Octavia E. Butler was born on June 22, 1947. She would’ve been thirty-one years old when Jim Jones led the mass murder of members of The Peoples Temple on November 18th, 1978, in Guyana. She would’ve known that The People Temple started in Indiana before moving first to California and then Guyana. She would’ve known that when Jim Jones arrived in California in 1965, he brought 140 members to his new commune in Redwood Valley, California, which is located in Mendocino County. Then Jones spread The Peoples Temple to San Francisco and Los Angeles, Los Angeles being near where Butler was born in Pasadena. In other words, Jones moved west then south, then further south.
A few years ago, when I read Jeff Guin’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple, I was struck by how committed the members were. Subsequently, I’ve read and watched interviews with former members who knowing in retrospect how horrible everything was, still felt a sense of loss and purpose, as if their times as part of The Peoples Temple was the most exciting, adventurous part of their lives—a part of their lives they’d never recover. The sense of belonging, and the meaning that that sense of belonging provided, almost made people nostalgic for something they knew was more bad than good for them. (For a great online resource, see UC San Diego’s “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and The Peoples Temple”.) This isn’t a phenomenon that’s limited to The Peoples Temple either. I’ve seen it from survivors of Heaven’s Gate and other religious movements with similar dynamics (what people often call “cults” pejoratively).
All of this came to mind as I’ve been reading Parable of the Talents. The main character, continuing from the previous book in the series, Parable of the Sower, is Lauren Oya Olamina. I won’t get too far into it because my inquiry only makes sense if you’re familiar with these books, but Olamina is a young woman who as she matures into an adult in the climate apocalypse that is a future California, begins to create (or discover) a religion called “Earthseed”. Earthseed is apocalyptic, for good reasons, and communal, in order to survive. Ultimately, at the end of Sower and where I’m at in Talents, Earthseed settles in Humboldt County. For visual reference, note on the map that Humboldt is just north of Mendocino along the northern California coast and that’s where Jones originally settled The Peoples Temple.
Similarly, in Talents, part of the book reads as Olamina’s daughter’s reflection on her mother and her mother’s religion. She says the following (see the underlined from Talents, p. 60):
Doesn’t that sound a little like, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of time” as we hear from survivors of certain religious groups?
Now, I’m not saying Butler created a “cult-leader” type character. Maybe Olamina is the anti-Jim Jones or Jim Jones was the anti-Olamina? But I’m struck by the common setting of an apocalyptic California (imagined for Jones; “real” [as something can be in a fictional universe] for Olamina). Both lead religious movements that seem to spin out from Christianity with other influences (Jones: some sort of Communism; Olamina: some Buddhist; Daoist; Yoruban ideas). Both migrate their communities, though in opposite directions. Both are connected to rural, coastal counties in Northern California though their relationships to urban centers are the polar opposite as Jones and his group moved toward San Francisco and Los Angeles while Olamina and her group moved away from Los Angeles and past San Francisco.
It may be a coincidence. I can’t seem to find anyone who has made a clear connection. But I can’t shake the geographical link.
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