A couple days ago, I found myself uttering a sentence that seemed impossible, not only to say, but to believe: “Jim Jones did a lot of really good things!” Amazingly, it’s true; as a pastor in Indianapolis, IN, he served for many years and helped a great number people in various ways. Much of that gets overshadowed, though, by that one really bad thing he did. Jeff Guinn’s book The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple sets out to tell the whole story, the good and the bad.
I was six years old when Jonestown happened, and for most of my life, pretty much all I knew about the whole situation was that ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ meant that you’d fallen victim to the words and ideas of someone, most likely not a good someone. I knew nothing about Jim Jones the person, what he did, who followed him, why they were in Guyana (for a while, even the location of Guyana was a mystery to me). What happened in Jonestown is, of course, interesting in its own, horrific way, for many reasons: you’ve got a cult and its charismatic leader, some poison, meddling politicians, guns, and a very bad ending. Just as interesting, though, is how Jim Jones became that leader, and how he and his followers ended up the way they did.
Guinn fills in so much of the backstory, beginning with Jones’ parents, following him through his childhood and as he grows up poor in small town Indiana, always a little bit odd but unfailingly polite and overall well-liked. We see him grow into a young man during a time when race issues were beginning to percolate as populations shifted. He marries and moves to Indianapolis, where he starts on his path in earnest, gaining an ever-larger following with a combination of perseverance and good works, preaching on the Pentecostal circuit, and a bit of showmanship. He started by sharing store-front space with another congregation, and eventually was preaching to hundreds of people at a time. He worked to bring about integration before and after it was legally mandated, ran a free soup kitchen and clothing supply, and owned and operated nursing homes for the poor that were well above any state standards. He and his wife adopted several children of different nationalities. He gave much of what he earned preaching on the circuit back to his church so it could continue its good works. He honestly made a positive difference for a lot of people. Which makes the rest of his story all the more intriguing and more than a bit sad.
While there is, of course, no one thing that someone can point to and say ‘oh, that’s what caused it,’ Guinn does a great job of drawing in the many elements of Jones’ life that, in hindsight, all played some part in making him the person he came to be. I was surprised to find that, at the end of the book, some sort of sense was made of it all, that a trajectory could be seen. As the members of Peoples Temple were subject to the force that was Jim Jones, Jim Jones was subject to the forces of his disillusionment, his rational and irrational fears, his desire to be something great, and unfortunately, his own fallible mind.