Portrait of infamous cult's rise and fall

'Jonestown' should be warning to all about charismatic preachers

Star Ledger, New Jersey/October 21, 2006
By Stephen Whitty

Here's a list of questions to remember, if a friend or child or lover ever tells you that they've found a wonderful new group of friends:

Do their new friends encourage them to leave home and move in with them? Do they discourage them from continuing old relationships? Do they ask them to sign over assets, go without sleep, listen to constant lectures, stop following the news and always, always stay on the lookout for traitors?

Then the friends they've found aren't part of a normal religion, or genuine movement. They're part of a cult. And "Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple," a fine new documentary, explained how hard it was -- and later, tragically impossible -- for some people to see that.

When Jim Jones first started preaching in Northern California in 1965, his mix of socialism, civil rights and good-old-fashioned revivalism was novel, and powerful. Thousands of members, black and white, joined his church and listened to this handsome, charismatic man call for peace and justice.

There was, however, a dark side to his ministry, an ugly culture of beatings and intimidation and predatory sex. When a writer for New West magazine published an exposé, Jones and a thousand of his followers fled to Guyana, where they had built their own town in the jungle. And when the authorities followed them there ... .

But anyone who was alive in 1978 can remember the awful stories of the coerced suicides, of those 909 bodies -- infants, parents and grandparents -- lying poisoned on the jungle floor. It gave us at least two sweaty B-movies and left us with a bit of gruesome new slang; any mesmerized follower has, we say, "already drunk the Kool-Aid."

Director Stanley Nelson goes beyond those outlines, though -- and mercifully avoids all of the usual cockeyed conspiracy theories about CIA plots and government mind-control experiments -- to give us a measure of Jones' appeal and surprising power.

A smart recruiter, Jones was canny enough to widen his message by mixing new-left promises of economic equality with old-church rituals like faith healing. His ability to spearhead successful, Democratic get-out-the-vote drives brought him photo ops with politicians like Walter Mondale and Jerry Brown. One San Francisco mayor even appointed him head of the city's Housing Authority.

But Jones' insistence on control could not bear challenges. When journalists started asking questions, he fled the country with his followers; when a congressman followed with a fact-finding mission, Jones had the interlopers shot, then told the congregation they now had no other choice. Parents were instructed to poison their children first, before taking the sweetened cyanide themselves.

It is infuriating to watch the clips now of politicians happily endorsing Jones, in hopes he would return the favor; frustrating, too, to hear one survivor lamely protest that, well, at least his church tried to make this world a better place. Nelson treads lightly here, but the scenes of self-interest and self-deception are striking.

Mostly, though, this is about the victims. We see the hope in the faces of new members. We see the colorful home-movies of the rousing worship services in San Francisco, and of the "paradise" that was being built in the jungle. And then, finally, slowly, we see those who never came back.

Think of them again the next time someone tells you of this "life-altering" person they've just met. Remember them whenever a skinny, staring kid in Times Square offers you a self-help book, a religious pamphlet, a stress test, and tells you there's no obligation at all. No, no, none at all.

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