Book Review: Raven

Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People
By Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs
Tarcher/Penguin
Review by David Chiu

Yesterday marked the 30-year anniversary of the Jonestown suicides when over 900 followers of Rev. Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple church, killed themselves by drinking fruit drink containing cyanide. On that same day before the suicides, Jones’s men in an airstrip ambush gunned down five people including California Congressmen Leo Ryan. The bizarre and ultimately tragic story of the Peoples Temple is told in Tim Reiterman’s compelling and exhaustive book Raven, which was previously published in 1982, and now has been reprinted in paperback.

Reiterman, then a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, was an unlikely participant in the events of that horrible day—he was among the wounded in the ambush after visiting Jonestown with Congressman Ryan and the media. His book tells the story of the charismatic Jim Jones, whose fiery brand of religion, politics and social philosophy began in Indiana in the mid-‘50s. As a minister he was unorthodox and unpopular in the community for his racial integration views—he practiced what he preached by adopting non-white children. Jones’s populist appeal followed him to Ukiah and then San Francisco where he preached civil rights and social justice, and his congregation was mostly African Americans and young progressive whites.

But, as the book unravels, there was a dark undercurrent to Jones’s life and message, and the details convey the strange and bizarre things happening inside the church: Jones started having sexual relations with both male and female parishioners; he conducted fake healings; and he saw himself as a Christ-figure and even God. His followers were convinced to donate their savings and properties to the church. And Jones’s paranoia about being betrayed was so palpable that no one was allowed to leave the church upon penalty of severe punishment and retribution. The most chilling episode was having the members engage in the practice of suicide by drinking fruit punch and then were told that it was poisoned (it wasn’t) as a sort of test

Jones’s power was at its zenith upon the Temple’s arrival to San Francisco in the mid ‘70s. His ironclad rule went mainly unchecked because he was able to ingratiate himself with the local politicians (even gaining an audience with First Lady Rosalyn Carter). The media didn’t cover the seamy side of the church or ignored it until journalist’s Marshall Kilduff’s explosive magazine expose convinced Jones and his followers to move to what they considered a modern-day utopia in Guyana. But it was the concern of the followers’ relatives that convinced Congressman Ryan to visit the camp. That would set off the chain of events that culminated with the final and catastrophic moments.

Raven is an absorbing read—it is so mind-blowing and hard to put down even at over 600 pages. As it draws from numerous interviews and sources, Raven’s thorough reporting and the research is a prime example of great journalism. And underneath the sordid and fantastic details of the church’s politics and machinery are some really heartbreaking moments represented in the stories of some of the families— particularly Steve Katasaris, a loving father who tries to convince his brainwashed daughter Maria to leave the church.

There have been numerous books and articles in addition to documentaries about Jonestown, but Raven might be the ultimate and authoritative source for any understanding about Jones and the Peoples Temple. With continued interest with Jonestown especially during this anniversary, the book’s reemergence couldn’t been more timely as a cautionary reminder of what happens when a group puts its own individuality and life in the hands of a corrupt and insane person.

For more information about Jonestown:

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/jonestown/index.html

Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple
http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/

“On the 30th anniversary, Jonestown survivors reflect on the tragedy and their new lives” By Tim Reiterman
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/wire/sns-ap-30-years-after-jonestown,1,1130544.story

Watch the trailer to the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

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