Review- Guinn, “The Road to Jonestown”

Jeff Guinn, “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple” (2017) – One interest my sisters and I had in common when we were kids was cults. Whenever something about cults was on tv — and it seemed that it happened pretty frequently in our nineties youth — there was no more arguing over what to watch (for my younger readers, this was from an era when most middle-class families had only one tv, and the internet wasn’t much of a thing yet). It was presumably from one of these tv programs that I learned about Jonestown and Peoples Temple. I thought it might be interesting to get a better idea of what went on for historical purposes and so picked up this book.

Jeff Guinn, a journalist, exhaustively documents Jones’s early life and the activities of the Temple. Of course, we all know going in what Jones became, and so we are primed, jumpy, like people watching a horror movie. Will child Jim reveal what a monster he would become? When will we get the gruesome details of all the weird shit that must have been going on at the Peoples Temple?

Well… Jones was something of an odd little kid, bold, theatrical, an accomplished liar from an early age… but not at all outside the ambit of how kids act. He didn’t have a good family life — maimed WWI vet dad, domineering delusional mother, in the context of upright, disapproving small town Indiana — but nothing truly spectacularly wrong. It probably did help him become the charismatic megalomaniac he became, both because his mother insisted he was destined for great spiritual power and because he had the attraction of one of those guys who needs mothering. This is roughly how he won his wife, Marceline, who would be with him every step of the way on his journey to Jonestown.

As for Peoples Temple, for a long time, and it seems clear Guinn hates to admit it, it actually did do a lot of good for a lot of people. Starting in Indianapolis, Jones created a genuinely racially and class-integrated organization. He worked indefatigably for the welfare of his people, sorting out bureaucratic hassles, feeding the hungry, providing clothing. The Peoples Temple nearly single-handedly integrated many of the businesses of Indianapolis by the expedient of just showing up as integrated groups, and making it clear they would keep doing so regardless of what happened. The reader, primed by their knowledge of what happened at Jonestown and what they know of other cults (Scientology, say) keeps waiting for the catch. Early on, there wasn’t one. Jones and Marceline begin opening up pay-what-you-can old folks homes, and you cringe, waiting for them to exploit the poor old people- but no, they were some of the best facilities in the state. Jones badgers white business owners to hire his black followers, and you wait for it to be a scam that makes integration look bad- nope, the followers work hard and make a good impression.

Things got weirder as they got on. Worried about nuclear war, Jones moves his congregation from Indianapolis to rural California. They continue doing good works but paranoia intensifies (no doubt helped along by the very real revelations of government spying on and sabotaging progressive groups). This allowed Jones to increase his control. Never one to brook opposition, he began going through the usual tyrant’s playbook, encouraging snitching, cutting followers off from the outside, etc. At the same time, he began making moves with power players in California politics. He got in, somewhat, with the Hollywood glitterati crowd, garnering praise from the ever-credulous Jane Fonda among others. He delivered votes and campaign work for liberal San Francisco pols like George Moscone. He had an official audience with Rosalyn Carter after Jimmy Carter got elected. He was something of a pillar of the community, though it was never enough for him.

This is also when things take the more salaciously hinky turn the reader presumably awaited. Physical punishment became a thing within the Temple, including one guy who got his junk smashed flat by a rubber hose (admittedly, for pedophilia, which you can see wanting harsh penalties for). Jones more and more insisted on being God, or Jesus, or the reincarnation of Lenin (more on Peoples Temple socialism anon). He also started sleeping with his followers, including at least one underage girl, publicly sexually humiliating some and basically sexually assaulting others (especially male followers, during his occasional forays into bisexuality). He also started talking a lot about destruction and about the example of Masada, where the Jewish Zealot rebels slew themselves rather than let the Romans take them alive.

Jones was always interested in having his own little remote colony, a perfect socialist utopia/place where he’d have complete control. He was already looking into Guyana, fledglingly independent and possibly the weakest country in the Americas at the time, as a place to set up a rural commune, when articles started coming out about how weird Peoples Temple was appeared in the San Francisco press. It’s weird how sensitive Jones was to bad press. He fled to Guyana with as many of his followers as he could convince to follow him, to a settlement barely hacked out of some of the thickest jungle on earth, where his people worked sixteen hour days in the sun while an increasingly unhinged Jones ranted at them via loudspeaker about the coming apocalypse.

As cult panic took hold in hungover post-sixties America, more and more people began looking critically into Peoples Temple, including California congressman Leo Ryan. In a very seventies turn, much of the action against Jones turned on a complicated paternity/divorce/custody battle. Ryan came down to investigate, a few Temple members tried to leave with him, Jones had his goons murder Ryan and a few others. Realizing he was at the end of his tether, Jones took his people with him. Something like nine hundred people — nearly three hundred of them children — died out in the jungle. Jones didn’t drink the Flavor Aid (not kool-aid, as in the sayings). Cyanide poisoning is a nasty way to die. He shot himself.

