19 November 1978: My French teacher at the Alliance Française in Paris first broke the news. “Something terrible has happened in your country,” said Mr Beaulieu at the start of the class, but he didn’t say what. I found out later, like everyone else who read about the almost ghoulish events of the night of the 18th.
Suddenly, Guyana was on the map. Every Guyanese who has travelled abroad knows the annoying response to foreigners when they first hear the name of your country: “Oh, I’d love to go to Africa!” or some other sentence placing it in the wrong continent.
But now, in November 1978, the whole world knew where and what we were: a little backwater country covered in jungle, so remote from modern civilisation that this bunch of crazies – and a huge bunch it was too, a thousand all told! – had chosen it to recreate paradise. A paradise that overnight had turned to hell.
They must have been crazy, the world thought, and the world’s media dissected the story and analysed it and probed into the reasons and the motives and the background trying to explain it to everyone else, and after all of the additional cogitation, the only answer they could come up with was the same they had started with: they were a bunch of crazies. Nothing else explained it.
Like everyone else I was fascinated, but more: this had happened in my own country, just a few miles from where I too, with a bunch of drop-out friends, had started a commune in the middle of nowhere a few years previously. My friends, in fact, still lived on the farm we had founded. What if? What if I’d still been there and had known these people, these Americans; known them in the early days, before things went so very wrong? After all, we all had the same idea, didn’t we? Escape from a civilisation which, in our eyes, was going so very wrong?
I came to care so much that later – much later, almost 30 years later, in fact – I wrote a novel based on the Jonestown tragedy, the research for which took me deep beneath the surface layers of the Jonestown tragedy. I couldn’t just dismiss these people as a bunch of crazies and then forget, as the world had done. This went deep under the skin.
With the passing of time I finally believed I could understand, just a bit. Though I’d never understand how mothers could poison their own children, I did understand how a beloved leader could turn from saviour to mass murderer. Because to me it was, finally, no longer mass suicide but mass murder. My own background and experience made it all perfectly logical: right up to the final fiasco.
You see, I know first-hand what, in the beginning, drove people to Jim Jones. Everything I have read on the subject suggests to me that he started off as a great preacher, a charismatic leader, a man of love and goodwill, a friend of and fighter for the poor and downtrodden. And I, as a young adult, was a seeker, in quest of just such a leader. Someone who could show me the way out of my misery, guide me to a better, more wholesome life. There is nothing wrong with such a longing. It is a healthy need, a natural hunger.
I grew up in Guyana. As a child of divorced middle-class parents, I had a muddled if basically happy childhood. Guyana was a wonderful place to grow up in back then, as anyone who shared that background will agree: Georgetown, an overgrown village, lush and green, a tree-shaded haven where everyone knew everyone else, or at least everyone else’s aunty or second cousin. The Interior was untouched nature, mysterious and vast. Guyana would have been paradise, if not for the political turbulences.
My parents were political, progressive, liberal, leftist. My father, indeed, was a Marxist, for many years Press Secretary to the controversial Opposition Leader Cheddi Jagan. My mother was a leading feminist during feminism’s dawn, an icon of Progress. I grew up with all the “right” ideas on social progress. But something was missing.
My parents were also atheist, and I was raised to be the same; but in the contrary way of an 18-year-old youth, I turned away from atheism and embarked on a spiritual search. It was a desperate and genuine search, for the political and social theories I’d been raised on could not quench the hunger I felt deep inside. Had Jim Jones come along at the time not only with his social reforms but also showing me a path to God, I might have been his, heart and soul.
I was luckier than those who did fall for his charisma. My spiritual interests eventually led me along a different path, one that led eastwards, to India and Yoga and Hindu philosophy. I lived in India for a while, in a place steeped in genuine spirituality, and there I found the key to the missing Factor X of my life. It had been inside me all the time, and the practice of meditation, taught by reputable teachers, brought me the inner stability that had thrown me in my younger days.
I remained on that path for the rest of my life, and it has brought nothing but blessings and increasing joy. Over the decades I have known many seekers like myself; hundreds of them. I’ve listened to their stories. I’ve personally met spiritual and would-be spiritual leaders of many shades and types, and kept an active interest in the more public ones. I’ve seen their rise; sometimes they pop like mushrooms into the limelight, with ready-made crowds of starry-eyed followers, teaching some new version of McDonalds spirituality. Sometimes they come by stealth, growing their community slowly and steadily, and never going public. Some are harmless; some are dangerous. One or two are deadly.
Over the years my personal bullshit-detector has developed nicely; I can tell the wheat from the chaff, the Pied Piper teachers from the genuine ones the moment they open their mouths. But how different it could have been had I – as a young and spiritually-hungry teenager – stumbled across the wrong teacher! Would I, in my youthful naivety, have noticed when things began to go wrong? Or would I have been drawn into the web of deceit, manipulation and control that surrounds such teachers? When I hear these stories I often think, there but for the Grace of God, go I. I’m not at all sure I could have peeled myself away in time.
Being a spiritual teacher is a huge responsibility. It takes herculean effort and the ever-vigilant ability to spot one’s own mind-tricks and self-deception. It’s a slippery slope to the heights of spirituality, and very few can climb it. Most of these leaders stumble, and when they stumble, the result is disastrous, for them and for their followers. And they all trip over the same three stumbling blocks: Money, Sex or Power. One of these, or two, or even all three, is the inevitable downfall of someone who takes on the spiritual leadership of others before he or she is mature. Each of these is a litmus test when assessing the legitimacy of a spiritual or religious leader. Jim Jones, put to the test, fails all three.
