Sometimes you come across a book that is so mind-blowingly good, you immediately go out and purchase every book ever written by the author. The Road to Jonestown was such a book. A huge, fat book that’s more than worth the effort, it tells you everything you ever wanted to know and more about the Reverend Jim Jones, his followers, just how he got hundreds of otherwise intelligent people to cede control of every aspect of their lives, and the sequence of events that led to the terrible loss of nearly one thousand lives in the Guyanese jungle.
Starting with his childhood, with a mother who wasn’t a very big fan of reality and lied through her teeth about anything and everything and who also seemed to feel that actual parenting was for lesser mortals, Jeff Guinn tracks the childhood of Jim Jones and the making of his character – not allowed in the house when his mother wasn’t there (which was all of the time), Jones roamed the streets, exhibiting an early talent for manipulation by wrapping all of the neighbourhood adults around his little finger, presenting each of them with the version of the boy they wanted to see. Exposed early to the many preachers who whipped their adoring crowds into frenzies, he was soon delivering his own sermons in the woods, practicing the verbal skills that would eventually see him as worshipped as any god by his followers.
His interest in religion would soon give way to an all-consuming passion for socialism, but he wouldn’t forget those early lessons and would couch his mission in religious terms, subtly amending the message to better suit the viewpoints of potential recruits, and soon setting up a sizable congregation of his own, the Peoples Temple.
A lot of the ideals of the Peoples Temple, and much of what they achieved, was very laudable. Not content to simply talk about how wonderful the world could be if everyone could just get with their program, the Peoples Temple gave an awful lot to the communities in which they resided – be they educational programs, drug rehabilitation, campaigning for racial equality, feeding and clothing the poor and hungry – but Jones would never be content with such small scale actions.
As the Peoples Temple grew, so did Jones’ ambition and ego. Despite amassing a rather sizable fortune for himself (in the number of tens of millions of dollars, creamed off from his followers’ donations), it soon wasn’t enough that his congregation simply attend Temple sermons and lectures and they were soon expected to hand over the majority of their incomes (which eventually increased to ALL of their incomes), the deeds to their homes, all of their time and, eventually, their familial and romantic relationships. No-one was allowed to have a relationship which Jones hadn’t personally arranged or approved (except for Jones, who could sleep with whomever he wanted – married or not – with impunity). And as Jones’ paranoia of persecution by the government increased (perhaps unsurprisingly, really ramping up when his appetite for booze and drugs – also off limits to everyone but himself – became nigh insatiable), they soon gave up their children too, as they were shipped off as early colonisers in the ‘socialist paradise’ that was being built in a remote jungle spot in Guyana. Once he had their children, many Temple members had little choice but to follow. Tragically for everyone, once removed from any other outside influence, Jones’ control became ironclad, with armed guards patrolling the grounds (ostensibly to protect the Temple from outsiders, but actually more geared towards frightening people out of leaving) and, with him usually spending entire nights monologuing and then playing the tapes of said monologues all day, every day over the loudspeakers that populated the camp, there was no escaping his voice and thoughts.
Guinn has clearly done a staggering amount of research, and lays it all out in very intimate portrait of the lives of Jones and the Peoples Temple, writing with empathy and understanding, and making very clear the sequence of events that led to the mass killing of 918 people. Often referred to as a mass suicide, Guinn makes even clearer that this is a lie – many of those who died at Jonestown were not on board with the plan, being held down and forcibly injected, or losing the will to fight once they’d seen their children killed before them.
Prior to reading this book, I’d thought of the members of the Peoples Temple (and the members of many other famous cults) as a bunch of weirdos, and couldn’t possibly understand how they’d made the choices that led to their deaths. Guinn made it very clear that these were all average, intelligent, mostly well-meaning people, who had no idea on joining the Temple of the extremes its leader would eventually go to, and how Jones’ control wasn’t immediate but a slow chipping away at identities and ideas until people found themselves completely at his mercy.
If you’re at all interested in psychology or communication (I’ve half-joked to my team-mates – we work in marketing and communications for a healthcare provider – that we could learn an awful lot from Jim Jones), then this is the book for you. As for me, I’ll now be reading everything Jeff Guinn has ever written.