What can we learn, here? Guinn restrains himself admirably in terms of trying to slap a moral on the story. As he puts it, unlike most cults, Peoples Temple really did appeal to the best in the people, their altruism, empathy, and desire to be helpful to the world. In the end, Guinn sort of shrugs and says this is just one of those “evil in the hearts of man” things, with a little soupçon here and there of the desire to believe and belong driving people to do unimaginable things. There’s truth to these.

Let’s dig a little though- throughout the book, Jones, the Peoples Temple, their followers, their actions and their beliefs are described as “socialist.” At first, I thought Guinn might have been attributing that to them himself, his own reading, but no, he provides quotes of them talking socialism. This was difficult for me, not just because it sucks to have such a villain describe themselves the way I do (there’s plenty of those historically, after all) but because of my ingrained pedantry. Jones was of that post-McCarthy tendency (that we’re not shot of yet) to think of the word “socialism” as designating mostly “organized sharing and niceness” with some overtones of “what self-declared socialist states do.” This is not a useful definition of socialism, which I define as the working class’s control over the means of production and governing institutions derived therefrom (as our governing institutions are derived from the capitalist mode of production). Did Jones even know about that idea? Peoples Temple followers threw themselves into all kinds of causes pre-Guyana, but if they ever joined a union picket line, Guinn doesn’t report it. Labor conditions within the Temple were abhorrent and naturally, no one even dreamed of organizing against “Father” Jones to improve them, let alone control them.

I spoke some about how “normal” and even decent Jones and the Temple seemed early on. Even at the end, Leo Ryan found far fewer people willing to jump ship than he thought he’d find. Very few people were coerced, in the classical sense of gun-to-the-head force, by Peoples Temple. Rather, Jones drew people in through his good deeds and socialism-lite talk and then slowly cut them off from other options. But most of them could have walked at any time (this did become harder, practically, in the jungle, but not impossible), and several did. Any good con relies on the complicity of the mark, the desire to believe.

None of this is to say there weren’t red flags from the beginning. Above all else, Jones was a liar. Especially early on, in Indiana, he did a lot of public faith healing, pulling chicken gizzards from planted followers and claiming he healed tumors they didn’t know about. He lied about believing in God and the Bible, insisting to initiated followers that he was “infiltrating” organized Christianity for his social message. Jones’s opposition to bigotry, while seemingly at least somewhat sincere, was also deeply patronizing in a familiar way, “jive talking” to prove how down he was black people, insisting everyone is actually gay, etc, and did nothing to alter his strict control over his organization. And he lied about random bullshit, stuff that wouldn’t even help him, the mark of a compulsive liar, from his childhood on.

Followers knew about these things, but most of them decided to keep following, for the demonstrable good Jones was doing for the community. Jones may have been ignorant of the more substantive meanings of socialism, but it wouldn’t have mattered had he known. He, presumably, would have lied about it, to an audience composed of people — spiritual seekers, desperate slum dwellers, educated progressives looking to make an impact — prepared to believe that socialism was in any way compatible with Jones’s lies and megalomania… and of course, the history of socialism is littered with movements and regimes that took roughly the same path. I guess if there’s a “lesson” here it’s this: do not follow someone who lies to their followers or to their supposed beneficiaries. Lie to enemies if you have to, but whatever excuse a leader makes for lying to their followers or those they are meant to be helping isn’t good enough to keep following them. As usual, with worthwhile lessons, it is simple, brutal, not always especially usable, but there it is.

Guess I should talk a little about the qualities of the book. It’s exhaustive! Guinn did a lot of footwork, old records, newspapers, talking with surviving followers, including Jones’ surviving sons (who were away from Jonestown when the mass suicide occurred). If anything, it skews too much towards description rather than analysis for my taste. This probably makes it highly useful for students of the subject, but also made it a bit of a slog. All in all, a dispiriting story, exactingly told. ***’

Review- Guinn, “The Road to Jonestown”

Review- Branch, “Parting the Waters”

Taylor Branch, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963” (1988) – I might eat this assessment, but from where I sit it looks like the eighties and nineties were the prime era of what I think of as “bow wow popular histories” — big, sweeping, chonky books of (usually American) history, aimed at a popular (but educated) audience, roughly centrist-liberal in politics, often taking the form of “life and times” biographies, heavy on the “times,” often written by non-historians. I’m thinking of Robert Caro’s biographies of Robert Moses and of LBJ, Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground” on the Boston bussing crisis, Edwin Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s “Gotham” on the early history of New York City, Jack Beatty’s “The Rascal King,” about legendary Boston politico James Curley, Richard Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”… I feel like there are more examples, provided I didn’t make this genre up out of whole cloth. I’m rather partial to these sort of books. They’re fun.

