Historical Terror—Horror that Happened

[Alan M. Clark]By Alan M. Clark

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.
14) Scapegoatism.

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 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? 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?

Read the rest at The Imagination Fully Dilated Blog.