Peter Alan Olsson knew first-hand about Jonestown, since the son of a friend of his died there. Beyond the personal reasons, he was drawn to look at the tragedy from his professional perspective as a psychoanalyst. He wondered what Jim Jones’ childhood experiences in Indiana had upon his life, especially since there was apparently no one who either recognized or controlled his dysfunction.
This is the genesis of Dr. Olsson’s novel, A Boyish God. With connections to the experiences of a young Jim Jones, Olsson addresses and confirms what most of us know about children, parenting, and abuse. Children learn from what their parents and other adults do, not what they say. In addition, parents too often ignore and abandon their children, or abuse them. Children act out their emotional response to all of these things, first as children or later as adults. Many of the most notorious psychopaths in our country came from cruel and/or dysfunctional families. Those are known consequences. Often teachers are able to see the anguish in children simply by the way they act out. Good teachers and child care workers can and should intervene.
Olsson used a young pre-teen named Will, a fictional character, to stand in for a young Jim Jones. We have heard some stories of Jim’s difficult childhood, that his behavior reflected his pain in having a very busy single mother and a drunk or absent father. Will’s life is not an exact copy of Jim, but his response is likely similar to Jim’s behavior over those pre-teen and teen years. The difference – one of the main points of the book – is that people stepped up to help Will, whereas no one intervened with Jim. We can see the difference in the way the fictitious character grew up, and the unchallenged path Jim followed as he became an adult.
Still, I have to admit, the title of the book – A Boyish God – threw me a bit, and it turned out not to be what I expected. First, it seemed a bit simplistic. All the characters were either pure or satanic. In addition, the psychologist character – was he a stand-in for the author himself? – was remarkably blocked when it came to his own introspection about his relationship with his nun friend. I actually have found that blockage was often true with other psychiatrists and psychologists I have met. Unfortunately, I also have my own BA in Psychology, and the same can be said of me. But, I always want to hold psychologists and others to a higher standard.
The audience for the book is most likely the lay person and likely targeted for teachers, parents, and other adult mentors in the lives of children. The book was more interesting when the psychiatrist reflected on his rationale for certain responses, based on the behavior of Will or members of Will’s family. I appreciated that he included some of the insights likely going on in Will’s family as the situation devolved and then evened out. To me, that was the highlight of the book. I also liked that the psychologist/author demonstrated how it took more minds and involvement than his own to turn things around. In a perfect world, a mentor, and school representative, and a counselor all working together with parents and a child, could get a person back on the right track. The interaction of the family members and the counselor was really interesting; it also likely went beyond what would have happened with Jim Jones’ family. It is the response of many dysfunctional families when interventions first become available.
Even though the book is fiction, some of the plot devices seemed a bit too contrived, and even miraculous, to be believable. Within a year or two, for example, a man who tortured and killed animals, and who was obsessed with death, was given an important job working with animals. The book is short – 156 pages – and I feel as though the author had time and space to nurture the characters a bit more, with more discussion about how they made progressively healthier choices. The reader is expected to take leaps of faith in the story without the substance needed to feel confident of their development. I was supposed to acknowledge Will’s almost instantaneous rehabilitation. That was hard for me.
Beyond that, the relationship of the psychologist and the nun was irrelevant to the story, and didn’t add to the discussion. Some of the lines were, in fact, out-of-place and even strange. Was that subplot there just so the book could have a more complex happy ending?
Finally, the discussion – the “Existential Addendum” at the end was too abstract for what had transpired in the story itself. Too many other, unaddressed psychopathic leaders competed in that rather rambling section, so that point was not clear. It could be done as a conversation with Jim Jones’ parents alone – after acknowledging, of course, that the Jed and Mary in the book did not have the exact same history as Jim’s parents.
Nevertheless, the book did offer some valuable insights. It highlights one harsh lesson I have learned from cults: Pollyannas and idealists beware. For that reason alone, the book is worth its quick read.
I am glad I read the book. It was a “light” read in that it explained quite a lot about possible causes for defiant behavior in our youth, and advocated for intervention, as a fictional account. Those are issues that resonate with me, as a long-time teacher. It merits a read from educators and those who work with dysfunctional families. We need to wade in and figure out how to help kids before it is too late, and they turn into adults.
(Two recent books by Peter Olsson are The Making of a Homegrown Terrorist: Brainwashing Rebels in Search of a Cause (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Praeger, 2014) and Houston’s Homegrown Terrorist (Strategic Book Publishing, 2014).)
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)