Villains I Have Known - Umberto Tosi

Iago and Othello
I got to fretting over my fictional villains again the other night after flipping off the news (in more ways than one.) Too many real ones at the gates now. Though Trump and his barbarians are nothing new, their arrogance is more flagrant than any in my lifetime. The Death Star of demented greed appears at perigee, bloated with obscenely-financed self-assurance. You can't make these bastards up, even as parody. They're complicating my novel. Just when I think I've got the right shade of dystopia, my near-future narrative needs to turns darker.

I've always found creating villains daunting. The memorable ones - from Iago, to Moriarity, to Voldemort - seem more challenging than heroes, particularly the multidimensional ones with whom we can empathize or at least identify with, like Medea, Lady Macbeth, and Raskolnikov.

Not that villains are always needed. Protagonists can be their own worst enemies. A suitably sinister villain does, however, appear in the narrative I have in progress. But how to get beyond archetypes at best and caricatures at worst? I'm not looking for a Sauron or the Joker or even a Mr. Hyde. A villain once a hero, fallen from grace, made for a story in itself that run more towards my taste.

It's all about making a villain believable in the context of a story. It helps, perhaps, to have encountered a model in one's personal life. But then, such can stir hot coals that disturb the creative process more than adding fuel to it.

Most of us can name colleagues, acquaintances, family members or even friends we wish we hadn't encountered. I can think of three whom I would cast as truly villainous - more than annoying, more than jerks or sons of bitches - as truly evil if there is such a thing. All three are dead now.

The first was my stepfather - my mother's second husband, a charismatic sociopath and, in private, a gaslighting, pathologically jealous spousal abuser who drove my mother into a near-catatonic depression.

The second, was a brother-in-law, a raging alcoholic, a towering, dashing cowboy-wannabee with a gun fetish, who sold worthless shares in gold mines that he and his drunken father half-dug in the California Sierra Nevadas. His name was Richard. He probably murdered his wife - my first wife's twin sister - and, as I found out years later, sexually abused one of my daughters when she was a child. He got away with it all, except for cirrhosis of the liver. If I ever bought a gun, it would have been to put a bullet between his steely soulless eyes, but it would have been too late to change anything anyway.

My third in-person villain ranks as the most sinister of all. It was in 1977. I was editor of San Francisco Magazine at the time - a slick, upscale, what's hot-and-not "lifestyle" monthly whose journalistic integrity I endeavored to maintain by including hard-hitting investigative pieces in the mix. A young reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle contacted us shortly after the new year with the makings of a hot story that he said his city editor wouldn't touch.

The young reporter was Marshall Kilduff. He had been digging behind the scenes at the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple then on Geary Boulevard, a social activist/revivalist church that seemed above reproach at the time - with a reputation for championing the poor, helping former addicts, organizing communities and fighting racial discrimination. Jones had been appointed San Francisco's housing commissioner by Mayor George Moscone, later assassinated along with county supervisor and gay rights champion Harvey Milk.

Marshall Kilduff subsequently
Kilduff didn't have much on Jones that could be corroborated for publication in the first draft he showed me and my assistant editors. But his leads pointed to something rotten at the temple. His sources painted Jones as messianically tyrannical behind the scenes and were afraid to speak for attribution. They had, however, made serious allegations to Kilduff concerning family members who had joined what it became clear was a cult, not a congregation. Jones, said these early sources, had confiscated elderly family member's property and kept them behind a wall of silence. The sources said Jones had bragged about having top people in local police, politicians, and media in his pocket, including the then city editor of the Chronicle, which had quashed an earlier investigative piece on Jones, I was to find out later.

I commissioned the story and asked that Kilduff poke more sources while I had members of my staff help dig into Jones and his hydra-headed enterprises - hoping to have something solid for our forthcoming issue. Then all hell broke loose.

Rev. Jones (c) with SF Mayor
George Moscone (l) and
then CA Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, 1976 
A dozen grim-faced protestors saying they were from the Peoples Temple showed up at the magazine's South-of-Market-Street office. They crowded into the publisher's office and accused Kilduff and me of planning a hit job on the good reverend. They insinuated that we were in the pay of Jones' enemies trying to sabotage his good works on behalf the people of San Francisco. They were dressed formally in suits and eyed me loathingly when I crashed the meeting. Nothing could have made me more certain that Kilduff was on the right track. I asked them to set up a one-on-one interview with Jones, hoping to beard the lion in his den. They obfuscated, of course.

