Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
It’s a phrase that has permanently entered the American consciousness, but it always surprises me when people don’t know that it is a reference to the infamous Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978, especially when it is used flippantly. (I once had a very awkward conversation with a college classmate about that.) Because even though we may laugh at the phrase now, there’s really nothing funny about mass suicide. (Never mind that at Jonestown they were actually drinking mostly Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, but that’s a different topic for another day.)
I first heard of Jonestown when I was maybe about 10, 11, 12. There was a documentary commemorating the anniversary of it on PBS, and I remember being riveted by it in absolute horror. In the years since then, I’d read some about the story and also watched on several occasions the famous 1980 miniseries Guyana Tragedy, which stars the late Powers Boothe as Jones in what has to be one of the most chilling performances ever recorded on film.
So, just in general, a recently released book promising to be the most authoritative take on the story yet would have grabbed my attention. But I was specifically compelled to read this one, which was released last month to great acclaim, because its author is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers.
My co-worker Mary-Esther urged me to try Jeff Guinn’s work after she had been impressed with his books on Bonnie and Clyde and Charles Manson. (Thanks for the wonderful recommendation, Mary-Esther!) Last year, I ended up reading his book on the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and I enjoyed his writing so much that I was interested in seeing what his next book would be. When some google-fu quickly revealed that he had a book about Jonestown due soon, I was immediately determined to read it.
I started this book with, admittedly, some pretty lofty expectations, but Guinn exceeded even them and cemented his status as a must-read author for me.
I think what I like so much about Guinn’s work is best typified in his opening chapter. Most people when writing about Jim Jones and looking for a starting point might choose to start in the very beginning, at his birth, or maybe in those horrifying moments when over 900 people committed suicide or were killed at his behest.
Instead, Guinn starts with the next day, from the perspective of the Guyanese officials who have heard mysterious reports of trouble at the remote outpost of a strange, occasionally irritating American preacher and his followers. Guinn then follows the soldiers and others sent in to investigate, all the way until they make the horrifying discovery of what happened.
In all the discussion of Jonestown I’ve read and watched, I’ve never before seen anyone approach it from that angle. And even though I knew what is ultimately going to be found, Guinn writes in such a way that it is still gripping. And that’s true even when he shifts away from that moment to Jim Jones’s life.
I think it’s a real testament to Guinn’s skill as a nonfiction writer that I had a hard time putting his 450+ page book down, despite knowing what happened. It’s precisely his knack for approaching topics we think we all know about and looking at them from another angle that I appreciate.
But Guinn isn’t just a great writer. He is also a consummate researcher. One of my favorite things about his books is how thoroughly researched and documented they are. For this book, Guinn not only read all the books about the subject, he also interviewed survivors, including Jones’s children, and pored through the FBI files on the case, including some that were only recently released. He, thus, reveals previously unknown details about Jones and the Peoples Temple.
On top of that, at the risk of sounding like a real geek, he writes the best endnotes. He doesn’t just provide additional information and sources, he also tells you which sources he really liked and why and provides recommendations for further reading if you want to know more. As someone who loves to research, I love that he is that considerate of his readers in that regard.
On top of all this, he also strenuously avoids some of the pet peeves I have concerning other nonfiction writers. He doesn’t insert himself into the narrative. He will mention personal impressions and encounters in his excellent footnotes, but he doesn’t feel the need to tell you his own stories and experiences while conducting research in the text itself, which I appreciate because I often find that distracting.
He also provides solid, well-reasoned, insightful analysis of what happened, while also allowing readers to draw their own conclusions based on the evidence. His own conclusions when he gives them are original but also based on evidence and not just surmising with no basis in reality.
He also, despite writing about extremely bizarre and disturbing subject matter, is fair and respectful. It is easy when talking about Jim Jones to veer into the sensational or to preach at readers or to become obsessed with the salacious aspect of his behavior. But Guinn avoids all of this, without ever seeming to condone Jones or whitewash anything that happened. In fact, the bulk of the book is not focused on what happened at Jonestown but instead on the decades before as Jones formed his congregation, first in his native Indiana and then in California before shifting to Guyana.
In doing so, Guinn probably better answers the question of why so many people followed Jim Jones even until death than anything else I’ve ever read on the topic. I’ve seen some people debate over whether Jones was always an evil maniac or if he, at some point, had been good and suddenly changed. Guinn addresses this debate directly and concludes that either argument is too simplistic because Jones was far too complex to be categorized that way.
From the beginning, long before he orchestrated a mass suicide/murder, he was a charlatan who cheated and tricked his followers, engaged in unabashed demagoguery to manipulate them, and was frequently cruel to his long-suffering wife.
But from the beginning, he was also a shrewd, charismatic, energetic organizer who helped desegregate Indianapolis, cheerfully provided substantial social services to his mostly poor congregants for decades, and wielded considerable local political influence, both in Indiana and California. It was only 2 years before the horror at Jonestown that he was feted by the political elite of San Francisco with an honorary dinner during which he was glowingly described as “a combination of Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.”
Guinn addresses both sides of Jones even-handedly and along the way sheds considerable light on his life, the Peoples Temple, and that terrible final day in Jonestown, which only comprises the last 50 or so pages of the book.
If you enjoy well-written, well-researched history, you really need to read Jeff Guinn, and if you want to learn more about one of the most unsettling incidents in American history, you need to read The Road to Jonestown.
I’d really love to see Guinn give an author talk on any of the subjects he has written about. Maybe he’ll pop up at Books in Bloom one year. *fingers crossed*
To learn more about his book or any other item in the library, just follow this link to our online library catalog.
Have you read Jeff Guinn’s books before? Who is your favorite nonfiction writer? What is your favorite nonfiction book? Tell us in the comments!