Ten months in, I can safely say it: this book about the life and times of Jim Jones is the toughest project I’ve ever undertaken. And after having written books about Bonnie and Clyde, the gunfight at the OK Corral, the forced migration of the Seminole Negroes, and – most recently – Charles Manson, I think you’ll see I don’t make this statement lightly.
There’s just so much to the subject of Jim Jones – his times, his personal history, his contemporary influence, his legacy – so many layers and levels. To put it charitably, the times were turbulent, and to provide context, I’ll review events dating all the way back to Indiana leadership’s reluctance to join the Union as a full-fledged state rather than remain a territory. (Territories were subsidized by the federal government; states paid their own way, which meant levying taxes. Hoosiers were, and remain, notoriously thrifty.) Jones’ life is a mishmash of mythology, misassumptions, and, thanks in large part to the man himself, clever deceptions. Then there’s the incredibly complex issue of Peoples Temple in all its jumbled dimensions. The second time I met Fielding McGehee, the co-manager of this site, he said what I was thinking: “It’s like the story of the six blind men and the elephant: everybody thinks it’s something different.”
So the constant challenge for me is trying to figure out one thing at a time. Anything else results in massive information overload. On previous books (this is my seventeenth), the problem has been getting critical interviews and turning up sufficient paper trail for appropriate documentation. This time around, there’s almost too much to process, much of it flawed because so many previous authors and researchers went in with the goal of proving whatever it was that they already thought they knew. My advantage, if I have one, is that I always start with no preconceptions (critics might term it “ignorance”), and the deeper into this research I get, the more I am reminded how much I still have to learn.
Every person I talk to recommends three or four others who are crucial to even basic understanding. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with everybody else, or that the recommended next source is someone who’ll echo what I’ve just heard. Mike Cartmell, for instance, told me that Garry Lambrev would probably remember many things entirely different than he did. But he urged me to talk to Garry anyway, saying he was smart and insightful and would have many valuable things to share. Mike was right on all counts.
And the constantly-expanding challenge isn’t limited to human memory. Each FBI file I peruse under FOIA acquisition – about 66,000 pages total – contains some tantalizing nugget of information that demands further inquiry. Boxes within boxes within boxes, and no two the same size or shape.
And so I whine, and then I keep trying, until I reach a point – maybe in the spring of next year – when it’s time to start writing. Almost immediately, I’ll figure out all the things that I still need to research. The learning process always seems endless, and with this book I’m scared that it really might turn out to be.
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After these ten months, though, there’s one thing I feel that I do know for certain, and it’s something several people asked me about at the amazing gathering in San Diego on September 6th. As I mentioned, my last book was about Charles Manson. I chose Jones’ life to chronicle next not because I’m obsessed with horrific tragedy, but because I wanted to follow the cultural segue from the 1960s into the 1970s. In San Diego, I was frequently asked – most times politely, a few times quite sharply – “Do you think Manson and Jim Jones were alike? Are you going to write that the Manson Family and Peoples Temple are the same?”
No, and no.
Comparing Charles Manson to Jim Jones is like comparing Mickey Mouse to Machiavelli. Manson was a lowlife hustler who lucked into a time and place where his limited shtick could temporarily attract a few dozen drug-addled, confused kids. Jones was often intellectually and usually instinctively brilliant; his appeal was far broader, and he had something to offer the gifted and the sincere as well as the desperate. Nobody followed Charles Manson for more than a few years. A considerable number of Jones congregants stayed with him for decades.
But an even greater difference, to me, is the disparity between Manson Family members and those who joined Peoples Temple. Manson’s followers came to him for selfish reasons. He offered unlimited drugs and sex, and promised them that in return for their devotion, he’d help them initiate an apocalyptic race war which he called Helter Skelter, after which they would rule the world. Jim Jones appealed to the best in humanity: Let’s all work together to bring about a socialist system where everyone is valued. All these years later, not one of Manson’s surviving followers can point to anything positive that they accomplished in their time with him. For all the tragedy involved, Peoples Temple did a tremendous amount of good. People in need really were helped. As Rev. John V Moore told me in San Diego, “Care and dignity were offered, sincerely, to the least among us.”
Another difference – perhaps just as telling and demonstrative of what I’ve observed – is that for the most part, Manson’s former followers genuinely detest each other now. In interviews, they vie to make each other look bad. But I perceive genuine affection among the Peoples Temple/Jonestown group. Sure, there’s some individual friction – it’s inevitable with so many disparate and often strong personalities – but there are uniquely shared experiences, too, even beyond the commonality of loss that binds them together. In a way, it reminds me of soldiers who have survived particularly gruesome combat: You were there, you suffered to heartbreaking extent, you witnessed and experienced things which to some extent remain beyond human capacity to express, and you’re still around and carrying on.
I can’t, at this still-early date, know the words that I’ll use, the things that I think will help readers understand. But I do know, and will write, this: Peoples Temple was not the same as the Manson Family. Core intentions of members were altruistic, not selfish. This is a critical distinction.
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All of my books – both nonfiction and novels – focus on real history as opposed to popular mythology. As objectively and accurately as possible, I want to tell readers what really happened, and to do that I first need help in understanding it myself. And I need more help for this book than for any other I’ve written.
In the months ahead, as I talk to more people and go more places – for example, I recently had my shots for my November trip to Guyana – I hope I’ll continue to learn. When I write my book, I’ll do all I can to tell the whole story, the one that shares history with readers, not mythology or personal bias.
When all this is over, though, I recognize already that another unique thing about this book among all my others is that I’m meeting so many people that I simply like, and look forward to knowing long into the future.
(Jeff Guinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)