Before withdrawing, however, they made the publisher's hair stand on end when they threatened to organize a boycott and urge local merchants to pull their ads from the issue. The publisher, who wanted the magazine to go 100 percent "lifestyle" - i.e. advertiser-friendly, urged me to drop the Jones story. My contract gave me editorial discretion, for what it was worth, and I declined.

San Francisco Magazine's phones were jammed with incoming calls protesting our intention to run our "slanderous attack" on Jim Jones - a story that nobody had even read yet. The first day's calls were from people who identified themselves as People's Temple parishioners. The second day, we got calls from prominent people in the community, who seemed unsure, but did vouch for Jones to one degree or another.

The third day, I got threatening calls personally. Anonymous callers said that while the Rev. Jones was "a man of peace," he would not be able to restrain the violent ex-convicts and former addicts loyal to him. "If they think you're out to hurt their reverend," said one caller," there is no telling what they might do." That evening I looked in all directions when approaching my car in the magazine's underground parking garage, and checked it for explosives before driving off. The next day I took public transit to work.

We plowed ahead undaunted and published a story by Kilduff in our next issue. even though we had to go with unnamed, but corroborating multiple sources.  It covered reports of money transfers and of secret ritual physical abuse at the temple. There was no smoking gun, but I figured there was enough to flush Jones out into precipitous action in time for the follow-up story that I had already commissioned from Kilduff.

Robin and Todd (Toad) Willians
We never got the chance, however, because the magazine's jumpy publisher fired and replaced me with a more amenable editor the week after the Kilduff story hit the streets. I announced the news to my staff and, to my surprise, they all walked out with me, leaving production flat. We headed to our then favorite watering hole, Toad Manor, a pub owned by Robin Williams' half-brother Todd, on Chestnut Street in San Francisco's Marina District where we partied well into the wee hours. We were that kind of merry band. Toad, who later became a Napa Valley vintner, was a rollicking, buoyant spirit, a master storyteller who celebrated life with his lifetime partner and tavern co-owner Frankie. Both were everything the People's Temple was not. Todd died during heart surgery a few years before Robin's suicide and his death was said to be a great loss to the master comic.

The phone jangled me awake the next morning. "Hello?" I groaned.
A sepulchral baritone came through the receiver:
"Hello, Umberto. I heard the news, and I want you to know we have your back."
I had never heard his voice, but I knew immediately that it was Jones.
I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.

He had obtained my unlisted number. He knew about my firing even though it had not been made public. He came on unctuously twisting the story 180 degrees around.
"I know that San Francisco Magazine fired you for defending me," he said.
I sputtered. "That's not what happened... besides..."
"Don't be modest," he interrupted. "I know you fought valiantly to stop my character assassination."
"No," I cleared my throat. "As a matter of fact..."
Jones slide obliviously over what I was trying to tell him. "I want you to know you have friends in your time of need, Umberto. The People's Temple is with you."

My stomach turned - and not from the previous night's alcohol. I could see his game - catching someone at a vulnerable moment and pulling him into the web. I don't remember what I mumbled before hanging up.

Rosalie Wright, 2001, later editor
of Sunset Magazine.
The next day, I met over lunch with Rosalie Wright then the editor of now defunct, New West Magazine, San Francisco's Magazine's competitor. I filled her in on the Jones story, gave her all my notes and gave her Kilduff's number. I didn't want Jones' expose to die on the vine. Rosalie jumped on it, bless her. She paired Kilduff with one of her top investigative reporters. Thus concluded my small part in what turned out to be a much-written-about tragedy.

Sure enough, Jones subjected Rosalie and her staff to the same mass demonstrations, phone calls and intimidation that I had experienced. But it was too late. Kilduff's initial San Francisco Magazine story had fractured the ice and New West's fuller piece cracked it wide open. This time, Kilduff cited named sources who came forward alleging criminal fraud, assault, and even a kidnapping.

A police special unit and the San Francisco Board Supervisors investigated, as did then District Attorney Joseph Freitas - timidly, however, some said, because Freitas had owed Jones political favors. The dark reverend slipped the legal noose closing around him. But the heat was enough to drive him from San Francisco. He led his brainwashed flock to Jonestown, his encampment in Guyana, and one of the worst atrocities in history. Within a year - following a Congressional probe and the murder of Rep. Leo Ryan, Jones who had shown up to investigate the compound -Jones and 909 of his congregation died in the now infamous grisly mass murder-suicide, that included 307 children.

