Review by Stephen Kearney
The Road to Jonestown
Review by Stephen Kearney
It could be something straight out of Hammer Horror or an off-beat American cinema company to earn one line reviews like “They don’t come much weirder than this”.
The story starts with some young guy from the American mid-west who sets up a church; he has such a distinctive bible-punching style combined with multitudinous miracles performed in front of the congregation, that the people come from all around to hear “The Father” speak. They know he has a special direct link to God. The church grows – grows in numbers, power, wealth and possessions. The preacher promises his followers, yes, the promised land – and he delivers it. The promised land is in a South American jungle and “The Father” leads his obedient and besotted flock there. They have truly arrived in paradise. But evil forces are approaching, evil forces even too strong for “The Father” despite his miraculous powers and special link. Realising the end is near, he persuades all his followers that the next life, the real promised land, is awaiting them – like now. Kool-aid flavoured cyanide is prepared, distributed and happily consumed by the adults once they have made sure their children are served first. The old promised land is no more, apart from almost a thousand bodies spread thickly on the ground. In the final act, the grand finale, “Father”, maintaining his special status to the end, rejects the cyanide and shoots himself instead.
How about that for a plot? They don’t come much weirder than this. But it’s all true!
Yes, the story above is not from the addled imagination of a horror-Hollywood (Horrorwood?) script writer but from life itself – real life, that is. It actually happened. If it isn’t the greatest peacetime, single event, mass suicide in all history, it must come damn close. So just what the hell happened?
Jeff Guinn tells us the whole story – or nearly all of it – in his 2018 book, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. He tells it well, backed up by remarkable research, photographs, and relentless detail, over 500 pages of it, in fact. Indeed one of Guinn’s remarkable skills is his ability to relate his massively detailed story in a very readable manner without inducing the slightest desire to ‘skip a page’. Ok, so where do we make a start on all of this.?
In the best tradition of telling the tale of a bogey-man, always start with the mother – yeah, and I blame mine too. Lunett Putnam, born in 1902, was one of those people who always thought she was not only better than those around her but deserved better too. What she couldn’t have immediately, she invented. Long predating the current wave of influencers, youtubers, facebookers and Boris Johnsons, she invented a make-believe world, fine tuned over the decades, where she positively shone, soaring above her local contemporaries. Even her name was tuned up, moving from Lunett to Lunette to Lynett and finally to Lynetta, each name change elevating her socially. The truth is simply what you say it is, judged only by what gets you ahead. If you’re not getting ahead, you invent some more truth, as any Brexiteer will tell you. This was the woman who was to give birth to Jim Jones.
Truth costs money, as any special effects peddler will tell you and Miss Putnam knew it too. To take her rightful position in society she needed funding. The best way for a woman in those days to achieve funding was through marriage and through opting for Mr Jones, she became Mrs Jones. Alas, as so often happens, although Mr Jones was some years her senior, he failed to keep Mrs Jones in the style to which she would liked to have become accustomed. Right now, her life looked pretty bleak against what she had been expecting. And then on May 18, 1931 she gave birth to Jim in Crete, Indiana – and no, I’d never heard of the place either and as far as Lynetta was concerned, neither had anyone else, at least no-one in society, no-one who mattered. More truth needed.
Jim’s father, a WW1 veteran invalided through a poison gas attack was almost totally written out of the script at this stage. He no longer mattered. He was now surplus to requirements. The narrative had to be adjusted again and so it went on. Little Jim Jones became part of the ever changing narrative. As little Jim Jones became bigger Jim Jones, his narrative changed too. He began developing controlling techniques over some of the younger kids while still managing to ingratiate himself with the local adults. The beast, if you want to see it like that, had been released.
Every effective self promoter uses the tools available and tools in the deprived mid-west mid-fifties America, tools were limited. So, Jim had to fall back on the old reliable – religion. Yep, Jim went into Christianity and moved from small-town bible-punching to big time preaching. His charismatic personality, commanding presence and fiery oratory drew an ever bigger following. And just like that similarly endowed bible puncher from Northern Ireland, he started his own church, the People’s Temple. But while making people feel good, telling them they are the chosen few en route to the promised land brings in the business, being able to deliver tangible, earth-checkable results, would bring in even more. Like his claimed role model of two millennia earlier, Jim Jones realised you need something extra: you have to prove that this stuff works. Yep, he started doing miracles. Mr. Jones’ healing touch, his simple laying of hands, cured the afflicted of cancer, back pain, headaches and every other disease you could think of. The congregation could see for themselves the instant cures as the once afflicted spat out their cancerous growths or walked upright to the general joy. And all because Jim Jones “The Father” had a special link with God – and the collection plate was never far behind the miracles. An ever growing band of willing helpers worked the collections while plugging all the leaks. Of course there were sceptics – there are always spoilsports – but some were won over on experiencing “The Father’s” power. One chap donated his last 68 cents to the collection plate and was stunned a few minutes later when he was praised from the pulpit by “The Father” himself, for donating his last 68 cents which meant so much, so much more than $500 from a rich man. The donor was stunned. How on earth could “The Father” have known? There was only one possible explanation! He had a special link to God.
