Jim Jones: Peoples Person

The Road to Jonestown deftly chronicles the life and times of the Rev. Jim Jones, the delusional narcissist whose megalomania led to the mass suicide of 900 people in 1978.

Jim Jones in front of the International Hotel, 848 Kearny St. in San Francisco in 1977. (Photo by Nancy Wong)

The Rev. Jim Jones was many things: a dubiously ordained cleric, a showman, a utopian socialist, an avowed anti-racist, a drug addict, a San Francisco power broker, and a murderous mini-tyrant directly responsible for the deaths of 918 people in the jungle of northwestern Guyana in November 1978, nine days before the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Sup. Harvey Milk.

More prosaically, Jones was also a bad father and a worse husband. Biographer Jeff Guinn’s 468-page account of his life, The Road to Jonestown, makes those ordinary foibles feel like nothing-burgers — even if, for Jones, bad parenting meant doing an end-run around his wife’s attempt to leave him by telling her, “You will be meat by the avengers of death” in front of their children.

Villains can make irresistible protagonists, however. If the Jim Jones whom Guinn reveals remains somewhat unknowable — a larger-than-life figure who lied constantly and seems to have trusted no one — he’s still a compelling presence. It’s as if, even in death, Jones never takes off the shades he wore to disguise his perpetually bloodshot eyes.

Born in small-town Indiana in 1931, Jones had a relatively unhappy childhood as the loner son of the local outcasts. He married young and moved to Indianapolis to begin a ministry that quickly grew in stature with his strident desegregation campaigns. (The unconventionally punctuated name “Peoples Temple” came from the abandoned Jewish house of worship where the young congregation first took up.) Restless, power-hungry, and prone to overplaying his hand, Jones later moved his flock to the hills outside Ukiah, Calif., where it gradually evolved into a cult of personality under an increasingly unstable shepherd.

Throughout the book, Guinn evinces a steady hand at narrative control. Chapters are short, and occasionally end in mildly trumped-up cliffhangers, but by and large, he resists any urge to psychoanalyze his quarry from afar. He knows when to let details build up and when to avoid sinking into quicksand. Almost 40 years after the death of Jones, his family, and most of his followers, primary sources are few in number, but there is only one obvious hole. Jones’ daughter, Agnes, whose supposedly difficult temperament explains her absence from most family photos, feels just as breezily dispatched from the book as she was from real life.

At times, Guinn seems to lack much of a nuanced feel for Christianity. Although we meet a fair share of institutional preachers — including the equally fascinating Philadelphia holy man who called himself Father Divine — there’s little attempt to contextualize Jones within anything wider like Jesus Movement, that back-to-the-land, post-hippie spiritual tradition that was rampant in 1970s California. When Guinn describes a return visit to Indiana during which Jones told a potential follower to “Come along now, and bring the deed to your house,” there’s no acknowledgment of the verse in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus tells would-be disciple to sell everything he owned in order to be saved. And some of the sections about Jones’ choice of followers feel hazy. At some points, he seems to have gravitated toward the broken and the easily manipulated, while at others, he appears to have mirrored Scientology’s approach and sought out stable, capable people he could mold into trusted lieutenants.

But to give credit where it’s due, Guinn couches his analysis of the madman’s true theology in dispassionate terms, without overdramatizing anything: “It’s impossible to be certain whether Jim Jones truly believe that he was God, or that he was the spirit of Jesus that appeared once in every generation. What’s inarguable is that he felt himself to be something beyond an ordinary man, that there was a special divinity in him.”

There’s little point in attempting to rehabilitate such a person, and Jones’ sins are many. He was a control freak, a hypocrite, and a statutory rapist. (He also happened to have been bisexual, and occasionally insisted everyone else was, too.) A passage of The Road to Jonestown in which he tests his core followers’ allegiance by pretending he’d laced their drink with poison reads all the more chillingly for being written in a near-deadpan. Still, it can’t be denied that for all his horrendous traits, Jones was genuinely moved to correct racial injustice in America. He may not have integrated his church hierarchy beyond mere tokenism, but he fought entrenched bureaucracies in multiple cities and states to make sure people were treated equally on the basis of race. (With that said, he was not above spreading outrageous, racially tinged falsehoods, including one whopper about a Black church in Houston that had “fallen under the control of the Ku Klux Klan” for not thrilling to his guest sermon about how only fools worshipped the “Sky God.”)

But the most disturbing aspect — for Bay Area readers, anyway — is how close Jones got to the corridors of power in San Francisco. The tight 1978 mayoral election — which liberal George Moscone won in a run-off, 51-49 — was regarded to have been decided through the blunt force of Jones’ followers, bused into the Fillmore to get out the vote. Moscone, Willie Brown, then-Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dynally, and other political luminaries attended Peoples Temple services as a sign of respect, and if Guinn’s claims about Jones’ sermons are to be believed, they must have heard some wild stuff.

The book’s final third, which covers the disastrous final years of the agricultural colony in Guyana, only lubricates the sense of dread. The reader knows what’s coming, if not exactly how, or the degree to which the signs of impending catastrophe were obvious. (It’s a little like the movie Titanic that way, only better and grimmer.) One thing’s for certain: After reading The Road to Jonestown, you’ll think twice about casually throwing around the phrase “drank the Kool-Aid.”

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