(Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from its original on medium.com.)
Did love help pave the way to the planning of the mass murder/suicide at Jonestown?
“Nobody joins a cult,” Deborah Layton says about Peoples Temple in the opening shot of a PBS documentary on Jonestown. “Nobody joins something that they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organization. You join a political movement, and you join with people you really like.”
Something similar could be said about love. Nobody falls in love wanting it to end as it did in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. Nobody falls in love with someone they believe will hurt them, their future children, and others. Love can happen when we meet someone we really like.
Deborah escaped from Jonestown in May of 1978, months before the mass murder/suicide of 918 people. Ten years earlier, in 1968, twenty-four-year-old Carolyn Moore Layton was married to Deborah’s brother Larry. Carolyn and Larry had moved to Mendocino County and became interested in a local church in Redwood Valley called Peoples Temple.
The charismatic pastor of Peoples Temple, Reverend Jim Jones, wanted a mistress, and many of the church’s female members would have happily accepted such an offer.
Carolyn was unlike the other eager women. She was different, seen as “cold and distant,” but intelligent. These qualities appealed to Jim, thinking she could sexually satisfy him and help him with church administration. Jim had much to lose initiating the affair, and he wasn’t sure Carolyn would go along with his plan.
Nor was it a given that his wife Marceline would go along with his plan to have a mistress either, but she did. He convinced Marceline and other important members that his relationship with Carolyn would benefit their cause. Even Larry went along with the idea. Larry and Carolyn soon got a Nevada divorce, and Carolyn became Jim’s mistress and his most trusted confidant.
In the book The Jonestown Letters: Correspondence of the Moore Family 1970–1985, Carolyn’s sister Rebecca Moore recounts:
[L]etters from Ukiah described the love developing between them. In one, she noted that their relationship, “grows and grows, and our physical and intellectual communication becomes deeper when it is already perfect. They say, ‘time changes all things,’ and for us it only makes our love more meaningful all the time.” I have never discussed my sex life with my parents, so it is odd to read Carolyn’s descriptions of bliss, fulfillment, and satisfaction. “Being together was paradise,” she exclaimed in one letter.
Carolyn’s family knew that she was in love with Jim Jones, but felt that her letters home were too focused on Jim’s image. As her father Rev. John Moore wrote years later, in 1985:
The letters always served to create/maintain an ideal image of Jim….Carolyn and Annie, and others I presume, were always concerned with PT’s and Jim’s images.
The following is an excerpt from another letter that Carolyn wrote to her sister Rebecca:
I realize that I was always bored by men until I met Jim. Whatever interest I have in all men before him faded and boredom ensued within a few days and sex was never fulfilling. I can’t express how completely every need for companionship and romance is fulfilled by him…. He would like to do many things for me (among them) get me a more comfortable house, but I have refused since I am happy with my quaint little house. Jim was completely faithful to a sick woman for 20 years as Marcie herself will explain, and he is my real companion and love. He is not impressed with the superficiality of many women…. Perhaps you wonder why I talk so much about Jim. He is everything to me. He has given my life meaning and purpose and most importantly love. I would trust no other as I trust him…. We are married for life in the spiritual sense. I never notice other men. They all turn me off because of the joy and beauty I’ve never known before now.
From another letter from Carolyn to Rebecca:
I naturally have no para-psychological powers and am very down to earth, but I know him so well I can often tell how he will feel about things. He knows more about me than I know about myself and always accepts me totally. Total acceptance and communication makes our love deeper than I thought possible between two humans.
Reading about about the young Carolyn by her sister Rebecca and father, it’s clear that, before Peoples Temple, she was a bright, intelligent, empathetic, and highly idealistic young woman who wanted to be a force of good in the world. She didn’t fall in love with Jim Jones with the idea that one day she would help to carry out his psychotic delusion of what he called “revolutionary suicide.” But this is what she ended up doing. On that tragic day, she also killed the son she had with Jim Jones, Kimo Prokes, and then herself.
No one falls in love hoping for it to end like this. Carolyn Layton fell in love with a charismatic, influential, and powerful preacher with a large community of followers who believed in him. Jim Jones was an influential political figure in the civil rights community and Carolyn shared many of his political beliefs. Their connection was more political than religious.
His army of followers was a political tour de force and could be called upon to protest injustices, to campaign for candidates and causes, and on Election Day, to get out the vote. Peoples Temple helped George Moscone become mayor of San Francisco, giving Jim Jones more power and influence, an eventual appointment to the San Francisco Housing Authority, and even a meeting with First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
Having a large group of followers who believed Jim was God legitimized him and his madness. He was validated by these powerful connections and by what Peoples Temple achieved. Jim Jones never would have been able to do what he did, were it not for his followers and their total devotion to him and his mission.
