How did Jim Jones convince people
The truth about Jonestown
The ancient man's temple building collapsed in the last great earthquake in San Francisco, leaving nothing but empty lot to mark his death. I had avoided the place for nearly 10 years - it always struck me as a dark reminder of the raw vulnerability of the human mind and the superficial nature of civilized behavior. In a way that I never expected when I decided to investigate the Jonestown Holocaust, the crimes committed in this building and within the cult itself have become a part of my personal memory. When Jim Jones finally becomes a metaphor, a symbol of power-hungry madness - if not a term for madness itself - he will always be far too human for me.
Suicide is usually an act of solitary despair, performed in isolation or near-isolated by those who see death as an acceptable alternative to the burdens of survival. It can also be an act of self-preservation among those who prefer a dignified death to the ravages of disease or perceived disease humiliation. It is even a political statement at times. But it's rarely, if ever, a social event. The reported collective self-annihilation of 912 people (913 when Jim Jones was counted among them) therefore required more than ordinary explanation.
The only information I had about Jim Jones was what I gleaned from news reports about the closing scene at Jonestown. The details were sketchy but deeply disturbing: the crumbling corpses were discovered in the jungle after a smelly episode of a suicidal frenzy over a vat of cyanide-laced flavor aid. The corpses of 276 children lay beneath the dead like broken dolls. A United States Congressman and three members of the press traveling with him were ambushed and murdered on a runway not far from the scene. It was all done in the name of a formerly lesser known cult called the Peoples Temple.
The group was founded years earlier with a stated vision of eliminating racism. Although the company was headquartered in San Francisco, its members were looking for their own utopia in a nondescript piece of land in the South American jungle near Georgetown, Guyana. The congregation they created was named in honor of the cult's founder and religious leader to a charismatic figure in dark glasses named Reverend Jim Jones.
While the news media treated the Jonestown Holocaust like a coincidence, it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn something vital about the fundamental weakness of the human mind. In addition to my formal education in psychology, I had recently spent four years as a suicide prevention counselor, helping train dozens of other counselors working in the field. But even with that experience, the slaughter in Jonestown seemed incomprehensible.
No casual observer could adequately explain what was happening on the minds of the members of the Folk Temple as they allowed Jones to take ultimate power over their lives. The most critical question, however, was how a person - nonetheless a whole group - could be motivated to give up that power. It was not just important to answer this question in order to explain what became of the Temple of the Peoples. It was equally important to respond to this in order to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future. Had the massacre succeeded in killing all witnesses to what happened within the confines of Jonestown, it would have been impossible to get a credible answer. But there were a number of survivors: an old woman sleeping in a hut slipped the thoughts of her colleagues who were busy dying at the time; A nine-year-old girl survived when a member who had committed suicide cut her throat. A young man worked his way to the edge of the area and fled into the jungle. The only other eyewitness escaped when he was sent to a stethoscope so the bodies could be checked to make sure they were dead.
Other survivors included a man who was wounded by gunfire on the runway and who managed to escape by climbing into the bush. the official Peoples Temple basketball team (including Jones' son) who visited Georgetown during the Holocaust; a number of members stationed at San Francisco headquarters; and a small group of defectors and relatives of those who remained in the cult. The last was gathered at a place called the Human Freedom Center in Berkeley - a halfway house for cult defectors founded by Jeannie and Al Mills, two expatriates from the Peoples Temple.
With most of the survivors living in and around San Francisco, it was clear that I had to be ready to go where the moment took me to meet one of them. I resigned from my position in the psychiatry department of a New York medical center, sent most of what I owned to a warehouse, and moved to California. Shortly after my arrival, I learned that the center was seeking a director for advice. It was exactly the position I wanted.
It is impossible to look back on my first meeting with Jeannie and Al without tinting the memory with the knowledge that both were murdered almost exactly a year later. We met in the same room where they once helped Congressman Leo Ryan plan his ill-fated expedition to Jonestown, to give him and the press a close look at the cult and give all voters who want a safe passage to offer an opportunity to return to San Francisco. They had hoped the visit would hasten the demise of the Folk Temple, but instead of allowing its game to be raided, Jones had Ryan kill and distribute the poison. The Millses would never have imagined the scenic road to Hell paved with their good intentions: if they hadn't convinced the Congressman to go to Guyana, the massacre would most likely never have happened.
In the years since the Millses was assassinated, I have never been able to take a death threat lightly.
The couple had been a member of the planning committee - the elite inner circle of the people's temple. You had been with Jim Jones since the beginning of the cult and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his cause. But Jeannie wanted a bigger role in running the group than Jones was ready to give her. His refusal to allow her to manage the affairs of the temple led to a bitter argument between them. She and Al quit after spending six years in the cult, fearing for their lives because Jones always threatened that anyone who left would be murdered by his "angels" - a euphemism for his personal group of thugs.
