Soon after hearing the name ‘Carolyn Moore Layton’ for the first time in early 2014, I learn enough to know that I wanted to write about her. That she was the eldest of three daughters, from a loving and socially active family. That her father was a Methodist minister. That she was a high-achiever all through school and college. That she almost married a Frenchman during her exchange year in Bordeaux, only to return to America and marry a young conscientious objector. That she moved to Redwood Valley and joined a church called Peoples Temple with her young husband in 1968, fell in love with the minister, and left her husband for him. That she bore a son by this minister and remained faithful to him until their deaths and the deaths of 900 others in Jonestown ten years later.
Writing fiction about real-life figures is always going to involve a lot of tough questions and decisions. What form to choose? What perspective? Real names or fake names? How much research to do? When to abandon research and just let things flow? How to be true to essence, if not always the facts? What to say about those things that have no answers, the mysteries and mixed opinions that fiction is supposed to simplify?
Multiplicity seems important. So does scope. This is why I’m unsatisfied with the first-person perspective short story I write about Carolyn. I take screenwriting classes, write a TV pilot and call it Beautiful Revolutionary, write a twenty-page pitch document, get positive feedback, get shredded by script assessors, take more classes, rinse and repeat, get frustrated with the expensive purgatory of TV World, start a novel in frustration. I’m ambivalent about this novel, which will have to be in third person (ick) and long (double ick). I call my main character ‘Evelyn Lynden’ and laugh at my terrible pseudonym skills, have her move to a town called ‘Evergreen Valley’, call the minister ‘Jim Jones’ because it feels absurd and disingenuous to call him anything else. I hate my own muddy logic. Days before my twenty-fifth birthday, I win a $3,000 short story competition for young Australian writers, and think, “What the hell, I’m pretty good at this,” and also, “I’m going to America.”
Before I ever meet Rebecca Moore and Fielding ‘Mac’ McGehee, the managers of this site, I exchange multiple emails with them. I Skype with Becky for maybe an hour one November morning, when I’m still focused on screenwriting, and ask her questions about her older sister. This sister, of course, is Carolyn. My questions are mostly stupid (“Did she like dancing?” “Did she speak Russian?”), and Becky reminds me that Carolyn was sort of a mystery to her as well, that there was a six-year age gap, that she was twelve when Carolyn left home for college. But Becky is smart and good-natured and doesn’t seem to mind answering questions from a random Australian, and when I ask her if there’s anything important I should remember when writing about Carolyn, her response is poignant:
“Carolyn was isolated. In San Francisco and Jonestown especially, I doubt she was close to anyone except Jim Jones. That relationship and the power associated with it would have been very isolating.”
It’s the April of 2015 when I’m met by Becky and Mac in San Diego. I’m only there for a weekend and there are major things to process: being in America, being around people who know more than I do about Peoples Temple, being around relatives of Carolyn. Though she’s about three decades older than Carolyn was in 1978, I look at Becky and find – or imagine – similarities in her face and her stance, her crossed arms, her slim build, her narrow blue eyes, her way of squinting at the sun, her sense of humor.
The next morning, I meet Becky’s dad, a retired Methodist minister. He’s in his nineties and going pretty deaf, and I’m shy and soft-spoken, so not much happens in the way of conversation. But I like looking at his sharp features and light-colored eyes, and am reminded of the misty high school graduation photo of Carolyn, in which she has puffball early ’60s hair and similar sharp features. When he mentions Australian Aborigines and Japanese internment camps in WWII, I can’t help thinking that this is the man who helped form the social conscience that attracted Carolyn to Peoples Temple—and also, inadvertently, the complexes that made her vulnerable to a religious leader who called himself ‘Father’.
Over the weekend, Becky and Mac talk to me about how they can help my research, and talk to each other in my presence. They say things like, “Maybe Laura should meet so-and-so?” and “Laura should read so-and-so book!”, and look at each other in knowing ways or laugh, and I say sure, okay. It’s all very nice and bizarre, and when I leave them on the Monday, I already miss them.
