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This past November saw the 30th anniversary of the death of over 900 men, women, and children at Jonestown in Guyana. Thirty years, and our collective bafflement, fascination, and morbid curiosity have not waned. There have been countless documentaries, bad television movies, investigative books, survivor memoirs, and novelizations, and yet we still don’t quite understand how something like that could happen. And yet there have been repeat performances, from the slaughters at Waco, the quiet suicides of Heaven’s Gate, and less spectacular versions, like the women left alone in Mormon polygamist enclaves, their hair and clothing choices mocked openly by commentators.

It’s not like our confusion comes from a lack of evidence or a veil of secrecy. Jim Jones documented everything. He tape-recorded sermons, phone conversations, and planning commission meetings. The last minutes of Jonestown are caught on tape, and Jones’s exhortations to his flock to drink the poison have been replayed luridly in the newscasts marking the anniversary. The few that survived — those who eluded the armed guards circling the camp and escaped into the jungle, or those who were at the group’s San Francisco or Georgetown locations at the time — have for the most part spoken openly about the abuses they suffered, about life at the commune, about the loved ones lost. There is not a lot of sympathy for the survivors: just a shake of the head, an “I would never be so stupid,” and a joke about Kool-Aid.

For all of the television specials about Jonestown, they are reducing a very complicated story down to an hour, with commercials. It’s easy for the media to get distracted by all of the sordid material — the floggings and “catharsis” sessions, the sex, the taking of children from their mothers, Jones’ sodomizing the male members of the Temple, the Messianic sermons, the faith healings — and forget about trying to understand how Jones managed to attract so many people to his cause. Luckily, Penguin/Tarcher is marking the anniversary by reprinting Tim Reiterman’s comprehensive, 624-page Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Reiterman weaves together the life story of Jones and the circumstances that brought many followers under his spell, while attempting to dismiss many of the Jonestown myths. Reiterman has a journalism background, and he does a commendable job sticking to the facts rather than psychoanalyzing the players.

Jones started young. As a young child he was drawn to the drama of the Pentecostal churches of his Indiana hometown and began holding his own services in his backyard. The neighborhood children, some of the same kids who ignored him at school, would gather and sit through his sermons. He would hold elaborate, ritualistic funerals for dead animals he found. (Reiterman has enough restraint to avoid accusing Jones of killing these animals, as there is no evidence to support the claim, although he mentions that Jones would later poison a pet chimpanzee.) Jones’s mother mostly let him do whatever he liked, and his older, sickly father was barely a presence in the home.

As much as Jones loved ministering, and as much as he expected to go into the church, he could not digest many aspects of Christianity. He found the contradictions of the Bible infuriating and considered them proof that the book was not of divine origin. “This Bible has got to be torn down!” he told his mother. “It’s full of inconsistencies, and our churches are failing to carry out the great commandment to feed the widows and children and take care of the needy. ‘The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life!’” He railed against the hypocrisy of local churches, churches that were segregated, that ignored the poverty of his hometown, and did not push their congregations to follow Jesus’ teachings. When he began preaching, he focused on racial inequality, society’s neglect of children and elders, and the lack of support for the poor.

As part of his calling, he not only preached equality for black and white, rich and poor, but he also provided through his ministry. He established soup kitchens and fought churches, theaters, and businesses to desegregate. He installed a black preacher, Archie Ijames, at his church and began adopting children for his “Rainbow Family” with his wife, Marceline. He only had one natural son, Stephan, but he gave his own name to the infant son of a 15-year-old African American girl he adopted around the time of his son’s birth. (Stephan and Jim, Jr. would be two of the scant number of survivors. They were playing a basketball game 150 miles away the day of the mass suicide.)

What started as an active church in Indiana became a socialist movement in Ukiah, California. Ukiah had recently been named by Esquire as one of the safest places in the world to survive a nuclear holocaust. Jones had become increasingly paranoid about the possibility, preaching that he had had a vision of the group’s annihilation, which convinced a large number of the Indiana congregation to move with him. In Ukiah, Jones would expand on his Marxist ideals by creating cabins for his followers, instituting communal dinners, and building free clinics, a newspaper, and drug rehab centers. Many of the congregants were also employed by the church at the printing press or publicity office, and they worked 16- to 18-hour days for the cause without complaint.

“Yet there was no way to separate the warped world view from his idealized vision and his social conscience, nor the real threats from his paranoia, his benevolence from his cruelty, his genius from his madness,” Reiterman writes. It was the good works that drew the people into the church, and Jones’ skills as a master manipulator that kept them. He turned sons and daughters against parents, wives against husbands. When caught in an act or statement of hypocrisy, he could often convince the witness to keep silent with the explanation that the ends justify the means. He convinced others to help him choreograph faked healings, and even those who knew they were hoaxes still believed in Jones’ healing powers. They saved chicken livers and would claim they were malignant tumors, passed from the body by Jones’ command. Others were forced to participate, as when one Temple member was convinced by Jones’s doctor that her uninjured arm was broken. It was wrapped in a cast, and later that day, before the cast had fully dried, Jones called her up at a service and commanded her to remove the cast and reveal her healed arm. Miraculously, her arm worked just fine, and the people in the audience were awed.

Jones insisted on full commitment to the Temple, and people turned over their life savings and a large percentage of their paycheck to him. He insisted they break ties with friends and family on the outside if those people could not be persuaded to join. New congregants were fully screened, and only those issued a personal invitation could attend the services. Jones controlled all information flowing into and out of his church, including the world news. If tensions arose, many followers were already in too deep to leave. They had no savings, and if they had followed Jones to Guyana, their passports were confiscated. Often entire families were engaged with the People’s Temple, and many stayed because their wife or children or siblings or friends refused to leave with them. Jones counseled disgruntled members, convincing many to stay. People who did leave the Temple often returned despite serious misgivings because they missed the sense of community and purpose. Others, particularly those who spoke to the media, were harassed, or mysteriously died.

There have been first-person accounts from Jonestown survivors published before, none of them very good. They spent a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to justify why they stayed, despite the humiliation, the fear, and the fact that they were raising children in such an environment. It’s as if the writers don’t quite understand it themselves. As an outsider, Reiterman can more easily see how people were drawn in. If the basic message of what Jones started from weren’t true — if we didn’t live in a racist society that failed to look after its weakest members, and if the Christianity as practiced in this country was not so far divorced from the core teachings of Christ (take care of the poor, be meek, etc.) — he would not have been able to attract and keep so many followers.

Reiterman would have been excused had he written a screed against Jones and his followers. After all, he was one of the journalists in Congressman Leo Ryan’s party, whose visit set off the deaths of nearly 1,000 people at Jonestown. Ryan was shot dead by Jonestown followers, as was Reiterman’s friend and colleague, photographer Greg Robinson. Reiterman himself survived with two gunshot wounds, after spending the night hiding in a Guyanese disco. Instead, Raven is a remarkably clear-eyed account of how such a calamity occurred, and how it wasn’t inevitable until the poison was actually poured. • 14 January 2009