*TW for suicide across the length of this piece
In 2017, Stitcher produced a podcast called Heavens Gate, titled for the cult it examined across its ten episodes. The members of Heavens Gate were famed for committing group suicide in 1997, each clad in matching tracksuits. Hosted by Glynn Washington, himself a former cult member (not Heavens Gate), the series examined the people behind the cult, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, and perhaps more importantly, their followers. Or were they their victims? Who these people truly were, and what they meant to each other, was the basis of the podcast’s discussion. Sourced from interviews with surviving family members, and hours of footage taken by the group, it’s a profoundly moving look at the gentleness, the ordinariness and the hope that preceded their violent end.
Beautiful Revolutionary, Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s second novel, arrived on my doorstep boasting that one of its “selling points” was that its publication marks the fortieth anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. I’ve worked in marketing, I’m not unfamiliar with using something as grotesque as murder as a marketing tactic — and in this current climate it would be financially irresponsible not to align this book with the current ravenous market for true crime. One of the most popular podcasts on the current charts is literally called My Favourite Murder. People are constantly buzzing about cult documentaries and true crime specials like Wild Wild Country or The Staircase — recently revamped from its original form.
So sure, forty years on, let’s talk about Jonestown — the ill-fated agricultural project designed by cult leader Jim Jones, and managed by him, his wife, and his socialist sect known as the People’s Temple. In the late seventies, Jones relocated almost one thousand of his group’s members to the jungles of Guyana to escape prying eyes and oppressive capitalist America. Famously, this socialist paradise failed in stunning fashion when Jones convinced 909 of his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide”. What that sounds like is much more dignified than it was. What is really was, and sounded like — and we know, it was recorded — was a ranting drug-affected narcissist manipulating almost a thousand people to drink poison and die in a field. A further nine people died in a shoot out at a nearby airstrip as people tried to flee.
Reviews have started coming out that discuss Beautiful Revolutionary in ways that Woollett herself has taken issue with, largely it seems because she feels they have missed the point. That people have come for Jim Jones, not for the characters in her book. The Saturday Paper’s pseudonymous review even says this explicitly: “we came for Jim Jones.”
Jim Jones himself did not die of suicide by cyanide, laid out in an open field, like his followers. He died a few hours later, in his quarters via a gunshot wound. It was a dismal, dark ending for a dismal, dark man. No one should come for Jim Jones. Jones had his time, his story has been told, in countless books, TV documentaries, and podcasts. He is ubiquitous throughout pop culture.
As someone who perhaps knows too much about People’s Temple, I did not come to Beautiful Revolutionary for Jones, and if I had — I should not have. We do not need to give Jim Jones any more of our attention or perverse affection. It is a strange phenomenon, the romanticizing of bad men. From the women who adored rapist and murderer Ted Bundy, or similarly disposed Richard Ramirez, to those who seem entranced by the ‘charisma’ of Charles Manson. In fact, Woollett herself has written on the topic, in her debut short story collection The Love of a Bad Man.
I don’t want to call it a selling point, but it is important that it’s been forty years since the massacre at Jonestown, because while writing this book Woollett spent a lot of time with the people this book memorializes — the massacre survivors. She researched and sat in conversation with people whose family members died in the jungle, poisoned or gunned down. It is important to not forget that it happened. Jonestown was the single greatest loss of American life in a deliberate act before 9/11. It is important not to forget that the People’s Temple was full of real people.
During this time of research, Woollett was inspired to focus her story around one woman — Carolyn Layton, Jim Jones’ real-life mistress and right-hand woman. Orbiting ‘Evelyn’, the name she gives her fictional Carolyn, is her husband ‘Lenny’ (real name Larry Layton) — the man who fired some of the first shots at the airstrip. Bit players include Rosaline, Jones’ wife, who is rendered here as a meek and kind woman, and Gene Luce, who is a member of Jones’ inner circle. Gene is a police officer and family man was responsible for outreach, selling prospects on the virtues he seems to truly believe in:
After the service, all the kids skitter in different directions, and Luce does his best to talk to as many newcomers as possible. For the poor folks, it’s the usual soft sell: good grub, good music, good clean recreation, free legal aid and medical care and tuition. For the white college crowd, he makes it a little more sensational: ever heard of a town called Greensburg, Indiana; my uncles were Klansmen; see that adorable two year old with the plush truck, that’s my baby daughter. Getting a rise out of how those smug California boys can’t quite figure him out, their credulous eyes, their dreamy-slow gestures, their hair a little too long like something from a painting. But his mind keeps drifting to Lenny Lyden, how sweet he looked sleeping, how sweet he is, with a frequency that makes him get up to refill his punch too often, telling himself: give it a rest, Gene.