Phil Tracy, the investigative reporter who had shared a byline with Kilduff in the New West story, confessed to suffering severe clinical depression following news of the Jonestown massacre. He related his experiences in a first-person magazine story a few years later. In it he wrote that he had believed - as many reporters do - that sunlight can banish evil, that the light of truth can stop powerful wrongdoers in their tracks and that Jones, once exposed, would end up in jail where he belonged.

Tracy isn't alone. I believed the same thing as well. Sometimes I still do. Right up until 1978, we had no idea that the loopy Indianapolis-born preacher James Warren Jones would turn out to be THE mass-murdering fanatic Rev. Jim Jones. It's a common mistake. Not every jerk becomes a monster, but all are capable of monstrous things we tend to deny could happen.

Few in the 1920s and even early 30s believed that Adolf Hitler was something more than a failed painter-turned rabble-rouser with a comical mustache. Western democracies continued to minimize the threat of Nazism even after Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933.  The then conservative-leaning Time Magazine famously featured Der Furher as "Man of the Year," and, like most pundits of the day, dismissed his diatribes a politician's useful demagoguery.

Normally, good people suffer a from a chronic failure of the imagination when it comes to sizing up evildoers. Call it Tosi's Law: The good consistently underestimate the lengths to which the bad will go.

Think of Pol Pot and Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden. This list goes on. Include as well those who had seized power today whom we see being normalized every time we turn the news on or check our social media. Think of what they really are capable of. Are Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their oil industry friends in any way incapable to instituting full dictatorship if we let them get away with it? It gives me the chills, but I'd rather be aware than not.

I don't believe in evil as an entity, or even as personified in such Satanic characters as the Rev. Jones. (Whenever I write "Reverend" before his name, I think of the apocryphal prophecy that the AntiChrist will appear as a savior.)

I do believe that those who do terrible things do not - cannot - perpetrate them on their own. They always require collaborators - willing, eager, able and unwitting ones - leading up to and in doing their worst in flagrante dellicto as their enablers mouth justifications.  The road to hell is oft paved with good intentions and always framed in self-righteous moralizations. In large and small ways, it's true, we're either part of the solution or we're part of the problem. There's no escaping that on small or large screens.

Having a villain is handier than portraying the nuances of context and culpability. It's no wonder we writers like to fall back on meany-memes. They can be so entertaining. I reach for the paradoxes of evil floating by my writing screen, but I must conclude that philosophy, for the most part, is beyond the grasp of ink-stained wretches like myself. I must be content with telling stories, hope they work, and trust readers to bring their own wisdom to the party.

Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s and aughts. He was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times during the 1960s and 70s, He has been editor of San Francisco  and other regional publications. He has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He has four grown children, nine  and three great-grandchildren. He resides in Chicago and is partnered with noted Chicago narrative imagist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris.


May you live in interesting time is indeed a very potent (Chinese) curse! Look forward to reading more about your nuanced villain Umberto.
Jan Needle said…
Wonderful, thought-provoking read, thanks Umberto. But surely you don't think that nice Mr Trump is capable of doing bad?!
Chuck Kramer said…
Wow! You and Mr Jones! Amazing story... nice piece
Bill Kirton said…
What a rich post, Umberto! At first, you relate the terrible personal family events which in themselves were beyond shocking, then you take us back to that awful, evil creature and his Jonestown atrocities. Your warnings, based on such intimate involvement with those responsible for the evil, are timely. I laugh at the Trump parodies, but that doesn't banish the fear that the toys he throws out of his pram may prove lethal.
Anonymous said…
Standing in the kitchen, unable to clear table and fill dishwasher etc because this is so gripping. Some people are so evil it's impossible to turn them into believable fiction (love the paradox) and you have been unlucky enough to have had 3 of them n your life. Your account of Jim Jones is truly chilling and your bravery extraordinary. Thank you for this brilliant post.
(Comment written this morning on my phone but till now blogger has refused to take it. Sigh.)
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Griselda, Bill, Chuck, Jan, and Dipika! Your comments do me honor. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!
Marsha Coupé said…
July's essay does not disappoint, particularly in view of all the villainy emitting from The White House these days. Three villains in an adventurous, well-lived life is extraordinary good luck, especially for a writer with your legendary curiosity and spirit.

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