Secondhand Horrors

As I was sitting at my desk, the ‘Net moving like a wounded snail, I decided to relax by reading something–something short, say, single sitting. Anything to take my mind off the slow trickle of Internet, since screaming “LOAD, YOU STUPID BITCH! I’ve seen constipated snails move faster!” every ten seconds scares the cat, disturbs my husband, and impacts negatively on my personal Zen. My fingers wandered idily over the bookcase next to my chair, hitting such diverse fare as the Essential Rumi, Lysistrata and Other Plays, “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh,” something about mermaids, and a collection on Rossetti’s art, before they fetched up on the book “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg” by Tim Cahill, which I picked up utterly at random a coupla years ago. He’s a travel writer, a sort’ve cheerfully counter-culture type, very macho “And then we plummetted six hundred feet into the dark cave mouth, and a bat shit on my boots, and then we drank Jack Daniels until dawn.” All of which makes him sound terribly objectionable, but in fact, it’s very engaging stuff–his discussion of how you catch poisonous sea snakes while drunk is priceless.

However, in what will doubtless come back to trouble my sleep tonight, what I wound up reading was two sections–one in which he attempted to infiltrate a brainwashing cult in Southern California in the late 70’s, and a grim, lucid commentary, written as one of the wave of reporters that hit Jonestown, Guyana, almost twenty-five years ago, shortly after the bit with the Koolaid.

This does not make for happy reading. The first one is cynically amusing in points, detailing a few days sleeping on concrete in an unplumbed shack with people chanting “Praise Jesus” for six or seven hours at a go. Most of us probably won’t ever be in danger of succumbing to this sort of thing, having the nasty little minds like oiled weasels that we do, going after every idea with a kind of cheerfully homicidal philosophical Darwinism where only the strong ideas survive. But never the less, always good to know, just in case people come up to you, make scary amounts of eye contact, and try to get you on a bus to be saved.

The second article, detailing several interviews with survivors of Jonestown and a particularly gut-wrenching review by a photographer, is just…bleak. I don’t delude myself that I could possibly understand what it is like to walk through a field with nine hundred dead bodies, all of whom have spent three days bloating in the tropics. God willing, I never will, either. I also never want to know what it’s like to subsist for months on rice gruel, three hours of sleep a night, and regular beatings. My imagination is arguably the most well honed muscle in my body, but there are things it cannot, and will not encompass, and I am fine with that. In addition to the gruesomeness, which needs no embellishment, it dealt with why the people of Jonestown went along with this sort’ve insanity–the phenomenon, known for many years, where people isolated together, with a dominant charismatic individual, begin to buy into the leader’s delusions and hysterias. These people may have genuinely believed that Russia was a utopia and that the U.S. was conspiring with Nazis to hire mercenaries to shoot at them. And at the same time, most of them probably knew that the guy was insane and on serious drugs. One of the survivors, asked why the residents of Jonestown voted to die, told Cahill, “I thought if we quit arguing with him, he’d calm down and we could finally get some sleep.”

Reading this stuff is not unlike being drunk or stoned–there’s a particular unhappy headspace that comes upon you that you can shake off, easily enough but which is identifiably Not Sober. Stoned on secondhand horrors, I suppose. I can’t sum it all up, nor is there really anything much to say–I was only a year and a half old when the whole thing went down, and perhaps there’s nothing much to be gained by dredging up such miserable relics of the past. Certainly I have nothing to add that won’t sound sanctimonious–I could rattle something off about not trusting people who want to think for you, but it’s so bloody obvious that it seems trite, and I think there must be a lot more to it than that. Hundreds of people don’t off themselves on a whim, and it may be that, just as I can’t visualize that kind of carnage, I am not capable of comprehending why until I’ve been in such a situation. And I don’t value empathy quite THAT highly–some things, I’ll just accept, I’ll never understand.

But that’s how I spent my evening, waiting for the ‘Net to come back up. And now, I will spend the rest of my evening attempting to sleep it off.

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