Claiming an act of ‘revolutionary suicide,’ cult leader Jim Jones instigated the horrific death of 909 followers of his Peoples Temple on November 18, 1978, largely by cyanide poisoning.
Earlier that day, visiting Congressman Leo Ryan and four others were brutally gunned down at an airstrip as they attempted to flee the madness that enveloped Jones’ Guyana-based commune, originally founded on Communist and Christian ideals, in Indiana in 1955.
It stood as the largest loss of American civilian life until September 11, almost 23 years later. Approaching the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, Melbourne-based author Laura Elizabeth Woollett, 28, attempts to understand what went wrong at Jonestown in her historical fiction novel Beautiful Revolutionary.
Opening in 1968, in the shadow of the summer of love, it was a period of great tumult for the United States, with the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963, his brother Robert one year later and Martin Luther King in April, 1968.
“When change is happening, there’s a resistance to that change, and that sometimes leads to violence,” Woollett notes.
“It’s hard not to look at that period and also think about things that are going on now. It feels like a similar kind of turbulence, except there was more idealism back then,” she laughs, darkly.
Woollett first heard about the massacre during the 30th anniversary and was sucked into the “Jonestown vortex”, sparking years of intense research, including a trip to the Temple’s San Francisco base.
“It was such a great experience and the novel is so much richer because of it, because I was able to speak to survivors face-to-face,” she says.
“A few have moved, but the majority are still in that part of the country and there is quite a strong survivor community. They meet every year on the anniversary, go to the graves together, then have lunch afterwards.”
Spanning a 10-year period, the expansive novel puts a human face on the people behind the horrifying headlines, but largely changes the names of those involved.
“It was a bit of a strange decision, in some ways,” she acknowledges. “Because Jim Jones is such a larger-than-life figure, it would have felt disingenuous to call him anything else, but the other characters are less well known, so I felt I could take liberties.”
Rebellious minister’s daughter Evelyn Lynden, an atheist, and her hippie husband Lenny, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, are our initial window into the appeal of this revolutionary life.
Eagle-eyed observers will recognise the couple’s resemblance to real-life figures and cult loyalists, Carolyn and Larry Layton, but though some details are very similar, Woollett uses the truth to spin her own tragic narrative, as idealism slowly gives way to pain.
“Lenny is a pacifist, but becomes drawn to violence, and Evelyn is invested in change, but ends up being representative of authority in a strange way.”
Woollett’s previous short story collection, The Love of a Bad Man, featured an entry told from the perspective of Jones’ wife Marceline, but she was always more drawn to his mistress Carolyn.
“I found her really fascinating, but capturing her in a single short story was impossible,” she says.
While writing Beautiful Revolutionary, Woollett created playlists for each character.
“For Lenny, I listened to a lot of psychedelic rock from the late ‘60s, whereas Evelyn was more folk and French music. I felt so immersed in this world that there was a sense of grief when I finished it.”
As dark as Evelyn and Lenny’s path becomes, Woollett strove to offer some insight into the actions of Jones’ followers.
“The thing that makes good fiction is empathy.”
Beautiful Revolutionary, by Laura Elizabeth Woollett, Scribe Publications, RRP $33