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

Kitanya Harrison
2 min readFeb 12, 2023
Photo of Jim Jones

I recently finished reading Tim Reiterman’s book, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. It’s considered the seminal work on Jonestown and traces Jim Jones’s life from childhood to his death in the Guyanese jungle, where he orchestrated the mass killing of over 900 of his followers.

I started researching cults after a disturbing incident at a church outside Montego Bay, Jamaica, where a cult leader ordered the murders of followers, and his instructions were carried out. How do these things happen? How do these leaders gain this measure of control over their followers? Learning about Jonestown was an obvious step in trying to get answers. Reiterman's extensively researched book is a doorstopping 580 pages and provides heaps of context. I highly recommend the book but warn that some of the content is not for the faint of heart.

I provide the following trigger warnings: Jim Jones was conman, a rapist and sexual predator, and a mass murderer. Reiterman describes many disturbing incidents in some detail, and the final chapter "Holocaust" is particularly distressing.

Reading the book made it clear to me that the way dangerous cults are discussed in popular culture makes it harder to educate people about the tactics these organizations use to recruit people and maintain control over them. Jonestown has become a punchline about "drinking the Kool-aid," even though 300 children were murdered by their parents and guardians. Some of them died screaming and pleading for their lives. The glib way the horror is discussed comes from the disdain felt towards "dupes" who fell for an obvious con. Hindsight is 20/20, though.

Jones posed as an integrationist and socialist and heavily targeted Black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. He supported the cause financially, and the cover he created for himself was an effective shield he used to deflect criticism and create a mythology around him. Many of the dead in the Guyanese jungle were Black Americans looking to escape a virulently racist society. They placed their trust in the wrong man to lead them to the promised land. Cult leaders often prey on these deeply felt needs.

I’m working on a post on Jonestown to continue my series on cults. I’ve been experimenting with recording voice notes to help me work through my thoughts. It’s a new part of my writing process that I think I’ll stick with. I shared my recordings discussing Raven on my Patreon, and you can listen to them there, if you’re interested.

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Kitanya Harrison

Upcoming essay collection: WELCOME TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE: NOTES ON COLLAPSE FROM THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC | Rep: Deirdre Mullane