Jeff Guinn knew he was getting close when the guide handed him a machete and told him to start hacking.
Guinn and his photographer, Ralph Lauer, had landed in a small plane in Guyana, just outside a former jungle hideaway called Jonestown. It was a rough, nose-first landing. They wanted to enter just as the Jonestown pioneers did back in 1974, when a preacher named Jim Jones sent some of his heartier followers all the way from California to begin work on a new socialist paradise in South America.
Through sheer will, and with some guidance from the local Amerindian community, they built a small city in the middle of the jungle.On this day, nearly 40 years after Jonestown met the grisliest of endings, Fort Worth's Guinn was entering that same jungle. It was triple canopy, as thick as vegetation can grow, and by now it had been growing for years.
"It's like you're walking in a cave," Guinn told me recently. "The trees are thick and there's all the thorn brush between them. The rain has to drip down from the canopy because the sun can't ever break through. It's muggy, and there's the smell of rotting vegetation. You take two steps and you feel like you're in a sauna."
And so they hacked away. They bled and they sweat. "Our clothes were so torn, so muddy and bloody that they were beyond repair," Guinn says. When they finally got to what was left of Jonestown proper, little more than a white stone plaque erected in honor of the dead, Guinn collapsed on the ground and had the kind of epiphany that puts a book in focus.
Jim Jones, the madman, the cult leader, the mass murderer, must have also been one hell of a leader. How else could he have inspired his followers to build a community out here?
"They carved out 800 acres of a working, nearly self-sustaining farm," Guinn says. "The trees were so hard when they tried to use chain saws to cut them, the chain saws broke. Jim Jones and less than 1,000 followers, most of them from ghettos who had never so much as mowed a lawn, went in there for four years and they pulled it off."
Guinn's book, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, arrives in April on the heels of his previous biography, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. Together, the books create the understandable impression that Guinn, 65, can't keep away from psycho killers.
Nearly 1,000 people died at Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978, some of them participants in a mass suicide, many others outright murdered, held down and forcibly injected with cyanide.
But it's not the killers, or the death, that pulls Guinn in. At a certain point in his career he grew determined to write the story of modern America era by era, focusing on characters emblematic of each period. He wrote his Bonnie and Clyde book, Go Down Together, as a means of exploring the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Charles Manson provided a gateway to the '60s and the decade's cataclysmic conclusion.
Then he started wondering: How did we get from the '60s to the '70s? And what characters could best tell that story? Guinn considered Watergate, but quickly determined there was no new ground to break there. Then he started meditating on a single phrase that gained currency in Jonestown's wake.
Don't drink the Kool-Aid.
On the day of death, Jones had just ordered the execution of visiting Congressman Leo Ryan, who was gunned down on the same airstrip where Guinn landed.
"The Road to Jonestown," by Jeff GuinnSimon & Schuster
Jones was certain that his prophecies of doom were about to come true, that the outside world was closing in, and had his lieutenants prepare a vat of Flavor Aid — not Kool-Aid, as was often reported — mixed with cyanide. He called a community meeting at Jonestown's main pavilion. Those who didn't drink were forcibly injected. Babies had the poison squirted in their mouths.
How did this happen? This is the question that sent Guinn down the road to Jonestown, machete in hand.
The Jones back story
Even if you know the rough outline of Jones' life and death, you'd be surprised at the some of the details. After all, nobody follows a madman simply out of boredom. They follow because maybe the madman wasn't always mad, and because he offered something a lot of people wanted.
Jones was born in 1931 in the small town of Crete, Ind., to a self-aggrandizing mother and a sickly father. They soon moved to the nearby city of Lynn. As a child, he liked to hold elaborate funerals for dead animals. His idea of war games? Herding his younger cousins together to play Nazi storm troopers. But he also loved attending church. He was eventually ordained as a Disciples of Christ pastor, and he cast himself as a messianic champion of social justice. He had the deeds to back up the words: As the director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, he played a huge part in integrating the city.
Jones may have been a charlatan who staged fake faith healings, going so far as to use chicken offal to represent cancerous tumors cast out from his parishioners, but he also got things done. His vision of a socialist utopia on Earth appealed to seekers and dreamers of the '60s and '70s who saw him as fiery exemplar of civil rights.
His guiding philosophy was embedded in his church's name: Peoples Temple.
"If Jim Jones on his way from Indiana to California had been wiped out in some massive bus wreck, he'd be remembered today as one of the early great architects of the civil rights movement," Guinn says. "He did these great things, but because the end of the story is so gruesome and so horrible, nobody ever thinks to look back on the other part."
But he did make it to California, first to the Redwood Valley town of Ukiah, then to San Francisco, a city full of dreamers and seekers.
And as the years passed and the temple grew, Jim Jones became increasingly unhinged. He indulged in sexual relationships with Temple members, male and female. He got hooked on uppers and downers. He led sessions of ritualistic abuse against Temple members. One woman was stripped nude and subjected to Jones' angry taunts, another follower was bound at the wrists and tossed into a swimming pool. And his sermons grew increasingly paranoiac.
It seemed the government, the KKK, the press and just about everyone else was out to get the Temple. A siege mentality set in. Father, as he was called, instilled an us-against-the-world mind-set in his followers.
This is what demagogues do.
"You designate an enemy, someone who is either getting what you should have or could take away what you already do have," Guinn says. You say, "I am the only person who can stop it if you do exactly what I tell you to do.'"
The outside threats became more real as the press began talking to church defectors about what was happening at the Temple in San Francisco. An article in the magazine New West laid out details of Temple malfeasance under an ominous headline: "Jim Jones is one of the state's most politically potent leaders. But who is he? And what's going on behind his church's locked doors?"
