But, thanks to an episode of The Blotter Presents, I’ve taken a pre-Thanksgiving read through Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown, and I mostly recommend it, insofar as if you’re into this sort of thing this is the sort of thing you’ll be into. I, full disclosure, am: in addition to serial killers, I’m here for any kind of “we have named ourselves after rock songs and are waiting for the aliens to emerge from the hollow earth and take us home”-style nonsense.
So I was passingly familiar with the whole Peoples Temple thing going in, possibly more so than the average person is. Read the Wiki article, saw one of the documentaries, read a couple of other books. Road comes off pretty well among them, and I’d say Guinn takes more of a look at Jones as a person than the others. He sometimes tries to sympathize more with the guy than I think is ever merited once he gets past like 18, but, on the other hand, dude was fascinatingly fucked up early on.
Which, by the way, once again, some more: being a “romantic” persistent asshole with women may not be a 100% dead certain sign that someone is going to go on and kill a bunch of people in one way or another, but it’s at least as good a sign as the infamous-and-discredited predictive triad. Like there’s this whole thing where High School Jones is into a girl, and starts hanging around her all the time, LIKE TOTAL CREEPS DO, and her boyfriend tells him to fuck off and he doesn’t and the boyfriend (who’s the Big Man on Campus) thinks, well, beating him up won’t change his mind, and asks the girl’s parents to talk to Jones, and they INVITE HIM IN TO WAIT FOR HER AFTER SCHOOL AND BRING HIM TO CHURCH WITH THEM, which, the creepy charisma of the guy aside, WORST PARENTS EVER.
Seriously, and this is a sidebar, if your kid or your friend or whoever expresses that they’re not interested in someone and you start pressuring them to “give that person a chance,” you are an awful friend or parent. If you then invite that person to hang around you with the intention of getting them and your kid/friend together, especially if you don’t tell the subject of their attentions before that, you are an awful excuse for a human being, please get in the sea. This sidebar has been brought to you by a sitcom my mom was sort-of-watching the other night, and also by the parents of Jones’s HS love interest, no matter how hypnotic he was.
And yeah, he was good at what he did. One of the things about Road is you can see how people got sucked in, because Jones–as many abusers, cult leaders and otherwise, do–used legitimately good causes in the service of his own ego and power. Integration is great! I would say that socialism is great! Social justice was, and is, a real concern…and because of that, toxic people use those things to serve their own ends, and toxic people just get more toxic, as a rule. So you start out thinking that hey, this guy has some decent ideas, and he legit does some good, and you ignore some signs because okay, he’s under a lot of pressure because of society and his duties and so forth and okay, he has a temper but he was clearly provoked, and then you’re being screamed at by a whole group of people because you Don’t Believe Enough in the Cause (which can mean voicing some concerns about the ease of getting hundreds of people to Russia) or getting put in a hole because you didn’t sell enough copies of Dianetics or, y’know, cyanide in the Flavor-Aid.
Jonestown is the best example of Started Out Doing Good Stuff, Ended Up Horrible*, and so a lot of works about it, including Guin’s, spend some time trying to figure out at what point things started going south and when they’d gone too far for anything to be salvaged. Was it when dude started passing off rotting chicken meat as tumors he’d “miraculously” removed from people? When he started manipulating his followers’ sex lives to get himself a harem? The We All Must Move to CA Because Nuclear War bit, which to be fair was probably a lot more plausible in the 70s? I think the “we have to have communal bathrooms because wanting privacy while you shit is a bourgeois hangup, maaaan,” is a pretty huge red flag, but…the 70s, again.
I believe Sarah Bunting said on her podcast, and I agree, that Jones’s personality was pretty clear pretty early: the stalker thing, the holding-extensive-funerals-for-pets drama, his propensity for turning things that happened (his parents having a troubled marriage) into things that maybe are the same vague shape and color as “happened” if you squint a lot (his dad being physically abusive), the ability to tap into what people want to hear and present himself as on the side of Right and Justice to inspire loyalty or avoid both hard questions from others and examining his own decisions. I don’t know if having someone like that in charge, even if they’re working for a genuinely good cause, is ever going to end well.
One of the themes that keeps repeating in Road is that it could’ve been okay if Jones had known when to give up. There are all these points where the Peoples Temple is in Indiana or California (one day, I will write a book about how fucking weird California is and has been for like centuries, and it may or may not also be weird Labyrinth fanfic with the serial numbers filed off, I have PLANS) or whatever, and people like them okay, everything’s fine, and then Jones freaks the fuck out because someone out there might not like him, or someone has more followers or a better reputation, or the Temple isn’t expanding (this is a super American form of bullshit, this “anything that’s not expansion is failure” mentality, like, do we want cancer to be our role model? APPARENTLY WE DO) or people leave, and he just makes everything worse, forever.
It’s sort of like what I wrote about Pet Semetary a while back. Life is full of not getting exactly what you want. Reasonable adults will look at that and think, well, maybe that wasn’t possible under these circumstances, or, well, maybe I made a mistake here, or, well, but I’m still doing basically okay here in a number of ways. (Or, in the case of Pet Semetary, well, this is completely awful, but there’s nothing I can do about it that wouldn’t make things worse.) But then there are people whose reaction to not getting what they want when they want it is to decide that this is because People Are Conspiring Against Them or their allies have Failed Them or whatever allows them to not face the Mick Jagger-style facts.
This does not end well. Ever. Even without evil spirits lurking around in Maine, this does not end well.
So: appreciate what you have, accept your limitations, or at least eye your limitations in a reasonable way that allows for fault, or chance, or the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around you. And remember that working for a good cause is not a justification for abusing people.