Book review: Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn

The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn.
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The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn.

Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn, Simon and Schuster, $40

In the anxious claustrophobia of the early 1960s Cold War, Esquire magazine published a helpful article (and annotated map) to detail "Nine Places to Hide" in the event of the US and Soviets pressing their respective red buttons.

And amid the January 1962 edition's general paranoia ("The safest place is undoubtedly Antarctica…") and xenophobia (unfriendly natives put "just about every place in Africa out of bounds to the white man"), Christchurch became one of humanity's potential panic rooms.

Author Jeff Guinn shows cleverly how empathy can quickly turn to manipulation.
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Author Jeff Guinn shows cleverly how empathy can quickly turn to manipulation.

"Whether it's the climate, the abundance of good food, or the Socialist health service, New Zealand has one of the world's lowest death rates," the article explains. "Immigration is up at last, and authorities think that safety has something to do with it."

There was even mention that an "American Utopian Society" had hand-picked 150 pioneers for a "creative community out of reach of atomic war" on our shores.

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"Members are pledged not to disclose their names to the press for fear that some will become more equal than others," is the author's rather arch sign-off on the plans.

Now, of course, while the anxiety borne of prospective global catastrophe, the idiocy of geo-political leadership and hyper-connected, doom-mongering media has hardly dimmed, the ability to out-run its effects has all but evaporated. But for a young preacher with a growing church and the desire to set up a socialism-based community, the Esquire article set in motion a journey that would 16 years later lead to the utterly abominable deaths of more than 900 people.

The story of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple has been well documented since the drug-addled cult leader on November 18, 1978, urged his followers to drink cyanide and tranquiliser-laced Flavor Aid punch and die together in US history's largest murder-suicide tragedy. But before he led them to the ill-fated 3800-acre patch of jungle in north east Guyana he had labelled The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project – or Jonestown, for short – Jones scouted out other areas where he could build a community out of range of harm or holocaust, including Belo Horizonte in Brazil and Redwood Valley in northern California.

While most documentaries and memoirs have concentrated on the final dreadful days of Jones and his followers' lives, a new book by Jeff Guinn traces all these earlier journeys and the context in which Jones was able to build a thriving religious community; enjoy powerful friendships with political, civil rights and spiritual leaders; and run successful social housing, drug rehab and care-home schemes in the US before tumbling into demagoguery in Guyana.

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Guinn's approach to history is already proven – books on Charles Manson, Bonnie and Clyde and the shootout at the OK Corral all seek to paint a wider picture than the well-known tales of Wikipedia-style, modern mythology.

So, early on, we learn how the young "Jimmy" Jones liked to stand out from the crowd in everything from organising a local baseball league aged only 14, dressing smartly and admiring Hitler in his teens (certainly making him an oddity in 40s and 50s rural America), and selling spider monkeys door-to-door to help raise cash for his first congregation.

Guinn portrays the early preacher Jones as part confidence trickster, part socialist community messiah, always balancing the stage-managed "healings" during church services with genuine stories about Jones' drive for racial and financial equality in poor, mostly black communities.

But he also shows cleverly how empathy can quickly turn to manipulation, and how Jones' grandstanding turned to self-deification and paranoia. As the dollars rolled in, so did the drugs, the affairs with women (and men), the posturing and the swagger – and it's these traits that led him to dream up a "Promised Land" in the jungle and convince hundreds of followers to ditch their possessions for his doomed socialist fantasy.

The end game, Jones' final effort at socialist defiance, is truly terrifying and terrible – babies injected with poison by parents, a US senator sent to investigate and gunned down on the airstrip, piles of corpses putrefying beyond recognition in the jungle heat, the haunting final sermon recorded over the sound of crying children and Jones' partner Maria Katsaris urging "There's nothing to worry about. Everybody keep calm and try to keep your children calm".

But Guinn is also quick to turn the story into a warning about demagogues – something that tends to make the reader quite queasy in these Trumpian times.

"Jim Jones was undeniably a man of great gifts, and one who, for much of his life and ministry, achieved admirable results on behalf of the downtrodden. Yet he was also a demagogue who ultimately betrayed his followers…. Those as gifted as Jones use actual rather than imagined injustices as their initial lure – the racism and economic disparity in America that Jones cited were, and still are, real – then exaggerate the threat until followers lose any sense of perspective."

 - Stuff

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