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.
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.”
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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.”
In addition to checking their thoughts, Jones also intruded upon his members’ sex lives, preaching that sex impeded altruistic action and arranging and breaking up marriages as he saw fit, severing family ties to make his followers more dependent on him. “If one were to be truly devoted, one had to abstain…. If they were married, women had to declare that it was Father they had always thought of and fantasized about when they were with their husbands,” Layton recalls. Indeed, the whole Jones outlook on sex was bizarre. He preached, to his congregation’s bewilderment, that all men other than himself were homosexuals. Then, when Jones unexpectedly forced himself sexually upon Layton, telling her afterward that she needed it, Layton was confused and ashamed but had no acceptable means of lashing out at him. Instead, she became adept at keeping her inner reality to herself and projecting an image of loyalty.
Leaving became harder to do when her mother joined the temple, so Layton sought to insulate herself in the inner circle, where she felt more in control. But members had little chance for reflection and the balancing of inner and outer worlds, since they worked long hours with little sleep, were obliged daily to write their thoughts to Jones and were subjected to sermons running late into the night and to humiliating public confrontations of disloyal members. Jones made followers sign confessions to crimes such as child-molesting and adultery that could be used against them should they ever defect. Also demanding substantial amounts of his followers’ incomes and, in his “life care” program for the elderly, all their worldly possessions, Jones became the center of temple adherents’ emotional and day-to-day reality.
“This penetration by the psychological forces of the environment into the inner emotions of the individual person is perhaps the outstanding psychiatric fact of thought reform,” the Yale psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote in his classic study Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, based on his examination and interviews with forty Westerners and Chinese who had been “brainwashed” under the Chinese Communists. Noting that it was “the combination of external force or coercion with an appeal to inner enthusiasm through evangelistic exhortation which gave thought reform its emotional scope and power,” Lifton also observed that the process involved a regression he called personal closure, “a retreat into doctrinal and organizational exclusiveness, and into all-or-nothing emotional patterns more characteristic…of the child than of the individuated adult.”
Deborah Layton took many of the psychological steps taken by Lifton’s subjects. She established her own (liberal) guilt and channeled it into acceptable behavior; she betrayed herself in response to accusations of disloyalty. But more profoundly, she lived in a world that conformed uncannily to the characteristics of ideological totalism that Lifton saw underlying thought reform. These included strict control of communication between people and in the environment, a no-holds-barred manipulation of individual guilt, an insistence upon ideological purity and unassailable dogma, a cult of confession, the elevation of doctrine over person and the dispensing of existence according to whether one was a super-person like Jones; a human, socialist person; or an outsider, inevitably portrayed as evil and violent.
Ideological totalism, Lifton concluded, “evokes destructive emotions, produces intellectual and psychological constrictions, and deprives men of all that is most subtle and imaginative…. This combination of personal closure, self-destructiveness, and hostility towards outsiders leads to the dangerous group excesses so characteristic of ideological totalism in any form.”
In Guyana, Jones further tightened his control. In Our Father Who Art in Hell James Reston Jr. cites the affidavit of temple member Yolanda Crawford, who had been preparing the agricultural project in Guyana. In early 1977 Jones came down to check the progress of the colony and, according to Crawford, told the staff there that the whole congregation would soon be arriving and that once there they would not be permitted to depart: He wanted to station guards around the camp to “off” anyone who tried to leave and let their bodies rot in the jungle. Jones also would keep his followers’ passports to deny them access to law and flight.
Layton knew that the temple had millions in foreign banks, so she was surprised by the no-frills nature of Jonestown. More disturbing, arriving there was like entering a prison. “The committee removed my shoes, shirts, panties, socks, toothpaste, soap, and body lotion, and handed me just four T-shirts, four pairs of socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste, four pairs of undies and a bar of soap,” Layton recalls. Letters from home and her mother’s cancer-pain medications were confiscated. “We were systematically stripped of our previous identities,” she continues, delineating what historian of slavery Orlando Patterson has described as one of the first rituals of enslavement.
