Riveting, terrifying and unbelievably tragic, The Road to Jonestown is not to be missed.
The sprawled bodies strewn about the Guyanese jungle setting of Jonestown is a truly unshakable image. The idea that over 900 individuals would die at the request of a monomaniacal leader is well beyond the realm of comprehension for the majority of the population. Add to this the fact that the cyanide used to kill the members of the Peoples Temple was administered in colorful cups of Flavor Aid—not, as macabre pop culture references would have it, Kool-Aid—with children going first and those who resisted held down against their will, and you have the stuff of nightmares.
Yet with The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, author Jeff Guinn goes far deeper than the final tragic outcome for the followers of Jim Jones. While the mass suicide is mentioned in the book’s opening moments, it merely serves as a bit of scene-setting for what proves to be a far more humanistic look at the people behind the largely nameless, faceless masses left festering on the jungle floor. Part biography, part sociological analysis of the cult mentality and all delivered with the sobering matter-of-factness of those who lived through the rise and fall of Jim Jones and his idealized vision of the perfect socialist society, The Road to Jonestown gives a far more holistic portrait of the events leading up to that awful day in November 1978.
Using firsthand accounts, thousands of pages of FBI documents and thorough journalistic investigations into the facts rather than the urban legends that have clouded the reality of the situation, Guinn here crafts a wildly compelling and intensely readable account of the lives lived and lost within the Peoples Temple. Looking into the family history of Jones, the circumstances in which he was brought up and his family’s strict view of Christianity, Guinn manages to humanize a man long synonymous with pure evil. As a young man, Jones found he had a knack for preaching to a crowd and gaining their full attention, trust and support. In his native Indiana, Jones embarked on a number of public works programs designed for the betterment of society. He was an early proponent of desegregation and a vocal advocate for civil rights for all, so much so that the majority of his early congregations were made up of poor working-class black families.
These oft-overlooked details, along with the stunning victory for city-wide integration in previously segregated Indianapolis in the late 1950s and early 1960s, show Jones to have been, in his early years, a positive force for change. No mere charlatan, Jones is shown to have truly believed in the socialist gospel he preached and, with his earnest emphasis on equality for all, it becomes easy to see how this passion coupled with a charismatic persona could lead those disaffected and disenfranchised to see in Jones a path towards a better life. It is in these early seeds of successful social change that we begin to see the mask starting to slip as Jones’ power and reach within multiple Indianapolis communities begins to grow. From here, the adage of absolute power corrupting absolutely progresses in note-perfect fashion, leading Jones to move his Peoples Temple and socialist ideals to the more forward- and free-thinking state of California.
It is here that things begin taking a turn for the worse as the cult-like mentality of the Peoples Temple begins to rear its ugly head. In its Northern California iteration, the Peoples Temple continued its public works program, offering financial and moral support to those lost souls most susceptible to cult worship. While his flock continued to grow, Jones’s stranglehold on those under his influence becomes more and more pronounced. Taking the role of father figure to the extreme, Jones would dole out brutal punishments to those who questioned his authority, went against the basic tenets of the Peoples Temple or dared think of leaving the increasingly strict social order, while he also adopted a paternal role in the lives of young women and men who would eventually find themselves in bed with their newly-christened Father.
Once in California, the pace of Guinn’s narrative quickens, the people and events careening towards their tragically inevitable conclusion. As the years go by, Jones becomes more of a shadowy figure within his own story, existing at the fringes while becoming increasingly paranoid and vicious through his overreliance on drugs and his debilitating messiah complex. Shifting his focus to the victims and survivors, Guinn leads up to the events in Guyana by attempting to get inside the heads of those who bought into Jones’ startlingly effective powers of persuasion. No matter how morally questionable his edicts or actions, those who had long since embraced Jones’ socialist doctrine were able to justify nearly every action as being for the betterment of the cause. Falling into an increasingly incapacitating drug habit—Jones would often use an alternating regiment of uppers and downers to simply exist—and the mental corruption of absolute power, he begins alluding to the impact a mass suicide would have on the broader world in terms of furthering their socialist agenda.
The irrationality of this line of thinking fails to register with those wholly enamored of Jones’ powerful rhetoric, leading to the mass suicide following several murders in cold blood and the literal and figurative end of the Peoples Temple. Exhaustively researched and rivetingly recounted, Guinn’s look behind the mythos of the cult of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple proves to be the definitive word on both subjects. Alternately fascinating and unbelievably tragic—parents especially will have a hard time reading the passages detailing how the children were killed first, their bodies making up the first layer of human detritus spread out on the jungle floor—The Road to Jonestown is essential reading for those with even the slightest interest not only in cults and their inner workings, but also the illogic of group-thought in the face of a charismatic outsider ultimately concerned with his own best interests.
A frightening allegory for our modern era, the story of Jonestown continues to resonate nearly 40 years later and serve as a warning for those who choose to unquestioningly follow in the face of increasingly paranoid and delusional thought birthed under the auspices of social and cultural change for the better. Riveting, terrifying and unbelievably tragic, The Road to Jonestown is not to be missed.