The Road to Jonestown

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81l31yy4felMost of us know only about the end, how it all turned out. We’ve probably said something about drinking the Kool-aid without knowing where the expression comes from. This book takes us further. It’s a fascinating character study of someone far more complex than he’s often given credit for, and someone whose demons led him to become the architect of what is commonly referred to as the biggest mass suicide in American history. But it was more than that, too. For one thing, it was murder. But for another, it reduces the work of Peoples Temple over many years to its final moments, when a paranoid narcissistic megalomaniacal drug addict decided that the rational thing to do was to kill everyone in Jonestown. That reductive view doesn’t allow for an understanding of the socialist vision that originally motivated Jones and the Peoples Temple, including running state-sanctioned nursing home facilities, employment agencies, and drug rehabilitation centers; sponsoring students to attend college and paying their tuition, room, and board; or Jones being appointed director of the city Human Relations Commission in Indianapolis where he worked on racial and economic justice issues. Guinn writes,

“In years to come, Jim Jones would frequently be compared to murderous demagogues such as Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. These comparisons completely misinterpret, and historically misrepresent, the initial appeal of Jim Jones to members of Peoples Temple. Jones attracted followers by appealing to their better instincts. The purpose of Peoples Temple was to offer such a compelling example of living in racial and economic equality that everyone else would be won over and want to live the same way. Government would be altered, not overthrown. Temple members might march to protest racism or unjust wars, but would never resort to violence as a tool to bringing about a better society. No one joined Peoples Temple with the intent of doing harm or achieving subjugation. Instead, they felt better about themselves by doing good things for others.”

It’s a slow build to Guyana, and even though I appreciated the backstory, and Guinn does a meticulous job of painting a fuller, more realized – and in many ways, generous – picture of Jones and his family and followers than is commonly told, I still found myself frequently thinking: can’t we just get to the jungle already?

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