Keeping Up with Jones

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple BY Jeff Guinn. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 544 pages. $28.

In 1954, two dozen people, most of them black, gathered in a small storefront church in Indianapolis. The preacher, a tall, black-haired white man, didn’t launch into a sermon; he asked his congregants a question: “What’s bothering you?”

An elderly black woman raised her hand. She explained that the electricity in her home had been unreliable for months. Exasperated, she’d refused to pay her utility bill until someone fixed the problem, but no one had; now the power company was threatening to shut off electricity to her home. The preacher listened intently. “Let’s write a letter,” he suggested. His wife got out a piece of paper and a pen, and the preacher and congregation together dictated a message to the power company. Everyone present signed it. The preacher promised to deliver the letter himself the very next day, and to speak face-to-face with whoever was responsible for the woman’s situation. The next week, the woman, back in church, announced that her electricity problems had been fixed, thanks to the preacher’s intervention.

Over the next decade, the preacher and his church became a potent lobbying force on behalf of Indianapolis’s disenfranchised, and the church’s integrated congregation grew, in large part because of its sincere and practical commitment to social and racial justice. The preacher and his wife attended city-council meetings, school-board meetings, neighborhood-association meetings. Decades before today’s grassroots campaigns, the preacher understood how a tenacious group committed to making phone calls and writing letters could enact real, productive civic change. The causes the church supported weren’t particularly splashy: new textbooks and playground equipment for the city’s majority-black schools; making sure that poor neighborhoods got potholes repaired too. But the preacher also had a canny sense for PR moments. Most restaurants at the time in Indianapolis had a de facto whites-only policy; he and his wife would show up for dinner with a couple of their black friends. If they weren’t served, the group would stand there conspicuously until the restaurant closed. If that didn’t change things, the preacher would return the next day to persuade the owner to change their policy. If that didn’t work, he would keep returning until the policy changed, sometimes bringing dozens of congregants to protest. Thanks in large part to the church’s dogged advocacy, Indianapolis was desegregated well before similar cities in the Midwest.

“This white preacher named Jim Jones didn’t just talk about doing things,” Jeff Guinn writes in The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, “he did them.”

Jones, of course, is most famous for doing something else: orchestrating the murder of a US congressman and several members of his traveling party, and then ordering the mass suicide of more than nine hundred of his own followers, including nearly three hundred children, in Guyana in 1978. The scale and horror of this event overshadowed everything else that Jim Jones did. Guinn’s book, which follows Jones from his birth in Indiana to that last stand in Jonestown, is an attempt to explain how the preacher, a Marxist who studied Gandhi and committed himself to fighting racism and improving people’s lives, wound up becoming a man who ordered beatings and confinements for those who disobeyed him.

Born in 1931 in rural Indiana, Jones was a strange child, the only son of a wounded combat veteran and an ambitious, bitter mother who bucked gender norms by wearing pants, smoking, and not going to church. Neighbors remember him being followed around town by a troop of stray animals. Jones was something of a stray himself, popping in and out of churches around his hometown—Pentecostal, Quaker, Apostolic, Nazarene, Church of Christ—and being baptized several times over.

Guinn concludes that Jones’s commitment to racial equality was sincere and present from an early age, though it’s unclear if Jones was ever genuinely religious as an adult. (He told his inner circle that he used religion to draw people in to the real cause, which was socialism.) He nonetheless mastered the performance of spirituality, relying on revival-circuit tricks (staged clairvoyance and “cancer removals” featuring rotten chicken livers) to draw in followers. He called his church Peoples Temple—“not People’s, because the apostrophe symbolized ownership,” Guinn notes.

In 1965, Jones moved Peoples Temple to Ukiah, California, two hours north of San Francisco; he was convinced nuclear war was imminent, and Esquire had listed nearby Eureka as one of the best places in the world to survive fallout. In California, Peoples Temple increasingly resembled a political movement—and a coercive one at that. Members were encouraged to embody their ideals by living communally and signing over their possessions and income to the church. The financial backbone of the Temple was its elderly members, most of them black, who donated their Social Security checks.

Guinn has said in interviews that his best-selling 2013 biography Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson was in part an attempt to make sense of the 1960s. His account of Jonestown, too, seems driven by an effort to make sense of what is by most standards a senseless situation. This is a strength as well as a weakness. The Road to Jonestown is tighter—and one hundred pages shorter—than the other major Jonestown history, 1982’s Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Raven was cowritten by Tim Reiterman, one of the journalists shot in Guyana by Temple followers in 1978. It’s a sloppier account, too close to its story in places, but despite—or because of—that, it does a better job of capturing the hysteria and confusion of the times.

