The “C” Word

by Ken Musen

When I picked up my son from elementary school a decade or so ago, I could tell there was something on his mind. Through the rear-view mirror, I watched him fidget in the backseat, waiting for the right time to tell me what was on his mind. Finally, he announced to me that he knew what the “C” word was. I was taken aback. I naively didn’t realize that Gabriel and his friends had such conversations on the playground at Wonderland Elementary School.

“You do?” I questioned him very nervously, not knowing where this discussion was going. “Yeah,” he half proudly told me. “It means ‘crap.’” There was a long pause before I exhaled. I could deal with that conversation. A discussion about the other “C” would have been much harder.

Today, the “C” word that I’m struggling with is the word, “cult.”

Back when I was studying psychology as an undergraduate, “cult” was a fascinating word. My introduction to Peoples Temple was in Professor Philip Zimbardo’s class on “The Psychology of Mind Control,” during which the word was tossed around carelessly with seemingly little weight or context. It was used liberally with other potentially derogatory terms like “brainwashing” and “indoctrination.”

I remember Zimbardo’s multi-point list of warning signs that help determine whether or not you’ve been indoctrinated into a “cult.” Peoples Temple and Jim Jones were used as classic examples to both define and illustrate this list. It seemed so cut-and-dried back then: go down the list, total the score, and if it adds up to 10 or more, voila, you have yourself a cult. Listening in a lecture hall, the definition of “cult” provided a somewhat simple and easy understanding of how and why over 900 people seemingly took their own lives.

Now, after three years of researching Peoples Temple for a documentary television project, reading its history and, most importantly, talking to so many survivors, I’m a bit afraid of that word. It carries so much power by saying it out loud. I know that if I were to mention the word in a meeting with network executives, their eyes would widen with excitement. I also have a prepared thirty-second “elevator pitch” that uses the word that I know would be an effective tool. Luckily, I’ve managed to avoid both scenarios because I know it’s a very dangerous word to bandy about, more precarious than any four-letter word I urge my kids to avoid.

The people of Peoples Temple all had different reasons to be a part of the collective and stay active in the group.  There were so many positives associated with the movement that it becomes both unfair and unrealistic to think that a single word can explain the commitment so many individuals had to being a part of the Temple. Many of the documentary projects of the past have fallen short, in my opinion, for oversimplifying a very complicated relationship between those in power and those who were not at Jonestown. Reducing everything to one psychological term seems disingenuous.

More than potentially inaccurate and unfair, I’ve found that using the word “cult” in relationship to Peoples Temple can lead to dangerous outcomes:  a shortcut to understanding, a quick but often inaccurate label, a cloak to hide the truth. I know this word is charged amongst the survivors group, and my goal for working on this documentary project has been to garner greater understanding of all the components that led to the destruction of Jonestown.

One thing I’ve learned is that the fabric that makes up Peoples Temple is brightly colored with many textures. One word can hardly do it justice.

(Ken Musen is a documentary filmmaker and Executive Producer at C2K Entertainment. He may be reached at ken@c-2k.com.)

Last modified on October 19th, 2016.
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