From talking to Becky and from things I’ve read, I already know that Carolyn is an unpopular figure in the drama of Peoples Temple. Words like ‘cold’, ‘fanatical’, ‘unscrupulous’, ‘supercilious’ come to mind, and there are harsh realities: she was an adulteress, sleeping with a married minister, and most likely helped him plan the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. In the book Six Years with God, Carolyn comes across as an overzealous bitch who says things like, “If we ever try to produce a master race, Father should be the one to impregnate all the women,” and writes intense things on scraps of paper because she’s afraid of wiretapping. But I don’t believe in burning witches, or that endings are more important than beginnings.
I’m glad to be meeting a college friend of Carolyn’s, who knew her at nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. She seems glad to meet me too, is charmed by certain physical similarities between me and Carolyn: dark hair, pale skin, something about the eyebrows and eye shape. She speaks to me of sharehouses, road trips, young women who were intrigued by feminism but still wanted to be asked to dance. Of how Carolyn was the most advanced and unconventional of these young women, the first to have sex, go to Europe, call herself an existentialist, wear gypsy skirts, try hash. Of how Carolyn intimidated some girls, shocked others, but was always kind and tolerant.
“And she was always one of us. I think that’s important.”
This friend has fond memories of Carolyn’s parents, speaks of Carolyn’s deep love and respect for them, confirms my intuition that Carolyn found rebellion difficult because of this, tells me of the elaborate lengths Carolyn went to to conceal that she was living with a boyfriend. When I ask about boys, I’m told Carolyn favored the ‘quiet, alternative’ type and wonder how loudmouth Jim Jones figures in. I ask about fashion, music.
I’m not surprised that Carolyn liked Baez or Dylan, but Leonard Cohen is unexpected. In my apartment that night, I listen to Songs of Leonard Cohen, wonder if Carolyn liked ‘Stories of the Street’, my favorite Cohen song. ‘Master Song’ takes on new significance:
You met him at some temple, where
They take your clothes at the door
And you wrap up his tired face in your hair
And he hands you the apple core.
The men I speak to who knew Carolyn in Peoples Temple all inform me that they never found her attractive, though this isn’t a question I ask. One describes her as “completely impassive” and remembers only one instance where she spoke to him. Her words were bitchy and in French. This man has trouble imagining a romantic relationship between such a woman and Jones, thinks it all comes down to ideology, but he hasn’t seen the things I’ve seen. In one letter, written on hotel stationary, Carolyn extols their perfect physical and psychical connection. The letter is addressed, oddly, to her family.
Through stationary, stamps on envelopes with a dozen return addresses, handwriting, Carolyn becomes more real to me. In the California Historical Society archives, I find a 1976 drivers’ license where her hair is lobbed short and her cheeks hollow, her weight only 103 lbs. I find a 1977 passport full of visa stamps from Panama, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, where her face looks fuller and where her fixed stare and hoop earrings and hairstyle remind me of Frida Kahlo. I find other possible references to her relationship with Jones, a scrawl in a little black book that disturbs me:
Father—I don’t mind dying—However if we have decided not to we better leave for work pretty soon.
Another find: a list labeled ‘JJ thoughts while ill’, which I can only assume contains some drug-addled ramblings of Jones’ copied out by Carolyn. It’s typical crazy Jones, full of stuff like, Remember when he shit in a bible. But there’s one line that gets to the woman in me, and I somehow hope it was spoken lucidly, lovingly, directly to her:
You keep me thinking.
Carolyn’s high intelligence is something everyone mentions, to the point that I can pretty much accept it as objective fact. One man goes into detail describing her intelligence, what he saw of its operations, what he couldn’t see, the wheels always turning. He describes Carolyn’s ability to pull strings, to be everywhere at once, without saying much or revealing anything of herself. He tells me of her invisible, directorial role in the painful catharsis sessions where individuals were criticized for hours at a time, and from which only she and Jones consistently emerged unscathed. He tells me that, face-to-face, Carolyn was inoffensive, easy to overlook. Smiling, he tells me she would have made the perfect spy.
There’s a photo I find on my last day at the CHS archives that reminds me of ‘Carolyn the Spy’. She’s the only woman in the photo, and easy to miss: just a pair of folded arms, a slice of cream-colored tank top, a clavicle, a chin, a mouth, a nose, a cheekbone, a single eye. She stands on the outside of a circle of men, both watchful and excluded, the smallest figure and the most powerful. I wish I knew what was in her brain.