Of course the increasingly large band of true believers didn’t ask any awkward questions; they didn’t need to. They could see the evidence right in front of their own eyes; Jim Jones had a special link with God, a special link that no-one else had. Some even wondered if he were “the second coming”. (Well, guess who’s back in town). They certainly didn’t need to know that the illards in the congregation were carefully choreographed plants – the men in the audience at a wild west medicine show. And they didn’t need to know that the 68 cent convert was overheard by a strategically placed listener as the collection plate drew close. “The Father” had many willing helpers who would go to some very questionable lengths to assist in God’s work. The miracles simply strengthened the faith.
In my school way back in history, we had priest – just one of many who ran the joint. Commenting on the pre-unit Christians torn apart by hungry lions in the Colosseum, he explained their willingness to accept their fate (as martyrs) was down to their direct witnessing of the miracles by the man from Nazareth which, he explained, “must have made their faith very strong”. Even at the time, when I was still in the congregation, so to speak, I wondered if this priest’s faith had therefore been somewhat diluted over time. Maybe it had been; some years later it emerged that he was a child molester. See – this is why you need belt-fed miracles; they stop the stuff from wearing off: who cares where they come from.
And so it went con. The People’s Temple grew and grew and the congregations expanded in size as did the funding streams which in turn allowed for further expansion. “The Father” told them that one day they would find the promised land and he even set out looking for it in the United States. Doubts, objections and discrepancies were overcome through a series of deft touches and outright denials that the faithful followers were only too willing to accept. “The Father” was always right. With displays of loyalty matching those admirers of Trump or Johnson, there were always explanations for Jones’ peccadilloes and shortcomings such as sleeping with the congregation’s younger women, excessive drinking, frequent drug taking and lax accounting; “The Father” just had to work so hard, was carrying such a great mission and had so much responsibility that naturally he needed a little relaxation, a little escape from the world and in any case, his special status granted him an exemption from the rules. His wife, originally attracted by his missionary zeal, seemed blind-eyed willing to agree to that exemption.
As the People’s Temple grew, attracting more and more followers, it was was also attracting more and more attention from people who were taking a very different view. To many, the Jim Jones show, while using the language of Christianity, was looking more and more like a cult. Even some branches of government began taking an interest. Jones always had a rebuff, an answer and many, many explanations – a veritable plethora of avoidance, denial and new narrative techniques that would have done Trump or Johnson proud. And of course, the more the scrutiny, the more Jones could present it as a government conspiracy, controlled by the forces of evil, to prevent the people from finding the truth, a narrative – or series of them – that his followers willingly accepted. There’s a great attraction in a simple narrative. But Jones knew this pressure would only grow and his promised land would probably have to be somewhere outside the United States.
The promised land would be in Guyana, a former British Caribbean colony, east of Venezuela and north of Brazil. Never a man to hide his light under a bushel, Jones named the land “Jonestown”, a vanity hardly unique to the man: Cecil Rhodes and Amerigo Vespucci – and probably many others- beat him to it! It suited the People’s Temple because of the settlement’s remote jungle location and it suited the Guyanese government who were initially keen on the idea, not yet realising what they had on their hands. In 1974, the advance party arrived and began building the promised land in the form of an agricultural co-operative, where “The Father” and all his people would be safe for ever and ever. From all accounts this advance party, a very well motivated group, achieved considerable success, clearing a large area of inaccessible jungle and constructing many buildings, while Jim Jones stayed behind in America with the bulk of his flock, waiting for the right time to move.
1977 was that right time – the time of big migration. Jones arrived in the jungle with 1,000 followers, including his mother and about 300 children, adding to the population and construction of the promised land. This seems to have been a turning point. It appears that the morale of the original advance party who had achieved a lot under very hostile conditions, was now being slowly undermined. It looks like the old story of the over-powerful, control-freak of a boss. Everyone was subordinate to “The Father” – and everything, including everyone’s money. Among the more aware, doubts began arising but, deep in the jungle, there was little escape. “The Father” had willing spies everywhere; people became fearful of expressing their real opinions but, despite strict censorship, word began leaking out. Back home in the good old U.S. of A, the relatives of those already in the promised didn’t want to join them; they wanted them out! Pressure grew. When a delegation led by a Californian congressman arrived at the promised land in November 1978, Jim Jones knew the game was up. The irresistible force of his personality, church performances, miracles and carefully spun narratives collided with the immovable object of reality. He simply could not bear the scrutiny, a scrutiny against which his witch-doctor magic had no antidote. Having spent his whole life living in his own reality, he could not cope with anyone else’s. Something had to give. It did. The congressman, a few journalists and a would-be escapee were killed, shot by willing henchmen. The man – “The Father” – had truly burnt his bridges. A symbolic mass suicide, sold as “a revolutionary act”, was organised through mass ingestion of a cyanide laced drink, claimed to be flavoured of Kool-Aid, the 300 odd children getting the first taste from their own parents. As can be imagined, when it came to the adults’ turn, not everyone was so thirsty but the loyal enforcement teams made sure there were no backsliders. Only a few escaped to tell the tale. For all Jones’ talk about the flavoured drink bringing a painless death, he, at the end, chose to go like a gentleman. He shot himself. And thus ended Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, its enduring legacy resonating through macabre warnings about “drinking the Kool-Aid”
By a curious coincidence, soon after I had finished reading the book, I met up with an old friend who, in fleeing a wretched life only a year before, fell under the spell of an English man in small town France, who would provide her with sanctuary. She had known the man for some years, attending some of his obliquely spiritual lectures delivered to small audiences of the equally oblique. At first, she felt thrilled to have escaped the endless pressures and stresses of her former life, revelling in the peace, space and security provided by this wonderful spiritual healer who also stood platitudinously “for peace”. But gradually she realised she was merely out of the proverbial frying pan. Her sanctuary came at a high cost, or as The Eagles sang in Lying Eyes “I guess every form of refuge has its price”. As she told me what had happened, a picture of another self styled guru, an apprentice Jim Jones, began emerging: he felt an entitlement to everything she had; he invaded her private space in his place; he went through her things; she was forbidden any friends; he presumed use of her library cards and demanded she pay his bills. Just like Jim Jones. This could only end badly. One day when he was away on a trip, she took the plunge and did a runner, fleeing her ‘sanctuary’, while she still had a chance at some sort of a life.
