Most news stories start their pitch with the headline and in an inverted triangular shape begins to tell the rest of the story in terms of cause and effect. I’ll modify this a little here. Jim Jones was born in rural Indiana at the height of the Depression 1931. Phyllis Zimmerman who lived nearby remembered him as a strange kid. While other kids rode their bikes and played baseball, Jones liked to gather the other kids and hold ceremonies for roadkill. There were five churches nearby and Jones attended them all taking a bit of each from the holy rollers filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in voices to the hell-and-damnation crowd that believed everyone outside their church was doomed to eternal hellfire – which they richly deserved. While other kids played American soldiers when playing rat-a-tat war games, few if any wanted to play German or Nips. Jones preference was for being a German, he was fascinated with the way in which Hitler was able to manipulate the masses. That was the kind of power he craved.
If you were making notes for a novel and you’d ran with this scenario you could pretty much spit out a 100 000 word first draft in three months. One of the problems you’d face would be what kind of job would you give Jones? My first thought would be truck driver, perhaps with a bit of preaching on the side. Salesman would also be good. At a push I’d have went with schoolteacher in a run-down school, or janitor. Dogs and cats would go missing. He’d be a weirdo that tortured animals, but never got caught. He’s graduate to torturing and killing prostitutes and hitchhikers. Serial killer.
The headline would not have been. 18 November 1978, 918 men, women and around 300 children lost their lives at Jonestown, established by the People’s Temple in northern Guyana victims of Fla-Vor-Ad (cheaper type of Kool Aid) laced with cyanide.
They’d travelled to the capital, Georgetown, by plane in twos and threes to avoid detection by American authorities who they suspected were monitoring airports and then on by boat to the interior which took around twelve hours. Jonestown and The People’s Temple was surrounded by jungle, the nearest village was around twelve miles away.
For fiction writers the question wouldn’t have been why did they kill themselves and their children? Or why did others do the killing work for Jim Jones. The history of genocide in China, Europe and Africa and Middle East follows much the same pattern. Milgram’s experiment on obedience and the Stanford Prison experiment pretty much shapes the story of how a cohort would react and here it is played out in real life.
Witnesses that escaped the cult of Jim Jones, including two of Jim Jones’s adopted sons, Jim Jones (Junior) and Stephan Jones, part of the so-called Rainbow family, made up of different ethnic groups offer insider accounts. Jim Jones liked his followers to call him ‘Father’. And his wife, to be called ‘Mother’. They tell us how it worked. I couldn’t help thinking of David Koresh, also a self-appointed Messiah, who preached the apocalypse. Didn’t allow his followers to have sex, but the Messiah slept with young girls. Took drugs. Endlessly lectured about the end of times. Appointed a Praetorian Guard to enforce discipline and punish those that tried to escape. All property was forfeit and given to the self-appointed Messiah. All labour was communal and given freely.
We also have outsider’s accounts from newspapermen who broke the story of Jim Jones cult in California to authors such as Jeff Guiann The Road to Jamestown. And reports from the FBI.
If it was a work of fiction Jim Jones might have been a politician with local success. He had the well-manicured look of a white man on the make and had the right blend of deceit, ruthlessness and narcissism to make it to the very top. All of these things would be labelled as charisma. Jim Jones had charisma. A man that also stages his own death by gunshot wounds and miraculous resurrection wouldn’t quake at telling us a few hard truths and how he was going to fix it.
When Jim Jones found out the net was closing in and there was no fixing it, he decided his followers were going down with him. He’s already tested his Praetorian guard telling them he’d poisoned them to see how they’d react. They reacted the way he expected. They gave him their continued loyalty after he said he’d faked it. In the end there was no faking it. Those that didn’t want to die were helped along to meet their maker. The apocalypse did come for 1000 poor souls. To call Jim Jones a madman is to assume it won’t happen again. It has and it will. I was interested to hear one of his followers that had the strength to escape with her son validate what I said, say exactly that. We live in dangerous times. If I was writing fiction I’d say much the same thing. When fact and fiction cross X marks the problem. Modern cults aren’t restricted to churches they’ve moved mainstream.