The best books about Jonestown and Peoples Temple

Who am I?

I taught English and creative writing for 37 years in San Francisco, California. In 2018, Ron Cabral and I published And Then They Were Gone, which tells the story of the People’s Temple teenagers we taught. Many of them never returned after the Jonestown massacre and died there. We hope this story about our young students—their hopes, their poetry, their efforts to help make a better world—will bring some light to the dark story of Jonestown.


I wrote...

And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

By Judy Bebelaar, Ron Cabral,

Book cover of And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

What is my book about?

Of the 918 Americans who died in the shocking murder-suicides of November 18, 1978, in the tiny South American country of Guyana, a third were under eighteen. More than half were in their twenties or younger. And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown begins in San Francisco at the small school where Reverend Jim Jones enrolled the teens of his Peoples Temple church in 1976. Within a year, most had been sent to join Jones and other congregants in what Jones promised was a tropical paradise based on egalitarian values, but which turned out to be a deadly prison camp. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the late 1970s, And Then They Were Gone draws from interviews, books, and articles. Many of these powerful stories are told here for the first time.

The books I picked & why

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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.

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

By Tim Reiterman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Raven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The basis for the upcoming HBO miniseries and the "definitive account of the Jonestown massacre" (Rolling Stone) -- now available for the first time in paperback.

Tim Reiterman’s Raven provides the seminal history of the Rev. Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and the murderous ordeal at Jonestown in 1978.

This PEN Award–winning work explores the ideals-gone-wrong, the intrigue, and the grim realities behind the Peoples Temple and its implosion in the jungle of South America. Reiterman’s reportage clarifies enduring misperceptions of the character and motives of Jim Jones, the reasons why people followed him, and the important truth that many…


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.

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

By Deborah Layton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seductive Poison as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this haunting and riveting firsthand account, a survivor of Jim Jones's Peoples Temple opens up the shadowy world of cults and shows how anyone can fall under their spell.

"A suspenseful tale of escape that reads like a satisfying thriller.... The most important personal testimony to emerge from the Jonestown tragedy." —Chicago Tribune

A high-level member of Jim Jones's Peoples Temple for seven years, Deborah Layton escaped his infamous commune in the Guyanese jungle, leaving behind her mother, her older brother, and many friends. She returned to the United States with warnings of impending disaster, but her pleas for…


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.

Beautiful Revolutionary

By Laura Elizabeth Woollett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beautiful Revolutionary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The thrilling new novel, inspired by the events at Jonestown in the 1970s.

It's the summer of 1968, and Evelyn Lynden is a woman at war with herself. Minister's daughter. Atheist. Independent woman. Frustrated wife. Bitch with a bleeding heart.

Following her conscientious-objector husband Lenny to the rural Eden of Evergreen Valley, California, Evelyn wants to be happy with their new life. Yet she finds herself disillusioned with Lenny's passive ways - and anxious for a saviour. Enter the Reverend Jim Jones, the dynamic leader of a new revolutionary church ...

Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Beautiful Revolutionary explores the…


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.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

By Julia Scheeres,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Thousand Lives as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A gripping account of how decent people can be taken in by a charismatic and crazed tyrant” (The New York Times Book Review).

In 1954, a past or named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. As Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers leaned on each other to recapture the sense of equality that had drawn them to his church. But even as the…


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.

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

By David Talbot,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Season of the Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The critically acclaimed, San Francisco Chronicle bestseller—a gripping story of the strife and tragedy that led to San Francisco’s ultimate rebirth and triumph.

Salon founder David Talbot chronicles the cultural history of San Francisco and from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when figures such as Harvey Milk, Janis Joplin, Jim Jones, and Bill Walsh helped usher from backwater city to thriving metropolis.


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