Looking at photos from Carolyn’s time in Peoples Temple, I feel an obscure sympathy. Maybe it’s only skin-deep – the physical sympathy of one slim white brunette for another – or maybe it’s her mystique. I’ve always been fascinated by the women in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, their detached looks, their fragile power, their veiled and burdensome minds. They are witches, queens, saints, killers, culpable, cursed, tragic. I find the same thing here.
But there’s danger in this kind of artistic identification, when talking about real people, real damage caused. I try to bear this in mind. I am thankful to speak one day with a man who disliked Carolyn and is willing to be honest about it. It’s not the things he says so much as the tone of his voice that gets me, the tremor of rage, the pain still raw after almost forty years. It isn’t Greek tragedy. It isn’t Shakespeare. It’s way more real; the bodies are real, the loss is real, and so is the culpability.
However, this man isn’t interested in burning witches either. He acknowledges that people are complex – women are complex – that being young in the ’60s was complex. He tells me about his own reasons for staying in the Temple, the sense of truly doing good, changing society. Considerately, he admits, “It was the same for Carolyn. I do believe she genuinely wanted to do good.”
A female Jonestown survivor seems more sympathetic to Carolyn, but confesses she never really knew her. She tells me she has a photo somewhere of Carolyn wearing a bandana, and I think: Carolyn in a bandana! She compares Carolyn to Annie, the youngest of the Moore sisters, who joined Peoples Temple in 1972 and was a far more well-liked figure, always laughing, joking. She refers to Carolyn as ‘mirthless’, but doesn’t mean it as a put-down: “I think all her light was just kept for Jim.”
I remember this on my last day at CHS, looking at another rare photo. It is dated early ’74 and shows, from a high angle, a group of Temple ‘pioneers’ standing in a clearing in Guyana. They are men and women, black and white, and most of them seem to be looking toward a heavyset woman in the middle of the scene, who is holding a large bug. Slightly behind this woman are Carolyn and Jim—and it’s not only who they are but what’s between them that’s interesting.
She’s wearing a red waterproof jacket. He’s matching her, a red t-shirt. He has his whole body angled toward her, his feet pointing at her, is smiling at her laughter and crossed arms. He looks fond of her, and she of him. They look like normal people. They could quite easily be a normal couple in a park, smiling over their small child, and indeed in a year’s time that’s what they’ll be: parents. There is love and there is light, and the darkness that will subsume it isn’t evident here.
I guess it’s inevitable that I should dream of Carolyn, especially as my days in San Francisco near an end. When my one-month apartment lease runs out, I spend three nights in a hostel, sleep on a wooden bunk in an all-female dorm. For someone who likes personal space, it’s an uncomfortable transition, but a triggering one. I dream of wooden tables, people milling around, the inside of the Jonestown pavilion.
They’re mostly adults, these pavilion people; no children or old folks. They seem busy, but in good spirits, like they’re making plans. The name ‘Planning Commission’ comes to mind. I know these people are ghosts, that their death is a fact of this dream, that she is dead too, this woman cramped in next to me at the wooden table. I know her hair, her eyes, her teeth, her posture. She is matter-of-fact and lovely, and willing to speak to me.
“How do you feel about me writing about you?” I ask.
“Honestly, I think it’s weird and I don’t appreciate the attention,” Carolyn replies. “But what is your thesis?”
The apple is knowledge, power, something special from the gods. Maybe there’s cyanide at the core. We want it anyway. I tell Carolyn that Evelyn contains things about her but can never fully be her, that there limits to my knowledge and me. I’m not a perfect spy.
“Do you think I was a cold-blooded killer?” Carolyn asks, and there’s something Becky-like about her sidelong look, her gallows humor.
“Mostly I think you were just unhappy and lost perspective.”
Carolyn dips her head slightly, accepts this. She fixes her hair, doesn’t meet my eye as she tells me quietly, “There are things I would have liked to live for.”
(Laura Elizabeth Woollett is an Australian writer. She recently signed a two-book deal with Scribe, an Australian publisher, for her short story collection The Love of a Bad Man and her Peoples Temple novel Beautiful Revolutionary. Her other contributions to this edition of the jonestown report are the companion article Life Lessons With Peoples Temple and her short story Soybeans. Her guest blog for the Melbourne Writers Festival about her research trip to the United States is here.)