Jones had forced them to prove their loyalty by signing blank notes, blank authorization forms, and false confessions that they molested their children, conspired to overthrow the US government, and committed other crimes while they were members of the cult. (It was the kind of thing Jones did to control people, like the time he got a member to put her fingerprints on a gun and told her he would use it to kill someone and use it to kill her for the murder blame if she ever left the group.)
The way Jones treated the members of his cult was intentionally malicious and went beyond mere perversion. It was about forcing members to experience themselves as vulgar and despicable people who could never return to a normal life outside of the group. It was about destroying any personal relationships that might precede each member's relationship with them. It was about terrorizing children and turning them against their parents. It was about seeing Jim Jones as an almighty figure who could wipe out members' lives on a whim as easily as he had already wiped out their self-esteem. In short, it was about mind control. And after all that, it was no coincidence that Jones's own sickness was fantasies and sexual perversions.
Both men and women were routinely beaten and forced to have sex with Jones in private and with other people in public. Husbands and wives were prohibited from having sex with each other, but had to watch with other members as their spouses were sexually humiliated and abused. To prove he was not a racist, a white man was forced to have oral sex with a black woman who was on her period in front of a gathering of members. Another man was forced to remove all of his clothes, bend over in front of the ward, and spread his legs while being examined for signs of an STD. One woman had to undress in front of the group so Jones could make fun of her overweight body before telling her to take a dip in a pool of ice cold water. Another woman had to crouch in front of 100 members and empty herself into a fruit can. Children were tortured with electric batons, viciously beaten, punished by being pinned to the bottom of a jungle well, forced to stuff hot peppers into their rectum and eat their own vomit.
Dozens of suicide drills - or "white nights" as Jim Jones called them - were rehearsed in San Francisco and the jungle to lift the last curtain on what he said was about to fall. Members were given wine to drink and then said it had been poisoned to test their loyalty and to accustom them to the idea that they could all be asked to take their lives as a token of their faith. Her death, Jones tried to convince her, would be honored by the world as a symbolic protest against the evils of mankind - a collective self-immolation. (This would also serve to eliminate anyone who could reveal the filthy secrets of life with the folk temple.) Believers would be "transformed," claimed Jones, and live with him forever on another planet.
The abuse had been going on for years, which made it all the more incredible. Those who underestimated the fragility of the human mind could not understand how anyone in California could remain a member, let alone follow Jim Jones into the jungle. But those who believed in him could not consider alternatives that were not part of his choices. Even those who could imagine breaking free from the cult knew about the declared policy of murdering defectors. And since all loved ones left behind would suffer retribution, few dared to flee while family members remained in Jonestown. The practical effect of this double bond was a twilight zone where people pretended to enjoy a utopian existence while living in constant fear for their lives.
The HUMAN Freedom Center was a beaten, two-story wood and stucco building that was once used as a private rest home. The long rows of odd rooms with broken furniture could serve as the backdrop for a 1950s horror movie in a sanatorium. Although most of the people's temple survivors who might have sought refuge there were suddenly dead, the events in Jonestown immediately made many other organizations appear potentially dangerous. Jeannie and Al decided to open the center to defectors of all kinds of cult groups, from the Unification Church to the Hare Krishnas. I had already decided that regardless of the pay, if they offered me the position of director of counseling, I would accept them.
Al Mills took my hand like an old war buddy when we first met. His angular chin and warm smile almost erased the other features. He had marched with Martin Luther King and had once believed that the people's temple would fulfill his dream of integration and racial equality. (That belief was trampled upon discovering that Jones rarely allowed blacks to hold positions of authority within the temple.)
My first discussion with Jeannie was less of an interview than a confrontation. She looked at me directly and said that a hit party from the People's Temple could break in at any moment and kill us. Jim Jones, she said, swore in the middle of the Holocaust that she and Al and everyone connected to them would at some point pay with their lives to betray the cult and send Ryan to Guyana. The possibility gave our interaction a sense of immediacy.
My exact answer seemed less important than the fact that I did not apologize for leaving the building immediately and that I had already demonstrated my commitment to understanding the cult mentality by dropping everything and moving to California. At the end of the meeting, Jeannie offered me a token salary for a job that often lasted more than 12 hours a day and often seven days a week.
Most of the center's clients were people seeking help freeing family members from different cults or ex-cult members who were beginning to rebalance their own lives. In addition, some former members of the People's Temple lived on the premises, and others came in regularly to share their current feelings and previous experiences.
