Literary Rot: A Critical Review of Jungle Rot

by Katherine Hill

(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 Fictional Account Distorts and Obscures Reality of Jonestown. Her complete collection of articles is here. She may be reached at hilltass@gmail.com.)

Reviewer’s Caveats

The world will scrutinize every crazed word that Jim has left on tape. They will seek meaning where there is none. (Kindle Locations 92-93).

This is the most difficult review I’ve ever written. I want to believe that Kathleen McKenna Hewtson’s intentions are good, but I can’t find anything redeeming in Jungle Rot. It is the most dreadful book that I have ever read, not just on the topic of Jonestown, but on any topic. I finished reading it only because I committed to review it for the jonestown report, and then wished to write either a two-word review (caveat emptor) or a 3-letter review (“WTF?”) so that I could just be done with it. The Kindle version only cost me $5, but I am embarrassed to have purchased it and somewhat embittered that the author has made a small profit from me. Still thinking of buying it after I’ve written this much? Don’t. Just don’t! But if you need actual reasons for my distaste, feel free to continue reading this review.

The Book’s Premise and Main Characters

I has done been tricked again, Lord, and I is mad as a hornet ’bout it too.” (Kindle Location 1787)

Rot purportedly peers into the minds and motivations of six individuals, all either members or ex-members of Peoples Temple. It primarily covers the final months leading up to November 18, 1978. While Hewtson acknowledges that there’s no evidence that the internal dialogues and many of the interpersonal interactions depicted in Rot took place, she apparently deems them plausible. After reminding us in the book’s foreword that “[t]his is historical fiction,” she establishes the credentials which give her the authority to write: “I have conducted over five hundred interviews with people who were [in Jonestown], read most of the books, listened to weeks of tapes of Jim Jones talking to himself, visited Jonestown in Guyana after the event, and attended … the Jonestown memorial organized by the Rev. Jenona [sic] Norwood every year in the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California, on the anniversary of the massacre, November 18th.” She then concludes, “The thoughts and conversations of these witnesses … hopefully … are not too far from the truth of those thoughts and those conversations” (Kindle Locations 76-80).

Despite all this research – 500 interviews with former Jonestown residents? Really? – Hewtson’s attempts to capture the thoughts of the six main characters are sometimes laughable and other times offensive. The characters are remarkably one-dimensional and, in most cases, not particularly likeable. Here’s a rundown of the leading characters and my impressions of them:

Jim Jones: drug-addicted, grandiose, and hypochondriacal, Jones feels superior to his flock:

They are revolting, the sickly old people that I refer to publicly as “my seniors,” and privately to as ‘the walking dead,’ calling to me over and over again in their high quavering voices. (Kindle Locations 124-125).

He’s also superior to members of his inner circle. Jones’ thoughts focus heavily on his penis, which sexual acts he’s interested in pursuing, and with whom. One of Jones’ primary motivations is degradation of people:

Still, Maria [Katsaris] is most useful, if boring, in her blind adoration of me. Maybe tonight I will allow her to suck my root. Yes, and I will make Carolyn [Layton] watch. Yes, that will remind her that, though she is my first mistress, she is never again to question me (Kindle Locations 161-163).

Jones’ degradation of people is well-documented, but the extent to which Hewtson’s incarnation of Jones focuses on this seems beyond the pale, because nearly every thought attributed to him contains an insult directed at someone.

He himself is also not going to be insulted, though, and any slights towards him or his community could result in the deaths of everyone in Jonestown at any time, which he’s hell-bent on carrying out someday anyway:

Not to worry. Yes indeed, the decision is made. As to when and where, gosh, let me check my calendar. Is Thursday good for you? (Kindle Locations 2414-2415).

Marceline Jones: Jones’ wife, whose power and respect have been stripped away by Jones and his mistress Carolyn:

There is no other way for me, then. I will say what his whore has forced him into asking of me. I’ll say it and be done with it. But she will see that once I am standing beside him again, there will be no room for her. I am his wife. Once I am allowed back, I will regain my place. No one can take it away from me (Kindle Locations 873-875).

