Review of The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn, published by Simon & Schuster, 531 pp, hardback $28.00.
In an article I wrote for the jonestown report in 2013, I predicted that the future literature on Peoples Temple would focus less on Jim Jones and more on the membership. After all, Jim Jones has been dead for nearly 40 years, so what else could be left to write about? I also predicted that small presses and university presses would publish these future works. I confess that I failed to consider the power of anniversaries. Apart from 2008, every ten years has brought a marked increase in publishing about Peoples Temple. Thus, I was surprised to read that a major publishing house was putting out a new biography on Jim Jones. However, I was pleased to learn that Jeff Guinn was the author, for reasons that will become evident in this review.
When a new book on a subject I already know a lot about comes out, there are criteria I use to judge whether it will be worth the time to read. First, how long has it been since a book on this subject has been published? Second, is the author taking a new approach, or have they accessed previously unknown materials?
For example, in 2016 Volker Ullrich published a new biography on Adolf Hitler. I did not buy it. I have already read several works on Hitler and the Third Reich and based on the reviews, I decided there was not much new information. There was, however, a book published that same year called Blitzed by Norman Ohler which provided a serious examination of Hitler’s drug use and the effect that had on his ability to lead Germany in World War II. This is a subject that had not been given much attention by previous authors, so I bought it. It was an interesting read in an area that needs more serious research.
These were the criteria I applied to Jeff Guinn’s new biography of Jim Jones, The Road to Jonestown. While Jones’ specter will always be woven into Peoples Temple literature, it has been, at a minimum, at least twenty years since a major publishing house has issued a work on Jones, and indeed, it could be argued that Reiterman was the last true biography of the man. Peoples Temple literature of the last twenty years has either been survivor accounts (Wagner-Wilson 2008; Johnston Kohl 2010; O’Shea 2011; Stoen 2015), books that consider a narrow constituency of People Temple (Bellefountaine 2011), scholarly assessments (Moore, Pinn, Sawyer 2004; Moore, 2009), and volumes that focus more on the membership (Scheeres, 2011; Fondakowski, 2012). These have been helpful in growing our knowledge of the subject, but a general all-around biography has been absent.
As to the second criteria, Guinn’s biography on Manson had brought forward a great deal of new information, and I expected that a new book on Jones would do so also. Does Guinn take a new approach? Has he accessed previously unknown or uncooperative resources? Yes. During Guinn’s reading at “Book People” in Austin, Texas, I asked if he had interviewed people who had refused to cooperate with or had been passed over by earlier biographers. He replied that Jones’ cousin, who was born the same year as Jones and lived on the same street with him agreed to be interviewed. He also spoke with people in Indianapolis who had been passed over, and with survivors who “talked in ways that they never had before.” Gaining these peoples’ trust took a long time, he explained, which is why the book gestated for so long.
It has been worth the wait.
The book is divided into three sections – Indiana, California, and Guyana – and methodically follows Jones and Peoples Temple from birth to death. Fittingly, the first chapter opens with Lynetta Jones, who had more influence on her son than anyone else. The book closes describing an overgrown site in the jungle. Between those two poles lies everything: childhood, Marceline, Father Divine, Brazil, Redwood Valley, drugs, money, sex, San Francisco, New West, John Victor, Jonestown, and the finale. Guinn’s interpretation, which he presents in the book and in the three interviews I’ve either listened to or seen, is that Jones was a demagogue, but he was a demagogue who appealed to the better angels of our nature. Join Peoples Temple, feed the hungry, shelter the poor, and heal the sick: this is a very different message from the rest of the 20th century’s demagogues who based their appeals in hate and fear. And it was this appeal that kept people around even when they had strong doubts about their leader.
