Fictional Account Distorts and Obscures Reality of Jonestown

by Katherine Hill

ryan royRyan Roy’s novel Jonestown gives the reader a look at the Jonestown tragedy through the eyes of a (fictional) Peoples Temple defector named Neil Clark. Neil, a former member of the Planning Committee—undoubtedly modeled after the Temple’s Planning Commission—is having a difficult time. His wife Naomi and son David were sent to Jonestown a year ago, and Neil is suffering from almost crippling anxiety and guilt as he attempts to deal with the distress. Neil’s friend Ward Walsh is a (fictional) member of the Concerned Relatives; Neil hopes that the group’s efforts to persuade Congressman Leo Ryan to take a delegation to Jonestown will allow him to get his family out of Guyana.

Neil’s urgency escalates when he returns home one evening to find his home broken into and the intruder—a teenager named Dylan who successfully defected from Jonestown—hiding inside his bathroom, seeking refuge. Neil calls an emergency meeting of a few Concerned Relatives so that Dylan can tell his story about the perilous conditions in Jonestown, which include harsh punishments meted out to Neil’s son.

When Dylan meets an untimely end, Neil decides to take matters into his own hands by infiltrating Jonestown. He is determined to try to get David and Naomi out, regardless of the personal risk involved. Fortunately, before leaving, he divulges his intentions to Lori Anders, a reporter drawn into the tragedy by Neil’s friend Ward. Coincidentally, Lori is a former college girlfriend of Neil’s who quickly rekindles her feelings for him. Minutes before Neil boards his flight to Guyana, Lori brings Debbie Blakey to the boarding area to meet Neil. In their few minutes of discussion, it becomes apparent Neil doesn’t have a solid plan for how to get into Jonestown. Blakey also warns Neil whom not to trust, which turns out to be basically everyone, including members of the embassy.

Upon arriving at the Lamaha Gardens house in Georgetown, Neil proclaims that he has inside information that would be helpful to Peoples Temple regarding the rumored congressional delegation; however, he is only willing to share the information directly with Jim Jones, not through an intermediary. Neil manages to make it into Jonestown, although on Jones’ terms rather than his own. Once inside the jungle community, Neil withholds information from Jones, citing the mistreatment he received on his way to the settlement. Jones, who hates and distrusts defectors, retaliates by putting Neil on the Learning Crew. From here, Neil’s situation goes from bad to worse, and we wonder if our protagonist will manage to get himself out alive, let alone rescue his family, when the story reaches its denouement.

Roy has written an action-packed piece of historical fiction that reads like a Hollywood screenplay. Despite its 550-page length, the book is a quick read. Roy is a competent writer who can paint vivid pictures in his readers’ minds, and the story’s action keeps the reader continually turning pages, wondering how Neil will get himself out of increasingly dire circumstances. There are numerous plot twists and mass paranoia, as everyone questions everyone else’s trustworthiness and loyalty to the Cause. The author uses enough real names of Temple members and historical information about the movement to make much of the story seem plausible. The problem is, of course, that we know that many of the events in the story did not occur because several of the pivotal characters in the story didn’t exist. Some of the events in the novel are clearly inspired by experiences of real Temple members, although they are attributed to fictional characters in the book. Other events are rooted entirely in the fertile imagination of the author. A few of the characters invented by the author ultimately contribute to the body count, elevating the number of deaths over the canonical 918.

Although much of the story seems plausible, there are plot points which seem contrived. One of my greatest quibbles is Neil’s placement on the Learning Crew. As a defector, Neil is not welcomed back into the fold, so it seems odd to me that the character is put in a position where he can move around Jonestown—albeit under guard—and witness the treatment of its residents. While it’s believable that Jones would hold Neil captive in Jonestown, assignment to the Learning Crew seems far-fetched. In my mind, this point serves the purpose of allowing Neil to jump out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire, given that he starts questioning the Crew leader as soon as he is taken into the field to work. His resistance results in his placement in a dark pit in the ground for several days. His reunion with his wife also occurs due to his work on the Learning Crew, and his confinement to “the box” is a result of Neil intervening while his wife is being punished during a community assembly. In the scope of the story, all of these events (and more) represent Jones’ mind games directed at Neil, with the intention of breaking Neil’s will. Although Jones wants to know what information Neil has about the congressional delegation, Jones’ motivations also reflect a personal vendetta against a traitor.

