A Search for Grace in Jonestown

I am writing a novel about Jonestown. Even as I write this piece for the jonestown report, though, I worry that it might be premature to talk about it, since at this point it consists of maybe one hundred pages of scrap material that will never see the light of day. So early in the process, I have only inklings of what I want to say in the novel. Having spent so much time immersed in research, absorbing facts and opinions, I’m continually asking myself: What can I say about Jonestown that hasn’t been said? What, exactly, am I looking for? Why is Jonestown important to me?

As I struggled to write this piece, I came across “The Big Grey,” by Jonestown survivor Tim Carter. In it, he writes:

When confronted with such an enormously obscene event such as the Jonestown tragedy, the mind naturally seeks simple explanations. The normal person will search for tidy characterizations and familiar stereotypes that attempt to make sense of the nonsensical, that offer rational comfort for that which is appallingly irrational, that allow for safe dissociation from the reflection in one’s personal mirror which says, “That could have been me.”

Carter’s piece, in which he reflects on our inability to know the “truth” about Jonestown, resonated with me. The excerpted portion encapsulates my own relationship to the tragedy: my initial terror at hearing the story, the defenses I put up in search of “rational comfort,” and the ultimate realization that “That could have been me.”

Not until I began this project did I realize the impact of Jonestown on my life, the extent to which it has remained with me since I first heard the story as a child. I did not realize how deeply it troubled me, and how badly I wanted answers. Early in my research I found a quote from a 1974 sermon, a paraphrase of 1 Kings 10:7: “You don’t know the half of it. The half can never be told, unfortunately.” It stunned me, and has served as inspiration as I proceed with my project. Half of the story of Jonestown, if not much more, can never be told: we have to accept that. It also helped me realize that as a writer of fiction, the truth that I seek is emotional, not literal.

One major difficulty I’ve encountered is finding an entry point. I’m interested in San Francisco history and the radical left. I’m interested in evangelism and religious cults. I’m interested in the figure of Jim Jones and the innumerable questions surrounding who he was. I’m interested in families. I’m interested in the experience of grief. I’m fascinated by those who hated everything about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and just as much by those who found beauty in the experience. Where on earth does one start?

In a series of journal entries addressed to God, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “All boils down to grace, I suppose.” In his poem “Letter,” Franz Wright wrote, “The humiliation I go through / when I think of my past / can only be described as grace.” More than anything, this is what I’m looking for: some element of grace in a story overshadowed by its dark conclusion.

How do you find grace? What the hell is grace? My dictionary widget has proven useless, so I’ll take a stab myself: grace is the product of beauty and brutality, joy and pain, lightness and darkness; to find grace in something is to strip it to its essentials, to find within it that which is most vibrant, vital, and human.

It takes an enormous amount of courage to fight for a better world, no matter how that fight ends. It takes faith to believe that a better world is possible. When I think of the passion and resolve that characterized the Peoples Temple community, I find a lot of beauty there. Through writing this story, I want to discover who these people were, and where they found such courage and faith. No matter what comes of this project, the journey alone has been invaluable.

(Sara Brody is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, and a local bookseller. A native San Franciscan, she heard the story of Jonestown at a young age and has remained fascinated by the tragedy and the Peoples Temple community. Her fiction has appeared in The Monarch Review and the Adroit Journal. She invites anyone interested in her project to contact her at sbbrody92@gmail.com.)