STARRED REVIEW
April 2017

The making of a massacre

By Jeff Guinn
Review by

Even now, after all the mass killings of recent decades—9/11, Oklahoma City, all the rest—the Jonestown massacre is still staggering in its horror. More than 900 Americans—nearly 300 of them children—died in a Guyanese jungle in 1978 after a dangerous crackpot named Jim Jones told them to commit suicide by swallowing a poison-infused drink.

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Even now, after all the mass killings of recent decades—9/11, Oklahoma City, all the rest—the Jonestown massacre is still staggering in its horror. More than 900 Americans—nearly 300 of them children—died in a Guyanese jungle in 1978 after a dangerous crackpot named Jim Jones told them to commit suicide by swallowing a poison-infused drink.

How on earth could this have happened? Couldn’t someone have done something, anything, to prevent it? If there are answers to those questions, they start with examining Jones himself, the charismatic cult leader originally from small-town Indiana who drew thousands to his Peoples Temple, then destroyed those who followed him to his remote settlement. Writer Jeff Guinn, already a biographer of Charles Manson, provides a powerful account of Jones’ life based on a comprehensive examination of the records and new interviews with temple survivors and Jones’ relatives in The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

Jones is ultimately more interesting than Manson because he was a man of real accomplishment. Particularly in his early days, the white preacher fought effectively for civil rights for African Americans. Even as he drifted ever further into lunacy, his organization’s social service programs were always genuinely helpful. But simultaneously, Jones ran his ministry as a narcissistic cult, luring followers with phony faith healing and half-baked “socialist” rants, then exploiting his followers financially and sexually.

Was he always a monster or did something change? Initially, he resembled a number of other unorthodox evangelists. Then a pivot occurred in 1971 when Jones became addicted to drugs—his promiscuity and paranoia surged, and a tragic outcome became more likely, if not inevitable.

Guinn’s blow-by-blow account of Jonestown’s final days in the book’s last chapters is riveting. Jones betrayed hundreds of people who worshipped him; Guinn helps ensure we’ll remember their ruin.

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Road to Jonestown

The Road to Jonestown

By Jeff Guinn
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781476763828

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