Author Jeff Guinn divides The Road to Jonestown into three parts. The final third of the book deals with the Jonestown endgame, which felt most familiar to me. It’s the remaining two-thirds that was new and most interesting. If you’ve ever wondered how a demagogue gets to be a demagogue, here is your book. Of course, the whole thing is nonfiction, which makes it even more chilling.
Jim Jones came from an abusive family with modest Indiana roots. Early on, his classmates and neighbors thought he was an odd duck. And it just got worse from there. Attracted to local and itinerant preachers, Jones began attending church services regularly. But he didn’t pick just one church, he visited them all. Not typical behavior for a kid or a teen.
Political aspects of the cult
He also discovered that Biblical verse about the equality of all people under God’s eyes wasn’t being carried out in his mid-twentieth century American Midwest. And this disturbed his sense of piety and justice. So, from the very beginning, he tied social and racial justice to his interpretation of the Bible and God. Not surprisingly for the times, he wasn’t especially concerned about women’s rights.
Considering he was in his mid-forties when he established Jonestown, it’s significant that he established Peoples Temple at a relatively young age. In the beginning, Jones allied himself with respected preachers and social activists. And his desire to do good began as a genuinely positive endeavor. He and his followers wanted to make life better for the downtrodden, first in Indiana and then in California.
But everything went downhill as Jones gained more power and influence. His church was less about God and more about “Father’s” influence on both his followers and his communities. He sought to influence democratic elections, but wanted to advance Socialism in the United States and around the world. His work became more political than religious over time.
Jones was a smart guy, but from the very beginning he took that quality and turned it into manipulation. Whether it was his personal relationships or his path to a congregation, Jones always picked the most underhanded methods.
As time progressed, his behavior became increasingly disturbing. He treated his congregants the way an abuser treats his victims. First, he removed them from their support systems. Then he controlled their jobs, money, even their sleep schedules. He also took children from their parents and organized communal foster homes run by various church members. And Jones constantly tested people’s loyalty, repeatedly asking if they’d die for him. And people allowed all of it, because they believed he was leading them to God. Thus, Peoples Temple was a cult of the first order.
And then he became an addict, not just to power but to a variety of prescription and street drugs. He was a physical and sexual abuser to men, women, and children in his cult. Jones was reprehensible, and then some. And this was long before the mass suicide of Jonestown.
I spent most of this book with my heart in my throat, and my stomach upset. Sometimes I wonder why I pick books like this! But better to have my eyes open than to ever unintentionally fall victim to this kind of horror.
Guinn does an admirable job of laying out the facts. He doesn’t sugarcoat the situation, that’s for sure. He presents the history of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown with clarity and without bias. Not everyone died that day in 1978, so there are first-hand accounts from survivors available. Also, the few people who defected from the cult were willing to talk to Guinn. I listened to the audiobook which doesn’t have a section with references, but it’s clear the author’s research was extensive.
Without having read other books about Jones, I feel this one is definitive. And, honestly, I don’t think I could go through this experience again. So I won’t be proving or disproving that hypothesis. But I highly recommend this book if you’re curious about where that phrase, “Don’t drink the KoolAid” comes from. It’s also an important work if you’re interested in understanding how cults work.