The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple
“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” may be the most famous reference that rose from the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, but the common interpretation of it --- namely, that one should be wary of what one buys into --- significantly reduces the complexity of the community’s history. THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN is a detailed account of the temple from the early days of its leader in Indiana to the famous massacre of over 900 people in Guyana.
The book is a compelling read. Naturally, there’s a desire to unearth all of the bizarre and unattractive elements of Jim Jones and his temple, and there’s plenty there. But much of the book details the state of affairs in the United States that led to the temple’s organization, and how much the temple focused on its mission of racial integration and the social betterment of those lacking privilege. Author Jeff Guinn makes clear that these efforts were what attracted so many of the temple’s members. Many were idealists guilty of their own privilege, others were those who had benefited from the temple’s services and wanted to give back.
"...a detailed account of the temple from the early days of its leader in Indiana to the famous massacre of over 900 people in Guyana. The book is a compelling read."
The temple’s efforts had genuine impact; they included enforcing integration throughout all levels of the temple, putting deserving students through higher education, providing care and companionship to the elderly, and rehabilitation programs. Most of these efforts were focused in areas of large cities (Indianapolis, San Francisco and Los Angeles) where such services were otherwise impossible to obtain.
Of course, there was the religious aspect as well, although it seems clear even from an early age that Jim Jones viewed religion more as a vehicle for socialism than as a belief system by which he lived. He was completely willing to manipulate members’ religious and social beliefs to support his agenda --- using staged miraculous healings and mind-reading to convince people to obey him, and sex to personally control and attach followers to him. His success and megalomania led him into a cycle of fabricating schemes to further concentrate his power, and becoming afraid of losing power from the backlash against these schemes.
It’s easy to hear the cautionary tale of Peoples Temple and quickly grasp the dangers of a population of vulnerable people in the clutches of a worshipped leader. But though the temple provides an extreme example of such a situation, we should challenge ourselves not to be dismissive of its lessons. Not all participants were weak-willed or defenseless. As evidenced by the temple’s significant monetary assets and the extensiveness of the community, painstakingly accounted for by Guinn, there were many members who capably made and executed plans at a large scale.
While sacrificing their lives (and, most personally disturbing, their infants’ and children's lives) seems an irrational, completely misguided action, temple members may not have seen it as much more to ask than pooling their resources to fund struggling community members. In an isolated society, founded on sacredly held ideas that are served daily, is it crazy to take another action in a long list of requests that have taken you to where you are --- perhaps where you are proud to be? A disenfranchised population, feeling harassed and misunderstood, considered extremists by outsiders, decides to take a stand --- symbolic or otherwise. The action they take is sickening. But doesn’t that sound a little familiar?
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on April 14, 2017