Rot’s Marceline has two primary motivations – jealousy, fueled by Jones’ relationships with Carolyn, Maria, and others; and affection for her son, Stephan – which also serve to obscure the concerns real-life Marceline had about the day-to-day running of the settlement and the well-being of all of its residents. The most interesting aspect of this character is how Hewtson depicts her during the deaths (more on this later).

Grace Stoen: The confused mother who gave up custody of John Victor before defecting from the Temple. Rot’s Grace identifies John Victor’s biological father, although she changes her story throughout the book; to the reader, this would seem to imply Grace is a liar. This character comes across as weak and flakey—dependent on her former husband Tim Stoen and unable to make up her mind. She doesn’t want to be back with Tim, but she needs his help to try to get her son out of Jonestown. In a surprise “twist,” after arriving in Guyana, she gives up her seat on the plane from Georgetown to Port Kaituma to another member of the concerned relatives, later explaining to Tim Stoen that she doesn’t want John Victor back after all (WTF?).

Tim Stoen: Possibly as egotistical and self-serving as Jim Jones, this cunning lawyer’s connection to the Concerned Relatives and their efforts to get loved ones out of Jonestown is due to Tim’s desires to (1) reclaim Grace Stoen as “his,” (2) take down Jones, which will earn Tim “hero” status, and (3) be subsequently elected to public office to wield power of his own. Rot’s version of Tim Stoen does not love John Victor and never thought of him as a son. He had no problem leaving John Victor behind while defecting from the Temple and would be happy to forget about him, if not for Grace’s attempts to reclaim the boy. When we first meet fictional Tim, he has resumed a posh, bachelor lifestyle, as if he had never been a part of the Temple. His outward concern about John Victor and others in Jonestown is all manipulation to suit his own ends.

Vernon Gosney: A gay man who is victimized by Jim Jones because of his homosexuality (Kindle Location 73). Vernon, whose last name is written both as “Gosney” and “Godney” in the book, is presented as a selfish man who blames his son Mark for landing him in Jonestown. This character cares only about escaping from Jonestown to return to his lover in San Francisco; he is not concerned about taking his son with him because it would only complicate things, given that neither he nor his lover is interested in raising Mark (WTF?). Real-life Vernon is one of the people to whom the author dedicated her book. I find it contradictory that Hewtson speaks so reverently about Gosney in her dedication, yet appears to throw his character under the proverbial bus in her fictional account (WTF?).

Hyacinth Thrash: An elderly African American woman who still believes in and prays to God, refusing to use Bible pages as toilet paper in Jonestown. Rot’s inclusion of this character is curious, given that Thrash wrote her own memoir back in the 1980s: we don’t need Hewtson to divine what Hyacinth was thinking. Perhaps the author realized that she needed a Black character to reflect Jonestown’s overwhelmingly African-American population. Indeed, there are literally hundreds of Jonestown residents whom she could have chosen to write about, but using Thrash may have been convenient. Or maybe Hewtson is drawn to Hyacinth because the author herself fervently believes in God.

Functionally the Thrash character provides a mechanism to provide backstory about what Peoples Temple was like in earlier days. The savvy senior was wise to Jones years ago and considered leaving, but at Marceline’s urging, she stayed and eventually found herself in Jonestown. Hyacinth is one of the more likeable characters and seems to be the voice of reason. However, I found reading the chapters “narrated” by Hyacinth to be particularly grueling because the author wrote this prose phonetically, forcing the reader to adopt a stereotypical Southern Black dialect. Thrash undoubtedly had a dialect, but this writing approach is off-putting and – to me – in bad taste. Here’s a glimpse of the fictional Hyacinth character, in an interaction with a young girl in Jonestown:

You is a nice little gal and I likes you, but, chil’, if our God above us has gone and created a greater fool den me, well I hopes I don’t never meet ’em. Following some damned white man, trusting a white man, look what it’s brought me to, chil’. I’s eighty year old, or close enough to it, doan make no difference, and here I is. If a body cain’t learn sumpin’ in eighty years of life, I don’t ’spect they ever wills. It’s false hopes dat brought me heah, chil’, false hope dat a man, ’specially a white man, could helps my peoples. (Kindle Locations 243-246).

