The Raven is Jim Jones. The title refers to his jet black hair and, I think, a biblical passage. Tim Reiterman was part of the Congressman Ryan investigative group that went to Guyana and precipitated the mass suicide. He was shot and survived. His mates were not so lucky.
This is a long read with a lot of names to keep track of. The book offers up some aids to help with that.
The Jim Jones massacre (about 10% of the flock were outright murdered) took place in late 1978. I was just out of school and would not turn into a skeptical "pro" for another 8 years or so. Of course, I knew about it and I have seen the Powers Booth movie on the subject. Since then, the phrase "drank the Koolaid" has entered the language to mean someone who has been completely duped.
Jones was a natural talker. He studied the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Manson and how the used words to rise to power. He learned early in life that he was a master manipulator and that religion was the best forum for his talents. He married Marceline who stuck with him to the end, literally. He got a teaching degree when he wasn't preaching and/or searching for a church that would have him. He admired a Preacher named Divine, an early faith healer. He grew up in the south and used his powers to suck up poor blacks by the family.
He became a faith healer himself, using all the tricks of the trade. Fake guts, people in disguises, etc. He claimed that he had resurrected more than 40 people from the dead, including himself. He claimed at one time, that someone shot him, but he made the bullet disolve in mid-air. It is not surprising that as his reputation grew, so did his ego and his claims. Slowly, this all morphed from him being the voice of god, to being god himself. And throughout it all, his paranoia grew ever larger. Everyone was out to get him. Especially the government. He faked letters and attacks on the People's Church (as it came to be known) to support his claims.
He was a master manipulator. He would hump anyone he pleased. He would tell one follower to fuck (he had a foul mouth for a preacher) church woman who had "low self-esteem". He would rat out the man to his wife, then apply passive aggressive techniques to pull them both further into his thrall.
At one point, as an experiment, Jones told his inner circle that he had just poisoned them all and that they were going to die. They did not seem to mind!
The entire church pulled up stakes and moved to California where they quickly established in-rods to the local community and, surprisingly, local politics. The church's message of racial equality made them sound great to 1978 ears and few questioned the church's motives.
At long last, however, a defector broke ranks. Jim had screwed his wife and had now claimed the male offspring (Jones may or may not have been the actual father). Legal proceedings started and the bullshit started to unravel. While all this was going on, the church was creating Jonestown out of the bush of Guyana.
Jonestown was paradise on earth. Except it wasn't. A world of abundance was painted, but farming in the jungle is hard because jungle soils are very poor. The people's diet was protien, fruit, and vegetable poor, and starch rich.
When it was clear that the shit was going to hit the fan in the US, Jones and 90% of his followers bugged off to Guyana. While in Guyana, jones continued with his paranoid ramblings. He staged multiple attacks. He routinely called for "White Nights" when the entire population on Jonestown would prepare for the worst. "Revolutionary suicide" was discussed a lot. During this period, Jones' son Stephen began to realize that Dad (many people called him that) was nuts, but his grip on the minds of his followers at this time was iron clad. Dissenting voices were silenced with very cruel punishments reminiscent of Nazi Germany's concentration camps.
Finally, US Congressman Ryan, some aids, and several reports went to Jonestown to see this Eden on the bush. If Jones had not snapped, they might have pulled it off. But 24 hours later, all but a handful of his followers were dead. Stephen Jones survived, as did a few others who could read the writing on the wall. Almost all the rest took potassium cyanide knowingly. Like all good Christians, of course, they killed their kids first. In many cases, this involved injecting poison through their necks and into their esophagus. They did not die well.
For skeptics especially, this is an interesting book. Almost all the classic aspects of a cult of personality are there to see. What is not disturbing, other than 950+ dead people, was how deeply politicians, other religious leaders, and the yokels bought into it all.
If only we could get the leaders if ISIL to folow suit and talk all their followers to kill themselves too.
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Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.