I just finished a new book by Jeff Guinn and published by Simon and Schuster (2017) called The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Before reading it, I had been aware of the general story of what happened in Guyana in 1978 and how a crazy cult leader somehow led over 900 people to their deaths in a religious-socialist commune carved out of the jungle.
But that was about all I knew. Guinn’s book takes the reader on a journey that explores the upbringing of Jim Jones and the story of the genesis, growth, and dramatic end of Peoples Temple. It is essentially a lesson in leadership: a warning as to what can happen when someone with strong leadership skills can horribly abuse their position of power to destructive ends. It came as no surprise that the poisonous problems that eventually led to a literal poisonous death for nearly a thousand people lay in one man: Jim Jones.
Just like the cyanide-laced powdered fruit drink (Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid) that killed the cult, so also Jones himself was a mix of positive charm and destructive abuse. On the one hand, Jones boldly stood for racial equality, raising up the poor, and fighting injustice. Those things, along with his charismatic oratory skills and pseudo-pentecostal “healing” performances are what drew so many people to follow and adore him. But on the other hand, Jones was a dictatorial demagogue who stopped at nothing to ensure that his adoring followers remained wholly committed to what he called “the cause” and ultimately, to himself. As his following grew, so did his ego, his harem of mistresses, his drug abuse, and his physical and sexual abuse towards others (including raping a young teenage girl).
Towards the end, Jones had become so drugged, delusional, and apocalyptic in his thinking that it took very little to ignite his wrath. So when a US congressman (Leo Ryan) visited Jonestown to check on some of his California constituents whose relatives were concerned their loved ones may have been held against their will, Jones was convinced the world was against him. Ryan’s visit started smoothly, but quickly descended into a fiasco when some of the residents wanted to defect and go home with the congressman. Tensions flared, Ryan and some others were murdered while trying to leave the area, and Jones convened a group meeting to end it all before the US government retaliated by (supposedly) torturing all their children. 918 people died that day. Just a few dozen survived due to various circumstances (for example, the Jonestown basketball team was out of town that day playing another team and did not drink the poison). Two men (Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes) managed to slip into the jungle during the drinking ceremony and lived to tell valuable eye-witness accounts of the tragedy.
Jones had all the flags of a cult leader who was destined to go down in a ball of flames. What nobody saw, though, was the sheer number of people he was going to take down with him in his ball of flames on November 18, 1978. People have correctly pointed out that this was not a mass suicide, but rather a mass murder. Several hundred of the dead included infants and children who were force-fed the poison drink.
Guinn’s book reads like a thriller. I was immersed in the narrative from beginning to the end. What in the world led to this terrible end? Guinn attempts to answer that question by simply telling the story. I had to stop every few chapters and remind myself that this was a true story. But truth is stranger than fiction. And Jim Jones certainly did some strange things (like planting assistants in the audience to wave bloody chicken gizzards in the air and claim it was “cancer” that had just miraculously left the body). It is so sad, tragic, and sobering. It is a constant reminder how not to lead people. It is a story that shows just how destructive the human ego can become – especially when mixed into a poisonous concoction of lies, drugs, abuse….and a little colored sugar to make it look good on the outside.