It’s an image that haunts us still.
In November 1978, the Rev. Jim Jones ordered his 900 followers (including nearly 300 infants and children), huddled in the South American jungles of Guyana, to “swallow the Kool-Aid” and commit suicide. It was the culminating thunderclap of a ministry built on one part fakery, one part blind obedience, and one part genuine commitment to racial and economic justice.
This dark tale from the 1960s and ’70s comes chockablock with the weirdest of elements — a potent mix of Bible thumping and make-believe faith healing (with chicken innards displayed as vomited-up “tumors”), a paranoid fear of alleged enemies, a demand for absolute loyalty to a leader considered God-like (no matter how egregious his flaws), and a mind-boggling willingness to die for the cause.
Journalist Jeff Guinn has previously written a bestseller about the murderous Charles Manson gang. “The Road to Jonestown,” based on numerous interviews and government documents, continues his adroit exploration of the darkest undercurrents of that tumultuous era when dreams of utopia could easily warp into nightmare. A bulldog of an investigator, Guinn has tracked down disenchanted ex-cult members and the few survivors of Jonestown, including several of Jones’s sons who happened to be away on the community’s last day.
The result is a thoroughly readable, thoroughly chilling account of a brilliant con man and his all-too vulnerable prey. If weak on explanations of what made the man and his victims tick, it generates a bizarre — dare I say Manson-like? — magnetic force that pulls the reader through its many pages. Noir thriller morphs into horror story.
From his early years, Jones was both conventional product of ’30s and ’40s small-town Indiana and combative, freaky outsider. Drawn to religion despite his parents’ lack of interest in it, the boy preached to an imagined congregation in the woods and conducted stagey funerals for animals. As though born to tolerance — no one mentored him on the subject — the adolescent spoke out boldly against racial prejudice. His mother believed early on that her son was destined for great things, a destiny never in the cards for her husband, a shell-shocked World War I veteran.
Jones’s ministry began in Indianapolis, where he veered erratically from Methodism to alliance with the evangelical Disciples of Christ, whose loose organizational structure suited his need for independence. At his side stood his wife, Marceline, a deeply religious woman for whom the phrase “long-suffering” seems minted. She was, Guinn observes, “the first, but far from the last, person” to conclude that Jones’ goals “compensated for his personal flaws.” Later, in California, her husband would take on mistresses from within the fold (and engage in occasional homosexual sex).
With fervent preaching and social-outreach programs Jones attracted a vibrant multiracial congregation. But by 1965, his ambitions propelled him to California, “where real social church ministries are needed.’’ Initially, his flock settled in Ukiah, in the rural north, hoping to remain safe in the case of a nuclear attack. Jones freely mixed conservative theology with an advocacy of socialism, which is why he came to believe the FBI and CIA were eager to take him down. In the local arena, however, he cultivated relationships with county officials and played the good citizen.
As his reputation grew, Jones established outposts in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the latter became his headquarters. The Temple’s good works there — aiding the poor with meals, housing, and job training — made him a celebrity, toasted by San Francisco’s most popular columnist, Herb Caen, and politicians like Governor Jerry Brown. He was named chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority.
The dark side remained hidden. Supplied by a movement physician, he was fueled by amphetamines, calmed by tranquilizers. Because of his open support for socialism — nearly a dirty word, then and now — he claimed harassment by the feds and speculated that the group someday would have to seek asylum in the Soviet Union. Followers who disobeyed him were beaten. He hid millions accrued through barnstorming revivals and by church members in secret bank accounts.
The evils began early but grew worse because of Jones’s ever-expanding visions of grandeur. Some followers knew about the faith-healing fakery and looked the other way to support the movement’s larger goals. All the same, Guinn argues that Jones was primarily able to attract followers by appealing to “the best in their nature, a desire for everyone to share equally.”
By the late ’70s, Jones was seeking an exit strategy with journalists at New West magazine and the San Francisco newspapers raising questions about surging church income and Jones’s claims of near divinity.
Peoples Temple bought 3,000 acres in Guyana. Jonestown was to be both refuge and beacon of socialism to the world, but was, in fact, a squalid outpost made unbearable by snakes, insects and torrid heat. Community members toiled all day hacking down the forest to expand their settlement and then were subjected to Jones’s evening tirades. They had no money of their own (all had been donated to the Temple), and their passports had been confiscated; there was no escape.
There would be none for Jones, either. A suspicious Congressman Leo Ryan, from California’s East Bay region, and lawsuits prompted by relatives concerned about their children, were tightening the noose. This time, the paranoid really did have enemies. Ryan, journalists, and some of the relatives flew to Guyana to find out whether the congregants were being held against their will. What they found was ambiguous — people who claimed to want to remain but seemed terribly anxious and close-mouthed.
Ryan’s group was killed “by a truck-load of [armed] whites’’ as they tried to board their small plane to leave on a nearby airstrip.
After several practice runs and departure of the inquiring intruders, Jones ordered the preparation of his apocalyptic jungle juice. (The agent wasn’t Kool-Aid, despite the phrase’s widespread adoption into popular culture, but a competitor, Flavor-Aid, laced with cyanide.)
Parents were ordered to serve their children the potion first. While waiting for their rations, some of the faithful thanked Jones for all he’d done. Some balked. Armed guards ringed the area and leaned in.
Since Jones taped all his Jonestown rants, in Guinn’s final pages we can hear his horrific words: “We are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act.” To the holdouts, he says, “Stop these hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die.” And we hear him commanding Marceline, “Lay down your life with your child[ren].”
Jones himself passed on the spiked drink, opting instead to shoot himself in the head.
Dan Cryer is author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.”