Books

Jeff Guinn takes readers on a tragic trip with Jim Jones in ‘The Road to Jonestown’

While doing boots-on-the-ground research for his new book, “The Road to Jonestown,” Jeff Guinn found that there’s no longer an actual road leading to the notorious South American settlement.

The passage of time has almost completely wiped away any trace of Jonestown — the same way that time has dimmed our memories of the Nov. 18, 1978, tragedy that happened there.

Guinn’s book will vividly refresh readers’ memories about the Rev. Jim Jones, his Peoples Temple church and his devoted followers, more than 900 of whom took their lives at the command of their leader.

The story might even haunt many readers. It’s quite unnerving.

Guinn — a Fort Worth-based author whose “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson” was a bestseller in 2013 — spent three years researching and writing the new book.

He even trekked deep into the Guyanese jungle to see what little remains of Jonestown.

It was a white-knuckle experience just to get to Port Kaituma in northwestern Guyana, six miles from where the Jonestown settlers carved out 800 acres of mission farmland, he says.

“I had not realized that Port Kaituma airstrip was a tiny, narrow thing gouged into the jungle with all kinds of potholes,” Guinn says. “Or that you land in it at a terrifyingly steep angle.”

Then came the six-mile drive on what, in America, would never be referred to as a road. It wasn’t really a six-mile drive either — after just two miles, the jungle had completely overtaken the trail.

“That’s when our guides tell us we’ll have to walk,” Guinn remembers. “Well, OK, we can do that. Then they’re handing us something that looks very much like machetes. That’s how you get in!

“So you have triple-canopy trees, thick barbed brush on the ground, pounding rain overhead, the smell of dank rotting vegetation, howling monkeys and bright plumage of birds all around and rustling in the brush — and it’s probably just as well that you can’t see what’s lurking out there.

“When we get to Jonestown, everything is gone. Pretty much all that remains are metal skeletons of trucks and tractors that have been impaled by massive trees. These trees are so thick that when the original Jonestown settlers used chain saws to cut them down, the blades of the chain saws would shatter.

“Seeing all of this is when you finally get a sense of what Jones and the settlers had to overcome to cut an 800-acre working farm out there. What they accomplished was truly remarkable.”

It was also at that moment when Guinn most loathed the charismatic and mercurial Jones for crushing the dreams and snatching away the lives of so many devoted followers.

Even sadder, the book reveals that Jones ordered the mass suicide, forcing everyone to drink cyanide-laced grape drink, merely so he could make a pointless statement of rebellion to the world.

Jones lived in fear that his compound would one day be invaded by enemies, real or imagined, from America. He believed group suicide was the only way to triumph in a no-win scenario.

Just as Guinn’s journey to Jonestown was long and arduous, more than three-quarters of the book is devoted to the early years of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.

Guinn paints a fascinating and even-handed portrait of Jones. The man wasn’t all bad when he started his ministry in Indianapolis in the early 1960s. Yes, he was a scheming snake-oil salesman from the start, but he also was a dedicated civil rights activist and a persuasive agent for social change.

“I’m staggered when I look at what he accomplished in Indianapolis,” Guinn says. “If his story ended there, before the allegations of misdoings in his church, before the mass suicide-murders, he would be remembered, and rightly so, as one of the early, most-effective leaders of the civil rights movement.”

But after Jones moved his flock to California in the mid-1960s and then established his agricultural mission in South America, he became an increasingly erratic leader — claiming to be “God on earth” while succumbing to drug and sex addictions. All the while, the majority of his people kept believing in him.

Guinn interviewed many Jonestown survivors and relatives while researching the book. He also was invited to the Jonestown Labor Day reunion in San Diego in 2014. (The event was a potluck setup, so he came bearing Rice Krispies Treats.) As a result, his account is as “inside” as any outsider could write.

Guinn was often surprised by what he encountered at the reunion.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I found myself sitting in a lawn chair between Juanell Smart, who had lost her children, her mother and her uncle in Jonestown, and Tim Carter, who lost his wife and 18-month-old son that day. Every day of their lives, they struggle with what happened.

“But the event was also filled with people hugging and laughing and reminiscing about the sense of unity they’d had and the happy times they’d had. That’s when Nell Smart turned to me and said, ‘You have to understand. A lot of the time, being in Peoples Temple was fun!’”

This is also an aspect of Peoples Temple that Guinn hopes to convey in the book.

“It’s too easy to dismiss what happened in Jonestown with a couple of ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid’ jokes,” he says. “But it wasn’t a freak show.

“I think anyone who reads it will get a more complete view and a better understanding of how good intentions can go grievously wrong.”

The Road to Jonestown

  • By Jeff Guinn
  • Simon & Schuster, $28
  • Meet the author: Guinn will discuss his book and sign copies at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 12, at Barnes & Noble, 4801 Overton Ridge Blvd. in Fort Worth.
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