WTF?

There are also a few supporting characters – or, perhaps, caricatures – all included, apparently, for no other reason than to have Jim Jones abuse them:

Carolyn Layton: Jones’ primary mistress, close aide, and mother of his unwanted “bastard” (Hewtson’s word), described by Jones as “cow” or “bitch.”

Maria Katsaris: Another mistress and close aide to Jones—always at the ready to jump at his command – described as “ugly” and “stupid,” and treated like a pet… or maybe just a dog.

Richard and Harriet Tropp: A fictionalized married couple who in real life were siblings, painted as a wimpy lap dog to Jones and as a snotty bitch respectively (WTF?).

Larry Schacht: Jonestown’s doctor, repeatedly called “darling” by Jones, especially when Jones is raping him (there’s more than one such scene in Rot—WTF?).

Annie Moore: Jones’ nurse and, according to Rot, wannabe lover – even though it would make her sister Carolyn jealous – described by Jones as “ugly” and “cow” by Jones (he is apparently not above recycling his descriptions of the women around him).

(Dis)honorable Mentions: There are a few names of Temple members thrown out in places throughout the book, including Mom and Pops Jackson and Viola Ford. Typically, these people are described unfavorably by Hyacinth Thrash, who criticizes them as being zealous:

Dem Jacksons dey is Jim’s mose famous gimcracks of all. Dat’s why dey is the onliest niggers heah dats gots dey very own cottage all to dem selves (Kindle Locations 1817-1818).

WTF?

The Depiction of the Deaths

Round and round I go – where I’ll leave these fuckers is only for me to know. (Kindle Locations 2286-2287)

Hewtson uses an interesting, albeit implausible, device to reveal the deaths. Most readers of this review will be familiar with FBI Tape Q042. In Rot, there’s a tape of the tape: in the aftermath, a tape is found concealed in Marceline Jones’ pocket. Played in the office of a military officer involved in the clean-up operation, Marceline’s recorded voice provides a play-by-play as the dialogue and action of Q042 unfolds. Although a transcript of Q042 was obviously used as the basis, there are notable omissions in this final “White Night”: (1) Christine Miller’s debate with Jones is non-existent—indeed, there are no objections to dying, and (2) there are no testimonials from Jonestown residents praising Jones. Given that Hewtson views nearly all of the deaths as murder, Rot surprisingly depicts no resistance to “revolutionary suicide” by Jones’ followers. Additionally, Jones’ urgings to his followers to hurry and take the poison are peppered with expletives—something that is not heard in the actual Q042 tape.

The “surprise” ending is that Jones’ death is officially ruled murder by an unknown person: the author is vague, but the reader will be inclined to think that fictional Marceline is responsible for shooting her husband in the forehead (but not in the temple, which is how the real Jim Jones died). To add further intrigue to the storyline, some of the people in West House (Jones’ cabin) were strangled rather than poisoned, and Annie Moore dies of a gunshot (which did in fact happen). The book’s afterword reveals Hewtson believes that Jones intended to escape with millions of dollars on the Cudjoe that evening. Thus, her fictional storyline implies that the inner circle and Jones would have cheated death, had not someone with sufficient anger, jealousy, and sense of retribution killed Jones before they could make their escape.

The Author’s Purpose/Agenda

It is not my aim to traduce anyone involved in this murderous tale, not even Jim Jones – but, there again, how could I in his case? (Kindle Locations 80-81).

