Review: Jeff Guinn – “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple”

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read the author’s book on Charles Manson, which I think lacked some sort of human sensibility where a pure, non-autistic read on Manson would have helped the book; instead, I feel it contained a lot of research that was collated, rather than displayed as a coherent mass.

That problem is not available in this book, where I would have liked to see a more human approach, perhaps a display of more feelings than there are, but regardless, I was first and foremost very interested in reading about how Jones’ relationship with his parents was shaped, perhaps most interestingly the one between himself and his mother.

His mother really did not care for him, for being a mother, and bore a massive grudge against her husband, who was unfit for manual labour, and spent a lot of time down the local bar. Jones grew up with his mother constantly making up stories, wishing she were somewhere else.

From the book:

Lynetta had absolutely no natural maternal instincts. She’d never wanted or intended to become a mother. Later, she would weave a tale of becoming ill and falling into a fevered vision of approaching “the Egyptian river of death.” As Lynetta was about to cross, perishing in the process, the spirit of her mother appeared and told her that she could not die, because it was her destiny to give birth to a child who would become a great man. Whether it was due to destiny or desperation, in the fall of 1930 Lynetta announced that she was pregnant. She gave birth in the Crete farmhouse on May 13, 1931, to James Warren Jones. But besides saddling Lynetta with even more responsibility, the arrival of the child changed nothing.

Real poverty:

The rest of Lynn wasn’t automatically condemnatory of such bare-bones housekeeping. In this community of no secrets, everyone knew the other Joneses were subsidizing Jim and Lynetta. The lack of furniture, household amenities, and traditional meals could be chalked up to pride. Jim and Lynetta probably didn’t want to take one more cent from his relations than they had to. But Lynetta dreamed of a finer life. She fancied herself a writer and thought she’d been one in previous lives. She wanted conversation devoted to grand things, reincarnation and progressive, nonconservative politics, not boring chatter about drapery and pie recipes. So she spurned invitations to visit other women in town and never invited them into her home. Even out in public, shopping or attending the Wednesday night community movie, Lynetta rarely spoke to anyone, and when she did kept conversation minimal. Many felt she was taking on airs she didn’t deserve—the woman couldn’t even keep a decent house. But Lynetta simply didn’t have anything to talk to them about and felt there was no basis for friendships. Lynetta couldn’t avoid spending time with the rest of her husband’s family. Without them, she and her husband and son would have been insolvent. But she was sensitive to every word they spoke to or about her, always anticipating insults. It was particularly galling that they constantly called her “Lynette” rather than “Lynetta.” When they’d first met her, she still called herself Lynette much of the time, and that was how they continued addressing her. They meant no offense, and certainly would have obliged if she’d asked them to call her Lynetta. But she didn’t, preferring to assume deliberate insult. Constantly frustrated, unable in any tangible way to fulfill her ambition of being a great lady, Lynetta got through her dreary days by nurturing resentments, and imagining confrontations where she triumphed over enemies through wit and courage. Lynetta later wrote colorful accounts of these fantasies, substituting self-aggrandizing fiction for fact. But during these early years in Lynn, her only audience was her small son. Jimmy’s two earliest and most enduring lessons from his mother were these: there was always some Them out to get you, and reality was whatever you believed.

There were some very clear signs of Jones’ abilities – and inabilities – from the freaking get-go:

Jimmy briefly claimed that special powers were conferred on him by the Almighty. Challenged to prove it, he rigged a cape, probably a towel, climbed on top of the garage roof, and yelled for everybody to watch him fly. The other kids never believed Jimmy would actually jump, but he did. Instead of flying, he hit the ground hard and broke his arm. Afterward Jimmy was unabashed. He apparently still believed in his new powers even if nobody else did, but he didn’t mention them again. Around the same time came the animal funerals.

Also, he kept talking openly about sex in all kinds of very weird and incorrect situations. An example:

Some nights, Jim would summon Ronnie and launch into long, graphic conversations about sex. He was determined that the boy should know every possible detail. In a 2014 interview, Ronnie joked that, had Marceline been willing, Jim might very well have offered a practical demonstration. The ten-year-old dazzled his pals with his newfound knowledge. They agreed that Ronnie now knew more about sex than any other kid in their elementary school.

Early on, Jones really wanted a racially integrated society where diversity and socialism were key. He actually didn’t care much about a God, any God, but socialism was the thing. He really wanted to help the poverty-stricken people, even if it meant he had to walk over corpses to get there.

