

Mark Lane was a renegade. A champion of the underclass, he spent his life fighting for the underprivileged and the voiceless. Lane, a renowned lawyer and human rights advocate and freedom fighter, is an amazing example of moral and ethical character and a hero to the oppressed minorities of the United States. His work with the National Lawyers Guild, the Freedom Riders, as well as his investigative work on the Kennedy Assassination is a record to be admired. Yet his book does little to engage or inform his readers of anything other than his own selflessness, an irony I found irritating.  Lane paints a picture of himself so pristine, so clear-headed and above all others that we are left smirking at his depictions. Many of the events he writes about are familiar to us all, and I was eager to hear his take, being that he was an active participant and a first-hand witness. Yet my eagerness was met with disappointment. Lane gives us unprecedented behind-the-scenes access, but uses this more to name-drop than to investigate further into the events themselves. For instance, the chapter on the Kennedy assassination centers on Lane’s fight to get published and a budding friendship with Paul McCartney.

Lane’s chapter on Jonestown is especially fruitless. Lane, who was active in the liberal counterculture of the sixties and seventies, was there on November 18, 1978 along with the others. Yet, he seems reluctant to get involved, as if terrified by the darkness which lies there. He skims over the events which lead up to the Jonestown massacre as quickly as possible and offers us nothing in terms of new interpretations or thoughts on the events themselves. Instead, Lane once again focuses the story upon himself and how he alone saw the warning signs.

Self-indulgence aside, it is the lack of introspection and serious examination that upsets me most with his depiction of Jonestown. Lane sums up the events preceding 1978 in two simple paragraphs which do little other than to mention the many celebrities and politicians who Jim Jones wooed. Once the congregation moved to Guyana, Lane focuses his attention on the supposed US led conspiracy to discredit and destroy Jim Jones and his followers. While discussing the interview methods which Congressman Leo Ryan should use while in Guyana, Lane states that “Ryan was assured by the officials of the United States that those methods had always been employed in the past and approved by Jones. Of course, those assurances were false, and Ryan’s reliance upon those assurances was the crucial factor that led to the violence that followed.” Such instances of placing the blame of November 18th on anyone other than Jim Jones and his most loyal followers might be excusable if any alternate explanation was offered. But Lane only briefly mentions abuse in Jonestown, and likens the conditions to such treachery that “the place had no television access, fast-food restaurants were not available, the days were long, and the work was hard on the agricultural commune.” I pity the young student who attempts to grapple with the difficult reality of mass suicide and murder with only these descriptions of agony to start with. Sadly, in the end, Lane does little to add to the dialogue of Jonestown other than to muddy the water by proposing a US led conspiracy to destroy would-be Soviet defectors.

Not as afraid of the darkness, David Talbot’s Season of The Witch is the much needed opposition to Lane’s lackluster foray into self-indulgence. Talbot’s book is a wonderfully sprawling exposé of the city which was at the forefront of the new America in the sixties and seventies. Talbot gives us a pleasant, albeit brief, history of early San Francisco in the first part of his book, and by setting the stage with stories of the early hippie movement, the beginning of experimental drugs and the sexual revolution, Talbot lays the framework for a city ripe for the tumultuous figures and events which were soon to come. And it is this sweeping historical examination of the atmosphere of the 1960’s and 1970’s which is Talbot’s greatest victory. By telling the story from its infancy we are able to interpret the events to come with a more full understanding and appreciation.

San Francisco was a lethal combination of political maturity and social naiveté. It was at the forefront of progressive politics as Talbot shows through the figures of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. But it was also naïve in its free-loving embrace of diversity, in all its forms. The idealistic movements of the sixties and seventies brought with them tragedy because they lacked the maturity of serious leaders to ground them in reality. By the end of the 1970’s the new American dream had been shattered by betrayal, murder and tragedy. Dan White and Jim Jones brought everything to a screeching halt in November of 1978. And while it took the country a long time to recovery from these wounds, we were never the same again.

By weaving in and out of connected stories Talbot was able to capture not only the fast-paced and invigorating movements that led up to these events, but also the deadening malaise which lingered afterward. One could say that after the 1970’s, America had lost its innocence. The Kennedy assassination, the cold war, Vietnam, the Zodiac killer, Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the assassination of Moscone and Milk, the Jonestown massacre—these were the lasting images of a period which strove so hard to be remembered for their love and goodness. Fittingly, Talbot spends a number of chapters discussing Jonestown and the effect that not only Jim Jones had on the city, but that the massacre had on the entire world.

Talbot sets the scene of Jones’ arrival into San Francisco with this paragraph:

Jones moved into the Fillmore at its most vulnerable moment. Urban renewal czar Justin Herman had “literally destroyed the neighborhood,” observed neighborhood activist Hannibal Williams, “[and] people were desperate for solutions, something to follow. Jim Jones was another solution. He had a charismatic personality that won the hearts and  souls of people. And people followed him to hell. That’s where Jim Jones went. That’s where he took the people who followed him.”

But while Talbot does an excellent job representing the political and social atmosphere of the city and how it contributed to the rise of Jim Jones, he unfortunately does little to add to the human aspect. Very little is done to tell us about the actual people of Jonestown either in Guyana or their time in San Francisco. Talbot overly politicizes the events, but at the same time never lays out in great detail the social focus of Peoples Temple other than to accuse them of voter fraud. And Season of the Witch also falls victim to some of the frustrating tendencies of the past when it comes to discussing Jonestown. The constant use of the term “cult” is an unforgivable annoyance to those who seek to enact a sea change in Jonestown terminology. Talbot, ever the sensationalist, speaks of Jonestown in such phrases as “the deadliest cult in US history” and the “international symbol of mass lunacy.” Such simplistic and ignorant claims unfortunately keep Talbot from pushing the conversation on Jonestown any further. If Jonestown were only a mass murder enacted by Jones it would be easier to dismiss. So too would it be if the people of Jonestown were a “zombie flock” or simply “programmed” as Talbot unfortunately says. The fact is they were intelligent people looking for answers in a time when there were few. They had gone too far, dug too deep, and put too much on the line to walk away. It is obviously true that they would have been killed had they tried to escape, yet they were no longer afraid to die. At the end, they were as afraid of life as they were death.

Season of the Witch remains an excellent account of a city and a time of change and, although its final chapters on “deliverance” seem underdeveloped (football and the fight against the AIDS epidemic as the city’s saving grace?), Talbot never sinks into the trap of glamorizing or sympathizing with the troubles that the city of San Francisco and the US as a whole endured during these times. Talbot seems to suggest that such social and political paradigms come and go, and that it is through the wear and tear of fighting with these changes that people are defined. He wants us to see the people of San Francisco not as victims, but as fighters in a great battle against the past. And while his version of Jonestown is an overly politicized and sadly immature one, it is also one of the best explorations of the surrounding social atmosphere which embraced a figure such as Jim Jones in the first place.

History walks hand in hand with hindsight, forcing us to examine the events which shaped us while at the same time seducing us with answers which seem close enough to touch. Jonestown is an easy subject to dismiss, but a difficult one to explore. Let us not be so blinded by our own fear of the unknown that we do not dig deeper into the darkness of the past. For only through such inquiries will we ever be able to move towards brighter times.

(Richard Gubbels is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he studied English Literature and Philosophy, and currently lives in Neenah, Wisconsin. He is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His previous writings can be found here. He can be reached at richardgubbels84@gmail.com.)