19 November 2003
Tonight many of us are thinking about Jonestown. It marks the 25th anniversary of a murder/suicide of massive proportions, with 900 dead. I, like Jim Jones, come from Indiana. So does the Ku Klux Klan. Yep, that's right - one would've thought, perhaps, that the KKK originated in the Deep South, but not so. It is a Hoosier phenomenon.
What is it about Indiana?
In my mind, Indiana is America in a bottle, a hothouse version of America that bears investigation. But first, a personal story. In fact, two personal stories. Bear with me. This is going somewhere.
When my youngest daughter Brooke was about 3 years old she was prone to ear infections. We lived in California (all the girls were born in California), but we had gone "home" to my mother's place in Indianapolis. Brooke developed a whopper of an ear infection that manifested in enormous pain on the airplane and did not abate when we landed. I took her to Community Hospital in northeast Indianapolis, by all appearances a normal hospital with decent facilities and a qualified staff. We waited in the ER while Brooke wailed. After several hours, a doctor saw us. "Ear infection," he said. "Can we give her something for the pain?" I asked. "She can take Tylenol," he replied. "Wait a minute, mister, my baby is suffering!" I cried. "It's God's way," he answered.
Flash forward. In 1994 my grandmother was dying of cancer in Anderson, Indiana. Her body was consumed with it. The Catholic (and only) hospital in Anderson had administered radiation treatments to a 91-year-old woman that were about as sophisticated as stone knives and bear claws. Before I went to see her for the last time, I walked into her kitchen and noticed her calendar. There was an "x" for each day she survived, and the handwriting grew weaker and weaker. When she was admitted to the hospital, there were no more calendar marks. The hospital would authorize no pain treatment except Tylenol. On the last day of my grandmother's life, her family and her doctor finally prevailed and gained her a dose of morphine. She died an hour later. She died of radiation poisoning - and relief.
From these two incidents I gather a great deal about Calvinism. Who ended up in Indiana, anyway? Germans, a lot of Germans. Some English, some Scots, and later, lots of African-Amercans. The only visible evidence of Martin Luther's effect is the continuing obesity of Indiana's population, #1 in the nation last time I looked. Deeper than that, it's Calvinism all the way. A 3-year-old deserves an earache. A 91-year-old deserves the experience of dying cell by cell with nothing but Tylenol and Jesus Christ (with whom her Hoosier Methodist church never gave her the sense of any kind of relationship except guilt) to keep her company.
Here is, not a story but an observation, which every Hoosier will affirm if pressed. People from Indiana have no folklore. The only thing we know of Tippecanoe or Tecumseh or any of the other indigenous folk is the story told from the White Side, in a paragraph or two. We have these two guys - Abe Martin (a made-up person) and James Whitcomb Riley ("the frost is on the pumpkin"). There is no lore. None. Zip. Read the Bible if you need a story. But of course the Bible is not a story but the Word of the Almighty, Amen. And you have nothing to do with it as reader or co-author. Be ashamed. Amen. There is only religious (privileged) narrative; no other narrative is possible in a world ruled by that one Word.
What Indiana lacks, and what America lacks, is a fecundity of local narratives - the kind of narrative ecology that characterizes Europe and much of Asia. What we have in Indiana is The Story or No Story. Human beings possess narrative intelligence. That intelligence cannot function unless triangulation is possible. In Austria, home country of my new governor, there are layers and layers of stories - the Bible, yes - but also the Brothers Grimm, the stories of towns, and more locally still, the stories of grandmothers and families. At the crossroads of all those stories one comes to a place where one's own story matters.
So what does this have to do with Jim Jones and Jonestown? Jim Jones didn't think his story mattered, so he did something else.
What we have in Indiana is America in the small. And I mean small both as a small representation and as a shrunken head. The dominant Hoosier culture has the belief that God wills pain. It has the belief that people, even innocent little people, deserve pain. It should be noted that embryos are anointed with a special deservedness that is not afforded to those who are actually born. The divine miracle of conception, it is said, uplifts embryos briefly to the status of human beings. But when a soul enters this Vail of Tears all bets are off. Indiana makes sure of that.
Here is what I think. My Indiana, my Indiana, I love its hills and rivers and farms and creeks. I love my Hoosier family - my grandma, my mom. I love some Hoosiers - Candace and Lucinda, my best friends. I love Nashville, Indiana, even though it has become a commercial hellhole - they still make the best apple butter and fried biscuits in the world. I love Edain McCoy, Hoosier and author of many excellent books on Neo-Pagan practice, who declared to me once that "Indiana is out of the broom closet." I love DePauw University despite its habitual glorification of the rich and powerful, because I graduated from there and I got a damned fine education. I love driving through cornstalks in a convertible and making out in the back seat surrounded by lightning bugs. I love Indiana.
And I hate Indiana culture. Each time I go back to Indianapolis I see suburbs spreading like nasty things in a Petri dish. My father was, for a while, the city planner for Indianapolis. The minute he retired the water company put waterfront lots on sale on the edges of the reservoir he had protected for decades and the planning commission reinstated the right of businesses to pepper all the highways with billboards. My dad was a pain in the ass. The only thing that has yet to be assailed was a little statement tucked into his city plan that had to do with nuclear waste. Luckily, I don't think anybody reading this is going to do any digging around.
The fields are gone. The family farms are evaporating. McDonald's and WalMart rule. And the hospitals still don't give out painkillers. But I bet there's enough Viagra and Paxil to go around. So here, my friends, we arrive at America in small.
And so you gotta ask yourself, what about Jonestown?