Jones was as paranoid as ever, but now they really were out to get him. He had already planned to take his followers to the Guyana jungle. The press coverage hastened the departure. And so Jones took his flock to Jonestown, the new home of Peoples Temple.
Life in the 1970s
During the Temple's heyday Guinn was studying at the University of Texas in Austin and thinking about how cool it would be to live in San Francisco. "It seemed like where everything important was happening," Guinn says.
Meanwhile, I actually was in San Francisco, or right across the bay in Berkeley. I was 8 years old, following the aftermath of the massacre on local TV news and in the blaring headlines of the San Francisco Chronicle. I had questions for my parents: Where is Jonestown? Why did all those people die? Can Kool-Aid kill you?
Soon I had another scary junk food question: Can Twinkies make you commit murder? Just nine days after the Jonestown massacre, former San Francisco supervisor Dan White assassinated Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who had been elected largely because of the efforts of Jones and Peoples Temple. White blamed his murderous rampage on eating too many Twinkies. Until I read Guinn's book I didn't realize how many people thought there was a legitimate connection between the Jonestown massacre and the assassination. (There was not).
I was terrified by what was happening in my native land. Like Jones and so many others, my parents had been lured from the Midwest (Chicago, in their case) to the sunshine promised land of Northern California. It was a magical place, now savaged in my childhood imagination by the knowledge that strange people were doing strange things in my backyard.
This fear might explain my later fascination with things like the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Zodiac Killer rampage and Peoples Temple. (If you want to dig into '70s San Francisco madness, David Talbot's book Season of the Witch is an excellent place to start).
This was also around the time my mom let me watch Helter Skelter, the TV movie about Charles Manson. I didn't know at the time that Manson and his Family briefly called San Francisco home before decamping to Los Angeles (Jones, for a time, also toggled between S.F and L.A.). I told Guinn his two most recent books seemed bent on demythologizing my primal childhood fears. Guinn hazarded a guess at my mind-set back then: "This means something. It's important. The boogeyman is under the bed."
To Jones' followers, he was no boogeyman. For better and, ultimately, for much worse, he was Father, a socialist savior who created a multiracial community before he committed mass murder.
Guinn's book makes clear that nobody in Jonestown was given a choice to live or die. Armed guards oversaw the whole ghastly ritual. With very few exceptions, escape was impossible.
Guinn says that climactic chapter was the hardest he's ever written, and he's written 19 books.
But he fully understands that his challenges were nothing compared with the ones of those who actually experienced the unthinkable.
Surviving the massacre
Tim Carter was a young, aimless Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD when he heard about the spirited sermons and good deeds of Peoples Temple. He attended a service in San Francisco. What he heard from the pulpit, he recalls, "was the synthesis of everything I believed spiritually and politically."
He put his last 68 cents in the collection plate and soon became a trusted Jones lieutenant. When Jones left for Guyana, Carter and his family went along.
He may very well have died in the massacre had he and his brother, Mike, not been given an assignment that day. Jones wanted the Carters to carry suitcases full of cash to the Soviet Embassy in Guyana's capital city, Georgetown. For a while Jones harbored the delusion that Peoples Temple might relocate to Russia. He had even engaged Russian diplomats in the scheme.
It was that scheme that ultimately saved Carter's life. He got out with the suitcases, but not before he watched in horror as his wife, Gloria, mouth frothing, died of cyanide poisoning, holding the dead body of their 15-month-old son.
As he told Guinn, "I kept thinking, 'They murdered my son.' But there was also a voice in my head saying, 'You cannot die,' and I made a choice that day. I wanted to kill myself on the spot, but maybe I could tell what had really happened."
The day after the massacre, Carter was among those asked to identify the bodies, stacked three people high. The children were on the bottom.
Today Carter lives in Oregon. As you might imagine, the intervening years haven't been easy. "Survivor's guilt is something I still deal with, and probably always will," Carter writes to me via email. "I don't know that sharing my story in the interview environment has ever actually helped me process the grief I still feel. Talking with other survivors has helped the most, as well as being fortunate enough over the years to have a loving family and some close friends."
What eats at Carter is the public perception of Temple members as "mindless cultist sheep." Both he and Guinn argue that most Peoples Temple believers were drawn to the message and the practice of Christian charity.
They got kids off drugs. They helped the elderly with health care. A large percentage of Temple members were inner-city residents left behind by society. They saw the Temple as a refuge, led by a minister who put his money where his mouth was.
These factors make it even more painful to reconcile Jones' capacity for good with his ultimate act of evil. We tend to like our horrors served straight up, without the complicating factors that come with being human. We don't want our monsters to also be men. Such ambiguity doesn't lend itself to sensationalist accounts of Jonestown, like the 1980 TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones.
For all his preaching about helping those who need it most, Jones, in the end, was mostly about helping Jones.
In his sermons, many of which can be heard online, he liked to talk about Masada, the mountaintop fortress in Israel, where, as Guinn writes, "almost one thousand Jewish revolutionaries, women, and children committed suicide rather than surrender to a Roman army about to breach the walls."
Paradoxically, he also admired how Hitler killed himself rather than let his adversaries gloat over his defeat.
In what has become known as "the death tape," the audio recording of those final hours, Jones laments that he and his followers have come to a place where hope has run out. "To Jones, if he has come to this place, than his followers have come there, too," Guinn says. "He knows if they all die, people are going to remember his name forever.
"Tragic as this event is, Jim Jones got what he wanted."