The Road to Jonestown

Jim Jones and Peoples Temple

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Jeff Guinn
  • New York, NY: 
    Simon & Shuster
    , April
     2017.
     544 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781476763828.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Like many accounts of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown begins at the end of the story. Guinn’s prologue tells the tale of a “gruesome scene” of “sheer slaughter,” of “innumerable heaps of the dead” found in an “eerily quiet” jungle by the Guyana Defense Force on November 9th, 1978 (2, 5-6). The familiarity of this depiction of Jonestown, however, only underscores the differences between his ensuing account of Peoples Temple and previous histories. Discarding a sensationalist lens that renders Peoples Temple “almost beyond imagination, let alone description,” Guinn’s sympathetic-yet-critical evaluation of new source material creates a detailed and readable history that raises important questions regarding inherited narratives of what happened to Peoples Temple (6).

Guinn conflates his history of Peoples Temple with a biography of its leader, Jim Jones (1931–1978). His choice to make Jones the central figure of the Temple’s story is somewhat unusual, given the increasing tendency by researchers and scholars to focus on Jones’s assistants or rank-and-file members as a way to humanize tragedy, dissipate blame, or reflect demographic complexity. As a history and a biography centering on Jones, however, The Road to Jonestown deftly weaves together the mesh of mid-20th century American religion, politics, and race that shaped Jones and the Temple.

Commendably, Guinn devotes an approximately proportionate amount of space in each section of the book—“Indiana,” California,” and “Guyana”—to the Temple’s temporal existence in each location. Prologue aside, The Road to Jonestown patiently chronicles the Temple’s birth in Indiana and growth in California rather than allowing the movement’s infamous end to overawe its earlier development. Guinn’s analysis of civic politics and demographics in each location is especially helpful for contextualizing Peoples Temple. By explicating the social issues present in each of the Temple’s homes, Guinn avoids exoticization and demonstrates Jones’s ability to match his message to the needs of particular audiences. Guinn’s investigative “road” to Jonestown thus avoids murderous retrospections: while he highlights events that clearly shaped Jones’s later teachings, Guinn mostly eschews fashioning Jones’s early history into a dubious foretelling of tragedy.

The most striking aspect of The Road to Jonestown is the level of detail that emerges from Guinn’s research, especially for readers already familiar with Peoples Temple. Supplementing his substantial collection of interviews with primary and secondary sources generated both by Peoples Temple and later researchers, Guinn’s work adds both clarity and depth to the Temple’s history. This admirable attention to detail, however, underscores The Road to Jonestown’s participation in a lengthy canon of Jonestown research. Guinn’s book feels like a high-definition remastering of the Temple story—its sharp detail brings out new points of interest, but the story’s contours and cast of characters remain familiar and predictable.

While Guinn is clearly aware of other investigations into Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, The Road to Jonestown fails to meaningfully situate itself in relation to previous research. Apart from several non-specific references to works that “completely misinterpret, and historically misrepresent” the Temple by comparing Jones to “murderous demagogues such as Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson,” Guinn does little to identify gaps in Temple research that his own work fills (172). 

In 2000, Jonestown scholar Rebecca Moore contributed an article to Nova Religio that addressed the titular question “Is the Canon on Jonestown Closed?” Reflecting on the dissonance between ongoing research and popular knowledge, Moore worried that widely-known public narratives detailing the Temple’s history resisted revisions arising from new evidence or alternate viewpoints, thus “closing” the canon. As one heir to this tension between inherited narratives and innovative retellings, it is pertinent to ask if The Road to Jonestown perpetuates or challenges the commonly-rehearsed stories of Peoples Temple.

Guinn’s work represents a partial “opening” of the canon, sharpening—but not significantly altering—widely-accepted stories of Jones’s movement in two significant ways. First, Guinn uses primary archival sources not available to earlier researchers and captures both institutional and personal memory in his interviews. These sources provide emergent insights into familiar events, shedding new light on the Temple’s motivations and outcomes. As a biographer of Jones, however, he under-utilizes the hundreds of audiotapes created by Peoples Temple. Allowing that “on surviving tapes, [Jones’s] sermons sound interminable and frequently incoherent,” Guinn nevertheless asserts that “careful examination suggest they were less stream-of-consciousness than they seemed” (214). Although these tapes are a logical resource for analyzing Jones’s contributions to Peoples Temple, Guinn references them only infrequently.

Second, The Road to Jonestown presents Jones and Peoples Temple as complex and multi-dimensional entities. Jones appears as a sincere but flawed man, and the Temple as a reactive product of the Cold War and the civil rights movement. Wrestling with apparent idiosyncrasies, Guinn develops a tension between Jones’s laudable desire to help others and his growing paranoia and manipulative tendencies, finally asking “was Jim Jones always bad, or was he gradually corrupted by a combination of ambition, drugs, and hubris?” (466). The Road to Jonestown never resolves this tension, portraying Jones as both capable/genuine and flawed/duplicitous. Although this mix of characteristics is accurate, it would have been helpful for Guinn to explicitly introduce this motivational paradox at the book’s outset in order to dispel—or, at least, signal—the apparently contradictory and frenetic depictions of Jones that permeate the text. As it is, The Road to Jonestown occasionally struggles against the challenge of presenting a coherent sympathetic-yet-critical evaluation of Jones.

The Road to Jonestown represents a step towards opening the Jonestown canon on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the mass murder/suicides. Despite some shortcomings, Guinn’s attention to detail, contextualizing work, and multi-dimensional portrayal of Jones generates a history of Peoples Temple that engagingly narrates the Temple’s trajectory for new readers and provides new clarity for those familiar with the movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kristian Klippenstein is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeff Guinn is a former award-winning investigative journalist and the bestselling author of numerous books, including Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How It Changed the West, and Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. Guinn lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

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