Sharon Maas on The Girl From Jonestown

Sharon Maas

The novelist discusses Jonestown Massacre and its impact on Guyana.
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Sharon Maas, congratulations on the new novel, which deals with an incredibly tragic event, that is the Jonestown mass-suicide.  What impact did it have on you?

I was living in France at the time, so the initial reports trickled through only slowly – this was before the Internet age, so I only picked up bits and pieces in the first few days, and of course I was beyond shocked! I was desperate to know more, especially as I had once lived in the area where the tragedy took place, but I didn’t have TV and had to rely on newspaper and magazine reports, as well as letters from my parents. It was unimaginable, and perhaps that’s the reason I went deeper into it over the next few years.

Your main character Zoe attempts to help a cult member, Lucy. Was she based on anyone?

Like Zoe, I had been a journalist as a young woman, and because I had lived near the Jonestown community a few years previously, I played with the event and imagined what it would have been like had I been living on their doorstep just a few years later. And yes, I, too, like Zoe would definitely have been intrigued. So I simply placed myself into Zoe’s fictional shoes and imagined what might have happened. The story took over from there – I became Zoe, though I don’t think I would have been as brave in real life!

It’s a story that’s quite well-known, how difficult is it to maintain suspense when the reader may well be aware of the ending?

That proved to be a problem in getting it published. I wrote this book back in 2004 and over time approached many literary agents with the manuscript. One top US agent told me: “we already know the outcome” so he wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher and didn’t bother to even read it.  I think this attitude: “we already know what happened” is part of the reason why almost all agents and publishers rejected it for almost twenty years. If only that agent, and others, had read the manuscript, they would have known that yes, the book covers the climactic horror of the mass deaths, but that is not the final outcome. The story continues from there, with almost a quarter of the book dealing with a fictional and chilling aftermath. That’s what makes it different from other Jonestown books, both non-fiction and fiction.

The deaths themselves are horrific. How important was the suicide with regard to political life in Guyana, and on the people of Guyana?

As I mentioned above, I was not living in Guyana at the time and in fact never lived there again, so the quick answer regarding political life is “I don’t know” – I wasn’t there, and before the Internet made all information available, it was hard to keep in touch with political developments in Guyana.

However, I have spoken to many Guyanese about it and the general attitude is a loud sucking of teeth and dismissal. “Jonestown had nothing to do with Guyana,” they say, “they were all Americans.” Guyanese hate the fact that the first reaction when they tell people they’re from Guyana is, ‘Oh, Jonestown!” They don’t identify the tragedy as Guyanese at all and find the association almost insulting.

However, my mother was living in Guyana at the time and wrote an article afterwards in which she says:

“Despite all this talk of cooperation, the members of the Peoples Temple and the Guyanese citizens went their separate ways. There was little communication, except for the occasions when members of the Temple in groups of two or three went from door to door begging for their agricultural project. With millions of dollars at their disposal, they excelled at wringing money from the Guyanese whose people were then, and still are, in desperate financial circumstances.”

Referring to the Georgetown branch of the community, whose hand-picked members were allowed to live on their own in town, and had relative freedom, my mother writes:

“We saw them on Saturday afternoons shopping for vegetables at the outdoor Bourda market. Black and white, young men and women in friendly conversation with each other but aloof to the rest of the world. We now know that orders had been given for them not to fraternise, that only the trusted few were allowed outside the settlement.”

Leading up to the deaths, could the Guyanese government, and PM at the time Forbes Burnham, have done more ensure the safety of those living there – after all there had been evidence before Nov 18th 1978 that indicated there were problems in Jonestown – and before in San Francisco?

Forbes Burnham was a controversial leader amenable to new ideas. The Peoples Temple group presented itself as pioneers looking for a self-sufficient way of life, of opening up the Interior with agriculture projects and living from the land, and that’s something Burnham would certainly have approved of. I suspect that he was happy to let a bunch of evidently well-meaning (and well-funded) Americans settle in the Interior.
I wasn’t there at the time, but from my research I have learned that members of Peoples Temple were very persuasive to leading members of Government, including the Prime Minister.  They had huge funds at their disposal, which paved their way for all sorts of privileges, including the privilege of being left to themselves to do as they pleased, without supervision. There was no Guyanese police presence in Jonestown. It was a state within a state, all the more so for being remote, locked away in the inhospitable rainforest.

