Indiana Jones's Temple of Doom | The Nation


Indiana Jones's Temple of Doom

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The recent arrest in Israel of eight apocalyptic cult members, who reportedly planned to take their own lives at the millennium or provoke authorities into killing them, revealed that yet another cult had embraced the idea of using mass death to make a statement of faith. The Denver-based Concerned Christians, who hoped their action would evoke the Second Coming of Christ, joined ranks with the Heaven's Gate comet-following suicides in California in 1997, the Solar Temple adherents in France and Canada in 1995 and the besieged Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, whose refusal to surrender to authorities in 1993 ended in deadly conflagration. The collective ambitions of these groups suggest a rejection of the American ethos of individualism and the potential destructiveness of the surrender of self to the tightly closed ideological world so central to the cult phenomenon. But such groups also inevitably bring to mind the tragedy of Jonestown, Guyana, twenty years ago this past November, when 913 members of the Peoples Temple died at the command of their leader, Jim Jones. At the time, there was no historical precedent for such an incomprehensible event.

About the Author

Bettina Drew
Bettina Drew's most recent book is Crossing the Expendable Landscape (Graywolf).

Jonestown could not have occurred without the idiosyncratic and intensely driven personality of Jim Jones, who came to his calling early. When Jones was a boy, a neighbor recalled, "He could preach a good sermon.... He would have about ten youngsters in there, and he would...line them up and make them march. He'd hit them with a stick and they'd scream and cry." They always came back to play the next day, however, and Jones cultivated his identity as a powerful religious leader all his life. In Protestant fundamentalist Indiana, Jones became a pastor by age 19, and the Peoples Temple he began six years later in 1956 contained in microcosm the organizational strategies he would later practice in more bizarre and violent ways. His bogus, emotionally charged faith healings were offset by religious unorthodoxy, a socialist, multiracial vision and a commitment to welfare service that included a soup kitchen, animal shelter, job training and elder care. Even in Indiana, Jones demanded unquestioning loyalty, creating an interrogation committee to root out and punish the deviant; he also learned there to charm the liberal political establishment. His accusations that his wife and black son had been spat upon and dead animals thrown at the church were the first in what became constant claims of persecution. Finally, his removal of his Midwest faithful to Ukiah, California, was a precursor to his move to Guyana. Expanding his congregation in California, he pursued an undeviating line of purpose that reached its own apocalypse in Jonestown.

A large part of that purpose was personal and political power, for, although ordained, Jones was not religious in the traditional sense. His wife, Marceline, told the New York Times, "Jim has used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion." In autobiographical tapes made in Guyana, Jones recalled, "I'll never make a revolution, I can't even get these fuckers to integrate.... I was preaching integration, against war, throwing in some communist philosophy." Jones would throw the Bible on the floor during sermons, spit on it and urge his followers to discard it. "If you believe I am a son of God in that I am filled with love, I can accept that," Jones said after being called "God Almighty" by a parishioner. "But I don't want to be interpreted as the Creator of the Universe." Instead, Jones preached a dogma whose idea was roughly that God was love and love was socialism and that therefore God was socialism. In calling himself the "Prophet of God" and "Father," he substituted flesh and blood for the traditional invisible entity he scornfully called "the Sky God."

A supporter of the Soviet Union, Jones claimed to be the reincarnation of Lenin, and he especially admired Stalin. "I never would accept that Stalin was all that bad," he said in his tapes. "Purged, yeah, sure he purged. The goddamned Allies had infiltrated his high command. Enough to drive anybody insane." Jones felt Stalin had done great things for the Soviet Union, and the idea of the citizens of Leningrad eating dead flesh for a thousand days and marching in a unified force toward shooting Nazis lingered in his mind. Like Stalin, Jones fostered a cult of personality, selling photos of himself to ward off burglars and heal afflicted body parts. "It was not love as such or compassion as such that redeemed, but Jim Jones' love, Jim Jones' compassion," observed the journalist Shiva Naipaul in his cultural history of the temple, Journey to Nowhere. And Jones used his followers whenever necessary to enhance his standing. If civic or political groups needed a crowd for an impromptu rally, as the Democratic Party in San Francisco did upon the unexpected arrival of Rosalynn Carter, Jones could be counted upon to bring busloads of polite people on time; Jones's registered voters and doorbell ringers made the difference in San Francisco Mayor George Moscone's 1975 election. Politicians especially admired the temple's nonbureaucratic welfare services, which could immediately provide groceries, money, medical care and other necessities. "If you were in need...they'd take care of you, no questions asked," California state legislator Art Agnos recalled.

But like Stalin, Jones was incapable of tolerating dissent, to the extent that he expected even the media to praise his plans and believe the image he worked tirelessly to construct. In 1972, when the San Francisco Examiner ran a series of articles focusing on his faith healings, temple members picketed the Examiner, but the affair soon blew over. By 1977, however, Jones was less able to accept investigative reports as inevitable because members of his inner circle had defected. When New West magazine ran an unflattering account of the temple's more disturbing practices, it was more than Jones could endure. Harking back, as Naipaul described it, "to America itself, to the New World dream of rebirth and self-realization in a spacious land uncontaminated by memory, tradition and restraint," in August 1977 Jones moved his flock to the Cooperative Socialist Republic of Guyana.

Middle-aged and elderly black women were devoted to Jones in numbers, a black San Francisco newspaperman explained, because they "felt they had become somebody through joining the Temple. They weren't neglected anymore. They now had everything from social organizations to pre-school kids' groups to be part of and they had a whole new life." To run these services and the business of the temple, Jones relied on a cadre of young people who were mostly educated and white. One of these was Deborah Layton, who at 19 was tired of rebelling against her parents' depressing middle-class marriage in Berkeley. Drawn to the temple's good works and sense of structure and purpose, she rose quickly in the hierarchy and became its financial secretary. Her new memoir, Seductive Poison, is an emotionally articulate and gripping account of her six years in the temple, her disillusionment and her harrowing escape from Jonestown. On her return to the United States, Layton wrote an affidavit about the jungle compound that helped convince Congressman Leo Ryan to make his doomed journey there; she is also the sister of the still-incarcerated Larry Layton, the only one ever prosecuted for the murders of the Congressional team by temple members.

Using family documents and hours of tape she made after her escape, Layton has written a convincing and detailed account of how membership in the temple affected her psychologically. Early after moving to Ukiah, she felt both homesick and deeply guilty: "I missed my parents, I missed the occasional drag on a cigarette, but worst of all I secretly hated the all-day and all-weekend revival meetings. I knew these meetings were important. Jim had explained [that] to me.... But...I was not used to such altruism.... I felt even more guilt on the fleeting occasions when I wished I hadn't joined.... I began writing myself up and reporting on my negative thoughts." She felt these confessions kept her in check and better able to do her job. And as a father figure and leader, Jones was exceedingly perceptive about others' emotional states. "Whenever my inner voice began to caution me, Jim would intuit my doubt and quickly dispel my 'capitalistic' anxiety."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size