“Road to Jonestown”: Where a Demagogue Led Mass Murder-Suicide

At some point I hope our culture starts making people who want to be leaders focus a little bit more on the facts, and a little less on whatever is convenient to try and make people believe something that is not necessarily true. Jeff Guinn, interviewed about The Road to Jonestown (Salon)

For many the 1978 mass murder-suicide known as the Jonestown Massacre is a remotely known thing that somehow became responsible for bringing “Drinking the Kool-Aid” into our lexicon. Now, though, you can learn much more about it by reading true-crime writer Jeff Guinn‘s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.

Kool-Aid, by the way, was not really involved. More than 900 of the Reverend Jim Jones’s cult-like followers and their children died that day from drinking something called Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. The method of self-infliction for Jones was a handgun.

Terry Gross, NPR, further introduces Jones and the key events of that November day in ’78:

…He drew his followers to Guyana by convincing them that America was facing imminent threats of martial law, concentration camps and nuclear war.

After claims of abuse in Jonestown surfaced, Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., came to Guyana to investigate. A number of Jonestown residents sought to return to the U.S. with Ryan, but others opened fire on the delegation, killing the congressmen and four others. The mass suicide followed.

Guinn says the lessons of Jonestown still resonate today. ‘Jim Jones epitomizes the worst that can happen when we let one person dictate what we hear [and] what we believe,’ he says. ‘We can only change that if we learn from the past and try to apply it to today.’

Jones (1931-1978) decades earlier was “a charismatic, indefatigable minister in Indiana and California preaching Christianity, socialism, vehement antiracism, and a bizarre personality cult that worshipped him as God” (Publishers Weekly).

But, as Guinn conveyed to Gross, “More and more over the years, as his paranoia increased, as his drug use increased, he began to think of himself at war with almost everyone in the outside world — the United States government, all kinds of secret forces.”

The substance abuse was indeed significant. According to Kirkus Reviews, Jones had developed “an endless appetite for drugs—’amphetamines and tranquilizers, pills and liquids to provide significant boosts of energy, or else slow down his racing imagination and allow him to rest’—and decidedly un-Christian patterns of behavior” that took advantage of many of his subjects.

How did Jones get all those people to worship him and ultimately to die en masse? Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle:

Guinn offers several reasons: Some valued the security of knowing that all of their ‘material needs were met’; others believed that in a ‘nation full of violence and hatred and greed … the poor of all races and backgrounds must care for and help each other’; still others thought that any man who acquired such a following must be touched by divinity.

Jones was a demagogue and ultimately, a mass murderer. Paradoxically, Guinn writes, he ‘attracted followers by appealing to the best in their nature, a desire for everyone to share equally.’ Nobody joined Peoples Temple looking to get rich or powerful. ‘Most members sacrificed personal possessions, from clothing and checking accounts to cars and houses, for the privilege of helping others,’ he adds. ‘They gave rather than got.’

An important takeaway for our times as expressed by Jon Foro, official reviewer of The Road to Jonestown for Amazon:

Anytime a leader is allowed to say what and act how he pleases without restraint, when followers are encouraged never to question any of his words and actions and an angry sense of ‘us versus them’ is fostered, then things will end badly no matter how well-intentioned those followers might be. Anyone claiming to be the only leader with all the right answers should never be placed in a position of ultimate power. Jim Jones was a gifted demagogue, and he led his followers to their doom. That’s what demagogues in any era do.

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