What do you do with something like Jonestown? How did over 900 Americans end up committing what appeared to be mass suicide at a remote jungle compound in Guyana in 1978? In this instance, the usual answer, “because a crazy cult leader named Jim Jones made them do it”, just doesn’t suffice. Yes, if it hadn’t been for Jones, the events of 18 November 1978 would never have occurred. But it’s a great leap from charismatic preacher amassing an obsessively dedicated following with unorthodox methods and even more unorthodox beliefs to one of the largest mass killings in modern human history outside of warfare. That’s the leap Jeff Guinn takes in his compelling and authoritative The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.”
The dead came from all walks of life and included many highly functional professionals; they weren’t exactly the dead-end wanderers whom Charlie Manson talked into killing for him. (Though many similarities between Manson’s and Jones’ stories are threaded throughout this book, whose author’s last subject was in fact Manson.) How did Jones talk them into it? Why were they there in the first place? What was it intended to prove? There are no satisfying answers to any of these questions. Instead, we have jokes about “drinking the Kool-Aid” and bands with names like Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Born in 1931 into a spectacularly unhappy Indiana family — Jones’ father was disabled and miserable, his mother was similarly miserable but possessed with delusions of aggrieved grandeur — Jones grew up an ambitious, sociable, and yet highly strange kid. He held funerals for dead animals so often that he had a hard time getting other kids to attend. During World War II, while the other kids were playing war games as American GIs, Jones studied Adolph Hitler. He showed an early touch for manipulation to get what he wanted, by flattery and doggedness.
Unlike Manson, who also grew up surrounded by small-town religion and family dysfunction and couldn’t stop lashing out, Jones was no criminal and couldn’t get enough of religion. The turbo-churched Jones attended many services, almost as though he was bingeing on God. This didn’t set him apart so much as what he did with all that knowledge. First, he started preaching himself, which was unusual for a teenager but not unheard of. Second, he, a white man, preached to black people and about the evils of racism, things hardly done in a state that boasted one of the nation’s largest Ku Klux Klan memberships before the war. Jones opened his first storefront church in Indianapolis in 1954; after that, he would never be without a following until the day he (and nearly all of them) died.
Guinn’s approach to Jones’ early years is a well-researched history (the book carries a blurb from Jones’ son calling the author’s depth of research “the best ever” on the subject) that neatly balances the details of his life with how he was able to operate so successfully in a society that he was at such odds with. Jones’ methods are examined at length, particularly his knack for the scam “faith healings” he saw at tent revival meetings in his childhood.
Jones wasn’t the greatest faith healer. His techniqus of using chicken parts to mimic the tumors he supposedly pulled out of people and also using church members to spy on audiences and feed him things they had said as though Jones had read their minds, are all coin of the realm in the world of American religious hucksters. What set Jones apart and allowed him to amass such a deeply dedicated following through the ’50s was his enthusiasm and his idealism. Much of the Jonestown mystique has centered on Jones’ Idi Amin-like sunglass-wearing demagoguery and, with the exception of Stanley Nelson’s must-see 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, not nearly enough on his politics. But it was Jones’ fervent and (at least at first) honest advocacy for racial equality and socialist harmony that probably engendered more loyalty than his showy preaching.
When Jones was a preacher in Indianapolis, he set himself apart by directly advocating for change. Jones was never satisfied with the kind of religion that promised believers they would get their reward in the great hereafter. He preached that passive religion further oppressed already suffering blacks. Jones acted on pocket-book issues, like helping church members get help with utilities and housing. He and his wife Marceline also practiced what he preached by adopting two Korean children and a black boy, something practically unheard of for a white couple in ’50s-era America.
Jones brought all his idealism and ability to get government action in 1961 when he spearheaded the integration of the city so deftly that the civil rights community thought success had been achieved and the white power establishment felt no resentment over the quite sudden social change. Guinn writes that at this point, Jones’ followers saw his race as an asset for them, thinking he “preached like a black man and got things done like a white one.”
