“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled” – Mark Twain
My cousin died in November 1978 in the Jonestown Massacre, the largest mass murder/suicide in American history. Gene Chaikin was a lawyer for Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. His wife Phyllis and their two children David and Gail were also members of Peoples Temple and ardent followers, at least for a while, of Jones.
I am currently writing an eleven-part scripted TV series inspired by Gene’s life and death in Peoples Temple. What drew me to this project was this question: How could someone like you and me – an educated, mindful, middle-class person – end up dead, deep within the belly of a cult, in the remote jungles of Guyana?
I was a Religious Studies Major and had the good fortune to have studied under Mircea Eliade, the author of The Sacred and Profane and From Primitive to Zen, and one of the preeminent professors of Religious Studies. I was not raised religious per se. My gravitation toward Religious Studies had everything to do with my personal quest for meaning. I arrogantly believed that politics, philosophy and psychology were, each in their own manner, at best precursors and/or obfuscators of some deeper raison d’etre. I was convinced that Religious Studies was the most direct route toward uncovering the apparently secret truths and answers to the gigantic questions that young students are prone to ask (and that some not-so-young students of life continue to ask): What’s it all about? Why are we here? What is our purpose?
Certainly, each religion that I studied provided plenty of answers to the big questions. But for those answers to be believable, for them to make sense – not in an academic way but to land with the resonance of a nuclear life-changing blast – I learned that one had to fully immerse himself or herself into the total belief system that that religion offered. Joseph Campbell said there are as many gods as there are people who believe in god. I believed in something unseen; something eternal, something without a name or face, something that held all answers to all questions, but without the commitment of accepting another’s prescribed system of belief. Along the way I played California Spiritual Musical Chairs, sampling various practices and religious systems. But this was in California in the late 60’s and 70’s – and I had the luxury to consider such matters.
Although Jim Jones and Peoples Temple reflected the traditions of the Black Church, by the time the nearly one thousand members migrated to Guyana in the mid-seventies, the gospel they worshipped had become an expurgated version of the New Testament as cherry picked by Jones. It was very light on Jesus and big on communal sharing, the absence of pride and the subsuming of self to the ideals of an idealized version of communism. To me the leader was far less interesting than his followers. Jim Jones was commonly similar to many of history’s failed and troubled leaders: Charismatic, empathetic, egomaniacal, prophetic, offering a grand carrot of hope and the means to achieving a “better life,” and a big, stern stick if you even considered an alternative.
But if Jim Jones was a cliché, each of his followers were unique. Each followed a very personal and specific calculus of life experience that led them, in their own way, toward giving up themselves to what they sincerely believed was a cause that was bigger and more worthy than their own lives. I’m mostly referring to the honeymoon period of one’s involvement, before coercion, fear and possible retribution served to even further inexorably bind them to the group.
In my quest to understand how someone like my cousin and his family could end up where they did, I felt I had understand how I might make similar decisions. I began to look into other groups that had similar qualities and held a similar pall of nearly blind devotion over their members. Not surprisingly, I began to see similarities everywhere: from corporate ethos to all kinds of devout adherents of both organized religions and boldly unorganized anti-religion mindsets (atheist fundamentalists). Surprisingly, however, I began to notice similarities of equal magnitude in small groups, groups of tight friends, and colleagues. This I found to be especially true in the basic relationship of romantic couples: the cult of two.
The word “cult” originally did not have a negative connotation. It was loosely defined as “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” It was not used to describe a group as much as for the act of worship and/or religious ceremony. It was first used in the early 17th century, taken from the French culte, from Latin cultus (worship). But increasingly, into the Twentieth Century, the term cult grew synonymous with socially deviant and/or unique practices.
Today, when we speak of “cults” or cult mentality, we think of near zombie-esque adherents following the intentions and commands of a central authority, people whose behavior changed from the way we knew them before they entered their group. We think of people whose words and even vocal intonations, more often than not, resemble those of their leader and/or of their fellow group members. Members of cults – we are absolutely certain – are those who are absolutely certain about things that in the light of fact checking just aren’t so. When we confront a person like this about how they’ve changed or even challenge the accuracy of what they believe, they either become defensive, or they simply begin to pull away from you, from anyone or any area that might question their relationship to their authority; their belief system; to each other.
