The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $28)

Jim Jones needed people to need him. In The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, Jeff Guinn tells us that his subject made a point of handing out cookies to his starving slaves in Guyana as a weekend prize. This paternalism—wanting everyone to acknowledge him as the giver of treats, insisting on his parentage of the child another follower sired, and demanding that even his mother call him “father”—owes something to the childhood of Jonestown’s baby-sitter-in-chief.

The leaf didn’t fall far from the tree. “Jimmy’s two earliest and most enduring lessons from his mother,” Guinn explains of Jones’s rural Indiana childhood, “were these: there was always some Them out to get you, and reality was whatever you believed.”

Other children found him weird. He cried, exhibited terror at the prospect of fistfights, avoided sports, and heard his name called last when kids picked teams. He broke up a basketball game with an impromptu sermon, presided over the funerals of animals, and enthusiastically took the role of Nazi when neighborhood kids played war. Jones stole candy bars with impunity because, rather than punish him for his misdeeds, his mother instead paid the running tab for the chocolate bill. He wore his Sunday best throughout the week but did not attend church on the weekend. When a playmate decided to go home for dinner, Jim took a shot at him with a rifle. This scenario would repeat itself, demonstrating both the boy’s abandonment complex and the propensity of good people to project goodness on others by way of second chances.

Other parents found his mother odd, too. She remained a church “noer” among churchgoers. She smoked and swore in public. She believed not only in reincarnation but also that fame marked her past lives. In her twentieth-century incarnation, she married three times and changed her first name as frequently as her last, going from Lunnet to Lunette to Lynette before settling on Lynetta. She brazenly cheated on Jones’s father, a disabled veteran whom she married on the mistaken assumption that he came from money. Despite her low station in Lynn, Indiana, Lynetta put on airs and looked down on her fellow townspeople. She overshared progressive political opinions in a conservative community. She harbored enormous ambition, even as she achieved little.

“From the day she started [work] at the Winchester glass factory,” Guinn notes, “Lynetta had a rule: Jimmy was not allowed to come into her house until she got home. This edict quickly became known all over town. Nobody understood why, or was friendly enough with Lynetta to ask. But it engendered considerable sympathy for Jimmy, whose relatives’ homes were always open to him.” The boy who called everyone’s house his home became a man who wanted everyone to live under his roof.

The foul-mouthed preacher who would boast that he was the reincarnation of Lenin and sermonize on socialism inherited much from his mother. Raging narcissism, of the type that imagines others as mere characters in one’s own movie, appears to have been an acquired trait (whether genetically or environmentally). Along with extremist politics and the personality disorder, drugs would be a third ingredient—one that the son did not inherit from the mother—that nudged Jones to madness, leading him ultimately to murder his followers.

Jones’s flock was drawn to him for two primary, and sometimes conflicting, reasons: the aged came for the faith healings, while younger people were attracted by the politics. Socialism, the raison d’etre of the atheist church, gets overlooked by those who study Jonestown today, as it did back then, by reporters—and certainly by politicians, who took notice of Jones’s ability to bring out thousands of protesters and voters for local elections. San Francisco mayor George Moscone appointed Jones chairman of the city’s housing authority; Assemblyman Willie Brown lobbied Fidel Castro to grant the charismatic leader a state visit when he traveled to Cuba. California lieutenant governor Mervyn Dymally trekked to Jonestown and declared himself impressed. First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale met with him. However extreme Jones appears to posterity, he struck contemporary Democratic Party politicians as a mainstream, grassroots activist. When we ask how 900 starved, trapped, brainwashed, and overworked people could fall for such a man in the jungle, we are asking the wrong question. The real question is: How could the elected leaders of one of America’s great cities fall for him?

Of Jones’s great passions, Guinn focuses less on socialism than sex. We watch as the political preacher employs a secretary to maintain a “fuck schedule.” He deflowers a 14-year-old girl, driving her family from the group. He orders a particularly zealous member to disrobe in front of Peoples Temple leadership, only cruelly to quash her hopes, saying, “If I had a list of people I didn’t want to fuck, you’d be on top.” Though he somewhat faithfully practices racial discrimination in the bedroom, he welcomes both sexes as outlets. Guinn details a 1973 arrest for solicitation of an undercover Los Angeles policeman in the bathroom of a moviehouse playing Dirty Harry (a film partly based on the story of the Zodiac killer, another Bay Area psychopath).

Guinn notes the Temple’s political causes and connections but treats socialism as a sidelight rather than a main attraction, thereby minimizing the centrality of Jones’s radical political message to his appeal—something like writing a history of 9/11 with passing references to the terrorists’ religious zeal. Guinn outlines the pastor’s belief in Karl Marx and disbelief in God, but the alpha and omega of Peoples Temple—the hardcore socialism that separated it from other Sunday meeting spots—becomes less significant in The Road to Jonestown than it was in the historical Jonestown. At least no one should finish Guinn’s book confusing Jones for a fundamentalist conservative, as many believed he was in the aftermath of the carnage.

The defining event in the brief history of Peoples Temple, of course, occurred on November 18, 1978, when Jones orchestrated the deaths of more than 900 people, including a United States congressman, several journalists, and more African-Americans than any member of the Ku Klux Klan ever killed. Historians naturally fixate on that event, but to understand it, one must travel 3,000 miles north and four decades back, to Jones’s Indiana days. Because this period in his life offers no tape recordings and few easy-to-find witnesses, other authors have glossed over it—but not Guinn. His 50-page examination of Jones’s early years helps readers make sense of one of the 1970s’ most bizarre, horrific events, an episode that comes across as a murderous non sequitur in other accounts. The author’s great contribution here stems in large part from interviews with Jones’s peers in rural Indiana—no easy feat, given the small size of these communities and the remoteness of the Great Depression to contemporary readers. He combines these valuable scholarly contributions with a readable, accessible style. Jonestown’s horrors make such a book hard to pick up, but Guinn’s writing makes it hard to put down.  

The Jonestown pavilion, scene of the cult’s nightmarish finale, infamously displayed Santayana’s words, “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It,” for all to see. The events that transpired under that sign say something for that well-worn dictum. But reading The Road to Jonestown, one senses that “those who do not transcend their own past are condemned” works as a more fitting epitaph for the man who once sat on a throne under Santayana’s words.  


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