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I’ve been curious about Jonestown since the 1970s, finding myself fascinated in general about cults and repelled by the horror of Jonestown. I lived in Humboldt County, not all that far from Jones’s settlement in Ukiah, and we heard bits and pieces about the group (sort of like when we moved to Santa Cruz, hearing about the “red people”) – then the astonishing news when it all turned to hell in Guyana. So I was happy to receive an advance copy of The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn from Simon & Schuster and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The book went WAY more in depth into the early years of “Jimmy” Jones, and TBH he creeped me out all the way back in Chapter 4 (of 52) when little Jimmy, not yet ten years old, was holding animal funeral services and exhibiting a serious fascination with the Nazis: “…he was fascinated with the Nazis, enamored of their pageantry, mesmerized by obedient hordes of fighting men goose-stepping in unison.” He “Studied Adolf Hitler intently, how he stood in front of adoring crowds for hours…” 

In Jimmy’s hometown of Lynn, Indiana, a new Apostolic church opened up, featuring people speaking in tongues and “rolling around, babbling gibberish. It was wonderful entertainment.” Jimmy was always drawn to religions, and became a pastor at Community Unity church, a storefront operation that he worked hard to link with an established church. As years went by, Jim Jones became more and more a showman in his services, enlisting help from accomplices to demonstrate the miracles he could perform: as he “cured” a cancer of an audience member, his assistant would be in the audience “brandishing a bloody, foul-smelling lump clutched in a white cloth or napkin. Jones would declare that her was the cancer,” and encourage people to examine it (but not too closely, as it was extremely infectious. “Jones often engaged in the laying on of hands, commanding aches or tremors or chills to be gone—and usually, but not always, sufferers experienced instant relief.”

The name Peoples Temple came about after Community Unity bought property left when a Jewish congregation vacated it. “…the word “Temple” was carved in stone outside the building, and so Jones decided that the name of his curacy would reflect both its philosophy and the carving: Peoples Temple, not People’s, because the apostrophe symbolized ownership.” And Jones totally discouraged ownership of material possessions by his parishioners, urging them to give everything to the church.

One scam—rather, moneymaking operation, which Jones incorporated into building his empire, was that they “took over management of several nursing homes. These provided jobs for Peoples Temple congregants, and the money needed not only to pay for outreach programs, but also to promote them. Jones was able to purchase daily time on a local radio station,” and began expanding his outreach using media.

He paid close attention to Father Divine, and he “intended not only to emulate Divine’s ministry, but also to inherit his followers after the old man died.” Hoping to unite his Peoples Temple with Divine’s Peace Mission, he worked long and hard on the plan, but it never happened.

Throughout his rise from poor preacher to powerful leader of a huge congregation, we learn way more than we probably ever wanted to know about Jones’s peccadilloes and we see him at first veer off the path in his personal life, then flagrantly violate various Commandments as his life spiraled into a corrupt, vile mess filled with sex, drugs and real estate when he bought the property in Guyana. The Church incorporated physical punishment to keep followers in line, and he circumvented rules with situational ethics, as he “preached, and his followers believed, that the U.S. criminal justice system was corrupt, as well as rife with racism.”

He tried to establish his ultimate church in Los Angeles, but city politics and the geography of sprawling Southern California kept him from realizing his dream. Focusing his efforts on the San Francisco Bay Area, he offered grim sermons to his devoted followers, habitually using obscenities. “Temple members loved it – Father was talking like a real person, not acting prissy like so many pastors.” (at this point, I was reminded of the current political situation, and how a tyrant can easily dupe people into becoming blind followers – but that’s another story).

His paranoia, fueled by drug addiction, grew and spiraled further and further into madness. As events led up to the final confrontation with Congressman Ryan’s group in Guyana, it felt like there was no hope (of course, knowing how things would turn out, this was no surprise). “On that afternoon in Jonestown, when he told his followers that there was no other way, he believed it. As far as Jones was concerned, if he had come to some place that hope ran out, then so had they.” It was chilling to read about the times Jones told his followers they were drinking poison, and they DID IT, only to be told it was just an exercise. I imagine many of them thought it was just another exercise when they drank that poison on the final day.

Seriously, this book was upsetting. If I had not been committed to read and review it, I might have given up because the detail and relentless presentation of his horrific behavior began to feel overwhelming.

It is very extensively researched, and includes notes documenting sources. For anyone who really wants to know IN EXTREME DETAIL what happened to little Jimmy Jones to make him turn into the monster responsible for the deaths of so many who worshipped him, this is the book. It’s unsettling, no question, and I was relieved when I finished it – but I have to give it 4 stars just for the enormous work that went into it.