There’s a passage in Jeffrey Toobin’s book on Patty Hearst where, after the heiress is captured, her kidnappers demand the Hearst family set up a from scratch program to feed the poor. Various groups come out of the woodwork to try and run the program, including Peoples Temple, the cult led by Jim Jones that, a few years later, would mostly die out in the Guyanese jungle. Toobin presents it as a freakish aside, the intersection of two infamous historical figures. After reading Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown it becomes clear that there wasn’t anything freakish about it – Jones and his followers could have pulled it off.
That is, perhaps, the most interesting thing about Guinn’s book, which takes a deep dive into the founding of Peoples Temple and the founding, if you will, of Jim Jones. Born poor in rural Indiana Jones gravitated toward two things when young – social justice and fire-breathing religion. Neither of his parents were religious, but he had a neighbor who was constantly on the prowl to recruit souls for Christ and she exposed Jones to her church. He took to preaching and honed a miracle-working approach in Indiana that would serve him well for decades. It was also the spark of the dark charisma that would lead to so many more than 900 dead in Guyana.
Fact is, Peoples Temple got things done for people who were too often left behind by society. Jones and his followers helped drive desegregation in Indianapolis. Both there and later in California they ran nursing homes, drug treatment programs, and, yes, food giveaways. All those programs were successful (at least as successful as other similar programs) and properly run.
The problem was that, from the beginning to the end, Peoples Temple was always the fiefdom of Jim Jones. All the good work came at the expense of a staggering cult of personality that merged with Jones’s rising paranoia (aided, no doubt, by a cocktail of drugs he used to work and sleep) to make for one of the more frightening cults in recent history. Jones was Father, at the very least, and perhaps God herself (or some reincarnation of past holy figures, like Buddha or Jesus) and the only one who could save his people from the destructive world around them.
At first the destruction was nuclear war. That was reason Jones moved Peoples Temple from Indianapolis to California, setting up shop in a rural area north of San Francisco that supposedly was far enough away from primary targets that, with favorable winds, residents could survive a nuclear attack. That fear didn’t keep Jones from barnstorming around the country on a fleet of busses doing revival shtick, however.
The threats quickly became more personal. There were defectors from Peoples Temple, people who either saw Jones for the con man he was or simply grew tires of giving everything they made and owned to the organization. To Jones each was a potential villain, providing fodder to the press or authorities about what went on in the increasingly secretive group. Journalists started to close in, too. The final straw was a group of former members who focused on getting other family members, including children, out of the group who, they claimed, were being held against their will.
Although Jonestown itself had been founded earlier, these existential threats are what drove Jones and most of his followers there well before the settlement was ready to support them. Harsh conditions, piled on top of Jones’s paranoia and iron grip over his followers, soon degraded into homicidal/suicidal tendencies. Jones simulated an attack on the compound and later staged a mock suicide, just to make sure everyone reacted in the proper fashion. By the time San Francisco-area Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in November 1978, the keg was set to blow. Ryan and several others were murdered at a nearby airport, while Jones led the mass of his followers in Jonestown to their death via a mix of cyanide and Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid, to set the record straight).
More than 900 people died in Jonestown and there’s always been some controversy over what label to apply to it. Jones called it “radical suicide” (?), but given that at least a third of the dead were children it’s easy to say that many of the deaths were flat out murders. Beyond the children there’s evidence that some adults were held down and injected with poison, rather than having drunk it on their own. Still, hundreds of people, at least, appear to have willingly laid down their lives when Jones said so.
The big question, of course, is why? Guinn doesn’t do much evaluation of the aftermath of Jonestown or bring in any kind of experts to attempt to explain it. Instead, he lets the work he’s already done, showing how Peoples Temple developed, do the work. What he shows is that people really believed in Jones. Some believed in his commitment to social justice. Others came at it from a more religious angle, drawn in by the healings and such that Jones performed on the revival circuit. Because once your religion has primed you to believe miracles exist, why would you doubt the con man that actually says he performs them? Regardless, they believed in Jones and the outside world gave them just enough reason to buy into his paranoid rants. More than anything else, they let Jones come to define their world, to the exclusion of any critical thinking or close examination of what he was doing.
It’s hard not to think of Donald Trump while reading The Road to Jonestown. Not because Trump is going to lead us into ritual suicide (with a side of murder) anytime soon (we hope), but because of the freakishly similar way Trump and Jim Jones interacted with the outside world. To Jones’s followers he was the only person who could solve their problems and save them from the injustices of the world. Trump during the campaign repeatedly expressed similar sentiments. Jones never failed – he was only failed by underlings or thwarted by shadowy outside forces. Likewise, Trump never backs a loser and is constantly doing battle with the “deep state” or “fake news.” More than anything else, Jones and Trump share a complete aversion to dealing with reality. That way lies madness, as Jones and others have proven.
Hopefully, we’re not all on the road to Jonestown again, without quite realizing it.