Never one to leave well enough alone, or share power or glory, Jones wasn’t content to run a shoestring church operation that required he and Marceline keep day jobs and run businesses to keep it afloat. After his 1961 high point, there were also fewer easy victories for Jones to score. His always-present paranoia started to increase, driving an ever-larger wedge between his perception and reality. The nuclear brinksmanship of the early ’60s also got Jones thinking that the apocalypse was only a short time away; this belief would stay with him in varying forms and with ever-increasing intensity for the remainder of his life.
Partially to avoid the nuclear devastation that Jones decided was around the corner, based on the recommendations of an Esquire magazine article that he took as practically gospel, the onetime civil rights leader moved his church to the supposedly safer environs of Ukiah, a small community in northern California. Although the Peoples Temple — a name decided on in part because the church had bought an old Jewish temple in Indianapolis and the word “Temple” was carved in stone there — brought a large influx of black residents to the conservative town, Jones’ group quickly integrated itself. Using a pattern they would follow later once the Peoples Temple spread to larger cities, Jones had followers get low-visibility but highly useful jobs in local social services offices.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Peoples Temple phenomenon that Guinn highlights was the group’s ability to present such a professional and highly organized façade to the world while its internal workings were a seething cauldron of petty jealousies, loyalty tests, ever-more erratic and drug-addled behavior on the part of Jones, and (as time went on) barbarism in the form of denunciations and beatings. Even though it’s tempting to tie Jones to such demonic figures as Manson (who, oddly, also at one point convinced his people that when the apocalypse came he knew of a cave they could retreat to) and his well-studied Hitler, Guinn doesn’t quite buy that analysis. Instead, he says it was Jones’ insistence on reform and equality that kept his followers overlooking his ever-more insane actions: “Jones attracted followers by appealing to their better instincts.”
The later sections of Jonestown become increasingly grim, particularly once Jones establishes the Peoples Temple’s new headquarters in San Francisco and starts going on tent revival -style tours to other large cities as blatant fundraising missions. As the ’60s turned to the ’70s, the mood of Peoples Temple followed a similar trajectory to parts of the fragmenting American underground, devolving from optimistic idealism to paranoia and fear. Jones’ cynicism during this period became increasingly pronounced, as he let more people in on his fake faith healing secrets and said things like “Keep them poor and keep them tired and they’ll never leave.”
That sentiment turned out to be true even after Jones started exploring the quite clearly mad idea of starting a self-supporting utopian community in Guyana — again, to build a safe refuge from the nuclear apocalypse that kept stubbornly not occurring. It became clear once the advance team started hacking clearings out of the jungle near the border with Venezuela in 1973 that there was no way the poor soil and remote location could ever sustain the thousand-plus people Jones wanted to move there.
But the cult of personality had grown so heavy around the mystique-laden Jones, with his hypnotic voice and those ever-present sunglasses, that the idea of not going to “The Promised Land” (as Jones cynically pitched it to his black followers) didn’t enter most of their minds. Even after news investigations began publicizing darker aspects of the usually media-praised Peoples Temple, defectors planted the possibility of more disunity, and Jones’ inner circle started openly discussing the idea of a mass suicide, his people mostly kept the faith. As Jones became practically incapacitated at times with his drug use, his followers took on the task of oppressing themselves. After all, war was coming.
As The Road to Jonestown starts on its final gyre of murder and depravity, it’s difficult to keep reading. Well before Representative Leo Ryan gets on the plane for that fateful fact-finding mission, the end feels preordained even for those who might not have known previously exactly how all of this turned out. This isn’t Guinn’s fault, of course. History is history.
The story of Peoples Temple is horrific, of course. But we have too many examples in the last century of shining populism that curdles into dark demagoguery. What’s perhaps strangest about the story of Jonestown is that usually the demagogue tries to save himself instead of rushing to the same end as he consigns his people to.