The Road to Jonestown

Recommendation: It’s a bit grim but good enough at what it does

Where to read: Home with the door firmly shut

Read with: Multiple negronis

In brief: This is a good history of Jim Jones and by extension the Peoples’ Temple. As an examination of why the Jonestown massacre happened, it’s less clear that it perhaps could be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but make sure you give yourself some time to sit with it and think it through on your own.


To start this review in the same manner as all “true crime” books…

The Peoples’ Temple was a cult, based on the principles of racial justice, equality and socialism. Its founder, Jim Jones, was horrifyingly charismatic, more convinced of his own divinity than that of Jesus and had learned “faith healing” on the Southern Revival circuit. On 18 November 1978, 913 of its members died in the largest murder-suicide in American history. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” entered the lexicon*.

When I finished this, my first thought was “this is a book about domestic violence”. It’s never explicitly drawn out, and Guinn generally avoids any kind of psychological analysis, but the behaviour fits the pattern.

Jones recruited on the margins and from the vulnerable. The core of the Church was African-American, many of them older women who handed over their social security cheques for a place in one the Church-run aged care homes. The standard of care at those facilities surpassed state requirements, and was certainly higher than anything else they could reasonably hope to access (this is the 60s we’re talking about), so it’s hardly surprising they joined. For younger members and parents, the Church offered their kids a way out of the ghetto. Disaffected white college kids coming to Cali for the “summer of love” were brought in by appeals to racial equality and the chance to experience true socialism. The Church ran addiction and youth outreach programs, funnelling teens (and sometimes their parents) into the congregation.

There were also tactics to make people feel special. At recruitment meetings, Jones would send committed members into the crowd to get information – the potential recruit would then be amazed to hear their specific beliefs coming from the pulpit. When Jones came to say great them afterwards, he would know details about his interlocutors he couldn’t possibly know, creating the impression that he could read minds.

Once people joined the Church, they were encouraged to become more and more involved – tithing was common, everyone was expected to volunteer and attend multiple services each week and social activities centred on the Temple. The socialist aspect of the Church made it easier to ask congregants to hand over property and live communally and the social justice message made it harder to object to increasingly strident demands for donations and time. By the time a member wanted to leave, they could find that the title to their house and the majority of their money was in the possession of the Church.

As Jones solidified his power over members, sleep deprivation, ritualised public humiliation, “loyalty tests” and eventually physical and sexual abuse came into play. They were encouraged to cut off family members and inform on doubters within the Church.

The missing link in all this is why Jones settled on mass suicide (murder, let’s be honest) as the “answer”. As Guinn highlights throughout the second half of the book, it wasn’t an idle or last-minute impulse. Even before he moved the Temple to Guyana, Jones had staged at least one fake poisoning and not-infrequently raised the possibility of mass suicide in sermons. One potential plot had involved a group of followers jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Others involved sending someone to flight school and deliberately crashing a plane full of Temple members.

Maybe it’s enough to know that the Temple was eschatologically-minded (the move from Indiana to Cali was partly justified by the idea that it would be safer in the event of nuclear war), maybe it’s enough to think of Jonestown as mass-murder and Jones as just another mass murderer. Either way, this haziness reflects a broader problem with the book – it starts with his birth and ends with his death but Jones remains something of a cipher. In short, it’s a good examination of the dynamics of a cult but a less-good examination of a cult leader.

Additional resources:

*Incorrectly. As it turns out, the Temple used a cheaper imitation called Flavour-Aid

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