“Groups of people were working in the fields, bandannas on their heads, sweat glistening on their arms,” Layton remembers, struck by how they neither waved nor smiled. In his introduction to Layton’s book, Charles Krause, a reporter who saw Jonestown both before and after the massacre, found it reminiscent of “a Southern plantation before the Civil War, not so much because of the architecture but because of the scene. To one side of the large wooden Pavilion was a communal kitchen where women, mostly black, were cooking large vats of stew; others were baking bread…. At the center of the Pavilion, seated at the head of a long table, was the white master, Jim Jones.” Like a plantation, Jonestown was a closed, semi-self-sufficient agricultural world, with a sawmill, a school and a medical unit. Transplanted from their homes, their family relationships sundered, most of the able-bodied were made to work in the fields from 7 am to 6 pm six days a week and on Sundays from 7 am to 2 pm, while living in crowded, tin-roofed wooden barracks containing bunk beds for scores of people. They toiled in gangs observed by armed guards said to be for their own protection, and were physically abused if they slacked in their work or were defiant. Offenders were assigned to a socially segregated “Learning Crew,” which had to work double-time, heavily guarded, in the fields. There were also isolation units and an “Extended Care Unit” where Thorazine, found in quantity, was said by a nurse and others to keep the truly backward sedated; for recalcitrant children there were horrifying well-dunkings. The all-night harangues and Jones’s incessant voice over the loudspeaker were a psychological constant for a population that grew thin and susceptible to diarrhea on an inadequate, rice-based diet. And Jones kept his followers in ignorance by selectively editing and delivering himself any news from the outside world. Though Jonestown wasn’t racially based, he re-created New World plantation slavery in Guyana.
For, like slaves, Jones’s people were there to serve his vision, yet they were central to his identity. When they defected or when, in 1978, their relatives demanded to see them or bring them home, Jones became distraught. Feeling increasingly threatened by outside forces, including the CIA, he ignored his worsening health. Suffering from hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, persistent fever and cough and a nasty prostate condition, he refused to leave the compound for medical treatment. Dropping forty pounds in two months, he treated himself with a ghastly combination of antibiotics, alcohol, Quaaludes, Valium, antidepressants and the potentially lethal barbiturate Nembutal. He clearly had a death wish.
And he would take his people with him. “White nights,” rehearsals for mass suicide by drinking an allegedly poisonous mixture, were convened nearly once a month in 1978. “We all did as we were told,” Layton remembers. Odell Rhodes, a survivor who escaped, saw many people in the real mass death drink the potion voluntarily. But intent and will are difficult to assess, given the closed circle of reality, the armed guards and the frightening punishments at Jonestown, and in the three hours that it took to complete the mass deaths, there were additional stressors. Survivor Tim Carter was emotionally overwhelmed at seeing his baby Malcolm die after cyanide was squirted in his mouth, and it is likely that many parents who watched, allowed or even carried out their children’s murders were engulfed by anguish, despair and self-loathing, the means to end these intolerable feelings waiting nearby in the cyanide vat.
The children in Jonestown were undeniably murdered, and their varying numbers (nearly 200 according to Reston, 300 to NBC’s Dateline, 260 to other sources) suggest how little we know about the event. In addition, Reston reports that the Guyanese military found injection marks on a random sampling of eighty-three out of a hundred bodies. So, while direct evidence at the scene suggested that close to 300 people had been murdered, the US forces who arrived to take the bodies home never treated the place as a crime scene. The bodies were admittedly already rotting, but the way they were treated in death was similar to the way Jones had treated them in life: as an indistinguishable mass at his literal disposal.
The injection murders, the Nazi-likecorruption of Western orthodoxy in having a doctor prepare the deadly brew, the non-stop propaganda and the fact that Jim Jones too closely resembles too many twentieth-century dictators distinguish the deaths at Jonestown from historical mass suicides, which were almost always a reaction to impending exposure to certain rape, enslavement or death by conquering forces, as at Masada and in the Caribbean.
Jonestown, however, was the product of a charismatic and egomaniacal leader’s use of mass-control techniques rooted in slavery and the exquisitely psychological and technological ones–historically used for overtly political purposes–so brutally perfected in our own century. That no one has yet written a fully documented study, and that the failure to investigate the deaths forensically has crippled our ability to understand them, makes first-person accounts like Layton’s all the more important to understanding what really happened in Jonestown.