Jeff Guinn is a former journalist who writes books about particular eras in American history, told through the lives of key individuals. Bonnie and Clyde. Charles Manson. And now Jim Jones.
“The Road to Jonestown” details how Jones formed the Peoples Temple, moved it from Indiana to California and finally to Guyana, where in November 1978 he and more than 900 of his followers died in a mass murder-suicide. Guinn did some of his research in San Diego. A key Peoples Temple survivor lives here, and San Diego State University is a major repository of Jonestown documents.
The author lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He will be at Warwick’s in La Jolla on April 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Q: What were your impressions of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple before you started work on this?
A: All I knew was that this horrific event had occurred in Guyana. I was in my early 20s at the time and like everybody else I was stunned, couldn’t believe it happened, and started to say every once in a while over the years, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” without knowing that it wasn’t Kool-Aid and that a lot of the victims didn’t even voluntarily take it.
Q: What were you surprised to learn?
A: It was amazing to me to learn some of the great works that Jim Jones and Peoples Temple accomplished. If he had been hit by a car and killed between establishing his church in Indianapolis and then moving it out to San Francisco — for what he accomplished in Indiana, he would still be remembered as one of the leading pioneers in the early civil-rights movement. I had not realized that he accomplished so many good works in Indiana and even later in California.
Another thing that surprised me was the quality of the people who chose to join Peoples Temple. This was not a freak show. It was not mindless zombies. We’re talking about capable, intelligent, decent people whose motivation for being part of Peoples Temple was to try to bring about a more equitable world. They truly believed that if they could set a positive socialist example, everybody having equal opportunity and showing respect to the least in society, then by dint of what they did everyone else would want to follow that example.
Q: Your book shows Jim Jones as someone who could tailor his message to his audience. Where did he get that skill?
A: I think there are rare individuals among us who have a gift for discerning what the other person wants to hear and being able to make that person believe they share the same beliefs. That’s supposedly a trick that all great salespeople have. And in a sense, it’s a trait that ministers and politicians want to have.
The genius of Jones is that he could have thousands of followers collected together for varying reasons and could in the course of one of his four- or five-hour sermons — if you listened carefully, it wasn’t rambling. He was making sure that everybody listening to him heard exactly what they wanted to hear at some point. Everybody was getting reinforced.
You used the word skill. The word gift might be more appropriate. It went beyond talent.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you in doing the reporting for the book?
A: One was going back into Indiana to try to learn everything I could about Jones’ childhood and early life there. That meant finding people who hadn’t ever talked before and who all these years had relevant information, insights that had never been shared. So I had to gain people’s trust. Most of what has been written about Jim Jones and Jonestown is pretty sensationalistic. We like as a culture our stories spiced up with lots of scandal. So first I had to convince people that I wanted an objective, non-sensational book here. I wanted to find out what happened and help people understand.
On the other end, going into Guyana, it was finding the same pilot who had flown into Port Kaituma the morning after the murders and suicides and learning that the jungles had overgrown Jonestown. We hired a couple of guides, figuring we were just going to take the four-wheeler and drive right in, and we were stopped by the jungle a couple of miles out. They got out and handed us machetes.
I now know from experience that having to cut your way through the jungle with machetes is not quite as much fun as it looks in those adventure movies.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in writing it?
A: When you write history, and this is my 19th book, you have to learn not only to be objective but also, as you are writing, to step back. What you want to do is help the readers make their own decisions. You don’t want to say this means this and this means that. Everybody’s interpretation can be different. My job is to tell the story as objectively and as factually as I can.
But in the process of writing this book, I met so many good and decent people who’d been part of Peoples Temple, a couple who had survived Guyana, some who had left Peoples Temple before that but were still a big part of the story. And it was impossible not to be impressed by them and care about them. Then I’m writing these horrible things that happened and it’s painful for me because I know them and I know the agony that’s involved. So I think I can say I felt this book more deeply than any other I’ve ever written.
Q: Your previous book was about Charles Manson. Is there a thread that connects him and Jim Jones?
A: People see one that doesn’t exist. They seem to think that Manson and Jones, both being demagogues, both attracting followers, both at the center of horrible events, are equals. They’re not. Comparing Charles Manson to Jim Jones is like comparing Mickey Mouse to Machiavelli. The best Manson could do is get a couple dozen drunk and stoned kids to follow him for a little while and do stupid things. Jim Jones is maybe the only real demagogue in American history who ended up so catastrophically and who attracted followers by appealing to their best instincts, not their worst ones.
Q: What’s the lasting impact of Jim Jones and Jonestown for the rest of us, some 40 years later?
A: We think we know but we’re wrong: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Again, it wasn’t Kool-Aid, but the expression means don’t be a fool and follow some obviously crazy person who is going to lead you to a bad end. That wasn’t applicable. The lesson we have here is that any time, even if you have a leader who is supposedly only bringing about good things, it’s important to remember that everyone is a human being, nobody’s perfect, and put yourself in a position where you are free to question what you are hearing.
“The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple,” by Jeff Guinn, Simon & Schuster, 544 pages.
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