I read these books in close proximity to each other. After learning that the non-fiction was used as research for the fiction, I thought it would be neat to combine them.
Cults are a subject that have fascinated true crime writers and fans for quite some time. From their deadly demises to the strategic and manipulative ways they entice people to their group, there is so much to examine, and so many opportunities for heart-break. In 2021’s The Project, Courtney Summers tells the story of a budding journalist, Lo, who tries to reconnect with her sister, Bea, who had been lost to a cult, The Unity Project. The rise of Lev Warren can be easily mapped onto the rise of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple in the 70s, a socialist organization which had a flimflam man who believed himself God at its center. Both books are chilling, heartbreaking, and compliment each other so well.
The Project by Courtney Summers (2021)
Read a NetGalley eARC
Trigger warning: Statutory rape, birth, car accidents, torture, gaslighting, child abuse
As mentioned up above, Lo and Bea have been estranged for several years when the story begins. Both lost their parents at a young age, which makes them almost perfect prey for the predation of a man believing himself to be a deity.
Like other Summers books, this one broke me thoroughly, leaving me in a bit of daze of hope and heartbreak.
There is such care taken to follow both girls’ points of view: One whose faith wavers and another trying to regain a sense of family. Lo’s perspective is firmly rooted in things familiar, like having a job and wondering what comes next. Bea’s provides a heart-wrenching lens into a young woman who’s trying to find something resembling a family in a toxic environment. But no one realizes until it is far too late. It truly is reminiscent of the story arcs of Peoples Temple, so brace yourself for that. The way Summers ties in contemporary events is also effective and feels uncomfortably plausible.
One thing that Summers excels at is absolutely destroying her readers and this book is no exception. The ending is hopeful, but wow does it come at a cost.
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn (2017)
Listened to the audiobook
Trigger warning: Statutory rape, abortion, gaslighting, child abuse, violence, racism
If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-aid,” this is its origin. This non-fiction focuses a lot more on Jim Jones’ rise as the leader of the Peoples Temple cult which eventually found their way to Guyana and the settlement, Jonestown.
The contextualization of Jones’ upbringing with society really works. Guinn takes his time depicting the interactions between the Temple and those beyond. It also takes care to explain Jones’ appeal and how he gained and maintained control. There were levels to the showmanship that I didn’t realize, and made total sense if you wanted to lure in people looking for a miracle and redemption.
The most difficult part of this is that on paper, the ideas behind Peoples Temple as a socialist utopia. Unfortunately, at its core, is a man who wanted power and had a twisted idea of how faith works.