Jeff Guinn Takes The Road to Jonestown: The Making of a Demagogue

Facts matter; but story builds from facts to give reality a shape, something we can use to inform our vision and guide our actions. To build an effective story, you need more than the basics. You need a beginning and a middle as well as the end, no matter how spectacular the latter may be. Jeff Guinn’s masterful The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple is the perfect example of how a full story, built from facts that capture the beginning and middle, can help us understand the end, and the man who made it happen. Jim Jones was not an aberration. He was a demagogue, and we are not finished with these men, not by a long shot.

Guinn opens the book with the discovery of the Jonestown massacre, told from the perspective of the Guyanese soldiers who discovered what had happened. That shift of perspective, made possible by Guinn’s recent interviews with these men so many years later is an excellent intimation of what is to come. Guinn digs deep, starts before the beginning – before Jim Jones was born – and every fact he finds contributes to a rich, terrifying tapestry. This is how we manufacture our monsters.

Guinn takes up Jones’ story before his birth, and when we meet his mother, a lot of the pieces pop into place. She is a true force of nature, and not the cuddly sort. She knows her son is destined for greatness, and treats him as such. even as a child, Jones is spooky as hell. He joins all the churches in his small town, and conducts funerals for road kill, and other animals. He displays an interest in those who are able to control others with the power of speech, especially Adolf Hitler, and is later impressed by Hitler’s suicide. He’s not even a teenager.

What Guinn does is to turn Jones’ story into a page-turning tale of true-life horror. His ability to bring in all the facts, to dig up perspectives from townspeople who knew Jones as a child and others, at each stage of his life is as astonishing as the story itself. Guinn knows intuitively how to marshal his facts into story, to find the human thread of slowly twisted growth. Jones was not without talent, but most of his skill was turned to manipulating others to ends that were ever more suspect and selfish. As his power over others grew, the darkness beckoned and blossomed.

The power and the import of The Road to Jonestown lie in Guinn’s “tell it like it was” style. Raw history, raw story, (in)humanity unmasked, transform the tawdry and awful into an informative vision. Reading The Road to Jonestown does not fjeff_guinneel like history. It feels like current events, which is to say it will certainly inform anyone’s vision of any time.

The 1970’s are now history, as is Jones and his horrific legacy. But the demagogues are still with us. Adolf Hitler helped teach a young Jim Jones how to control others. As we read about Jim Jones, as a particular brand of American demagogue, the shapeless shamble of our lives in this moment is shadowed. The title of this book, like every other word, is important. This is a journey. We’re now on the road from Jonestown, and we’d be well advised to observe the signposts.

One of the reasons I have devoted so much time and effort to speaking with authors is that actually hearing the voice of the author – the speaking voice – can be offer a powerful insight into the work. Jeff Guinn is an exemplar of that inclination. In our conversation, he managed to effortlessly discuss his story of the past in the context of the present, to extract the universal attributes – think the Platonic “ideal” of demagogue. To hear Jeff Guinn’s voice, in brief, follow this link to the lightning round interview, or just listen below.

To immerse yourself in the past as a means of better understanding the present and more importantly, preparing for the future, follow this link, or just listen below.

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