Laura Elizabeth Woollett
The greatest deliberate loss of American civilian life in modern times before the fall of the Twin Towers took place in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. On that day, 918 people, including 304 children, were ordered to drink grape-flavoured cordial from a metal tub laced with cyanide, chloral hydrate, Valium and Phenergan – that or commit suicide by alternative means – at the order of the Reverend Jim Jones, to whose apocalyptic cult they all belonged.
In the harrowing audio recording made of this mass suicide, children can be heard screaming and crying. Other accounts suggest that adults, too, began to resist the process once the effects of the poison became evident. All the while Jones, drug-addled and paranoid, sporting his trademark luxuriant sideburns, vainglorious and insistent, addressed the crowd. While the dying were led outside to be lain down in rows, he said, “I represent divine principle, total equality, a society where people own all things in common, where there is no rich or poor, no races.” His demand for the “revolutionary suicide” of his followers was an admission that his utopian vision was impossible to realise in reality.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s second novel comes at the end of a long queue of responses to the bizarre paradox at work in the Jim Jones cult. Novels have been written, films and documentaries made – along with countless articles and nonfiction accounts – all worrying at the mystery of how one man could have persuaded so many, so powerfully, that they should sever themselves from the ordinary world – and then, ultimately, allow this huge, gratuitous cruelty to be perpetrated against themselves, their husbands, wives, parents and children.
Woollett’s way in is crabwise. She has taken years of extensive research, including interviews with surviving members of the Jones cult, then bent these facts into fictional shape. Having created a couple who correspond in some respects to real figures in Jones’s inner circle, the author abandons them at the entrance to the labyrinth. The result is intermittently gripping, sometimes disturbing, but most often it lapses into transcription of the everyday banality with which the organisation operated.
Evelyn and Lenny are a golden couple: attractive, intelligent, educated children of the middle class who have come to California as part of Lenny’s obligations as a conscientious objector to the conflict in Vietnam. Evelyn – Eve – has married this handsome boy-man on the rebound from a broken engagement with a Frenchman during a period spent overseas. She is idealistic, too, but also sharp and neurotic, formed as she is by an upbringing as a Methodist minister’s daughter. When she comes into contact with the Reverend Jones and his organisation, the political virtues of the cult form a cover for a growing attraction to its older, married leader.
The absorption of the couple into the cult in the years before it moved to San Francisco, then onto Guyana after Jones’s weird and abusive practices became publicly known, has a certain grim fascination. There is a negative charge to the affair that Jones and Eve enter into, and the emotional and psychological manipulations that Jones employs to split the couple and co-opt Eve as a subsidiary bride are sickly plausible. Woollett, who has specialised in damaged young women in her preceding novel and short stories, climbs inside Eve’s head and body with eerie aplomb.
But in the years that follow – and during the many mutations in size, shape and dynamics of the Jones cult – the novel has trouble maintaining fealty to the historical record while holding readers’ attention. Whole chapters unfold like bad consciousness-raising sessions, with multiple characters fighting for airtime. As the cast swells, Eve and Lenny are flattened into bit parts, and while Eve will remain close to the centre of action throughout, her ex-husband is palmed off for years at a time, being dusted off again only in the final and most dramatic portion of the story.
Of course, we as readers have come for Jim Jones. We want to understand what special gift it is that he possesses – we want the source of his power revealed. Woollett does not try to inhabit his character; instead, she paints him externally, from the multiple perspectives of his followers. What becomes clear is that he was an adroit student of human need. Also, he was a charlatan who manufactured crisis and drama for his own ends. Jones remains an unknowable and oddly empty figure, but his bizarre success speaks volumes for the flaws and gaps in American society during those years.
His beautiful revolutionaries were drawn from the ranks of the missing and the broken. They were children who had drifted away from older structures and ideas but were ill equipped to forge a new kind of society in their wake. Woollett’s ambitious and uneven novel may not penetrate the terrible mystery of Jim Jones, but what it does do is offer a timely reminder of what happens when a huckster manages to gather up the social detritus of a culture in the midst of radical change and ferment. In this, she follows Joan Didion, another sharp-eyed observer of the Californian scene in the ’60s and ’70s – another writer who appreciated how genuine human impulses could be harnessed and warped by the wrong kind
It’s a social movement, quintessentially romantic, the kind that recurs in times of real social crisis. The themes are always the same. A return to innocence. The invocation of an earlier authority and control. The mysteries of the blood. An itch for the transcendental, for purification. Right there you’ve got the ways that romanticism historically ends up in trouble, lends itself to authoritarianism. When the direction appears. How long do you think it’ll take for that to happen? AF
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Laura Elizabeth Woollett, Beautiful Revolutionary". Subscribe here.