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the road to jonestown

29 april 2017

"Kool-Aid rather than equality is what the rest of the world remembers" about Jonestown, Jeff Guinn laments in his new book (468). And it wasn't even Kool-Aid. The lethal beverage that 900 of Jim Jones' followers imbibed in Guyana in 1978 was Flavor Aid, according to Guinn. But popular myth-making has never respected hard data. The best Guinn can hope for, in The Road to Jonestown, is to establish some factual substrate for the contemplation of those who want to go beyond catchphrases.

Jim Jones was so insanely evil that he makes an excellent immobile target for black humor. In a book that doubles as definitive biography and elaborate true-crime story, Guinn finds a contrarian thread: Jim Jones as crusader for social justice. I am not sure if the thesis ultimately works. But perhaps by overstating his case, Guinn finds the best rhetorical method for getting readers to take the Jonestown phenomenon seriously.

"Traditionally, demagogues succeed by appealing to the worst traits in others," Guinn observes. "Jim Jones attracted followers by appealing the the best in their nature" (467). It's hard to escape a certain implicit comparison to Donald Trump in that formulation, and when you come off second-best in a comparison to Jim Jones, you are not doing well. In any event, much of The Road to Jonestown documents the good works of Peoples Temple. The church provided for people. In its early years, in postwar Indiana, the multiracial (but firmly white-controlled) Temple leveraged the integration of numerous businesses, employing a mix of moral suasion and targeted demonstration.

Led by Jones' highly-qualified wife Marceline, Peoples Temple opened a string of nursing homes, first in Indiana, later in California. "It wasn't a scam," Guinn reports (82), aware that his readers will assume the worst. Guinn is impressed with the solicitousness, and the efficiency, of early Temple projects. Part of what made the Temple a well-oiled machine, of course, was the ultimately proverbial slavish devotion of Jones' acolytes. They were able to do some good because they were selfless. Their selflessness made them extensions of their leader's will. The results were not good.

In fact, on the religious front, pretty much everything about Peoples Temple was a scam. Jones did carny mind-reading tricks, profiting from spies he'd plant in his audience. He performed brazen "psychic surgeries" to "heal" the faithful from "cancer": scare quotes abound here, because the "healings" consisted of Jones getting stooges to cough up chicken giblets, which he pretended were tumors. He was pretty upfront about this to his inner circle – he needed their connivance – and his logic was this: the Temple needed to come across as powerful, even if it meant duping its own congregation, so that it could do good works for that congregation.

I don't know about that calculus (and neither does Guinn, of course). At best you can say that good and evil ran parallel in Jones' operation, till the good stopped altogether. The last 10-15 years of Jones' life are a spiral of drug dependency, paranoia, sharp conflict with defectors and families of those caught in his increasingly cultish group, and the eventual decamping to Guyana.

Guinn is somewhat ambivalent about Jonestown itself. He documents the essential insanity of the settlement. A small core of people who knew little about farming, with hundreds of elderly and child dependents, attempted to carve a self-sufficient commune out of the virgin rainforest. (The Guyanese government agreed to this because they thought of Peoples Temple as a kind of tripwire of American nationals that would guarantee against Venezuelan invaders.) The project was doomed economically, were it not for the vast millions that Jones had peculated and stuffed away in overseas banks. Jonestown became the typical, indeed the archetypal, cult commune. Yet Guinn, contradicting the very evidence he gathers, concludes that Jonestown "came very close to being self-sustaining" (466). Such an assertion flies in the face of logic as well as fact. It demonstrates the appeal of a certain anti-capitalist ideal, however, and it proves a difficult aspiration to deflate.

Some elements of The Road to Jonestown are slightly discrepant – though not inexcusably so, for what is a big, complicated story. In particular, a man named Tim Stoen, at first Jones' main legal adviser and later one of his bitterest enemies, comes and goes from the narrative abruptly, leaving loose ends and unexplained motivations and actions. (On p. 320, Stoen is mentioned as if he'll be the focus of the ensuing chapter, but then disappears.)

Jim Jones casts a peculiar spell onto his biographer, and thence onto readers, 40 years after his death. The story of race, class, religion, and delusion in America is incomplete without him, and The Road to Jonestown is an important chapter in that story.

Guinn, Jeff. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.