The Road to Jonestown: Review

The Road to Jonestown

About a year and a half ago, I read and reviewed a book about the Jonestown tragedy. The topic so fascinated me that, when I saw that another book on the topic was out, I wanted to read it as well. That book is “The Road to Jonestown.”

Jim Jones

The Road to Jonestown is all about Jim Jones. Everything is pretty much from his perspective, which is intriguing because he’s a fascinating (albeit awful) individual. How did Jones become who he was? Author Jeff Guinn attributes some of it to his mother: “his two earliest and most enduring lessons from his mother were these: there was always some ‘them’ out to get you, and reality was whatever ‘you’ believed.”

Young Jimmy was a charming child who a classmate said had “a flair for the dramatic.” He was an unusual child too, pretending to be Hitler while his classmates made believe that they were American war heroes. Jimmy was fascinated with death. Once he led a group of children into a casket warehouse and urged them all to climb into caskets to find out what it would feel like to be dead. Eerily prescient …

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm …

Jim Jones was born and raised in Indiana, my own home state. A few things the author wrote struck me as a little odd; for instance, he mentions conformity and states that conformity “was typical throughout Indiana … among the revolutions that have not occurred in Indiana is a generational revolt.” I dunno, it seems like a bad idea to paint an entire state with such a broad stroke.

Guinn also repeatedly refers to Jones as attending the “University of Indiana” in Bloomington. Ummm … that’s where I attended college, and it’s Indiana University. To make matters worse, later in the book he quotes someone else speaking of Jones, and that quote correctly mentions “Indiana University.” Wouldn’t an author (or editor) catch something like this? Guess not. Perhaps it doesn’t seem like a big deal, and yet he does make a major deal of pointing out that Jones’ church is named the “Peoples Temple” — no apostrophe, because in keeping with Jones’ socialist mindset, he didn’t want to imply that the temple belonged to the people.

Know It All

Jim also always seemed to believe he knew more, or better, than other people. His greatest belief wasn’t in Jesus (perhaps surprising since he was a “pastor”), but in socialism. This distressed his wife, Marceline, a sweet, diligent girl whom he’d married when they were both in their early 20s. She’d married Jim thinking he shared her Christian faith. In one of his tirades at Jonestown, Jones said, “Marceline said, ‘I love you, but don’t you say anything about the Lord anymore.’ I said, ‘*&# the Lord’ … we ended up in some *&^$&#^ scrap and she threw a glass at me.” Lovely.

In the early years, Marceline kept up the hope that Jim would drop his socialist mantra and return to the Christian views she thought he’d had when she married him. But she later admitted, “He took an awful lot of the starch out of me.” She stuck with Jones, hoping that things would improve once he decided on a career.

In the early 1950s, Jim became enamored of the Methodist Church, which adopted a creed he could get behind: the church supported “the alleviation of poverty, the right of collective bargaining, free speech, prison reform, full employment, and racial integration.” Wow, call Bernie Sanders — this was Jones’ dream! A “church” that was a means to bringing about socialism.


Entrance to Jonestown, Jonestown Institute [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

More on Jones and Jonestown

I have a ton of notes on this lengthy book. Let’s do the rest of this post bullet-style:

  • “I never played chess,” Jones once told an associate, “but to me, all of this is like chess. You move the pieces around.” And by pieces, he meant people. At Jonestown, he told a friend, ‘Keep them poor and keep them tired, and they’ll never leave.”
  • Jones frequently ranted against the US government. He convinced followers that the FBI and CIA were out to get them, as Temple members, and that they would most likely be rounded up and put into concentration camps. This was a large part of the appeal for many of them in moving to Jonestown in Guyana. Especially many of the black members, already distrustful of the government, believed Jones’ tirades.
  • In Jonestown, Jim Jones had members read and alter out-going mail, and read incoming mail. Anything critical of him or the Temple was confiscated. “We were learning a new set of ethics from Jim,” said one member. “Whenever he suggested something that sounded a little dishonest, he would lovingly remind us of the Cause and tell us not to worry.”
  • I keep coming back to Bernie Sanders, but Jones and his Socialism reminded me of Sanders frequently. Like Sanders, Jones wanted free college for Temple members. He provided them tuition at a local community college. In exchange, they were expected to work full-time for the Temple in whatever capacity was needed.
  • Jones was big-time into sex and had several mistresses over the years. Eventually, he had sex with some of the male Temple members too. During Temple committee meetings, he forced all the men to stand up and admit that they, too, wanted to have sex with other men. No one would deny it, since they didn’t want to risk “Father”‘s wrath. Jones once had sex with a female official in exchange for a monetary donation to the Temple. He told this story frequently to his followers, framing it as a sacrifice he had made for the Cause. One young (and brave!) female black Temple member once asked Jones why he only slept with whites, never blacks. Jones snapped that this was because Whites needed to do this to help them reject bourgeois attitudes. He said that blacks didn’t have that problem, so he didn’t need to sleep with them. Yes, he really did get away with saying things like this …

Okay, I’m only about halfway through my notes, but I’d better wrap this up. The whole Jonestown saga just amazes me, that a charlatan could fool so many, to the point of convincing them to move to another continent (in the JUNGLE no less), and then kill them all. This book wasn’t my favorite on the topic (I preferred A Thousand Lives), because I felt the writing was pretty dry. Plus, the author seemed to over-emphasize that Jones and the Temple did many positive things (to me, this is like trying to point out Hitler’s good side). But it’s thorough, and is just too strange to be true.

Also read and reviewed this month:

Mrs. Dalloway

The Breakdown

The Nine of Us by Jean Kennedy Smith







6 thoughts on “The Road to Jonestown: Review

  1. This man was demented, but we live in an age where that is so common. Did he take his poor wife with him to the grave, or did she ever see the light and escape? I can’t remember. It reminds me of a couple I’m associated with now!

  2. Wonderful review. I am at a loss for words about all aspects of the Jim Jones debacle. What a tragedy!

  3. I knew the end of it all but not what led up to it. It’s sad so many people were taken in by him.

  4. Wack job, but then we already knew that, right? Think of the alarm bells playing Hitler would set off today–let alone the little casket thing….

  5. What an intriguing book! I’m torn between wanting to read it and wanting to avoid it at all costs! ha. But I realize it’s better to understand how these things can happen than to stick our heads in the sand. Thanks for sharing about this.

  6. Jim Jones was pure evil! It always embarrassed me that he was from Indiana, my home state, and that he was ever connected with the Methodist church in any ways whatsoever. Your review reminds me that I never want to read the book, because it disturbs me to even hear about it! However, I am glad that you read so many types of books and give such factual reports. 🙂

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