Taylor Branch’s triple-decker history of the civil rights movement, of which “Parting the Waters” is the first volume, fits right in. It is a bow-wow, bells-and-whistles, life-and-times look at Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he symbolized, weighing in at over nine hundred pages. The book begins with a lengthy discussion of King’s predecessor at the Dexter Street Church, Vernon Johns, a peripatetic Christian intellectual who waged his own nonviolent battle against the oppression of black people. This establishes Branch’s interest in bringing out the unsung heroes of the black freedom struggle, those who preceded King, fighting hard during much less congenial times, and those who worked alongside him. Many of those figures, like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, are now better-known than they were in the late eighties when this was written, with major biographies of their own. It’s admirable that Branch sought to make King share the stage with others, something King seemed more comfortable with than those (mostly white) image-makers who would render him the sole symbol of the acceptable face of civil rights…

All that is in the future, and presumably comes up in the next two volumes. What we have now are your classic “humble beginnings.” Admittedly, they are a little less humble than the quasi-christological mythology of the civil rights movement might suggest. Rosa Parks wasn’t (just) a tired woman who wanted to sit on a bus- she was a longtime activist who know what she was doing, if not the scale of what she would kick off. Branch takes us from MLK’s upbringing and education to the Montgomery bus boycott, to King’s rise to fame, to the partial defeat in Albany, Georgia, back to Alabama for the protracted struggle in Birmingham, ending with the ghastly bombing of the 16th Street Church, to the March on Washington. We learn of MLK’s intellectual development and influences. We follow other campaigns, like the Freedom Rides and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration drives in the depths of Mississippi. There’s plenty of back and forth and competition between the organizations — King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the student radicals at SNCC, the older establishment figures at NAACP, CORE, and so on. Branch describes riots (including one at a black Baptist conference) and meetings with politicians with equal aplomb. Like a good Bollywood picture, you get your money and time’s worth of interesting stuff, well-conveyed.

I’ll illuminate two themes of interest to me. The first is one Branch makes explicit, King’s relationship to the Kennedys. Being a Masshole, it’s inevitable that I’d either love or hate the Kennedy clan- I have family in both camps. Being a pedant, I split the difference. Teddy did some good in this world (after killing a woman), and Bobby tried (after an early career as a red-baiter). I have little time for Jack. I wish fewer Kennedys would be like the Joe who ate shit last year running for Senate, and more like his dad (also Joe) who quit politics to use his money to help people with their heating costs. Branch inadvertently makes the case for crime writer James Ellroy’s assessment of John Kennedy: he was “all about looking good and kicking ass.” He cared less about civil rights than he did about a whole range of things: the Cold War, his image, his electability, keeping segregationists in his party happy. His brother/Attorney General Bobby cared a little more, but had his notional employee and guy who arguably ran the country, the Hoosier Gollum J. Edgar Hoover, to worry about. When either Kennedy helped civil rights, it was out of a combination of electoral calculation and irked pride- “were these crackers really going to defy — a Kennedy — because they didn’t want black people at their lunch counters?” seemed to be the attitude. Lyndon Johnson, far from perfect, did far more for civil rights, and his predecessor arguably helped the cause more dead than alive.

The other theme is not something Branch really dwells on, but I thought about it throughout the book. In my childhood, King and the civil rights movement were enshrined in American civil religion and taught to me as unquestionable avatars of good. This has had staying power, so much that conservatives have basically seized King (on the strength of one line of one speech, mostly). To the extent the black power phase of the black freedom struggle was discussed at all when I was a kid, it was as a decline- recall the sinister Black Panthers in “Forrest Gump,” that “Birth of a Nation” for centrist baby boomers. Then, in college and especially in grad school, I learned a lot more about black power and more radical manifestations of the midcentury black freedom struggle. This was mostly a good thing. Sometimes it gets into a kind of “radical chic” that threatens the project with superficiality.

But more to the point here, I’ve seen a fair amount of pooh-poohing of the civil rights movement, nonviolence, and King. All three warrant criticism. Every movement makes mistakes, King was far from perfect, as Branch shows- he could be domineering, over-sensitive, fascinated by power, and was a womanizer. I see nonviolence as a tool, not a principle, and the religious attachment to it on the part of some civil rights leaders was/is unhelpful. All that said, many of the critiques I hear, especially in some more pop-ier precincts, are unfair. The idea that integration was an unworthy goal, a psychological game between white liberals and self-hating black bourgeoisie… I’ve seen that bandied about, on podcasts and social media and even figures like Ibram Kendi flirt with the position. Truth be told, I see it more as a manifestation of the sicknesses of social-media-driven discourse — the glibness, the psychologizing of opposition, the black-and-white friend-enemy distinctions — than a serious position, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect.

It’s possible to think integration in and of itself was a less worthwhile goal than others that could have advanced black freedom (though you’d be hard-pressed to say that getting hauled off to jail for sitting at the wrong seat of a bus is anything other than a serious violation). But the idea that all of the people who fought integration, put their bodies on the line in these dangerous actions, were all self-hating weaklings acting out of a sick love for whites… I’m sorry, but no. That doesn’t hold, and Branch’s work shows that. To use a term that has been sadly diluted, the civil rights movement empowered everyday black people the country over- maybe not as much or as quickly as it could have with different strategies, but still. And who knows what the latter stages of the black freedom struggle would have looked like had the civil rights pioneers not paved the way? History gives us our shots at times and with instruments not of our choosing. The civil rights movement concatenated context, individuals, masses, and ideas to make history- indeed, can a movement make history any other way? ****’

Review- Branch, “Parting the Waters”