This sounds familiar. There are clear similarities between this behavior or tendency with many, if not most intimate relationships, including my own. Aren’t we fiercely defensive of any criticism of our significant other, whether the criticism has any validity or not? Don’t we take on mannerisms and shared perceptions of each other? Don’t we pull away from anyone or any group that we feel might threaten our union? Don’t we find ourselves entertaining new experiences gained from our partners that we might not have otherwise encountered? Sometimes these might include adopting a new philosophy or even a new religion, all in order to maintain our relationship. And none of these traits are particularly considered negative. On the contrary, these are among the singular aspects we desire in a family, in a relationship: Security, constancy, love, loyalty, and devotion. In short our own private cult of two with its attendant system of adoration, ritual and personalized practices. So what’s wrong with this?
I have a former student who had been in military intelligence in South Korea. His job was to debrief North Koreans who defected to the South. He interviewed hundreds of defectors who told him that they all left because of starvation, that they all quickly saw that they had been lied to about how worse off South Korea was. Within months, according to my student, all of the defectors craved the community closeness that their previous “us against the world” lives provided them.
The intense bonding between soldiers that takes place during life-threatening battles is notoriously fervent, even irrational, as some have been known to sacrifice themselves for one another. Like the blind bond between parents and their young children, it’s beyond logic.
No one will ever know for certain the precise whys and hows of the life decisions and choices that each Jonestown resident made which led them to that final horrific moment. Clearly, extreme, long-term fatigue, malnutrition, chronic fear (of a world against them and of recrimination from their possible disloyalty) were among the factors. But long before November 1978, years earlier when they decided to move en masse from Northern California to Guyana, they had already made life-defining decisions that could easily have included such human cult of two aspects: They did not want to disappoint their spouses or friends or Jim (who they had accepted as their political and spiritual leader). They did not want to lose the closeness they felt within their “us against the world” family/community. They did not want to give up on a shared idealistic dream. This is the simple emotional mortar that binds couples to one another, the exact stuff that comprises any serious relationship.
When the relationship becomes abusive, when one or both people are abused and suppressed, then the power of the cult of two becomes more glaring. It’s common in an abusive relationship for people not to admit or even see that they are being abused or abusing the other. The inexorable power that binds in the cult of two is the exact amorphous substance of any community. As people search for deeper psychological reasons behind “cult mentality” and how to understand what happened in Jonestown, I suggest that one starts by examining their own relationships and how easy it is to not “rock the boat.”
I started out wanting to understand how someone like myself or my cousin could end up among the dead in Jonestown. I found some answers, very basic, very human answers. My cult of two will be different than another’s. The cult of two: I, Thou, that relationship between one and another be it loved-one, friend, leader, God, is constant. Each victim’s version is unique.
(This article also appeared in The Huffington Post.)
(Author’s note: I am a Film and TV writer, playwright and director. I teach screenwriting at Columbia University & NYU/Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing and The New School. My feature film, The Lucky Ones, that I wrote/directed, premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2003 (and distributed on DVD 2005) and my short film, The History of the World in 8 Minutes, premiered at the New Directors/New Films Festival, at MoMA, etc. My plays Sunday’s Child and Men in the Kitchen were produced at the Long Wharf Theater; A Subject of Childhood was produced at the WPA; The Presidents (co-written with Ron Nessen) was on PBS and had a National Tour. My poems have appeared in various publications including The Paris Review and Rolling Stone Magazine. Everything that I’ve done with my writing, directing and teaching, is influenced through the lens of Religious Studies. I’ve given seminars on Mythology, the Hero’s Journey as it pertains to artists. I’ve given similar workshops in applying one’s mythic journey toward narrative writing. I blog about religion and popular culture for The Huffington Post. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lorenpaulcaplin.com.)