Another concern I have has to do with the depiction of Jones himself. Having transcribed some audiotapes recorded during the last months of Jonestown, I am convinced that Jim Jones was in deteriorating health, particularly in a psychological sense. Listening to these tapes, one can often hear Jones’ speech was slurred—an effect also captured on FBI tape Q042. Although Jones is depicted in the early part of the book as an unhealthy and unstable person, suffering paranoia and drug dependency, the slurred speech is absent. Perhaps Roy avoided this because it would be tedious to read and write in such a manner. But the result of the omission distorts the reality of Jones’ condition. Furthermore, during the final hours of Jonestown, Jones á la Roy seems to shift from a deranged, defeated, despondent man to a cunning schemer whose final play includes an exit strategy for him and the innermost members of his circle (clearly an homage to a conspiracy theory which, despite its intrigue, suffers from a lack of solid evidence to support it).

Perhaps my greatest quibble with the book, however, has to do with how Roy handles the final hours of the community on November 18. Many—though not all—of Jones’ words can be drawn from the transcript of FBI tape Q042. What’s interesting is what isn’t included: the dozen or more testimonials of Jonestown residents who get up and thank “Dad” for all he has given them (including, according to some, their deaths). Roy’s description leaves us with a clear interpretation of the deaths, namely that all of the deaths (except possibly those in West House) are murder. The problem is that they weren’t. We have absolutely no way to resolve the issue of how many people were for or against the so-called “revolutionary suicide,” but in the real world I think we have to conclude that at least some of them were suicide. Roy further supports his interpretation by emphasizing Christine Miller’s objection yet omitting the outcome of her objection, that members of the community curse her and shout her down, until she eventually acquiesces (at least verbally). Although Roy’s book is “historical fiction,” there’s a risk that people will uncritically accept the “100% murder” scenario depicted in the book, which paints an overly simplistic and inaccurate picture.

As an additional note about the denouement, I’ll state that there’s nothing short of a Hollywood ending to this novel. Roy offers a “solution” to the mystery of whether Jones’ bullet wound was self-inflicted or perhaps administered by an inner circle member or a guard. For the author, as well as many readers, this is perhaps the most psychologically satisfying event in the entire novel; despite that, some readers may suspect the outcome. The epilogue, though ostensibly a recognition of the enormity of the tragedy, offers a tidy and somewhat uplifting ending.

Finally, I have concerns about the depiction of real Temple members who are included as characters in the novel. Many of the names mentioned are simply that—names included in a sentence or two to give a façade of validity to the story. Some of the most interesting players in the real-life events are relegated to supporting roles. We never learn much about Maria Katsaris, Annie Moore, or Carolyn Moore Layton, for example, despite the fact that they are mentioned several times in the book, always following Jones’ orders but offering little in terms of opinions about the circumstances they and their community face. This flies in the face of what is known about the actual functioning of Jonestown. Moreover, much of the action that takes place in the book occurs between fictional characters, leaving many of the real Temple members playing the roles of extras in their own story. Perhaps this is convenient because the author avoids accusing any survivors or victims of engaging in terrible behavior (for instance, “Gary Russell” mixes and brings the poison, and “Valerie Lee” administers it). However, by emphasizing the lives of fictional characters, the importance of the real life Temple members is partly obscured. Maybe I’m expecting too much of a fictional work, but I do think that Roy’s depiction of Jonestown distorts and sells short important aspects of Peoples Temple and its members.

Overall, Roy’s approach by writing from the point of view of an ex-Temple member desperately trying to get his family out of Jonestown draws you into the story. Plot twists are artfully woven together, until the endgame emerges. The book strongly emphasizes everything that was horrific about Jonestown (and more). Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that the vast majority of the story takes place during the last two months before the fateful day. But there’s little recognition of the earlier days of the Temple, when one could argue that at the very least the members themselves—regardless of Jones’ intentions—desired to make the world a better place. Apart from the depiction of Jones as a maniacal despot, there’s little understanding that the reader will take away about the real life tragedy from this novel. Maybe that’s not its purpose, and Roy can certainly write his alternative version as he wishes under the label of “fiction.” But as someone who has spent over 10 years studying the Jonestown saga, I cannot help but wonder what the reader will remember from the novel and how that will affect their interpretation of what happened at Jonestown.

(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and is a regular contributor to this website. Her other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Literary Rot: A Critical Review of Jungle Rot. Her complete collection of articles is here. She may be reached at hilltass@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on October 28th, 2015.

Last modified on July 24th, 2018.
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