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Book Review: Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman

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This is one of those books where you know the ending to the story: Pastor Jim Jones transports 1,200 of his Peoples Temple followers into the jungles of Guyana. The rest becomes history:

Congressman Leo Ryan becomes the only Congress member to die on the job, a number of NBC reporters are shot down in Port Kaituma, and back at Jonestown, over 900 of Jones’ followers drink the poisoned drink, while Jones himself is shot. The names Jim Jones and Jonestown have since become synonymous with brainwashing and cult following, for the Jonestown Massacre is the largest mass-suicide of Americans to date. Not to mention the event has since become an incredible embarrassment to the Guyanese government.

Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman offers a detailed and thorough account of Jones the man, his followers, his brainwashing techniques, his political influence and power, and his ultimate transport to Guyana, where he convinced over 900 of his members to commit an act of “revolutionary suicide” in the name of socialism.

Among the key points the author mentions are that 1) Jones was never a nice man gone wrong, that he in fact showed signs of sadism and megalomania at an early age, and that 2) the author compares Jones to the likes of Hitler, just on a smaller scale, and 3) the members of the Peoples Temple were murdered, rather than forced to commit suicide.

Reiterman also provides his own first hand account of the shooting at Port Kaituma, where as a journalist covering the story, he himself had been shot. In light of his points, Reiterman’s early description of Jones’ youth certainly does offer a portrait of a disturbed individual who, if he had not evolved into the role of wannabe dictator, very likely he would have evolved into a future Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. Jones’ early malice towards fellow classmates, as well as his cruelty to animals, is very much in line with the behaviors of famous serial killers. Also, the comparison to Hitler, just on a smaller scale, is apt, notably because both Jones and Hitler were delusional and arguably mentally ill, believing that their despicable acts would land them favorable places in history, as opposed to someone like Stalin, who is known not to have suffered from any psychosis, despite his pathological tendencies.

The problem I have is the author’s presumption that the Jonestown slaughter was mostly murder. Certainly, when you read the accounts, there are some who were murdered. But many were ready and willing to die without a fight — even thanking Jones for his kindness up until their last moments.  

It is difficult to empathize with so many who were willing to follow this man blindly, for it’s not like Jones only began showing his lunacy once arriving in Jonestown. For years he would beat temple members in front of his congregation, he was having sex with both men and women (he would engage in sodomy with some of the men as a means of proving their homosexuality, telling them that the only way to become a good socialist was to be sodomized, and would then in turn, demand they write letters thanking the kind Jim Jones for ‘fucking them in the ass’ and helping them to realize their homosexuality), he would deprive them of sleep, publicly humiliate them, get members to turn against one another and their families, demand that members tithe their salaries to the church, as well as sign over their property, and the list goes on.

Fortunately, there were a number of members who came to their senses and broke away from the church, but they were labeled “defectors”. Thus, he would tell other temple members that the defectors were out to kill the remaining members, and keep in mind, that many who joined Jones’ congregation were in fact families, so it became difficult for a son or daughter to break away from the church when he or she knew their parents were still devoted to Jones. But this kind of dependency is exactly what Jones wanted, thus when it came time for the mass suicide, many were willing to die. (There had already been a number of fake suicide drills that Jones would administer as a means for testing members’ loyalty — some of this even occurred before leaving for Guyana, and this, if nothing else, should have been a sure sign to get the hell out).

Raven also discusses the many ways Jones was able to gain power in the political sphere, by trying to gain the support of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter as well as backing by San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, who was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It is without doubt that Jones’ gain of power is impressive, for the book goes into much detail with regards to what a talented con man Jones was. He could lie without flinching, and get his supporters to back him.

This is why for so long, defected members, as well as those a part of the Concerned Relatives, had trouble convincing the public of the perils of Jonestown. Even the author himself, upon arriving, still had to ask the question: what was Jonestown? Paradise or a concentration camp?

Raven is a thorough and well-written account of the insides to the Peoples Temple, and finishing at nearly 600 pages, one will no doubt be impacted by the emotional and psychological terror Jones put his members through via his White Night sessions, his pathological tendencies and delusions, his drug addition. It becomes clear that Jones became bored in Jonestown. His created hell wasn't enough.

This is a point the author makes, that without an outside world around him, there was nowhere for Jones’ ego to go. Thus is why he terrorized his members so, for without that, he was just a bloated, drugged out psychopath stuck in the remote jungle with a bunch of infants and old people. Where is the fun? Not in Jonestown, that’s for sure.

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