Here Woollett craftily weaves in details of the Temple’s recruiting methods while also giving us an insight into the past and present of Gene Luce, who has romantic designs on Lenny, and other young men similar to him. We follow Gene and the Luce family closely for most of act one, only to lose sight of their patriarch abruptly. This seems only to occur to leave more space for the story of Evelyn and Lenny.
The story of Evelyn and Lenny is exhaustive, and often tedious. There is even a brief interlude to Paris to revisit Evelyn’s past lover (that weaves in the Temple’s shady money laundering), which, in a four-hundred-page book, could probably have been cut. I found the characters orbiting them far more interesting. Woollett reflects on the relationship Jones’ likely-abused wife, Rosaline, must have had with Evelyn. She peers into the inner life of Jones’ long-term devotee Gene Luce and his family. She highlights other players from the cult cleverly — some who left, some who joined late, some who were black and angry, gay and maligned. She tries, while sticking to what is essentially a love story between Evelyn and Lenny, to shine a light on the day-to-day aspects of the cult’s life, to explore what Peoples Temple actually was.
The book does however skim over the political motivations of many of the members, and the revolutionary way Jones built a church that was not segregated; that welcomed both black and white, the poor, the outcast. It did not preach the sixties’ message of drugs and free love, it preached socialism — and with great effect. But with Lenny and Evelyn there seems to be no compelling explanation, no problem in their life that gave them no other option but to join the Temple. They were white, educated, middle-class people. What drove them to join, and then stay with, the cult, as Woollett presents it, seem to be ‘Daddy issues’, boredom, and in Evelyn’s case, sexual attraction to Jim; and the subsequent sexual abuse and manipulation Jim wields over both of them.
Evelyn’s motivations are reiterated over and over, using her father’s position as a minister and a previous broken engagement as explanations for her loyalty to Jim. Early in the first act, her time living abroad is covered, as is her late-teen ennui:
She was still the girl from the generous Methodist Church family, who could never accept the grace of God. She was still the girl who lost her virginity to a boy whose last name she didn’t know as black waves broke somewhere close by. She was still the girl who, working one summer as a bellhop at a San Francisco hotel had gone up to the room of a businessman who propositioned her, hoping it might cure her to be with a man her father’s age. She was still the girl who since the age of fifteen had occasionally thought of killing herself.
Both examples I have selected here, of Gene and Evelyn’s inner worlds, revolve heavily around sex or repressed sexual feelings. I’d quote a passage highlighting the same of Lenny’s chapters but the examples are so plentiful — Lenny is always horny, all his relationships revolve around sex, shame and smoking weed. Woollett employs sex and sexual abuse as a plot device throughout the book, and while certainly it was a known element of life in the Temple, with devotees frequently being abused by Jim, subjected to sex with him as some kind of ‘medicine’, it’s used a little too liberally, and in a way that reduces the seriousness of the abuse. Everyone in this book is seemingly permanently horny or else having sex with Jim, and I think this confluence confuses the complex way in which Jones used sex to control his devotees.
It is an odd choice to fictionalize something so notorious, so relatively recent for something that seems so barbaric, and with an unchanged Jim Jones, when so much research into the real life devotees was done. I do not fully understand that choice. Even Jones’ wife, Marceline, is renamed Rosaline. Perhaps the understanding of the decision lays in whether you think Jones’ inner circle were his co-conspirators, or another set of his victims? If you see Jones as a murderer, as culpable, it makes sense to not protect him with the embellishment of fiction. Conversely, if you see Marceline and Carolyn as victims, and not as accessories to Jones, you may want to fictionalize them to render them more sympathetically.
Most cult leaders target the vulnerable, the people most susceptible to manipulation, who are looking for another option, something more. In a recent interview for the Guardian, Woollett was in conversation with the team who directed The Family, a documentary on the notorious Australian cult of the same name, and its leader, Anne Hamilton Byrne. That cult was horrific in its abuse of children and its members. But its members were almost exclusively politicians, doctors and lawyers. Not members of maligned or oppressed communities. How did they fall for it?
Why did over nine hundred people believe in Jim Jones so fervently that they died for him and what he espoused? While reading this book I felt frustration that this wasn’t examined more deeply, that Woollett didn’t spend more time focusing on the politics and manipulation of Jones and the climate in which the events took place, that allowed it to happen.
