The road to Jonestown : Jim Jones and Peoples Temple

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn examines the events leading up to the 1978 mass suicide of over 900 Americans living in Guyana. Guinn used FBI reports, interviews and recently declassified government material to reconstruct exactly how a charismatic preacher who originally endorsed egalitarian ideas and civil rights, spiraled into a paranoid despot who led his followers down a path to a tragedy of biblical proportions. Guinn examines a very difficult, grim, aspect of modern history, and the reader is rewarded with a well-researched, up-to-date account that continues to resonate in the 21st century. This might be the most comprehensive look at the Jonestown tragedy and its leader, Jim Jones.

The book is divided into three parts, and focuses on events in Jones’ life that took place in three key geographic regions:  Jones’ early years in Indiana; his time in California culminating in the rise of the Peoples Temple as a formal power in the Bay Area; and the exodus to Guyana and life in Jonestown leading up to the events of November 18, 1978.

The Jim Jones who is introduced to the reader in no way resembles the man depicted at the end of the book. Young Jones is described as a “constant, positive presence” and a compelling orator with the ability to charm nearly everyone. Jones was intent on advancing racial and economic equality at a time when it was still considered controversial to do so. He and wife Marceline even went so far as to adopt children of different races as proof of their commitment to equality. Jones became a visible presence in Indiana’s African American community and fought for integration at the most basic levels. Yet he was a man full of contradictions, with unusual interest in topics that, in retrospect, would prove to be unsettling: a fascination with sex, power, religious fanaticism and pageantry. And he developed a persecution complex.

The shift in Jim Jones’ behavior coincided with the relocation of the Peoples Temple to California, and Jones’ rise in social stature. By the early 1970s the Peoples Temple became a force to be reckoned with, and politicians openly sought out Jim Jones’ endorsement. Jones established relationships with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, California Governor Jerry Brown, and (to a lesser extent) First Lady Rosalynn Carter. As his notoriety grew, Jones became an erratic and unpredictable zealot, often asserting his power through the exploitation and humiliation of the Peoples Temple membership. When these abuses were uncovered by investigative journalists, Jones and his congregation fled to Guyana under the guise of U.S. Government persecution.

The Peoples Temple continued in Guyana as Jones grew increasingly unstable, distrustful and cruel to his congregation. His use of drugs surged and his power over his parishioners was unchecked. By the time U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana to investigate, Jones was completely unhinged. Jones ordered the assassination of Ryan, his entourage and the few members of Peoples Temple who were brave enough to flee the compound, and these events immediately precipitated the mass suicides.

One of the more compelling aspects of the book explores Jones' relationships with family members.  Jim Jones, Jr. shares his observations about his family throughout the book, and we learn how and why he survived the massacre. Jones’ mother, Lynetta, best described as an unconventional woman with “no natural or maternal instincts” is also depicted. Lynetta had little interest in her child and Guinn credits her with driving young Jones towards an interest in religious fundamentalism. Once Jones was at the height of his powers, she would spin stories to paint herself as an altruistic parent. The most inscrutable member of Jones’ inner circle was his wife, Marceline, who often was the only person who ever had any influence over her husband. What began as a partnership of idealistic individuals gradually degenerated as her husband began a downward spiral into a drug-fueled paranoia. Marceline was a powerful figure in the Peoples Temple and Jones made it known that she was the only person whom he would trust to take over his congregation. Despite this high profile, she was consistently betrayed and humiliated by Jones. She attempted to leave her husband, but was emotionally blackmailed by him, and seemingly resigned to her fate, she followed Jones until the end. On the day of the suicides, Marceline made one last attempt to reason with her husband and begged him to end the suicide plan. When she realized it was useless, she surrendered and consumed the cyanide laced Flavor-Aid that ended her life.

The most disturbing aspect of the book and, in many respects, the most relevant message for present day readers is understanding how members of the Peoples Temple were coaxed into following Jones so blindly. Jones deliberately pandered to communities that had been disenfranchised and lured them with promises of a life that would not only uplift but empower them. Temple members were so committed to Jones’ utopic rhetoric that they were willing to turn a blind eye and excuse his lies, abuse, hypocrisy and nefarious endeavors. They needed to believe that they were going to be rewarded for their devotion and allegiance. Guinn explains, “Demagogues recruit by uniting a disenchanted element 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...then exaggerate the threat until followers lose any sense of perspective.” Considering domestic and international events, the Jonestown story continues to be relevant by reminding us of the insidious and self-serving nature of demagoguery