From the beginning we know the end; The Road to Jonestown shows its cards immediately. In the book’s prologue, officials discover more than nine hundred of Jim Jones’s followers dead in the Guyanese jungle. They are decomposed in piles, faces melting in the tropical heat. Some of the bodies have bruises, marks of resistance. The tragedy is deemed a murder-suicide. Some took their poison willingly; others, children included, had it squirted into their mouths. The year is 1978.
Jeff Guinn’s new biography-cum-history is a study of persuasion and power in Peoples Temple, the twentieth-century socialist cult led by preacher Jim Jones. Many readers, like me, come to the story aware of its associated quip: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” (Morbid party fact: the poison was actually mixed with generic Flavor Aid, not the pricier Kool-Aid powder.)
…Each congregant focused on what appealed to him or her—the hodgepodge religion, the utopian politics, the man himself—and downplayed what didn’t. Overworked, exhausted, and penniless, they had no time to think. “Keep them poor and keep them tired, and they’ll never leave,” Jones said.
After finishing Jonestown, I wondered if I could understand Jones by watching him. Guinn avoids individual scenes, preferring general descriptions. I wanted to see the preacher in action. Curious, I found a video online. It shows a huge crowd of congregants dancing, clapping, singing, wailing. Jones speaks in a buttery tenor; he stands handsome in a dark suit, a crisp part in his hair. He calls people “honey” and “baby.” He heals a woman from the pulpit. “Sister Ingram, you’re concerned about the losing of your sight,” he intones. “Look at my face. I’m going to hold up some fingers. Concentrate hard. I love you. The people love you. Most importantly, Christ loves you. What do you see? How many fingers?” “Three,” whispers the woman, and the crowd explodes. She is weeping. Even knowing how Jim did it—the woman was probably a plant—the scene is still weird, wild, disturbingly moving. I watch Jones’s face. His brow is furrowed. He licks his lips, and smiles without showing his teeth. What is he thinking—most likely, probably? A whole book behind me, the question can’t be answered.
‘The Road to Jonestown’ Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple
Jeff Guinn Simon & Schuster, $28, 468 pp.