Once It Was A Beautiful Idea

It hardly seems like three years have passed since I put the last edit on my manuscript, Corners. In my novel, all roads lead to Jonestown. Although I was never in Jonestown, nor did I ever visit Peoples Temple, my life path through 1970’s San Francisco was crisscrossed and multiply-forked with sideroads which led there.

There but for the grace of God… Had I been braver, more idealistic, I would have been there, but for grace, and my own self-centeredness.

At 25, I was all about me and my own future, busy grooming myself to serve, but not ready to do it. Surrounded by radicals who dropped out young, though, I got it. Got the idea that somehow our salvation is tied up in our willingness to give ourselves away, to throw ourselves on the fire to save someone weaker, someone oppressed, someone too hurt to wrap their minds around the kernel of their own pain.

Now, having thoroughly groomed myself with umpteen years of education and a teaching credential, I am finally doing it: serving, teaching high-risk and expelled students in a small eight-classroom school nestled in the middle of the ‘hood in a high-poverty Central California town.

Now, my manuscript is for them. Who is Jim Jones, they ask. Isn’t he a rapper? Did he have his own town? They don’t know, have never been told, about the day the hole opened up in the world and more than 900 souls were lost, souls that could have been theirs, had they been born in another time and place. The weaker. The oppressed. The ones too hurt to wrap their minds around the kernel of their own pain.

Now my manuscript is for the student I won’t name, whose grandfather stabbed a man in the top of the head with a screwdriver, the same grandfather who was a hero in the war. The same grandfather who birthed the father who was so cruel to my student that he swears he has no empathy, not for any soul. Even still, his eyes well up at stories of suffering, even if only for himself.

Jonestown was once a beautiful idea. Give me your tired, your poor. Your wounded young men with murderous grandfathers. The old. The hungry. The orphaned. It was a very American idea, Jonestown, an American idea kidnapped and turned back on the people by a criminal, a murderer and a thief.

I often find myself using bits of my own manuscript to teach my students about what happened there. Even Jim Jones knew that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. The oppressed have their own history, a history rarely told. Jonestown is a pivotal moment in that history. My students have a right to hear it so that history does not repeat itself.

Someday I’ll try to sell this book, maybe next year when I retire. Someday I’ll try to sell it when I’m not so busy in the moment with each little life, tending the small daily loving things that wind up really being what saves the world.

In the meantime, my book has changed my life still, and from time to time has opened my students’ eyes to a chapter in what could have been their history, but for the grace of God and timing.

Today, I’ll just share it with my students and my friends. Here is a little bit just for you.

Part II
Into the light of a dark black night

“There is no place in my soul, no corner of my character, where God is not.”

Evelyn Underhill

At one year of age, Amira was toddling all over the house, and followed mommy wherever she went as if she were tied to her ankle. She jabbered words both familiar and unfamiliar, babbling in English and Amharic and a language all her own in equal amounts. She was already a heartbreaking beauty, her large aquamarine eyes fringed with long curly lashes that batted like Scarlett O’Hara when she smiled and flirted, which was often.

Every day she and Barb would walk down to the mailbox together, Amira sidestepping down the wildly floral Victorian carpeted stairs of their Potrero Hill apartment building to the landing, holding onto mommy’s hand, and they would go through the ads and letters and bills together to see what they had before climbing back up to their second floor flat. Sometimes there would be a card from Grandma Mayhew with a lipstick kiss inside, or pictures of her cousins from Uncle Dawit and Auntie Amara to stick to the fridge with a plastic fruit magnet.

One day in early spring, when it was still cold but the blooms had come out on the trees, Barb was flipping through the mail with Amira hanging onto her leg and found two letters in tissuey envelopes rimmed with red, white and blue, one with a toucan stamp, and the other stamped with brightly colored butterflies.

“Look, baby, so pretty!” Barb cried, leaning down to show the butterfly stamp to Amira, who let out a high pitched squeal of approval and bounced up and down, flapping her little hands like the midnight blue and orange creature in the picture. “And here’s a birdie, too. What a big nose he has!” Amira wiggled and pointed and stamped her feet. “Beak!” she cried.

