The Gifted Demagogue

Road-Jonestown225It’s interesting that the dust jacket for The Road to Jonestown, Jeff Guinn’s biography Jim Jones, features a photograph of the infamous preacher without his signature, nearly ubiquitous sunglasses. Despite the scale of the Jonestown tragedy – where more than 900 people died, willingly or not, on November 18, 1978 – the man behind the shades and his motivations have remained mysterious, in part because the event is simply hard to look at and difficult to comprehend.

Longtime journalist Jeff Guinn, however, doesn’t mind an occasional walk on the wild side. In the same way that his 2013 biography of Charles Manson dug deep to uncover the pivotal moments of the psychopath’s past (it features a boyish, smiling proto-cult-mastermind on its own jacket), Guinn unmasks Jones through interviews with the people who themselves knew him, from townspeople to his parishioners to his the reverend’s own family. The result is a dense read and full of detail, but none superfluous. Images of a 12-year-old walking Indiana backroads - black suit-clad and a bible in hand – and conducting imaginary funeral services alone, in the woods, are weird and indelible. As we witness Jones’s ascent - driven by a blend of well-honed charisma and inclusive, Marxist ideals - then his fall into megalomania and madness, it all makes a little more sense, at least as much as monstrosity at such scale can. The jungles of Guyana may have reclaimed the site of one of the 20th century’s most notorious crime scenes, but The Road to Jonestown answers many of the questions that have persisted for almost 40 years, foremost: How did this happen? But another one remains: After Manson and Jones, where does Guinn go from here?

We asked him that, among other things. The Road to Jonestown is a top 10 selection for Amazon.com's best books for April 2017.

Amazon Book Review: As you approached this book, were you familiar with Jones outside of what we know from the headlines? What were the surprises that arose from your research?

Jeff Guinn: I shared the general misconception that Jim Jones and Peoples Temple embodied the most basic of tragic scenarios - relatively mindless people following an obvious charlatan to predictable doom. "Don't drink the Kool-Aid" has become our national catchphrase for this. But the truth was much different, much more complex and fascinating. I've never been so surprised by what I learned in researching any of my other books. Above all, without excusing Jones's excesses and not in any sense overlooking the tragedy in Guyana, Jones and the members of Peoples Temple accomplished great things in Indiana, California and even, to some extent, in Jonestown, fulfilling their proclaimed mission of "feeding the hungry, clothing the naked." That they proved so capable of positive achievement makes the events of Nov. 18, 1978 even more tragic.

You interviewed several people close to Jones, including friends and family members. What were the reactions from your subjects? Were they accommodating, or averse to rehashing this unsavory business?

Members of Jones's immediate family and former Temple members demonstrated great courage in speaking with me in great, often horrifying detail. Most have spent the decades following the Jonestown tragedy trying to rebuild their lives and, in whatever ways possible, coming to terms with what they once saw and did. It was this honesty that allowed me to write a book that - I hope - not only puts their story into proper historical perspective (nothing of historical significance ever occurs in a vacuum), but offers some insight into the methodology of demagogues that might prove useful in modern-day America.

Along with Toobin’s book on Patricia Hearst (and Selvin’s book on Altamont), this seems to be a bit of a moment for reflecting on some of the more extraordinary events of the late 60s and 70s. Why do you think this might be happening now?

With hindsight, we recognize that the social and moral confusion of the late 1960s and early 1970s is part of a cultural cycle; we're in a similar time of upheaval in the sense that the nation is divided upon itself, and some of the present schisms appear both terrifying and permanent. It's true that unless we learn from the past, we're condemned to repeat it. Perhaps the most critical lesson from the turbulent 60s-'70s is that, however shakily, America survived, only to re-enter this desperate phase within a single generation. So although we haven't before, we still have a chance to think about and learn from what happened then, and, understanding ourselves better, come together and get through this current era of bitterness in a more positive, lasting way.

Jones wanted to become a minister from a young age, and his early career was marked by an inclusiveness and idealism that produced positive results. What changed? How does that path turn into the one that led to tragedy at such a scale? What, if anything, is there to learn from this story?

Anytime a leader is allowed to say what and act how he pleases without restraint, when followers are encouraged never to question any of his words and actions and an angry sense of "us versus them" is fostered, then things will end badly no matter how well-intentioned those followers might be. Anyone claiming to be the only leader with all the right answers should never be placed in a position of ultimate power. Jim Jones was a gifted demagogue, and he led his followers to their doom. That's what demagogues in any era do.

With Bonnie and Clyde, Manson, and Jones, you’ve chosen some difficult topics. What draws you to them, and where do you go from here?

I find no personal attraction in tragedy. I do think that how certain individuals gained notoriety in life and permanent historic places in death tells us a lot about the times in which they lived. The past always has valuable lessons to offer, if we're only willing to look for them. My next nonfiction won't involve horrific events, but it will still be about iconic individuals, and how things they did reflect not only their lives and times, but still affect us today. If I can Iive and work long enough, I hope to write books that follow eras in American history from the settling of the western frontier right up to the present day. Hopefully readers will find them of some value.

 


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