Recently I watched, for the second time, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. I followed it with Derren Brown’s new special on faith healers. I grew up in evangelical churches. I watched as people, touched by healers and preachers, fell convulsing to the floor. I saw people cured of illnesses, and felt myself cured also. Watching Derren Brown ‘cure’ people, while, for the sake of the performance, taking on the tics and traits of the evangelical ministers I grew up listening to, was a deeply upsetting and uncomfortable experience. Of course I know that, largely, faith healers are scammers and opportunistic charlatans. Jones and his inner circle were famed for healing people — but as Woollett highlights in Beautiful Revolutionary, the cancers they ‘removed’ from ill devotees were simply meat scraps they extracted using sleight of hand. And of course I was aware of the issues within my own religion. Many others are not. Many have unshakeable faith. My family, friends, many very clever people. In Going Clear we hear of the torture members endure but also that they would continue to endure it because they truly believe in what they are doing. Members sign contracts committing to one billion years of service in their ‘Sea Org’ group. Child separation. Tom Cruise is a high up member who is best friends with the cult’s nefarious leader, a man suspected of disappearing his own wife, and we accept this as OK, we accept that it’s just a quirk and not an issue worthy of concern. Scientology, like many cults and religions, has been proven to be dangerous. Why do people believe in this? Why do people listen to narcissistic men?
We are all, in one way or another, searching for meaning, and purpose, and answers to inescapable questions. Something that helps us make sense of racism and inequality and the traumas in our lives. Jones offered something practical to ordinary people.
A copper-brown coupé rounds into the parking lot. Both women look up to watch Jim hunch out with two non-Temple men. Evelyn flicks through her mental log of appointments: The Prosperity Gazette, Friday, 4pm.
‘….A place all people can call their own.’ Jim is gesturing at the building. ‘I mean that, all. Shelter for the cold, food for the hungry, employment for the unemployed. Proselytising, that’s not important to me. I’m very down-to-earth. I plan to feed hundreds this Christmas, and make sure no child county-over goes without a gift.’
‘And your services? Is it true that you claim to heal cancer, blindness…’
‘Healing, that’s just a small part of what we do.’
Evelyn is an ordinary woman. A minister’s daughter, like me, who is ambitious and wants to make change. We get a lot of background on Evelyn. Lenny is adrift, but we don’t really know why beyond his recent College graduation and love of smoking dope. We are to believe he is unloved by his family — but we get no real insight into why, until when, in the third act his dying mother, who has at some stage joined the group herself, says she wishes he wasn’t born. Gene Luce is closeted and ashamed, sure, but there is more to be known about him than we get. While you could argue that Woollett was not necessarily successful in fully realizing all these characters, what Beautiful Revolutionary does achieve is illustrating their ordinariness.
Woollett highlights the monotony and tedium of life in the People’s Temple. They are hot in the summer, bored sometimes, overwhelmed, a bit indignant about their leader. They are horny and lonely and confused. They live communally and complain about hot water and grumpy roommates. They are tired from long days:
Most nights, they eat quick at the Red Creek commune, sopping up lentil stew with home-baked bread. Quick, because their days have made them hungry: long hours at the mental hospital for Lenny, at the Temple daycare for Terra. Because there are chores, allotted and taped up on the fridge: dishes to wash, clothes to iron, animals to feed. Because they haven’t had a honeymoon and time alone is precious.
‘I can’t believe you like me even when I smell like chicken poop.’ Terra giggles, stripping off her overalls in the bathroom. For the first time all day, they have a few minutes to themselves. She admires her reflection. ‘Well…maybe I can.’
‘Are you going to wash your hair?’ Lenny likes helping with Terra’s hair.
‘Nope. I washed it Saturday. Martha’ll kill us if we use up another bottle.
Sister Martha is a white single mom who lives in the back part of the house with her twin sons, Joey Dean and Bobby James. It’s Martha who starts banging on the bathroom door within five minutes, yelling about hot water.”
There were so many of them. So many of them that died, and who are survived by family members and true-crime punters alike who wonder why? How? Perhaps the answer lies less with who Jones was, and more with who his victims were, and who we are. Woollett is not a sociologist or psychologist, she is a writer. And she has produced a beautifully-written and certainly compelling novel, but one that will not necessarily answer these most fundamental questions.
Rebecca Varcoe is an arts and culture writer from Melbourne. She is the founder and editor of comedy journal Funny Ha Ha.