Money: The lure of money is built into the very fabric of Western culture. Who would argue with the premise that the more money a person possesses, the better? Despite the Christian underpinnings of our society, with the enigmatic teaching of Matthew 19:24, that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, almost everyone wants to be rich, Christians included. We ignore Christ’s warning on the corruptive power of money. We love money. To hell with 1 Timothy 6:10: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And to hell with Matthew 6:10: You cannot serve two masters, God and Mammon.
It is the same in all major religions: love of money and love of God, Allah, or Brahman are seen as incompatible, for the inner wealth accompanying true spirituality casts material wealth into the shadows. Genuine spiritual giants have this in common: they are invariably simple, humble men and women, with no desire for worldly baubles.
And what do we know about Jim Jones and money?
Former Temple members living in the States quickly spread stories of the Temple’s opulence. According to Terri Buford, a financial secretary who left Jonestown one month before the suicides, the church had eight million dollars in Swiss bank accounts. Buford said the money had been set aside for a “Last Stand Plan” which would finance assassinations of political leaders and Temple critics. Tim Stoen, another ex-member, upped the ante to $20 million, and added that the church planned to channel money to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
A Sympathetic History of Jonestown by Rebecca Moore (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985), 341.
Jim Jones on the Money test: Fail.
Sex: Men and women of genuine spiritual endeavor become highly attractive in a subtle, sublime way. They have an inner radiance that draws others to them in ways that they themselves often do not understand; much less can those who are attracted understand. Should the spiritual guide’s gender be appropriate, that attraction may be interpreted by his or her followers as sexual. Should the spiritual guide be immature, he or she falls into that exciting trap. The excuses for the fall are myriad: the guide explains he or she is “helping” the other by indulging in sex with him or her; the other “needs” the sex to overcome this or that problem; the sex itself “is a doorway to spiritual freedom”, and so on. It’s all claptrap. The guide wanted sex, and sex was on offer, easy to get. That is all.
Which side did Jim Jones fall on this question?
As time went on, Jim often spoke about members – both men and women – who were about to stray, and how he had helped keep them in the fold by making a personal sacrifice and having sex with them. He would often let on the identities of these people, but he always made it known that he hadn’t enjoyed the sexual contact and that he had only altruistic reasons for doing it. Of course, if they were attractive, he would make the “sacrifice” sooner rather than later.
Laura Johnston Kohl, Sex In the City?
Jim Jones on the Sex test: Fail
Power: Power, of course, is the ultimate ego-trip. It may begin quite innocently. Many of us who genuinely seek spiritual development are rewarded at the start of our paths with a tiny glimpse of the joy and fulfilment waiting for us at the end of it. It is a sense of oneness with all beings; a sense of the divinity at the core of our soul; a sense that God is not up there sitting on a heavenly throne, but right here in our hearts, powerful and present. And that is why, in every single world religion, humility is one of the basics. It keeps the ego with its self-exalting tendencies in check.
Without humility, the idea that “God is in my heart!” can run away with us. It’s the slipperiest slope of all, and in just about every case where a self-styled “guru” hits the headlines through negative, controlling behaviour, it is this delusion at the core. His (for it is almost invariably a man) ego has grabbed that sense of overwhelming, all-encompassing potency and taken it for its own: I AM GOD, that ego thinks, and already we have the Fall.
The reason for the Power Fall need not even be based in spiritual experience: the very fact of having followers, people who not only take one’s words as gospel but follow those words blindly, is the ultimate seduction leading to the ultimate power trip. And that can be deadly.
And where is Jim Jones on the ultimate power trip?
Jones as a Messianic figure was an illusion that he embellished to openly justify his supremacy over his followers. He asked his followers to call him “Father” and used a variety of methods to prove to his congregation that he had divine powers. His methods included staging “fraudulent psychic-healing demonstrations using rotting animal organs as phony tumors; searching through members’ garbage for information to reveal in his fake psychic readings; drugging his followers to make it appear as though he were actually raising the dead.” … The subsequent adulation of Jones by his supporters made Jones increasingly narcissistic; he claimed that he was the reincarnation of Lenin and Jesus Christ. Dr. Rebecca Moore, whose two sisters died at Jonestown, said, “He began by believing in his cause, but eventually ended up believing in himself.”
Jim Jones on the Power test: Fail
There is nothing at all wrong in seeking spiritual guidance. In every walk of life, the learner seeks out those more experienced than ourselves in order to advance. This applies in the realm of spirituality as well. Unfortunately, there is in spirituality no objective instance that differentiates between the sound and the hollow, no degree that shows a leader’s competence and authority. We have only our own instincts to guide us, and instincts can be deceptive. I never cease to be amazed that, in spite of the horror stories such as Jonestown and Waco, new leaders crawling out of the woodwork still find hundreds of followers.
On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. The more materialistic society becomes, the more we drift away from spiritual truths at the core of all religions, the more the hunger will grow for those very truths, and the more people become prey for the misguided and the unscrupulous. To anyone considering jumping on a new leader’s bandwagon, I would say this: be careful. Be very careful, and don’t be afraid to be critical. Apply the three litmus tests of Money, Sex and Power, and at the first sign of doubt, run a mile. I like to think that I, as that hungry young thing of the late 1960’s, would have run a mile had I encountered Jim Jones. But I can never be sure.
(Sharon Maas’ other article in this edition of the jonestown report is The White Night Is Over. A contemporary account of the deaths in Jonestown and their impact upon Guyana – written by Sharon Maas’ mother Eileen Cox – is here. Sharon may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website – which will include updates on publication of her book – is here.)