It is always so much easier to deal with numbers. They don't die and rot so you have to wear gauze over your face and peel skin off fingers to get the prints to tell who they are.

It is comfortable to think about people as numbers when you don't really want to think about them. In World War I they spoke of "wastage." During World War II, for 6 million Jews, it was the Final Solution.

You can say "6 million" and not feel a thing. You can say "911" and study the photographs of the bodies piled up at Jonestown, and it is a horror, all right, but an abstract horror.

How do you find a human scale for the Jonestown tragedy?

The story of these varied and scattered lives and how they ended in that steamy compound at Jonestown compels many of us to seek out parallels, references, some anchor that will make it seem more real to us. Some people speak of the bridge of San Luis Rey. Some start talking about an appointment in Samarra. It doesn't help. We are still left with all those converging fates, those lives so neatly wound up at the same time and place. The impossible mvstery of why things happen anyway.

She could have skipped through life, just being beautiful, gifted and comfortable in the affluent surroundings of her home, Paradise, Calif. But Karen Tow Layton, 31, was not cut from the conservative mold of her community and friends. She wanted to walk through the trenches.

So Karen Tow, the petite blond Miss Paradise of 1965, went to a nearby migrant labor camp and fought the bosses until they tore down the tar-paper shacks. It was a lonely battle. "But she was vocal about injustices, more outspoken than her friends," said her mother, Lea Tow. An old boyfriend, Carl Stackey, now a rice farmer, concurred: "She was concerned about the underprivileged and minorities. She was the most politically oriented person in our class." Besides her own efforts, Tow was an ally of Virginia Franklin, who was the focus of a celebrated case in which she was accused of teaching communism in the classroom.

That case put Paradise on the national map. Paradise is a small community with pine trees and clear air in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. It was not too slow for Karen Tow but too stodgy politically. "She was affected greatly by the terrible times of the 1960s, by the racism, by the killing of the children in Alabama," recalled her mother, Lea Layton. "She accused her father of being a racist. There was a rift and I was torn between the two. But she was the radiance in our lives and she stayed at home until her second year in college."

After two years at Chico State College, where she studied social work, Tow went to Hawaii to live with a man. The romance soured very quickly and she returned to take a job as a secretary in Ukiah. It was 1968. She was disillusioned about society at large, remembered her mother, but content with her own life. No one thought of her as a joiner. "She had a very positive attitude about life. You never had the feeling she could be swayed," said Thomas Dimas, a former teacher.

Suddenly, however, Tow joined the Peoples Temple and became uncommunicative. "When I asked to go, she said I wouldn't understand. It was eight years before I got into the church," said her mother. Tow married Larry Layton, now accused of murder by the Guyanese, but she told her mother and her older sister that it was "a friendship, not a marriage."

One of Karen Tow Layton's stories about those years stands out. She went to an orthopedic surgeon to check a pain in her arm, and he diagnosed cancer. He told her she might have to have the arm amputated. The minute Karen got home, her mother recalled, the phone rang and the Rev. Jim Jones told Karen she had been to the doctor and that she had cancer. He suggested she ride to San Francisco with him. Along the way he occasionally touched her arm, Karen's mother recalled her saying, and when she got to San Francisco she realized the pain was gone. "You've cured me," she told Jones.

"Now when you hear a story like this from your own daughter, you begin to take a second look," Lea Tow said. Eventually she attended a healing session herself and "received a message from Jones during the service that she would suffer." Six months later she had a massive heart attack. "I was taken in for a year. Then I began to see that his message was socialism. I couldn't buy that,"said Lea Tow.

At the Temple, Karen did secretarial work, always appeared attentive to Jones' sermons and lived in the San Francisco headquarters in a small, neat but sparse bedroom. One former member remembered Karen being chastised for being vain, but said she was steadfast in her loyalty.

When Lea Tow told her daughter Jones was "psychotic," she didn't listen. Then in July 1977 Karen wrote her mother and asked her to take care of her dog. Again and again Lea Tow wrote her letters saying Jones' teachings and justice were frauds. Now, sitting by the phone in her home in Paradise, with the dog barking in the background, Lea Tow says, "I tried and I didn't make it."

-- J.T.