The first thing I noticed when meeting and getting to know the clients was that those engaging in cults had one terrifying common ground, although the specific details of their belief systems and activities were very different. They described their experience as finding an unexpected meaning, as if they were becoming part of something extraordinarily significant that seemed to lead them beyond their feelings of isolation to an expanded sense of reality and the meaning of life. Nobody asked if they would be willing to commit suicide the first time they attended a meeting. Nor did anyone mention that the sense of expansion they enjoyed would later be used to play them off against each other.
Instead, they were told about the remarkable Reverend Jones, a self-proclaimed social visionary and prophet who apparently could heal the sick and foretell the future. Jim Jones did everything in his power to uphold this myth: fraudulent mental healing demonstrations using rotting animal organs as false tumors; Searching members' trash for information that may be revealed in false psychic readings; drugging his followers into making it appear like he is actually raising the dead. Even Jeannie Mills, who later told me that she knowingly assisted Jones in his fake demonstrations, said she did so because she believed she was helping him maintain his true supernatural powers for more important matters.
Critical levels of sleep deprivation can disguise themselves as noble devotion. A complete lack of adequate nutrition can seem acceptable when presented as a sensible sacrifice to charity. Combining the two over a long period of time will inevitably impair one's ability to make rational judgments and weaken everyone's psychological resistance. This also applies to the not uncommon practice of adding drugs to members' meals. The old self, previously feeling lonely and meaningless, is gradually being overcome by a new sense of self that is inextricably linked with the sense of expansion that is associated with originally joining the cult and caring for its leader.
Belonging to the group is gradually becoming more important than anything else. When used in various combinations, fear of being rejected, doing or saying something wrong that blows up the whole illusion; being punished and humiliated, exposed to physical threats, unprovoked violence, and sexual abuse ;; Fear of never meaning anything; and the fear of returning to an old self associated almost entirely with feelings of loneliness and lack of meaning will confuse almost anyone. Patricia Hearst knows all about it. All members of the People's Temple too.
Once you're out of whack (in the exclusive company of other people who already believe it) and received evidence to support the conclusion, it's not hard to convince yourself that you have actually met the living God. In the glassy and pale numbness associated with reaching this confused and dangerous state of mind, almost every conceivable act of self-sacrifice, self-destruction, and cruelty can become possible.
The truth of this finding was brought to me by a survivor who was told, surrounded by guns, that he could take the poison, or they would stick it in his veins or blow his brain out. He didn't fight back. Instead, he raised his cup and toasted the dying around him without drinking. "We will see each other in the transformation," he said. Then he walked around the compound, shaking hands until he had worked his way to the edge of the jungle, where he ran and hid until he was sure it had to be over.
"Why did you follow Jim Jones?" I asked him.
"Because I believed he was God," he replied. "We all believed he was God."
A number of Folk Temple survivors told me that they viewed Jones the same way - not metaphorically as God, but literally as God. They said they would have done anything he asked of them. Or almost anything.
The fact that some members were pointing guns at each other and handling the syringes meant that what was happening in Jonestown was not only mass suicide, but also mass murder. According to the witnesses, more than one member was physically restrained during poisoning. One little girl kept spitting the poison until they shut her mouth and forced her to swallow it - children don't calmly kill themselves just because someone who claims to be God tells them to. A woman was found with almost every joint in her body tugging apart from trying to break away from the people who were holding her and poisoning her. All members of the 912 Peoples Temple did not die easily.
However, even if not all of the victims voluntarily committed suicide, it is likely that enough has done so that we cannot deny the power of their convictions. Only a small contingent of folk temple members asked to return to San Francisco with Leo Ryan. The rest decided to stay back. Jim Jones may have been less afraid of Jeannie and Al Mills than he thought.
It should also be remembered that Jones never took the poison he gave his followers but was shot by someone else during the final death scene in Jonestown. He created a false reality around him in which denial of his own mortality had to make his own death unimaginable. The fact that he had millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts and had often alluded to starting somewhere else led Jeannie to speculate that he was planning to escape the Holocaust but was murdered by one of his guards or lovers.
It is hard to imagine what incomprehensible feeling of insecurity must have made Jim Jones feel that he had to convince himself and other people that he was God incarnate. It was no delusion that he ever suffered well. Some of those who knew him personally described him to me at different times as a mere voyeur, a master of deceit, a sociopath, and a demon. Al Mills once said that any private interaction between Jones and another person always felt like a "conspiracy of two". For my part, I oppose any description of the man that could make any of us feel too safe thinking that he is one of a kind and that people like him will never come back.
After Jeannie and Al were murdered, I went back alone to take one last look inside the people's temple where Jeannie once gave me a private tour. All that was left of this particular nightmare setting was a dusty maze of dimly lit corridors, hollow rooms, and spiral staircases. The daylight seemed reluctant to come in through the windows, as if it came in more out of a sense of duty than out of any real desire to be there. It was impossible to walk through the place without the feeling that someone was emerging behind me - almost everything about it seemed to be followed.