As the decade wore on, Jones’s claims of CIA infiltration grew more frantic; he began using amphetamines and pressuring male and female followers for sex. The once-glowing press coverage of the Temple now focused on financial exploitation and beatings of out-of-favor members. Meanwhile, Peoples Temple’s grassroots-lobbying efforts were turned against the church’s enemies. While the magazine New West was putting together a negative article on Jones, its “offices received as many as fifty phone calls and seventy letters a day,” alternately issuing threats and pleading for it not to publish.

But Jones was also a committed radical in an era of political assassinations and covertly organized coups, and plenty of people felt his paranoia was warranted. Temple visitors and guest speakers included San Francisco mayor George Moscone, Angela Davis, and the American Indian Movement’s Dennis Banks. At a 1976 dinner honoring the Temple, California state assemblyman Willie Brown called Jim Jones a “combination of Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.”

Still, as the negative press mounted, support for the Temple waned. In the late 1970s, Jones decided to leave America’s racism and bad vibes behind to build a utopian settlement—Jonestown—in the jungles of Guyana, a former British colony with a socialist government. By many accounts, Jonestown was actually something of a rustic paradise at first—that is, before Jones showed up. Once he did, in 1977, things got dire, fast. Jones, swollen and sweaty, amped on amphetamines, compelled his followers to work long hours in the fields. The PA system blasted Jones’s endless, incoherent lectures on socialism, the Ku Klux Klan, and his own sexual prowess; afterward, there were quizzes. The disobedient were subjected to beatings, public humiliation, and weeklong isolation stints in a four-foot container called “the Box.” A teenager who told Jones she didn’t want to sleep with him anymore was drugged to near unconsciousness and confined to the medical unit.

Though he advocated communal living, Jones proved to have a genius for preventing his followers from forming any alliances or projects outside of his own: Residents were encouraged to inform on each other, and there were rigorous sessions of criticism for those perceived as being not fully committed to the cause. Followers signed false confessions of child abuse and molestation, which Jones threatened to make public if they ever left the church. Jones kept Temple members on edge by staging assassination attempts; once, he kept everyone awake for days to defend the compound against a (fictional) siege by their (fictional) enemies. During that last, disastrous year, Jones enacted a fake attempt at mass “revolutionary suicide” to test his followers’ loyalty. In the final months, Jonestown was threatened by a custody dispute, defections from high-profile members, and the announcement of an information-gathering visit by a delegation led by Congressman Leo Ryan. By that final week, Jones’s followers were exhausted, malnourished, and not entirely sure what was real anymore.

Guinn occasionally overpsychologizes his subject, as if any childhood experience—a fascination with Hitler, an unpopular mother—could explain why Jim Jones became Jim Jones. This is a common trap—seeing authoritarian groups as existing within a vacuum and explaining them through the particular pathologies and charisma of their leaders. But that’s exactly what Jim Jones wanted: to exist inside a bubble that was entirely within his control. When we make the story of Jonestown only about Jones, we risk giving him too much credit. His followers were there because of him, but also because of what they couldn’t find elsewhere.

Despite the difficulties of life in Jonestown, when the visiting congressional delegation offered residents the option to leave, the vast majority chose to stay. (It should also be noted that the stories we have from Jonestown are skewed. Though the majority of Temple members were black, most of the survivors’ accounts we have are from white members—because most of Jones’s inner circle was white, and because most of those who did manage to escape had more financial resources, and also tended to be white.) Guinn points out that for the community’s elderly members, life at Jonestown, as rough as it was, still provided a form of security and a commitment to racial equality that wasn’t available back home: “Fully a third of Jonestown’s population was pensioners, almost all of them black, who were attracted to the Temple by Jones’s promises to care for them well in their old age. . . . In Jonestown they had beds, albeit stacked bunks in cramped quarters, and regular meals, and immediate medical care when they needed it instead of endless hours in waiting rooms at public hospitals and impersonal, cursory treatment.” And so Jonestown’s appeal, if that’s the right word, was in part the result of failures of the outside world.

After the congressional delegation departed, Jones sent a truck full of armed men after it. Then his trusted associates mixed a pound of cyanide—ordered months before for $8.85—with tranquilizers and grape Flavor Aid. The children drank first.

There’s a recording of Jim Jones’s last speech, which he gave as his followers were drinking the little cups of poison. (Jones himself didn’t participate; he died later that day from a gunshot to the head.) I don’t recommend listening to it; a few minutes in, you start to hear children screaming in the background. Jones talks over them. “How very much I’ve tried,” he says, “to give you the good life.”

Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas.