I heard about ‘The Jonestown Vortex’ months before it truly sucked me in. Others before me had devoted years, decades even, to researching the events that gave rise to the 1978 mass-murder suicide of over 900 Peoples Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana. ‘Whoever gets in contact with us is sucked into this,’ Dr Rebecca Moore, a professor of religious studies who lost two sisters in Jonestown, commented in a 2002 interview. ‘It’s the Jonestown vortex.’
I read those words in 2014, intending to write a short story about the subject, that’s all. I wasn’t really surprised when it turned into more.
When it comes to a subject as huge as Jonestown, there are many possible entry points. Mine was Carolyn Layton, Moore’s elder sister, who began a relationship with the Reverend Jim Jones as a twenty-three-year-old college graduate and, ten years later, died in his private quarters in Jonestown. She was widely believed to be the most powerful person in Peoples Temple, after Jones himself.
I skyped with Moore in the November of 2014, and left the conversation with more questions than answers. A month later, I won a short story competition and impetuously decided to spend my winnings on a research trip to America.
I was welcomed.
Many factors contributed to my plunge into the vortex, but the hospitality I found there was one of them. Though I was effectively a random Australian from the internet, I was invited to stay with Moore and her husband — himself a Jonestown world expert. They put me in touch with survivors, whose emails were short, but who met me in their cars, spoke with me for hours, even shared their weed. Despite the passage of time, the death of the communal dream, it was clear to me that these were people who believed in community.
Upon my return to Melbourne, I continued to feel the tug of this community. It was there in my inbox, whenever I received an email from one of my contacts in America. It was in the audiotapes I listened to — voices interrupting Jones’ sermons, joking, arguing, questioning. It was in the photographs I pored over, and my newfound ability to recognise long-dead people I’d never met.
I already had a taste for vintage fashion and music, but over the years that I worked on my book, my wardrobe and playlists became progressively more seventies. When Trump was elected, I imagined my disgust was what they felt about Nixon all those years ago.
I expected there to be a void once I finished the book. Not only had it consumed thousands of hours of my life — it had added a layer of meaning, a colourful lens through which to interpret the imperfections of the real world. After turning in my manuscript, I wandered around heartbroken, playing the same old songs, my characters faded ghosts. The vortex had ejected me, or so it seemed.
I still consider myself a part of the Jonestown community, and eagerly await the feedback of the people I met there, as they read the story I spun out of their shared memories. I still have questions, many questions. As a novelist, though, I don’t feel that my role is to keep searching for answers in the vortex. I can only hope that I’ve captured something of its swirling power — and, maybe, that I’ve sucked in a few others with me.