The Children of Jonestown
Awake in a NightmareJonestown: The Only Eyewitness Account
In My Father’s House: The Story of the Layton Family and the Reverend Jim Jones
Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy
The Strongest Poison
Oscar Wilde’s remark about the death of Little Nell, that you have to be strong to read about it without laughing, suggests the qualities of character required to read the new books about Jonestown. The tone of so much accumulated pathos is finally blackly comic. Gone is the excited dismay that lent to the first books published about the events in Guyana an authenticity these more detailed and verified accounts seem to lack. After many retellings, the events of the suicide day take on a ritual, theatrical quality, like episodes in folk drama, with characters added, like Noah, for light relief.
James Reston, Jr., transcribes tapes of Jonestown “white nights” on which Jones sounds like Lenny Bruce; Shiva Naipaul gives us a Graham Greene jungle of bickering journalists and third-world intrigue; Mark Lane describes sneaking away from the dying people with Charles Garry, Garry lugging into the jungle a heavy briefcase which proves to contain his hair dryer. For his hair, “ordinarily worn in what appeared to be a normal style, was not what it seemed. He was almost completely bald, with his hair growing just from the fringes, and at such enormous length that when twirled about his head, patted down, sprayed and dried it gave a different impression.”
Nothing is what it seemed, everything gives a different impression. These books conflict, confuse, settle little, and do nothing to answer the great question of how Jonestown could happen. There are no certitudes, only clumsy ironies. Escaping, Stanley Clayton runs deeper into the heart of the jungle and is attacked by ants. Odell Rhodes survived the final hours because he had survived the American streets: “Once in Detroit when I thought this cop was going to blow me away I felt like that…just calm, calm and clear.” Debbie Layton, whom Reston considers the heroine of Jonestown, remarks primly that she considers herself a victim in part of her education at Berkeley High, a school “lost to social experimentation and permissiveness,” and plans to send any children of her own to private schools. So much for the lessons of the ill-fated social experiment at Jonestown.
The first books published after the suicide in November of 1978 left unanswered questions of how the people had died, who had shot Jones and what he had been planning, how much money the Temple had, who the survivors were and what would become of them, and, of course, what all this meant. The new books present conflicting answers, and say little on the more delicate questions of money and the survivors—the counsel of prudence, perhaps, in view of the fate of Al and Jeannie Mills, former People’s Temple members who defected, wrote one of the earlier books, and have since been murdered by persons unknown.
On some points accounts agree: Jones was shot by someone other than himself. One report mentions the conclusion of the Guyanese investigator that he was finished off by Annie Moore, the last of his lieutenants to …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.