“Kool-Aid rather than equality is what the rest of the world remembers”—a searing account of what has since become a byword for religious cultism.
That Jim Jones (1931-1978) was a nut case—no term of psychiatric art but still true—was plain for most to see way back before he became infamous for the events of Nov. 18-19, 1978, when he and more than 900 of his followers died in their dystopian colony in the jungles of Guyana. Even so, Bay Area politicians gladly accepted his campaign contributions, some lauding him for his good works of social justice and concern for the poor. Those works and concern were genuine. Guinn (Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, 2013, etc.), who favors hard fact over psychobiographical speculation but indulges in a little of it all the same, notes that there was method to some of Jones’ madness, at least its less lethal manifestations. For instance, his Peoples Temple sermons in San Francisco were wandering, fuguelike, endless affairs, but they “deliberately rambled” to afford Jones the chance to embrace atheists, junkies, Marxists, Black Panthers, and anyone else who showed an interest in his cause, even as he referred to himself on the pulpit as “God, the reincarnation of Christ, or Lenin in a single turn.” Guinn does an excellent job of following Jones to the roots: a rural loner who became a genuine advocate for poor African-Americans, a searcher with a long interest in building a safe harbor for his followers (he even courted North Korea and the Soviet Union as possible homelands), and an all-around strange person with 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.
A vivid, fascinating revisitation of a time and series of episodes fast receding into history even as their forgotten survivors still walk among us.