Barb snatched the baby up onto her left hip, clutching the two exotic looking missives in her left hand along with the bills and the ads, and mounted the stairs, certain that the two letters were from Roger.

As soon as she got upstairs she looked at the stamp cancellation. Guyana Post Office Corp, GPO, Robb Street, Georgetown, Guyana. She was right. Roger.

Barb set the envelopes down on the hall table and put Amira on the floor to play with her stuffed animal babies. Then she put the letters out of her mind while she made lunch. She poured herself one small glass of white wine. Just one.

She took her time, putting whatever was inside the envelopes in perspective. As the two of them ate and chattered, she meditated, giving up her fears, and Roger’s future, and the lives and hopes of all those in the Temple, including the babies, to her God, being anxious for nothing. She knew He had them, she had no doubt. Still, it was a conscious effort. So by the time she put Amira down for her afternoon nap, the peace of God that passes all understanding was keeping her heart and mind in Christ Jesus. She was ready.

She took what was left of her wine and the letters, while Amira napped peacefully in her bed, to the living room sofa and curled up with her legs under her, wrapping around her shoulders an afghan that her mother had made for her when she was still pregnant. She took a sip of the wine, rolling it around in her mouth, and set the glass down on the side table next to her.

She decided on the toucan letter first, gingerly ripping into the flap on the back of the tissuey envelope and pulling out two four by five sheets of yellow lined paper, written in pencil on both sides. She began at the beginning.

“Dear Barb, Somebody else did the mail run to Georgetown last week, so I am mailing this letter and my last letter together.”

OK, she said to herself, I’m starting over. She reached for the butterfly letter and opened it less carefully than the first, but preserving the stamp. Inside she found the same format of paper, written on both sides, but white with blue lines, and four pages. Nerves steady, she jumped in.

“Dear Barb, I hope you and Yonas are good. The baby must be getting really big by now. First off I want to say I’m sorry I tried to come between you and Yonas, and I’m really glad you didn’t listen and come out here to this God-forsaken place with me. If I had known you were pregnant I would never have done that, but I still shouldn’t have done it anyway, begged like that. I should have known you would never leave Yonas, with the two of you being the way you are.”

He was right about that, for sure, she thought, reading on.

“You know I’m not as strong as you are. You’ve always had so much common sense. That’s why I loved you so much, because I needed you to keep my head on straight. But I always managed to screw things up for the both of us even when I had you, didn’t I? I miss you like crazy, but I’m really glad you have Yonas, because he’s right for you and can give you what I couldn’t, what you deserve.”

Her throat closed a little and a tear welled up, but she caught it in time before it got a grip on her.

“I had a lot of time to think in prison, and I spent most of it studying and meditating and praying, looking for a vision or a sign. You know how I am. I started out still a full on rasta man. I even studied Amharic so I could read the Haile Selassie Bible. Yeah, I speak Amharic now, just like you. But not really like you, right? I miss being in school.

“But guess what vision I got instead? It ain’t Selassie, man. It isn’t any human being, Moon or Jones either. It’s Him.”

She smiled.

“But I screwed up because when I got out, I got blinded by all the good stuff that was going on in the Temple, helping the poor and kids and old people, and lost it again. I saw Jim Jones and all I remembered was I didn’t have a Dad. I keep looking for a Dad, a man to tell me I’m OK. When will I grow up?

“Now here I am in the heat breaking my back and carrying a gun, keeping people in line when I know they only need keeping in line because they have it more together than Jones. And I have to tell them they’re in the wrong, or the crowd will shout me down and I’ll get half beat to death in front of everybody. That’s what he does to you if you try to turn on him. So you can’t show this letter to anybody, that I wrote this to you, because I will be in deep trouble if anyone finds out I sent somebody a letter that had this kind of stuff in it, and didn’t turn it in for censoring besides.

