THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN
By Jeff Guin
Published in April 2017 by Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Amanda Moore
In The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, Jeff Guin tells the story of the rise and fall of Jim Jones and the church he founded. In the 1970s, Jim Jones and members of the Peoples Temple left the U.S. to start a new community in Guyana, South America called Jonestown. On November 18, 1978, gunmen from the Jonestown community murdered several unarmed civilians who had come to investigate, interview and communicate with members of the community. A U.S. congressman, two CBS crew members, a photographer and a Jonestown defector were killed in the attack at a remote airstrip at Port Kaituma. Shortly after notice of the attack, the local authorities dispatched a small group of Guyana military soldiers to investigate. They assumed that they would find heavily armed civilians at Jonestown and prepared for an attack once they arrived. Instead they found the remains of over 900 dead men, women, and children lying in and around the Jonestown compound. This haunting description is how the story begins.
Guin describes the upbringing of Jim Jones in the small town of Lynn, Indiana, and his early interest in the Christian faith. Over time, Jones became less focused on religious doctrines and more fascinated with the persuasive style of religious leaders and their ability to captivate the congregation. His study of how religious leaders attracted members and secured their allegiance became an obsession. In his pastoral role, Jones would often call upon individuals during the church service to claim they were healed from various ailments as a way to attract and recruit new members to his church. His followers thought that he was a mind reader, but he would often use members to find out information about congregants before he spoke to them.
Throughout the book, Jones is portrayed as a complex and unpredictable individual. During a time of civil and political unrest in America, Jones led efforts toward encouraging integration among churches and businesses for African Americans. Jones’ church, The Peoples Temple, became influential in local politics both in Indianapolis and San Francisco through its multi-racial congregation. Local leaders praised the Peoples Temple for its commitment to social justice and community outreach. Although these efforts appeared to be genuine, Guin describes how Jones’ true motivations were self-serving and insincere.
The members of The Peoples Temple were expected to commit every facet of their lives to the church and its cause for social justice. Members were asked to cash in life insurance policies, to donate their wages and salaries, and to give personal belongings to the Peoples Temple. Jones’ persuasive rhetoric and the initial inclusiveness of the Peoples Temple convinced hundreds of people to leave their families and communities behind to live in South America. Many individuals followed Jones expecting to create a better life while helping others and embracing socialistic ideals. Some of his followers believed that Jones was a god and knew what was best for them.
After a short time, the dream of Jonestown began to unravel. Ex-members of the Peoples Temple spoke to the media about Jones’s mistreatment of his followers. Concerned relatives began raising serious concerns with elected officials in government because they believed their family members were kept in Jonestown against their will. Both U.S. and Guyanese courts ordered Jones to appear in court and respond to legal proceedings filed against him. Jonestown could no longer stay disconnected from the outside world. The end result was a community of people being led by a leader who lived in a constant state of extreme paranoia.
There are many unanswered questions regarding the events at Jonestown. With an impressive amount of research and personal interviews with former members, government officials and survivors of the Jonestown tragedy, Guin attempts to answer these questions. His narrative style allows the reader to feel as if he or she were actually there to witness the events at the beginning, the middle, and at the tragic and senseless end.