Even though he was in Jonestown as the events unfolded, Dwight Urban, the narrator of my novel, I Shot The Reverend Jim Jones, has a hard time making sense out of what happened on the night of November 18, 1978. Seated before a typewriter a few weeks later, struggling to capture his thoughts while they are still fresh in his mind, he puts several key figures in Peoples Temple inside the witness box and imagines how they might respond to his cross-examination. His reaction is below.
I sigh. I’m feeling frustrated. I’m not getting anywhere. My witnesses are simply rehashing the party line. Offering pat rationalizations and meaningless but varied justifications. I’m no more enlightened than before. However, there is one key person I have not called to account yet. The one person in the entire community who may hold the answer to the mystery of why so many seemingly well-meaning people can be guilty of condoning or committing murder. The one person above the fray. Marceline Jones. Beloved and respected by all. Compassionate. Saintly. An erstwhile Florence Nightingale offering solace and comfort to the bereaving mothers who poisoned their babies and to others in the throes of death. I do not want to offend her in any way. But she was there. She observed all. She participated. Nervously, I call her to the stand.
With her braided, straw-colored hair wrapped about her head like a crown, her erect posture and her hands calmly folded in front, Marceline displays a frail majesty. Her special vantage point makes her input essential. She of all people knew her husband best. She of all people had suffered most from his erratic and erotic actions over the years. She of all people knew of his paranoia and drug use—of all his failings, of his making a mockery out of marital fidelity. She of all people knew of his obsession with dying. She of all people knew of his wacky ideas. I even overheard her once telling him so. Surely, with her loving and kindly nature, she could not have sanctioned these heinous acts—the deaths of all those members who trusted her as well as those of her own children?
My question to her is simple: “Why?”
Her voice catches as she says, “Yes, if you must know, I’m upset about what happened. But I was convinced it all was for the best. I did what I did because that was the only way to relieve all the pain and suffering. Folks had had enough. There is a limit to what people can endure. I also believe in the reality of an afterlife. A better one where people of all colors and creeds can live together in peace and harmony. Where love, generosity and forgiveness triumph over hatred, greed and revenge. I also took my marriage vows of love, honor and obey seriously. As Jim’s lawful wedded wife, I felt obliged to support him no matter what.” To my surprise, her testimony becomes more personal. “In the past, Dwight, you’ve always been so thoughtful and sympathetic. One of the few people I could confide in. I’m sure you understand what I’m saying now.”
Fact is, I really don’t. Though I have a strong urge to console her, her reasons still don’t make sense. I stare at her and debate what to say.
“May I leave now?” she asks in a plaintive voice.
I don’t want to cause her any more grief. Maybe I should call it quits. Accept the fact that my questions about the massacre will go unanswered. I’m about to dismiss her. I hesitate. Challenging her makes me feel guilty. It’s a desecration of someone above reproach. Yet a perverse urge eggs me on. I can’t let this opportunity pass. I’m not going to let her off the hook.
Nervously, I venture, “Sorry, Marceline, but none of the reasons you offer justify your partaking in that mass murder. You alone of all people had the power to avert the tragedy. One word from you and it would not have happened. The members loved and respected you. They would have listened. Why didn’t you call out, ‘Don’t listen to my husband, he’s out of his fucking mind’? Why didn’t you shout, ‘Wake up everybody, this is insane’? Why didn’t you come to Christine Miller’s defense after she spoke out? Why did you allow your own adopted kids to die? Why didn’t you try to prevent the deaths of all those innocent children? Why didn’t you tip over the vat of Flavor Aid? There were so many other options available. You had nothing to fear. The guards would not have harmed you. If anybody laid a finger on you or even failed to respond deferentially to you, all the members would have rallied to your defense. Nobody would have dared to silence you. Not even your own husband.”
I’m now quivering inside. I did the unthinkable. Not only did I suggest this revered woman was complicit in this massacre, but I singled her out as being an accomplice. I can’t be sure she killed by doling out the poison. But I can be sure she did something just as deadly. She kept silent.
Marceline, her face now pale and her mouth open, stares at me unbelievingly. She seems taken aback, shaken to the core. Nobody has ever confronted her in this way. Her lips are trembling. She seems to be searching for a more credible and convincing answer. Tears begin running down her cheeks. Her eyes are pleading for me to understand.
Finally, she says, “Well, if you really must know, I didn’t speak out because….”
After listening to Marceline’s response, Dwight finally discovers the reasons for her actions. For all the other People Temple members, too. The avowed reason of “revolutionary suicide” is a red herring. Since I am in the process of finalizing my manuscript for eventual publication, I am not at liberty yet to reveal what Dwight learned. Instead, I welcome all interested readers to put themselves in Marceline’s place, complete her answer to Dwight’s question, and email your response to me. In the Subject line please write “re: Marceline.” If there are a sufficient number of responses, I will ask the editors of the jonestown report to publish them in next year’s edition – anonymously if you prefer – along with Dwight’s reactions to them. My email address is Arnold_Ludwig@brown.edu.
(Arnold M. Ludwig is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior at Brown University. His previous article for the jonestown report is I Killed Jim Jones, Author’s Note.)