“Jones is crazy, no lie. He is on that loudspeaker from 6:30 in the morning until 10:00 at night. I don’t get how any person can talk that long about anything, but you should hear the stuff he talks about. He says the government here is out to get us, and if we run away into the jungle they’ll catch us and torture us and throw us in jail, especially the Black people. The guy says he’s for equality for all, but I think he’s really a racist. All of us whites have jobs where we can drive back and forth to town, if we act nice, or running a crew or something, jobs where you’re trusted some, but he has all the Black people in the kitchen or in the fields doing sweat labor. And his top people are all white women except for one or two, and he’s screwing every one of them, and some of the men. He had his eye on me for a while, but I just keep so busy he doesn’t want to stop me at what I’m doing. I think he’s forgotten about me for now, I hope.

“The food here is really bad, too. Before everybody got here, when it was just a few of us doing construction, the food was a lot better, I think because they were practicing or something. Jones came down here to make movies and take pictures with the cute little monkeys and birds, and the bananas all hanging there in bunches looking delicious so he could sell the place to people who weren’t here yet. Then we got to eat the leftovers, or the props, or whatever. Now it’s just rice and a few chunks of vegetable, and it’s dry. And Kool-Aid to drink. Some days I feel like I’m going to get sick.

“Now there’s almost 1,000 people here. The week everybody started coming in, they organized us on how to ‘manage’ them. Some of the new people even got off the bus high on drugs already. We went through their pockets and patted them down and got their passports if they still had them, and their wallets with their ID, and their watches and jewelry and stuff. We told them we were keeping it safe for them, but we haven’t tried real hard to keep people’s stuff together, and it’s all just mixed up. We took a lot of cash, too.

“If you complain, you get this thing called catharsis where they beat you in front of the congregation and people scream at you about what you’ve done wrong, or that you don’t have the right amount of revolutionary fervor. Or you have to have a boxing match with another guy, and they keep putting new people in until you’re beat. If none of that makes you act better, you have to go to the infirmary and they give you something to calm you down. There’s a lot of drugs down here, Barb, more than you’d ever want to believe. And most of it’s not for sick people.

“There’s this girl here, Jacki, that knows you. She and I met when I first got out of jail, right after I joined the Temple, but we just now figured out we’re connected through you. She’s pretty cool to me, even more since she put two and two together that you and I had been together in Berkeley. I can talk to her about stuff and she helps me see it in perspective, because I think really she’s not crazy either. But she’s high up in the Temple, and some of the stuff she does I would not want to be responsible for. A lot of people think she’s really mean. But I think she’s really just doing what she’s gotta do, like the rest of us. Jim expects a lot from her because she’s smart and a good speaker, plus she’s cute. She’s one of his Angels, as he calls it, so I’m pretty sure that means she has to screw him. But I’m not too sure that she has any say in that either.

“OK, babe, I still miss you, and give that little one a kiss for me. If I get caught writing this, I’m in trouble because everything is supposed to be censored. I’ll slip this into the mail with the other stuff next time I make the mail run, but I’m going to have to be sneaky because we always have to travel in twos or threes. And please don’t try to write back. They’ll just read it, and I’ll get hard labor at best if they figure out I got a letter out of here, and that I complained. I’ll mail this as soon as I can.


For a moment Barb just sat there, staring at the pages in her hands, rifling through them again and again, incredulous at some of the things Roger had written. Even though she had read similar things in the magazine article Bob had given her, it was overwhelming to see it in Roger’s words, and to hear about what was going on now that they were in Guyana. She leaned her head back and looked up at the ceiling, eyes closed, not surprised, but still wounded by what she had read. She felt compelled to do something, but she wasn’t sure what yet. Maybe she should give Roger’s letter to the police, or to her Congressman. But then she remembered what Roger had said about being beaten if it came out he had written about these things.

She meticulously folded the letter and put it back in the envelope, shaking her head.

“I’ll show this to Yonas when he gets home. He’ll know just what to do,” she thought. She smiled at herself, remembering a time when she had thought that about Roger, and all the events that had followed. She decided she had read enough for one day, and set the other letter aside on the hall table for the next morning, then went upstairs to check on her sleeping beauty.

(Sylvia Smith’s previous contribution to the jonestown report – including another excerpt from her novel, Corners, is here.)