the truth is far murkier


On November 18, 1978, more than nine hundred members of Peoples Temple church died in a mass suicide-murder in Jonestown, Guyana. It was a horrific epilogue to the dream of building a socialist utopia in the South American jungle. Jim Jones, the Temple’s charismatic leader, had promised his flock deliverance from America’s ills: racism, sexism, capitalism, and economic burnout. Instead, he controlled his city like a police state, enforcing a paranoid regimen of loyalty oaths, suicide drills, and brainwashing. His drug-fueled sermons, beginning in the evening and lasting until 2 or 3 AM, spelled out a doomsday scenario of CIA invasion and torture. “They will not leave us in peace,” he warned his followers, but in the end it was Jones himself, the Temple’s beloved “father,” who rallied his people to their own destruction. Peoples Temple remains an enigma despite having spawned a cottage industry of books, documentaries, and scholarly studies. The most fundamental misrepresentation is that it was a cult and Jonestown the apotheosis of a collective death wish. Jim Jones, with his painted sideburns and aviator sunglasses, has become a totem of ’70s kitsch, the apocalyptic flipside to Jimmy Carter and Alfred E. Neuman. The truth captured in Leigh Fondakowski’s Stories from Jonestown, a new collection of interviews with survivors of Peoples Temple, is far murkier.

more from Jeremy Lybarger at Bookforum here.