I came to the story of Carolyn Layton, chief aide and principal mistress of the Reverend Jim Jones, while working on my upcoming short fiction collection, The Love of a Bad Man. While knowing little about Carolyn, I thought it would be interesting to write about the woman closest to Jim Jones, given the focus of my collection: the wives, mistresses, and accomplices of evil men.
What I knew about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple before I began my research is what everybody knows: paranoid preacher, Guyana, Kool-Aid, mass murder-suicide. This was not the story I wanted to tell. Instead, I chose 1968 as my setting: a decade before the Jonestown massacre, and the year in which Carolyn, aged twenty-three, joined Peoples Temple.
My short story begins with Carolyn driving into the small town of Redwood Valley with her husband, Larry Layton. They are both recent college graduates, attractive, well off, and vaguely counterculture. Though they have their problems, they are eager to begin a new life. They know nothing of the progressive church they will find in Redwood Valley, nor the preacher who runs it—the radical, handsome, and charismatic Jim Jones.
It ends a few months later, with the young couple divorcing and Carolyn firmly established as Jones’ mistress. Of course, Carolyn’s story does not end here, and neither does my desire to tell it.
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Why Carolyn? Though it was her role as Jones’ mistress that first brought me to her story, this isn’t the thing that has kept me interested. Her other most notable role, as his closest aide and therefore accomplice in the massive loss of life of November 18, 1978, isn’t my only reason either. More than anything, it’s Carolyn’s complexity that sparked my desire to understand, both who she was and who she became.
Honor student, minister’s daughter, big sister, flower-child, activist, agnostic, high school teacher, newlywed, divorcée, and mother—these are just a few of the things Carolyn was apart from Jim Jones. In letters to her family, she comes across as serious to a fault, yet also deeply feeling. At times, these combined qualities make her appear all the more fanatical and hard-line. At other times, however, there’s an odd fragility to her voice, like she’s straining to speak from both her head and her heart.
I’m also drawn to Carolyn’s story as an identifiable point of entry to the mystery of Peoples Temple. As a young, secular, college-educated white woman, my background is more similar to Carolyn’s than the majority of Peoples Temple members, who were often religious and came from less privileged circumstances. I therefore feel that a perspective like Carolyn’s is the easiest way for me to approach a subject as vast and daunting as Peoples Temple. My medium? A three-season television drama, Beautiful Revolutionary.
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Beginning in 1968 Redwood Valley, Beautiful Revolutionary will follow Carolyn and Peoples Temple from their sunny California beginnings to the depths of the Guyanese jungle. It will be a narrative of hope and hopelessness, paradise found and lost, sixties idealism and its corruption. It will also be a narrative of young women: our capacity for love, progress, and commitment, but also fanaticism and self-deception.
Though I have a vision of where I want Beautiful Revolutionary to go, I am still very much in the research and concept-development stage of this project. Over the months to come, I hope to make contacts within the community, with whom I can share research, ideas, and perspectives. I also plan to make a research trip to the US early next year, so I can visit the California Historical Archive and see first-hand the place where it all begins, Redwood Valley.