Some of the Peoples Temple actions were really powerful:

Jones, at this stage in his life, was both visionary and pragmatic. Economic segregation was deep-seated in Indianapolis and would have to be challenged from the bottom up. Most corporate owners would be impervious to any requests. He couldn’t bring sufficient political or economic pressure to bear on them, and his talent for empathy wouldn’t work because they had nothing in common. But small businessmen, operators of mom-and-pop companies, were different. Jones understood their fierce pride in achieving ownership, and fear of losing what they’d worked so hard to attain. So he began his crusade with white-owned neighborhood cafés and restaurants. Most routinely turned away prospective black diners, though in passive-aggressive fashion rather than openly denying service based on race. Blacks who arrived and asked to be seated, even in places with many empty tables, were informed that advance reservations were required. If reservations were then requested, the blacks were told that every table at that time was already spoken for. Jones and Marceline went to medium-priced restaurants where they regularly dined as a couple or together with the white Haldemans, but this time they brought African American friends. When informed that reservations were required, they replied politely but firmly that this was never the case before. If no table was currently available, they’d wait to be seated. Occasionally, they finally were, though the service provided and food served was always deplorable. Most often, they were left standing until the restaurant closed. Either result suited Jones. The next day, he’d be back by himself, asking to speak to the owner. If the owner wasn’t on hand, Jones kept returning, as often as necessary until he was granted a meeting. Then, in a reasonable tone, Jones would ask that the restaurant begin accepting African American guests, and provide the same quality of food and service to them that was enjoyed by whites.

At first he was always refused and told to mind his own business. Jones would politely ask that the owner reconsider; he’d be back to talk again. During a second conversation, Jones worked to establish common ground. He’d grown up poor, he understood how hard it was to even start a business, let alone keep one going. Jones wasn’t pressing integration to cause trouble; he was suggesting something that would actually boost revenue by bringing in new customers. Everyone would benefit. Of course, continued refusal to integrate would result in a third visit, and this time Jones would bring a crowd of blacks and whites with him not to dine but to protest. He’d regret the necessity of it, and of course it would be picketing of a peaceful nature. Still, the restaurant’s white customers would have to maneuver through polite protesters asking them to withhold their business until this restaurant served diners of all races. It would be embarrassing; income would be lost. Jones’s sincerity was obvious. No one dared call his bluff. When the first few restaurant owners capitulated, Jones rewarded them by appearing with lots of new customers, most of them Temple members. He was shrewd, usually arriving at off-hours rather than busy ones, providing the restaurants with additional traffic without inconveniencing or driving away their regulars. Bills for these meals were paid out of the Temple general treasury, so cash-strapped members of the church enjoyed dining out for free.

It was Marceline who first proposed a “rainbow family.” Why not adopt multiple children of different races? She and Jim would love the children, of course, and try to be the best possible parents, but there would be the added benefit of the Jones family being a constant, unmistakable example of racial harmony. Her husband was enthusiastic. A black baby was the obvious choice, but never in Indiana history had a white couple adopted an African American infant. The Joneses would investigate that, but decided to begin with an Asian child. Since there were none available in their home state, the Joneses traveled to California, where they met and adopted two Korean orphans, a four-year-old girl they named Stephanie and a two-year-old boy renamed Lew. The children fit perfectly into their new home. Their adoptive parents adored them, and so did the congregation of Peoples Temple. Their new grandmother was less welcoming. Lynetta still didn’t care for kids. Almost at the same time Stephanie and Lew arrived, Marceline learned that she was pregnant. Marceline loved children, and the thought of giving birth to one of her own was thrilling. The pregnancy was uncomfortable from the start, but Marceline was a trained nurse and knew how to take care of herself. As she came closer to term, she cut back on outside activities and had lots of bed rest.

Temple women were glad to pitch in and help with Agnes, Stephanie, and Lew. The church continued involving its children in all sorts of wholesome activities, and in May 1959 there was a weekend outing to the zoo in Cincinnati. Jones led the group, which included his children but not their mother, who was in her final weeks of pregnancy and stayed home to rest. It was a rainy weekend. Thunderstorms lashed the region, but the Temple trip to Cincinnati went on as planned. They carpooled in a variety of vehicles. Everyone had a fine, if wet, time, and on the way home Stephanie Jones rode with one of the congregants. On the way, they were hit squarely by a drunk driver—Stephanie died instantly. Further pain was inflicted on the little girl’s grief-stricken parents when they prepared to bury her. Stephanie was Korean, and no Indianapolis cemetery would allow her body to be interred next to whites. Only a black mortician would prepare the dead girl for burial. The Joneses were directed to “Negro cemetery sections,” which were in the worst areas. It was still storming when Stephanie was laid to rest. The hole dug for her coffin was half full of water. Jones sobbed as Stephanie was lowered into the muck. He would recall later, “Oh, shit, it was cruel, cruel.”

All in all, this book deeply delves into how people followed Peoples Temple, and makes it easy to understand, while avoiding Jones’ cause celebre in exploitative ways, even though his personality and those around him make up for that in spades, being extreme in a slew of ways.

Overall: very good, very non-blaming and still with a clear agenda that’s palatable.

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One Response to “Review: Jeff Guinn – “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple””

  1. Niklas' blog » Blog Archive Jonestown: the final recordings - Niklas' blog Says:

    […] I’ve recently reviewed Jeff Guinn’s new, great book about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple; the review is here. […]

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