"This may not be the best idea in the world," I remembered Jeannie when she took me there. "Maybe there are some people hanging around here who want to kill me." It may have been guilt that made them say this, or paranoia, or the realistic conclusion that the relatives and friends of many victims must have blamed them, at least in part, for what happened. The Jonestown Holocaust could have been inevitable or it could have been avoided. But by increasing the pressure on Jones as they did, Jeannie and Al became inextricably linked to the disaster.
In the circumstances, I suggested that the best approach might be to get rid of Hell. "Life is short Keith," Jeannie told me. She showed me where Jones' personal armed guards were once posted before taking me to lunch at a hamburger stand she hung out at in the temple's heyday.
In many ways, Jeannie was a social relic of the best and worst of a way of life who died in the jungle with Jim Jones. She said and did things designed to be disarming, to crawl under your skin and keep you unprepared. She was an expert at making you feel like you were part of something important, dangerous, and utterly surreal - and maybe she was right. I was not surprised to learn that she monitored my personal phone calls at the Human Freedom Center from a line she installed on the street in her house. This is exactly how it was done in the People's Temple.
Al Mills was found on the bedroom floor of the house he and Jeannie shared with a single bullet in their heads. Maybe he got the gun he once told me he stayed there. Jeannie was found behind the broken door of the adjoining bathroom and was also shot once in the head. It looked like she tried to escape her killer by running into a room that had no exit. Her daughter Daphene, who may or may not have just been there, was found lying on the bed about Al, with a bullet in her head and three or four more bullets in the mattress that surrounds her. Reportedly, a neighbor outside heard two men's voices and one of them said, "You will not hang it on me" before the three bodies were found. The victims were reportedly shot with 22-caliber bullets, which happened to be the supposedly preferred choice of professional assassins. Jeannie and Al's young son, Eddie, was found listening to a stereo with headphones in the other room of the tiny cottage when the bodies were discovered. He told police that he heard nothing at all while both his parents and sister were killed. He grew up in the People's Temple. The case is still open.
For my part, I believe that Jeannie and Al were victims of their fatalistic vision of reality and that whoever pulled the trigger went through a series of events that were set in motion years earlier. In their inability to otherwise calm their cult experience, they had never really left the Temple of the Peoples.
For those of us whose lives were directly touched by the massacre, the images of Jonestown have never entered the realm of dispassionate historical memory. They remain part of the hidden present and provide a point of reference for defining the conditions under which people can be led across the line between rational and extremely irrational behavior.
Had more of the Jonestown children survived, they might have tried to warn us that we have more to fear than the fact that everyone who murdered Jeannie and Al is still at large and may kill again. A lone fanatic is far less dangerous than the potential that exists within all of us to commit evil ourselves or to have it committed in the name of a supposed good. There is no doubt that there are currently other cult groups that have the same potential for deadly violence as the Temple of the Nations.
Jim Jones didn't create the human weaknesses that led so many people to follow him. he just took advantage of them. Ultimate power is alluring not only to those who achieve it but also to those who give up their own power to help others achieve it. It is the ability to answer the unanswered questions about the meaning of life and death. And it doesn't matter if these answers don't make sense - belief in them and in the individual who carries them makes any sacrifice in the service of an everlasting purpose seem acceptable.
Most of us do not consider ourselves a person who could ever get caught up in a cult like the People's Temple. We are not at all correct in this assumption. In the face of an unfortunate turn of fate that leads to a moment of weakness or a temporary loss of judgment that expands into a shift in our perception, almost any of us could ingest the cyanide in Jonestown - if we didn't pass the poison on to humans.
People join cults when events lead them to seek a deeper sense of belonging and something more meaningful in their lives. They do this because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and are ripe for exploitation. They do this because they get caught in the clutches of a parasite before they realize what is happening to them.
Those who join cults do not do so with the intention of degrading themselves or torturing children. They join in the hope of making a better world and because they believe in a lie or series of lies, just as the rest of us sometimes fall in love with the wrong person or be manipulated. The only real difference between them and us is how far they are made to take the same feelings to the extreme.
The ghost of Jonestown made the social unconscious, which led to a macabre fascination for Jim Jones and his victims. A Boston company recently sold out its first print of Death Cult cards commemorating the massacre. They show pictures like "Spiking the Kool-Aid". At least for those who aren't directly involved, the unthinkable terrible has become entertaining. As humans, we distance ourselves from any sense of attachment to Jonestown by turning the event into a kind of theater. But it was the same sense of theater that Jim Jones depended on as any cult leader who has ever taken advantage of human weakness. If you've ever slowed down and stared at the aftermath of a highway accident, you are not immune.
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