The best books about Jonestown and Peoples Temple

The Books I Picked & Why

Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People

By Tim Reiterman

Book cover of Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People

Why this book?

Raven is the best, most comprehensive, and most thoroughly researched book on Jim Jones, Jonestown, and Peoples Temple. Reiterman is a fine investigative journalist who was part of a group to visit Jonestown, Guyana in November of 1978. The visitors included, among others, eight members of the press; Congressman Leo Ryan and his aide Jackie Speier; and thirteen representatives of the “Concerned Relatives,” their own name for the group. Every member of the group had defected from the Temple in San Francisco. Only some of these visitors—Reiterman and a few of the other journalists, Ryan and Speier, and a small number of the group of relatives—were finally and reluctantly admitted in by Jones, on the stern advice of Jones’s lawyers. The Concerned Relatives were there to see if—as they strongly suspected—those in Jonestown were being held against their will.  The journalists wanted to find the truth about life in the jungle community and Jim Jones. Ryan was the kind of politician who liked to find out the truth personally.

Reiterman, with others, toured the camp, and interviewed people in Jonestown, including Jones. As the visitors were on their way out, boarding the two small planes to carry them to Guyana’s capital, they were ambushed. Five people died in the shooting attack at the tiny airstrip outside of Jonestown, including Congressman Ryan, three of the journalists, and one of Jonestown residents who had joined the group of those wanting to leave. 

Back in the US Jacobs and Reiterman carefully researched Jones’s past and interviewed survivors and others connected to the story. Raven is where Ron and I first learned that it was one of our San Francisco high school students, Monica Bagby, who with her friend Vern Gosney, sparked other Jonestowners to sign the list of those courageous enough to slip a note to a reporter, “Help us get out of Jonestown,” and signed their names. Raven is where we began to discover more about our students’ lives in the jungle compound. The book tells the stories of many in Jonestown, and traces the events that led up to the last chapter, titled, “Holocaust.” 

Too many have dismissed the death of 918 people, one-half of them in their twenties or younger, 1/3 of them children, under 18, as mindless followers of a crazed leader. Raven is the best book to seek out if you want to understand the complicated story of Jim Jones, Jonestown, the Temple, and its people. There are extensive notes, a list of sources, and a comprehensive index.

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Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple

By Deborah Layton

Book cover of Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple

Why this book?

Layton escaped, at great risk, to try to prevent the tragedy of Jonestown. Her book is the best book yet to read to see Jonestown and Jim Jones through the eyes of a survivor. Layton entered Jonestown (as did most of Ron’s and my students) later than early settlers, when the situation was getting more and more dire as Jones was deteriorating. 

Twenty-four at the time, Layton accompanied her mother, who believed Jones could cure her cancer. As Charles Krause says in the foreword, “Debbie quickly realized that she and the others had been deliberately deceived: Jonestown was essentially a concentration camp in the jungle.” Layton had been in the church since she was a teen. Jones had immediately recognized her intelligence and energy, and eventually made her one of his inner circle. When she left, he declared her a traitor. The book is fascinating and well written.

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Beautiful Revolutionary

By Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Book cover of Beautiful Revolutionary

Why this book?

Woollett’s novel is based on much research on Peoples Temple and Jonestown. She came to the US from Australia for interviews with many survivors and others—including Ron Cabral and me because of our knowledge of the teenagers in the Temple. It’s a great read and adds much to the understanding of those who joined the Temple. Evelyn Lyndon (all the characters have fictional names except Jim Jones) is the “Beautiful Revolutionary” who, with her idealistic husband, joins the Temple and eventually becomes one of Jones’s mistresses. I recognize many of the book’s characters, sometimes two people rolled into one. Only in a novel could Woollett be in the minds of the characters she follows in this story, who are all believable and vividly drawn.

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A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

By Julia Scheeres

Book cover of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

Why this book?

Julia Scheeres is the New York Times best-selling author of Jesus Land, a memoir about being sent, along with her adoptive brother, to a Christian reform camp in the Dominican Republic Their parents, conservative Christians sent them there when Julia and her brother were teenagers. The camp, Scheeres says, had “some uncanny parallels” with Jonestown. 

She begins the story with the story of Tommy Bogue’s “adventure.” Tommy “gripped the slick railing, bracing himself against the waves,” as Jonestown’s small boat headed across the Atlantic and up the coast to the Kaituma River, on his journey to the settlement. Tommy, like Layton, was soon disillusioned. Tommy was a brother of Marilee, Ron’s and my student, who like her mother, was a Jones loyalist. Tommy refused to follow the many strict rules in Jonestown, and broke them to go outside of its borders to follow his curiosity about the jungle and the native peoples of the area. As a result of that and other offenses, he was punished often and severely. He nearly managed to escape with an Amerindian friend, in a scheme involving paying their way on a trek to Venezuela and freedom by selling condoms stolen from the Jonestown warehouse to Amerindian tribes on the journey. 

Scheeres focuses on other people who went to Jonestown, including Edith Roller, who was sent to Jonestown to establish a school for the many children and teens there, and to be the only person allowed to keep a journal approved by Jones. Scheeres is a fine writer who has also done extensive research on Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Her book is a great read.

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Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love

By David Talbot

Book cover of Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love

Why this book?

David Talbot, another New York Times bestseller, wrote this book about the 70’s, and the dark times in San Francisco, including the story of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. It reads like a noir mystery novel even though it’s nonfiction. His book is the best for getting the context of the times, the hopeful 60’s melding into the dark 70’s. Peoples Temple and Jim Jones were a large and tragic part of that story.

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