To my recollection, this is the first time I have repeatedly asked myself “WTF?” while reading a book. Unfamiliar with the author, I searched the Jonestown Institute website and discovered that she had previously written a couple of pieces about this book for the jonestown report as she was in the process of writing it. Based on these earlier statements, Hewtson’s book is purportedly an effort to make peace with the final outcome by conveying how she has come to understand it. She recognizes Tim Reiterman’s Raven as so thorough that there’s no need for a similar attempt. Instead, Hewtson tells us, “I wrote Jungle Rot, because it was the book I wanted to read.” That’s a telling statement because much of the book is conjecture, while other portions are downright untrue.

The author’s real sentiments become apparent in the afterword of the book. Hewtson rightfully decries the horror and enormity of the loss, but then turns the reader’s attention to what she judges to be “the most grotesque thing of all in the wake of the tragedy, this day of holocaust, is that on the marble tombstone laid over the mass grave of the victims of Jonestown in Evergreen Cemetery, Oakland, California, is etched the name of the Reverend Jim Jones – as a victim.”

In apparent retaliation for the all-inclusive Jonestown memorial, Hewtson provides “the single longest dedication in history” (Kindle Location 4625) by printing the names of those who died—in edited form. Not only is the name of Jim Jones omitted, so are the names of Marceline Jones, Carolyn Layton, Ann Moore, Maria Katsaris, and Laurence Schacht, people whom Hewtson compares to the Goebbels and Himmlers and Goerings to Jones’ Hitler. Because this is the author’s dedication, one might say “fair enough,” except that there’s inconsistency here. Is it hypocrisy or ignorance that led the author to include the names of known airstrip shooters in the book’s dedication? If Hewtson’s goal is to exclude murderers from the list, shouldn’t these people be excluded, too? (There’s the rub: it becomes impossible to know where to draw the line in terms of those to include vs. those to exclude.)

Reviewer’s Final Thoughts

…you say ‘abuses,’ I say ‘tomatoes,’ let’s call the whole thing off (Kindle Location 2384).

If I had to describe Jungle Rot in one word, it would be “lurid.” The cover itself is a clue: The title “Jungle Rot” written across an image of the Jonestown pavilion in the aftermath of the deaths. The next clue is the repeated use of quotes from Jethro Tull’s “Bungle in the Jungle” as chapter headings. Although the author seems to find the song prescient, it seems to make light of the tragedy. As I read these lyrics, I feared the book was mere steps away from a Flavour-Aid joke. Through the first few chapters, I wondered if the whole thing might just be a farce: a sarcastic, over-the-top mockery of Jones and his inner circle. Eventually, I realized the author was serious but—at least in my mind—seriously off the mark in terms of providing something meaningful on the subject.

Worse, I see the book failing miserably at explaining the tragedy or at conveying any respect, concern, or sensitivity for Temple members. Much of the book comes off as mean-spirited. Does the author desire to smear the survivors? Does she want to inflict pain on living family members of those who died? Her foreword claims this isn’t her purpose, but nothing in the book supports that statement.

After reading Jungle Rot, I’m convinced that Hewtson didn’t write “historical fiction.” Instead, it’s more like “pulp fiction” or maybe “hysterical fiction.” Rot is an exaggerated depiction of Jones in a small world populated by a handful of one-dimensional inner circle members and hundreds of nameless, faceless, voiceless props.

Still thinking of buying Jungle Rot after all you’ve just read? Don’t. Just don’t! If you care about Jonestown victims and survivors, consider instead donating $5 to a charity that seems befitting people’s motivations for joining the Temple in the first place: give to a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, disaster relief agency, or political cause. Your money will be better spent, in a manner that honors the victims, and your brain cells will thank you.

You’re still gonna buy it anyway? WTF?! Caveat emptor.

Resources

Hewtson, K.M. (2015). Jungle Rot: Jonestown, an American Holocaust. San Francisco, Taylor Street Books. (Kindle Edition)

Hewtson, K.M. (2009). I wrote the book. the jonestown report, 11. http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=30855

McKenna, K. (2008). The Jonestown Chronicles, or on trying to write a book a little shorter than the Bible. the jonestown report, 10. http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=31421

Originally posted on November 2nd, 2015.

Last modified on November 29th, 2020.
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