Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman is the obsessively detailed biography of the mad religious zealot who went down in infamy when he brainwashed nearly 1,000 followers into drinking poisoned Kool Aid.
The book is somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 pages. That didn’t scare me away, but as a casual reader, it was just too detailed for me. I made it about 150 pages in when I became so bored it was painful to read the book. So I admit: I skipped to the juicy bits at the end. Let’s be honest, the casual reader really only wants to know about how and why one man could convince 1,000 people to kill themselves.
Jim Jones was raised in small-town America, and was odd from an early age. He did not get along well with children his age, and he was obsessed with religion. He was especially drawn to the more Evangelical churches, and it wasn’t long before he was hosting his own revival meetings. Jones, like all cult leaders, was enigmatic and swift with his words. Intriguingly, Jones was not one hundred percent evil. In a time when racial prejudices were rampant and segregation commonplace, Jones had a true belief in the equality of men. He and his wife were the first white couple in America to legally adopt a black child. They also adopted three Korean children, a Native American child, and had one biological son.
The infamous Jonestown compound was created as a peaceful, utopian communist society. But Jones was an idealist, a megalomaniac, a drug addict, and severely paranoid. When plans for a mass exodus of the Temple to Russia fell through, Jones became convinced that intelligence organizations would raid their compound, killing members and stealing babies. He urged his followers to commit an “act of revolutionary suicide” by drinking Flavor Aid (not Kool Aid) laced with cyanide and sedatives.
Author Reiterman was one of the nine people involved in the Georgetown airstrip ambush the morning of the mass suicides. He had spent the previous 18 months researching the Temple for the San Francisco Examiner, and despite his injuries at the hands of Jones’s people – or perhaps because of them – Reiter never lost his obsession with the Peoples Temple. This biography is a testament to that obsession. It goes over every detail of Jones’s life, painstakingly pieced together from Temple documents, eye-witness interviews, audio recordings, and more. But it is not a dull collection of facts. Reiterman’s style blurs the line between fiction and non, telling the tale of Jones in the same way you might speak of someone conversationally, or share stories around a campfire. It makes an engaging narrative to read, but it gets so bogged down in details that only the most devout student of cults and Jim Jones will be able to make it cover to cover.