What Were They Thinking? How could the people of Jonestown drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid? How could Jim Jones ask them to do it?
How did Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. decide to fall on a grenade during fighting in Bougainville in WWII? Surely, he didn’t do it for the posthumously awarded Medal of Honor. No doubt he did it to save his fellow soldiers, but that’s a pat answer that leaves out all but the barest glimpse of the emotions involved. When it’s difficult to put myself into the shoes of the people making these sorts of mind-blowing decisions, their choices can become a fascination for me.
This post was originally developed as a presentation about writing historical fiction for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “What were They Thinking: The Drama Available in History.” The driving force of human emotion can be quite mysterious when we’re not present to see it in action. If the emotional context is missing, I am frequently befuddled by the decisions of my fellow human beings. History is filled with dramatic events that involve momentous and pivotal choices, some heroic, some dastardly, taken by human beings under great emotional strain. Those situations that ended in tragedy were often a result of decisions made, often hastily, based on a poor selection of choices, none of them good, or in the pursuit of a desperate agenda. Those that ended well often resulted from a persistent hope, faith, love, or just dumb luck.
Here are some of the types of choices human beings make that are difficult for me to understand on the surface.
1) Suicide (sometimes there’s no explanation left behind).
2) Maintaining relationships with those who are emotionally difficult, abusive, or dangerous.
3) Engaging in activities that are known to easily lead to addictions.
4) Unusual risk-taking or other self-destructive tendencies (sometimes referred to as a death wish).
5) Self sacrifice (a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others).
6) Courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
7) Striking out for the unknown with little but hope to sustain the effort (Christopher Columbus comes to mind).
8) Acting on intuition alone (trusting oneself to anticipate something of great import).
9) Willingness to pursue a course despite the obvious pain endured or caused to others.
10) Unwillingness to consider anything but one’s own agenda or beliefs in the face of obvious reality (Hitler comes to mind).
11) Collective belief systems that seem obviously harmful to others (South African Apartheid comes to mind).
12) Falling in love with highly flawed, even destructive individuals.
13) Hating individuals for reasons that seem to have little depth.
For this paper, I’ll refer to these quirks of human decision-making as “fascinating choices.” Most of the choices seem unreasonable on the surface, so why should I trouble myself to understand? I’ve certainly made some weird, even bone-headed decisions in my life, but then, I know why, at least most of the time. If hindsight is 20 20, I should be able to evaluate others’ fascinating choices objectively, right? Of course not. If there’s no record left behind of what the actors involved were thinking and feeling, a lot of information is missing. Should I dismiss my astonishment with the notions that those who made the fascinating choices were insane, ill-informed, or merely bad at decision-making, some lucky and some unlucky? No! I think the fact that I’m left scratching my head in wonder is an indication that something particularly human and emotionally complex has occurred in these situations, something that holds great drama. Sometimes, we have the pat answer—he gave his life to save his fellow soldiers—but that doesn’t satisfy my curiosity. Was he motivated by patriotic fervor or was it a special relationship with those particular men that motivated him? If the latter, what events led to such strong feeling?
I’ve written five historical fiction novels in an effort to explore how certain seemingly unreasonable choices, or, as I’ve called them, fascinating choices, became reasonable for those who made them.
Three of the novels are part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, and Say Anything But Your Prayer, about the life of Elizabeth Stride have been released. A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, has not been released yet. Of Thimble and Threat and Say Anything But Your Prayers are available separately, but they’re also published together in the ebook volume Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event. All three novels are inspired by my fascination with what seems unreasonable choices on the part of the women involved. Surely, all three knew about the dangers hidden in a Whitechapel, London night. Since the Ripper killings had already begun and were widely reported, Eddowes and Stride would have been well-aware that a murderer stalked the city looking for victims, yet they were willing to stagger drunken along the streets at night, looking for strangers to pay them for sex. What sort of desperation leads one to take such risks to earn a crust? What level of disregard for oneself is required to allow that kind of vulnerability? People don’t set out in life to become drunkards and prostitutes, so what in their lives led to such a fall from grace? These are a few of the questions I’ve addressed in the novels. There being five canonical victims, I have two more novels to write for the series.
