Book review: The Road to Jonestown, by Jeff Guinn
Bestselling investigative journalist Jeff Guinn writes a comprehensive biography of Jim Jones and his infamous Peoples Temple cult, drawing heavily on interviews with former members and a wealth of Temple and FBI documents.
Beginning with Jones’ parents and childhood in small-town Lynn, Indiana, and progressing via sections divided by the Temple’s successive locations in the United States and Guyana, the narrative is constantly engrossing, lingering in your head between readings.
I went into it knowing very little about Jones and Peoples Temple, only that they were a fanatical cult that committed mass suicide. There was a lot I didn’t know, to say the least. For the past few years I’ve been on a religious extremism/cult reading kick, starting with Going Clear about Scientology (some parallels on these two cults later.) Despite not knowing much about Jonestown, I was very interested in finding out.
For anyone like me who didn’t know much, in brief: Jim Jones was a preacher who stressed racial integration and equality, created a “rainbow family” of adopted, multiracial children with his wife, and led an originally Christian church that preached love, equality, help for the needy and downtrodden and espoused ideals of socialism. It eventually devolved into a paranoid, controlled organization led by Jones’ increasing megalomania and drug-fueled beliefs and whims.
This culminated in 900 members committing mass suicide with cyanide in 1978 in their jungle settlement in northwest Guyana at Jones’ command, after launching a murderous attack on visiting media and California Congressman Leo Ryan, plus the simultaneous defection of a few dozen settlers, which apparently was a major trigger for Jones’ final unhinging.
I knew that the Jonestown mass suicide was the origin of “drinking the Kool-Aid”, actually Flavor Aid, a cheaper, off-brand substitute. Guinn points out that this is what’s most often remembered about Jonestown, to the point of entering the cultural lexicon – a warning not to drink the Kool-Aid, or saying that someone’s been drinking the Kool-Aid. Former Temple member Juanell Smart, who lost several family members in the massacre, describes how painful this joke is. I was humbled by that; I knew where the reference originated but had never considered what association it held for survivors.
Jones initially drew from Biblical principles, but later, after allowing himself to be considered God or a prophet when the mood and situation suited him, he strayed from Christian beliefs and preached his own brand of perceived persecution, and paranoia about the U.S. government and ‘enemies’ (mostly defectors). He also began exploiting followers’ unquestioning devotion to him and his ‘needs’, bizarre and disgusting as these became.
He defined his mission’s fundamental structure as “apostolic socialism”, a clever term for the Temple’s blending of Christian teachings of love and unyielding faith with socialist principles. The church’s socialist initiatives were impressive. Jones was an early proponent and activist for integration in Indianapolis, a city then greatly troubled by ghettos and rampant inequality; in this he was unfailingly dedicated and successful. The church went far in promoting racial integration and community outreach through good works.
It’s sad to think that if they’d kept at this in some capacity instead of striving for an extreme, idealized socialist community under the thumb of a delusional, drug-addled demagogue, they could’ve accomplished a lot of good in a turbulent era of American race relations.
One of the most powerful sections is Guinn’s thoughtful analysis in the aftermath chapter, when he breaks down what Jones really was – a demagogue, and what that means. It resonates deeply, particularly considering modern politics. “Demagogues recruit by uniting a disenchanted element of society against an enemy, then promising to use religion or politics or a combination of the two to bring about rightful change. Those as gifted as Jones use actual rather than imagined injustices as their initial lure – the racism and economic disparity in America that Jones cited were, and still are, real – then exaggerate the threat until followers lose any sense of perspective.
I saw so many parallels between Peoples Temple and Scientology: isolation of followers and convincing them they’re victims of persecution, blind trust of a leader who abuses rule breakers or those who question him, policies of disconnection from defected family members, playing up church initiatives for the less fortunate, and extreme “tithing” that amounts more to repossession of members’ assets.
Traditionally, demagogues succeed by appealing to the worst traits in others: Follow me and you’ll have more, or, follow me and I’ll protect what you already have against those who want to take it away from you. Again, sound familiar? But Jones was actually different in this sense – Guinn explains that he appealed to the best in people, those basic values and beliefs in equal human rights and dignity, that those who can should help the needy, feed the hungry, clothe the naked.
The only thing I would’ve liked more of were perspectives from survivors, or from the writings or tapes of those who died, about what drew them so strongly and kept them with Jones and the Temple, even as he grew more incoherent and paranoid. Many of his followers knew of or were active participants in the smoke and mirrors of his “healings”, like when he pretended that chicken guts were miraculously removed cancerous tumors from ailing followers.
Although it’s obvious he was charismatic and convincing, able to manipulate people even outside of his faithful followers, I didn’t get much feeling of that myself. Part of my fascination with the subject of cults and fanaticism is wanting to understand how and why anyone can put so much faith and trust in a blatant con man, because as Guinn details, there was evidence of plenty of not-right things in this organization for quite some time. Some members were elderly and seeking care, others had become destitute after turning over paychecks and welfare benefits to the church for years, I get that – but I never understood the power of his message to captivate others once his actions became so erratic.
Guinn mentions a few helpful-sounding sources, like memoirs of former members, and maybe these are better followups for this emotional aspect or understanding the power of his personality. From photos, Jones looks like sleazy, arrogant, discount fat Elvis impersonator, so I have a hard time grasping the magnetism that pulled so many followers, even to their deaths (though as Guinn shows, many resisted).
Impressively well-written, meticulously researched, and a terrifying story that has chilling, topical resonance nearly four decades after its horrifying end (see: Scientology, current political demagogues.)
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple
by Jeff Guinn
published April 4, 2017
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.