Monday, May 15, 2017

The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn

About two years ago, I read A Thousand Lives, which introduced me to the horrific tragedy at the Peoples Temple (which also gave birth to the phrase "drinking the kool-aid"). The Road to Jonestown is a biography of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, but it feels a lot more detailed than A Thousand Lives. It does contain information from interviews, so that is probably a huge factor.

The first time I read about the Peoples Temple, I thought that it was a huge tragedy. This time, my feelings are a lot more complicated. Jim Jones was probably a megalomaniac and towards the end, the Peoples Temple was definitely a cult, but it did a lot of good work at the start. If the book is to be believed, Jim Jones did a lot to integrate Indianapolis (by the way, if someone like Jim Jones turns out to be one of the pioneers in integration, clearly there is an apathy problem with the city). Plus, it seems like a lot of his followers started to follow him because he offered concrete help and welcomed both black and white people.

I guess one way of summarising all the complications would be to look at Marceline, Jones' wife. He did a lot of terrible things to her (not least is the cheating) and she did consider leaving him, but in public, she was always supportive of him. And this is a woman described in her introduction as a strong Christian. It seems like she saw something in him that made her willing to ignore all the red flags and support him almost until the end.

Oh, and my feeling of how a lot of people were complicit in this was reinforced in the book. Jones was able to gain legitimacy through admission into the Disciples of Christ, despite the fact that his teachings weren't even close to theologically sound. Instead, the organisation decide to overlook the flags and his stinginess because they saw him as a model of progressive Christianity (why they didn't just encourage their existing Churches to be more active in social matters is a mystery to me).

This book is exhaustive and depressing. It seems like the Peoples Temple had great promise, and if anyone else but Jim Jones was in charge (or if he was divested of power early), if could have done a lot of good. Instead, it will forever be remembered for the tragedy that occurred.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

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