For over a year now I’ve been working on a novel about Jonestown, which I wrote about in last year’s issue of the jonestown report. One year later, I’m pleased to share that I have two hundred pages written and a lot more to say.
A Search for Grace in Jonestown spoke of my struggle to find an entry point for the story, and ultimately it was Carolyn Layton who caught my attention, a woman whom Mike Cartmell describes as “as complicit in the murders of November 18 as Jim Jones himself.” Laura Kohl’s essay, Carolyn Layton: Jonestown’s American Gothic, poses a haunting question of Jim Jones’ staff: “I have to wonder if at the end, they even knew that anything – everything – had gone so horrifyingly wrong.”
My novel follows a woman based loosely on Carolyn Layton, and Laura’s question is one of many that guides me. How does a person get to that point? What is that journey like?
A few months ago, I fell into conversation with a fellow writer, and told him about my plans for this book. I described Carolyn Layton as a “moral question mark,” to which he arched his eyebrows and replied, “If she helped plan a massacre, I think the question is answered.” Yet I find that simplistic; it doesn’t make for a very compelling novel. It may be true that “actions speak louder than words,” but I’m much more interested in what motivates people to act, and in Carolyn Layton’s case the answer is complex. In Stephan Jones’ essay, Like Father, Like Son, he posits, “It seemed to me that Carolyn knew Dad was full of shit, but was willing to put up with his games in exchange for the power and purpose she believed he gave her.” In My Brother’s Mother, his own reflection on Carolyn, Stephan offers another observation that complicates the first: “I saw Carolyn, just like Mom but in her own way, try to manage Dad while she fixed him.”
My protagonist, like Carolyn, is directly complicit in the massacre that concludes the story, and I’ve decided to give her the benefit of the doubt: beyond anything else, she is motivated by love and a desire to be loved. I hope this complicates the reader’s understanding of her moral character. I have no idea how close or far I’ve landed from the real Carolyn Layton in my fictionalization of her, but it’s not a concern of mine, because my novel as a whole is a loose reimagining of the story of Jonestown, an attempt to animate the questions that the real story raised for me. What does it mean to be a bad person? To what extent can a capacity for love be redeeming? Are we defined by our actions or our intentions?
There is no way to find an answer to Laura Kohl’s question, but simply exploring it has been an emotionally intense experience for me, one from which I’ve learned a lot. I’m extremely glad I’ve pursued this project, despite the difficulties inherent in working with such sensitive subject matter. As with last year, I would like to thank all who have contributed to this site—I have found every piece I’ve read to be illuminating and powerful, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to read your reflections and stories.
To conclude, I’d like to share one of my stories with the readers of this report. The Salesman, which is reprinted from its original in the Columbia Journal, relates back to Jonestown in that it’s about a door-to-door monkey salesman. My work has also appeared in The Adroit Journal, Narrative Magazine, and The Monarch Review.
(Sara Brody is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. A native San Franciscan, she heard the story of Jonestown at a young age; her fascination with the tragedy and the Peoples Temple community sparked the writing of her novel. She invites anyone interested in her project to contact her at email@example.com.)