A Parliament of Crows is my historical fiction novel about the Wardlaw sisters (I changed their name to Mortlow in the novel). The sisters were the daughters of a
Supreme Court Justice of South Carolina. They were born in the 1840s and ‘50s, and would have been teens during the Civil War. After the war, they stuck together. Though two married and had children, the sisters most often lived with each other, and apart from their families. They took positions in women’s colleges, teaching primarily social graces, and bilked those institutions of funds. Mourning clothes, including veils, seemed to be their perennial dress. They had homes in 3 or 4 states of the United States. The houses and apartments had virtually no furnishings. Taking out insurance policies on certain of their children, the sisters did them in for the payouts. The media circus of their trail at the beginning of the 20th century was only rivaled by that of Lizzy Borden’s almost a half century earlier. As they awaited trial, one went insane and was institutionalized, and one starved herself to death. I wanted to know how they saw the life they led as reasonable. How could it be? I had a lot of fun with that one.
Finally, there’s The Door That Faced West, which involves dreadful events from early Tennessee and Kentucky history.
I am from Tennessee, and learning about my State’s history when younger, I happened upon the tale of Big and Little Harpe. They are consider some of the earliest serial or spree killers in America, having committed their crimes around the year 1800. As land pirates, they haunted the trails in what was at the time the frontier territory of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky, robbing and killing to earn a living. They had three wives who traveled with them. Life on the trail was tough, but being wanted, the men had little choice but to keep moving, and the women went with them. One of the wives, Sally Rice, was a minister’s daughter. What we know of the young woman from history is that she traveled the wilderness trails with the Harpes and was witness to terrible violence. The Harpes killed virtually everyone they robbed, at least fifty human beings. At one point, as the outlaws attempted to escape the law, the wives became separated from them. Instead of escaping the frightful life on the trail and seeking asylum in the nearest settlement, the three women traveled one hundred and eighty miles through the wilderness to the agreed-upon rendezvous point to be reunited with the Harpes. They really wanted to be with those guys!
When the wives were finally separated from the men for the last time, Sally Rice, the minister’s daughter, remarried, settled down, had children, and lived out her life in an unremarkable, seemingly normal fashion. That is virtually all history tells us about her. As far as we know she committed no violence herself, yet she had a role in terrible events, a witness at bare minimum.
I wanted to know what she was thinking. How had that life become reasonable? What sort of emotional gymnastics were necessary for her to live with herself? Having come from what people of the time considered a good, spiritual background, why would she endure the hardships of life on the trail with the horrible Harpes? How could she go on with a peaceful life after witnessing and benefitting from their most terrible deeds? What of regret, guilt, and shame did she experience or was she secretly filled with glee for what she’d seen and done? The possibility exists that she felt both extremes.
I wrote The Door that Faced West to explore through character and story development the emotional evolution of one who found herself in such a state of affairs. Adding up what’s known about the circumstances in her story provided me with some indication of the emotions experienced by those involved. Also helpful was knowing something about the environment in which those feelings emerged, the religious, political, and social beliefs and pressures of the time and place. Creating the characters to move through that environment and make the decisions that we know about helped me to understand. Once my characters were well-developed, I could see what rang true in their fascinating choices.
Inevitably, as I try to dramatize such events, I’ll get them wrong. I can only fictionalize, and, in the end, the telling of a good story has to be the priority, not telling the truth. I cannot know what people said or felt unless they expressed it somehow. Even then, their expressions may not hold the full truth. Still, the drama hinges most soundly on the fascinating choices. History as presented isn’t always the truth, but generally speaking, these choices are pivotal moments in time, after which things have changed. All evidence points to the fact that Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. did indeed purposely fall on that grenade. Afterward, he was dead and his fellow soldiers were still alive, and they knew why. Jim Jones didn’t have enough enforcers to compel all those people in Jonestown to drink the Kool-Aid. They willingly decided to die just because he asked them to.
What I get out of writing such a novel may not be an accurate portrayal of events, but I certainly find good drama and an answer to the question of how one might reasonably arrive at the fascinating choices in question. The writing itself is an incredible adventure of discovery.
—Alan M. Clark