InTOXICating Followership in the Jonestown Massacre isn’t exactly a book about Jonestown—and that is its strength and contribution. Rather, Wendy Edmonds focuses on issues of leadership and followership, and how the dynamic interplay between the two can lead either to successful organization or tragic disaster. Interweaving scholarly analysis with the insights provided by eight Temple survivors in a structured focus group, Edmonds presents a brief, but helpful, look at leaders and followers.
Edmonds’ specialty is organizational leadership. She chairs the Followership Learning Committee of the International Leadership Association, a group founded by Ira Chaleff, author of The Courageous Follower. In his Foreword to Edmonds’ book, Chaleff notes that the leader-follower relationship in Peoples Temple was complicated by issues of race and class. He writes that Edmonds has written a gripping story that is widely accessible to readers.
It is clear that Edmonds sees her audience as those susceptible to unscrupulous leaders. She dedicates the book “to those consumed by your emotions in the role as followers.” Throughout the book she addresses the reader directly, asking at times “Are we leaders or followers? Why are we in these relationships?” (28). The central question she asks is, “Are you a toxic follower?” (1). She then offers a section at the book’s end entitled “Reflections,” consisting of blank pages on which readers may write about their own experiences and thoughts.
Six short chapters comprise the book. Chapter 1 provides an overview of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and the events that occurred in Jonestown in 1978. Edmonds rightly notes that most scholarly and media accounts have focused on Jones rather than on the members of Peoples Temple. The discussion in this chapter also concentrates on Jones. Edmonds does devote some attention here to Christine Miller, however, the lone voice of dissent heard on the tape made during the final hours of the community. In an expression unfamiliar to me with respect to Jonestown, Edmonds calls the death ritual the “Translation.”
The next two chapters form the heart of the book, examining the leadership-followership dynamic. Chapter 2 focuses on power and the leader, and analyzes the different types of power that exist, such as “smart” power and “hard” power. Edmonds also distinguishes between sacrificial leadership—such as that exhibited by Underground Railroad organizer Harriet Tubman—and charismatic leadership, which can be used either to cultivate social change or develop personal power. Edmonds notes, for example, that some followers believed Jones had extraordinary powers, such as the ability to raise the dead. Perhaps most important for her readership is the list of five personality characteristics of potential followers that can moderate leader-follower relationships. These include self-concept clarity, self-monitoring, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-awareness.
Chapter 3 shifts to qualities of the follower. Although the word “follower” has negative connotations, Edmonds points to changing conceptions of followership in the world of organizational management. Effective followers—that is, those who are independent, self-initiators, risk-takers, and problem-solvers—are crucial to the success of any organization. Edmonds also discusses the reasons people have for choosing a particular leader.
The fourth chapter, “The Survivors Speak,” presents results from the focus group, in which eight former Temple members relate their experiences and observations. The group comprises three men and five women, all of them age 50 and older. includes two African Americans, two Biracial, and four Whites. Six of the eight were children when their parents brought them into the Temple. In addition to reflecting upon their experiences in the Temple and in Jonestown, the participants who deliberately chose to leave explain the factors that went into their decision.
Although Edmonds uses pseudonyms to protect her participants’ privacy, it is hard not to try to deduce with whom she spoke. It is clear that at least one was part of the Eight Revolutionaries who left in 1973, one was Leslie Wagner-Wilson, whose account is well known, and there are others we can guess at.
Chapter 5 presents a model of leadership and followership, in which destructive leaders + susceptible followers + conducive environments = the “Toxic Triangle,” a schema developed by organizational psychologists Art Padilla, Robert Hogan, and Robert B. Kaiser. Edmonds examines each element of the triangle and relates it to her Peoples Temple case study. She notes the ways that followers can fuel leaders’ behaviors, impacting outcomes. This is exactly what psychologist of religion Archie Smith Jr. describes in his account of audience corruption, though Edmonds does not cite him. (See We Need to Press Forward: Black Religion and Jonestown, Twenty Years Later.)
In the final chapter, “Toxic Followership,” Edmonds expands upon the Toxic Triangle. She develops the image of an eye in which each element leads to further entanglement within a destructive group. Clearly the assumption of the book is that any follower has the potential to be misled and manipulated.
InTOXICating Followership concludes on a personal note in “Final Thoughts.” Edmonds asks, “Has there been a time when you’ve seen a pattern of unethical behavior by leaders in business, politics, churches, or communities? Sure, you have. Me too” (61). She advises those who are followers to “recognize, refute, and restore,” when they think they may have fallen into a trap, and offers steps toward healing and realignment.
The clear strength of this work is its discussion of leaders and followers and the way the two mutually interact and affect the thoughts and actions of the other. Less strong is the discussion of Jonestown, which takes an advocacy approach and makes occasional factual errors. I was surprised to read Jim Jones described as a “gangster” – or “gangsta” – several times, and that greed was his primary motivating factor. Edmonds herself notes that narcissism, insecurity, and self-absorption seemed to be Jones’ primary motivations, so it is unclear why she allows some comments to stand unless it is simply to let survivors tell the truth as they see it.
Anyone who has been in a destructive group – whether religious, political, business, or social – will benefit from Wendy Edmonds’ analysis of the dynamics of followership. Her helpful insights and beneficial suggestions are valuable. That is why the steep price for the book is a shame, since the cost might prevent those who would benefit most from reading it.
(Rebecca Moore is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Rebecca is also the co-manager of this website. Her collection of articles on this site may be found here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)