"...it was a tale of the 1970s in America, in the backwash of the civil rights activism of the 1960s."
Tapes from Jonestown, released through JR's Freedom of Information efforts.
In the fall of 1978, only a year and a half after the heady experience with Nixon and Frost, I was struggling with my third novel and starting to wonder if I was really cut out to be a novelist. The Joan Little book, as a work of “creative non-fiction,” was by far my most successful work to date. Perhaps the way forward was to apply all that I had learned in writing fiction and apply those lessons to real events that were “novelistic” in character. But I needed an event.
It came on November 18, 1978. One thousand Americans took their lives in a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana, South America. They were led, and in many cases forced, toward this insanity by a charismatic pseudo-preacher named the Reverend Jim Jones. I dropped everything, called my editor in New York, and a week later, I was on a plane to Guyana.
Thus began another four year obsession. First came the book, Our Father Who Art in Hell: the Life of the Reverend Jim Jones, launched in May of 1981 with a Tom Brokaw interview on the Today Show;then an NPR radio documentary, which mined some 800 hours of tape recordings that I had rested from the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act, (Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown); next a play in Providence, R.I. called Jonestown Express that imagined the inner motives of a few of the victims; and finally, the libretto for an opera called The Reverend Jim Jones. Its music was composed by a well known, genius-grant composer named John Eaton.
"It is quite simply one of the great achievements in broadcast history."
-Anthony Lewis, his column in The New York Times, April 23, 1981
Why did I leap to this story? And why did I stay with it through four iterations over four years, turning it over and looking at it from every angle through the lens of four different dramatic forms? My family would ask those questions often, since the material was soul-withering, and the writing so hard that my wife would say later, not happily, that I changed profoundly in those four years, and not for the better.
I offer several explanations. I saw in the Jim Jones story a real life realization of Joseph Conrad’s vision in his classic novel, The Heart of Darkness: a maniacal charlatan dupes a community of gullible follows, retreats to the darkest jungle with a grand vision of earthly paradise, becomes a near-God to his followers, quietly goes mad before their eyes, as their heaven turns to hell and their hero turns into a monster before their eyes. Ultimately he takes them all down with him to their doom. Moreover, it was a tale of the 1970s in America, in the backwash of the civil rights activism of the 1960s. The Jonestown community was made up largely of poor black people who were still moved by the rhetoric of the ‘60s, but found diminishing outlets for their travail and longing in San Francisco and Los Angeles, as the country tired of agitation and protest. They saw Jones as Moses and his vision of heaven on earth the last path to deliverance, and they gave themselves over to him completely. But the community also had its share of intelligent white activists who really did think Jones was capable of superhuman magic and who really believed that Jonestown could become the perfect model of multi-racial harmony and an example to the corrupt world they left behind. I wrote a chapter in the book about one of them, Jann Gurvich, a debutante from New Orleans. It was excerpted in the Carolina Quarterly and is included below.
"Reston's eye is novelistic.....His larger purpose is to make the terribly irrational somehow understandable....He does so with the good judgment of a writer willing to avoid certain faddish modes of analysis."
-Robert Coles, Washington Post Book World on Our Father Who Art in Hell
In a sense this protracted obsession was an effort at explaining the unexplainable. What insight I brought to that terrible event I cannot say. But looking back on it, I’m satisfied with the undertaking. Writers are supposed to go to places that no one else wants to.
Jonestown: A Virulent Madness That Still Awaits Exorcism
Appeared in Los Angeles Times Nov 18, 1979 pg. F5 (found in ProQuest Historical Newspapers) view PDF
“A Power That Isn’t”
On failure of Freedom of Information Act appeared in Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1981 view PDF
Excerpt from Our Father Who Art in Hell Appeared in the Carolina Quarterly, Winter 1981 view PDF
"Abroad at Home; Nightmare Brought to Life"
On JR radio documentary, Appeared in New York Times, April 1981 view PDF
“The Novelist’s Event”
On Jonestown event, June 1982, unpublished view PDF