Occam’s razor, a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but – in the absence of certainty – the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.
Even before reading a single word from the book itself, I was intrigued by what author Will Savive wrote about it on the back cover. Jonestown: Don’t Drink the Kool Aid was not only a complete history of Jim Jones, it might also give further analysis on what may have been “the real cause of this tragedy.” This promised to be interesting, I thought. Ever since November 18, 1978, there have been more ad hoc hypotheses about the “real story” of Jonestown than you can shake a stick at. Nevertheless, I decided to keep an open mind and give this book a shot. In the end, I’m glad that I did.
I think most people will agree with the major conclusions of the story. However, towards the end – specifically, in the last few chapters – the book takes a precipitous turn into the realm of conspiracy during which the author presents several alternatives to the popularly-accepted Jonestown narrative. Official sounding operational names like MKULTRA and ARTICHOKE become ubiquitous. Brainwashed assassins and CIA plotters lurk in the jungle and in the book’s page. Longtime member Don Sly, aka “Ujara,” attacked Congressmen Leo Ryan, not on Jim Jones’ orders, but rather, it is suggested, as a result of CIA mind control. Ryan himself was said to have been targeted by the CIA because he had made trouble for the agency recently, and Jonestown would provide the best opportunity to be rid of him. Military personnel who went into Jonestown hours after the massacre claim that they were ordered to kill any survivors who may have run into the jungle and drag them back to the pavilion.
I didn’t get the impression that Savive necessarily subscribed to any of these points of view, or that he was trying to convince anyone one way or the other. It seemed like he simply presented some of the more prevalent conspiracy theories out there for the reader to make up his or her own mind.
The first fourteen chapters of the book offer a more familiar history, starting out framed against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Jones’ mother Lynetta comes off like the unsinkable Molly Brown with her hellbent determination and guff, a woman who, against all odds, kept her family fed while also taking care of her ailing husband. By the time Jimmy came into the picture, the family was living in the small town of Crete, Indiana before moving to Lynn a few years later. Jones was in many ways a child prodigy, precocious, and – as one Pentecostal pastor put it – “destined for great things.” However; he had a penchant for religious zealotry which put him at odd with most boys his age who preferred to be on a basketball court as opposed to listing to a sermon about Hell, fire and damnation. Because Lynetta was the breadwinner of the family, and Jones’ father had other problems and priorities, the young Jim Jones was left to his own devices much of the time and developed some peculiarities that largely went unnoticed as a result, such as the time he locked his friends in a loft, or when he shot his best friend Don Freedman in the stomach with his BB gun for no apparent reason.
Other incidents offer some insights and possible predictors of Jones’ future. As a teenager, Jones got into a fight with his buddy, the same Don Freedman he had shot a few years earlier. As a result they quit talking for a while, but then one day Jones invited his friend over to his house ostensibly to bury the hatchet. Don accepted the invitation, went to Jim’s house, ate lunch and hung out for a while. When Don wanted to go home, though, Jones was having none of it and cajoled him into staying longer. His friend acquiesced at first, but eventually put his foot down and insisted on leaving, even pushing his way out. At this point Jones went from benevolent to menacing and angry. Don probably never thought in a 100 years that his visit with Jones would end up with rifle rounds cracking overhead as he ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
The recurring theme throughout this book is contradiction and irony. On one hand, Jones enjoyed rock star popularity and endeared himself to scores of important people. His fiery sermons would awaken and stir the passions of his congregation. Parishioners would dance and shout with joyful exaltations as Jones harangued the crowd into a frenzy. But while he presented himself in public as a champion of the disenfranchised and railed against totalitarianism and social injustice, behind the scenes he acted more like the Roman Emperor Caligula. Example after example fill the book’s pages of Jim Jones alternating between philanthropy and despotism with ever-increasing sexual depravity and degradation. Not even the members of the Planning Commission were exempt, and were subject to some of the worse examples of perverse humiliation.
Savive devotes some time to several of Jones’ followers in Peoples Temple – including Deborah Layton, the Mills family, and the two Moore sisters, Carolyn and Annie – and portrays them as real people who loved each other and the work they were doing.
But the real path the book takes us on is that of Jim Jones, beginning in Indiana and moving inexorably forward on the march to Jonestown. So great was this calamity that, in the minds of many people, it can be explained only through a great conspiracy. I understand people’s need to do this, and the truth is, we many never know for sure. What we do know is that each person who survived has but a piece of this story singed into their souls, an extraordinary experience told in the lines of their faces and intertwined into every part of their being on this long and arduous road to re-claim their lives.