So there it is. The story of a deranged, hypocritical narcissist, a self-styled guru peddling himself as a gateway to the promised land, who deliberately fooled a lot of weak and vulnerable people, while making himself rich in the process. When the truth caught up with him, not only did he evade responsibility, he ensured that over 900 people, 300 of them children, would never see the light of another day. An ego-tripping, evil bastard finally leaves the planet – and good riddance, too! Pity about all the suicides, and especially the child murders, because that’s what they were. Story over – done, dusted and defined. Or is it? In our endless search for “pure evil” headlines, so beloved of the Daily Mail, can we embrace Jim Jones as a fine example?
Yes, Jim Jones was all the above. But there was something else too. He was a staunch anti-racist right from the start and remember, we’re talking about mid fifties America here. Jim Jones insisted that there be no segregation in his church, even ensuring that there would be no bunching. Black and white would be spread evenly along the pews. Of course, it wasn’t to everyone’s taste; it seemed downright contrary to some. A number of would-be collaborative churches from the early days stopped collaborating and some members of ‘the flock’ bailed out. But Jim Jones would not back down. In the curious field of competing Christians, where colour coding was a primary source of identity, the People’s Temple was a distinct oddity. But it worked. Over the years, visitors remarked that they had never witnessed such an easy integration of different races. For all that, however, right to the end, virtually all the senior positions, the inner coterie, were held by whites.
But there was another issue, something more troubling, and still not resolved over time, unlike racial segregation, however imperfectly. Jim Jones picked up the weak, the vulnerable, the aimless, and the hopeless and gave them, yes, hope. He instilled in them a sense of worth and self confidence, leading some to undertake projects of which they would once have never believed themselves capable. He gave them that all-important encouragement. It wasn’t just words: he organised proper skills training among his followers, training that brought them commercial benefit. In modern management parlance, he believed in them. Yes, ultimately it was all for his benefit but others benefited too, at least for a while. Is is any wonder he had such a dedicated band of supporters.
I used to have a boss, a devious control freak, that many people could not stand, let alone trust. Yet, I learned so much from that man. He taught me how to get things done. He had a remarkable ability to pitch explanations of things electronic exactly at the very level of the person he was talking to, without condescension. He was the driving force of the company’s expansion and success. One ex-employee who fell out with him early on – as did I eventually – admitted that without him the company would be just the other director and his pal “working out of a garden shed”. He was a man of great brilliance and many flaws; an emotional cripple, he could not bear to be challenged. In romance, matters sexual really, he oscillated between women his own age, who would challenge, and teenagers who wouldn’t, but couldn’t stimulate him either, intellectually at least. He eventually committed suicide on the day he was due to be sentenced for child abuse. Even as I write, I am struck by the parallels with Jim Jones – and this guy even gathered a little fan base (cult?) around him too, some of whom still say he was stitched up. To this day, I wrestle with this fundamental paradox.
At the beginning of this review I said that Jeff Guinn tells the whole story, or nearly all of it. So what does he leave out? I have no complaints at all up to the end; the book is well written, very detailed in a very readable way, and wonderfully researched. The problem is at the end. It stops too soon. Indeed, right to the end, I was expecting an explanation and exploration of the type of mindset that would fall under the spell, not just of Jim Jones, but all cult leaders; I was also expecting – or at least hoping for – interviews with the surviving members of the People’s Temple to see what they made of it all, for good or ill. I would be intrigued to hear the opinion of the old woman who escaped the Kool-Aid crew because she was asleep when they called and assumed she’d already taken the medicine. She woke up to find everyone around her dead – all in the name of “The Father”. Now, that would have been one hell of a story!
The Road to Jonestown Review (r13) © Stephen Kearney January 2023