How compromised was Burnham given his wife Viola had been a strong supporter of the People’s Temple?

Viola Burnham had once been my Latin teacher at the Bishops’ High School, up until she married the Prime Minister. As I wasn’t in Guyana at the time, I was not aware of her support for Peoples Temple. I can only imagine that both she and her husband thought in general that the “agricultural project” was a good thing, particularly as the majority of the members were black and anti-American – they (the members) thought of their own Government as tyrannical, and this paid into the general Guyanese distrust of the USA and US politics as interfering, racist and dictatorial.

It’s true that the group had threatened mass suicide over and over again, but I doubt anyone really took them seriously, particularly as children and their mothers were involved. I wouldn’t like to even guess what Forbes Burnham himself thought of the resulting political mess.

Jim Jones was the man who encouraged, and in some cases forced, the People’s Temple followers to consume cyanide. How is he viewed in Guyana now?

Generally he is now viewed as a psychopathic tyrant.

Jones was a ruthless operator, even before as seen with his political career in the US. Why do you think many of his followers trusted his vision, but didn’t understand the man?

Jones had been a well-loved pastor in his early years. His was the first white church in the USA that opened its doors to black people. He went on to conduct what is now known as love-bombing, luring ordinary Americans into his Peoples Temple with promises of a new world where they would find equality and a good life, and be well looked after. He offered them hope. It was a gradual brainwashing, and in the end they were so captured they could not think for themselves. Many of them loved and were loyal to Jones right to the end, and refused to see the reality of their hopeless situation. They could not see the lies, because to do so would be to admit that their hope for salvation would never be fulfilled. They attached themselves to a man who was, essentially, hypnotising them.

It’s an example of what we’d today call mass psychosis. Jim Jones used mental and physical abuse, blackmail, humiliation, and threats to break down the members of his community. He was able to convince them that he was their redeemer; there was no genuine religion about it, and certainly all semblance to Christianity had been erased by then. Peoples Temple was no longer a church; it was a cult with Jim Jones at its helm as their saviour. The few who weren’t persuaded were simply too terrified to leave.

Even close family members were encouraged to spy on each other. denouncing anyone who expressed doubt or rebellion. They were kept in line by extreme punishments, such as being locked in an underground box. As time went on, the punishments became more draconian. Everyone had to march to the same tune, declare their allegiance to him, their saviour. They were forced to sign blank power of attorney forms as well as false confessions to crimes, including child molestation and abuse; all with the aim of proving their loyalty to Jones. Children were beaten and removed from their parents. Electric shocks were administered, all with the aim of keeping the community obedient.

In the end Jones’ power was so great he was able to convince his followers not only to commit what he called “revolutionary suicide” but to even kill their own children. It’s a horror of unprecedented dimensions, never seen before or after.

But: they were coerced into it. That is why many now refuse to refer to the tragedy as mass suicide and call it mass murder instead. My mother called it a massacre.

What lessons do you think this event gives to authorities (in this case both the US and Guyana) when dealing with cults?

The lesson we learn from Jonestown is to be wary of any movement which encourages irrational allegiance to an illogical message. We must learn to keep our wits about us and always, always think for ourselves. If doubts arise, take them seriously. If something doesn’t feel right, it might be time to wake up and listen to our own gut instinct. We do have such a gut instinct. We do know, deep inside, when something is inherently wrong, and we must be always aware, always conscious, always critical. Mass brainwashing is a real thing, and there are always people of charisma and power willing and able to abuse the good nature and gullibility of others. That’s what leads to the phenomenon known as mass psychosis: when we accept a message seen by others as nonsensical. As we can see in Jonestown, those who succumb to that message are not even aware that they have succumbed. It’s a terrifying vision; the word dystopia comes to mind.

Sharon Maas is the author of The Girl From Jonestown, published by Bookouture.