I personally found the first section of the book – “Indiana” – to be the most interesting. It covers Jones’ life from Lynn until Brazil. This has always been the cloudiest part of his life, and there is a great deal of new information Guinn presents that provide early evidence of Jones’ flaws. For example, at the beginning of his ministryv, Jones met Ron Haldeman, a new source that previous authors had failed to interview. When Haldeman mentioned that he was a Quaker, Jones said he was also a Quaker and had been educated at Quaker schools. Both assertions were complete falsehoods, told by a man desperate for some affiliation with an established religious group. It was the first of many other lies he told Haldeman. This provides new insight on Jones, that the seeds of his problems were there from the very beginning.
A stunning new insight Guinn offers is how important his wife Marceline was from the very beginning. When Jones became involved in politics in Indianapolis, Marceline, whose father had been a city councilman, was the one who studied the fine print in civic issues and helped Jones present himself in a way to get through to politicians. She showed him how to work with the system to get something for all concerned parties. Her contributions are important, and she finally gets credit where credit is due.
Section two, “California” can be summed up in one quote: “But at some point, each follower heard something that reaffirmed his or her personal reason for belonging to Peoples Temple, and for believing in Jim Jones” (p. 215). That became necessary, for it was in the West where things begin to sour. As his power grew, so did his demagoguery, and so did what was wrong inside of him. But while documenting Jones’ descent, Guinn carefully points out that no one joins a “death cult,” that the situation that unfolded was the proverbial frog in the pan of boiling water. The members of Peoples Temple practiced good works – medicine, addiction recovery, legal services – and Guinn takes care to extol those good works. In a way, he is attempting to rehabilitate the cultural memory of dead who cannot speak for themselves. The popular cultural memory of Peoples Temple, which I touch on in another article in this edition of the jonestown report, is not a good one. Guinn attempts to restore their memory as much as he is tries to explain why these events happened.
The third section, “Guyana” covers a lot of familiar ground but I found a few new revelations, particularly about Peoples Temple’s finanical situation, especially the shortfall that it faced each month, which seems strange when one considers that the organization had millions of dollars stashed in bank accounts throughout Europe and Panama. It is a testament to Guinn’s skill that he can juggle the multiple storylines of November 18th so well.
Although a truly excellent work, the book has some shortcomings. First are the missing voices whom I can only surmise did not want to be involved. Deborah Layton is absent, but her book, other interviews, and legal documents are well known to anyone familiar with Temple history. Stephan Jones’ previous writings are excerpted, but there are no new interviews with him either. Tim Stoen is also absent, but his recently published erratic memoir stands in for him. Also absent, as always, is Grace Stoen and thus, any conclusive answers as to John Victor’s paternity. There is a curious endnote though, that “in 1972 and afterward, Grace said that Jim Jones was the father of her son” (p. 489, note 233). Unfortunately, Guinn does not reveal who that quote comes from.
Other shortcomings are either the fault of the realities of publishing or based on my expectations. For example, I wish some minor characters were not so minor. I realize the primary focus is on Jim Jones, so people like Mark Lane and Joe Mazor get pushed into brief descriptions. This is a shame, as I feel Guinn might be one of the few people capable of getting to the bottom of whatever Joe Mazor was doing in working for both the Concerned Relatives and Peoples Temple. But, I recognize that publishers are hesitant about publishing 700-800 page books. I also recognize that Guinn was writing for a broad audience who may not want to go down every rabbithole that opens in the narrative.
Nevertheless, this is an excellent book. Even for people who have read deeply on the subject, as I think most of us have, it offers some new revelations. For people with little knowledge of the man or the events, it is an ideal – bordering on perfect – book for introducing the subject and more importantly, for rehabilitating the dead of Jonestown in cultural memory, that for the most part, these were good people who found themselves in a place where hope ran out.
(Jason Dikes is an associate adjunct professor of US history at Austin Community College and Adult Services Librarian for the Leander Public Library. His other two articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Podcasting & Peoples Temple and Podcasts: A Primer. His previous article is A Brief and General Overview of Jonestown Historiography. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)