The murder/suicide of 918 people in Guyana was not accidental. These deaths were intentional, planned, and even rehearsed several times under the guise of loyalty tests or invasions by imaginary enemies. This “revolutionary suicide” was planned and carried out by members of the leadership, those closest to him. Carolyn was part of this small and select group. As her sister Rebecca reflected:
Imagine the power and the charisma of a person who can persuade you to accept his (or her) psychopathologies as your own! Jim Jones must have had tremendous magnetism to convince Carolyn and others that suicide was the only way out. And, of course, she incorporated those psychopathologies into her own worldview and was responsible, in part, for the deaths of hundreds.
* * * * *
So how do the scales tip from love to the extreme madness of love?
Love is blind. This ancient wisdom Plato wrote about is found in English for the first time in Chaucer’s Merchant Tale, 1404.
“For loue is blind alway and may nat see.”
The saying to fall madly in love is no coincidence. Humans have known for thousands of years that a connection between madness and love is real.
In his book, The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire, British psychologist Frank Tallis notes that many of the “symptoms” of ordinary desire mimic the symptoms of mental illness: recklessness, agitation, irrational behavior. “Lovesickness was considered a legitimate diagnosis from classical times to the eighteenth century,” he writes.
And as Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds wrote in a Harvard study about Love and the Brain:
In addition to the positive feelings romance brings, love also deactivates the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions, such as fear and social judgment. These positive and negative feelings involve two neurological pathways. The one linked with positive emotions connects the prefrontal cortex to the nucleus accumbens, while the other, which is linked with negative emotions, connects the nucleus accumbens to the amygdala. When we are engaged in romantic love, the neural machinery responsible for making critical assessments of other people, including assessments of those with whom we are romantically involved, shuts down. That’s the neural basis for the ancient wisdom “love is blind.”
When we fall in love, it is easier than we’d like to admit, to losing our ability to think critically. And when we are young, as Carolyn was when she met Jim Jones, and you add a sexual relationship of a kind you’ve never experienced before to the mix, along with a feeling of destiny, we are especially vulnerable. So many of us believe in our early twenties we know everything and have much to prove to ourselves and maybe to our families and friends. We also think that we are of sound mind and judgment.
But when a man like Jim Jones gives his attention and affection to a woman, young or old, and tells her that he loves her, or how special she is, and truly makes her feel special, along with feeling a sexual connection she had never felt before, many of us would be at risk of falling madly in love with him too. It’s one thing to be blinded by love, but it becomes something else when love goes to such extremes that someone could rationalize carrying out the horrors that took place at Jonestown.
The road to Jonestown is complex. But what I have yet to come across, is that it was paved with the extreme madness of love. Not just romantic love, but with the love of a shared dream Peoples Temple envisioned, love for each other, their community, a political ideology, Jim Jones, and the love of God.
According to surviving Peoples Temple member Laura Johnston Kohl:
Carolyn was a person who just carried the label “sane” as she moved around. She was never wild, crazed, unbalanced. She was smart and articulate, and had a lot going for her and started out searching — just like you or me — for a good life in the most altruistic sense. But she was corrupted by Jim’s ego and manipulations. Jim’s need for escalating control over his flock was manifested in his total control of his group of secretaries. The amazing and scary part of that was that the secretaries were indeed unique and mostly idealistic personalities, but he somehow gained control. In the end, they did much more than just follow instructions of a loving leader. They knew him to be a madman, and they took over when he was unable to take the last steps of the plan. And they were the “sane” ones.
Jones gained control through religious and political ideology, fear, turning people against each other, and separation from concerned family members. He used feelings of love, having sex with some, and withholding it from others. Being a man of his charisma and power, he created a competition/battle between them for his affections and to prove their loyalty to him. A delusional fever can take hold in these conditions.
In an A&E documentary about the women of Jonestown, Stephan Jones, the only biological son of Jim and Marceline Jones, tells a story about seeing his father and Carolyn in his father’s cabin. When she saw that Jim needed his fix, she quickly ran to him and shot him up with drugs. Jim told Stephan it was vitamin B, but Stephan knew better. Shortly after, Jim started to slur his words and was out of it. Stephan then said he saw Carolyn crying. It seemed to Stephan that “she knew what they had become.”
In all my research, Stephan is the only one from Peoples Temple who has said anything like this or seen Carolyn in tears. This also says that she wasn’t just a cold and emotionless Temple administrator as many thought, or as a quick read of the following could easily lead one to believe.
In the spring of 1978, the last year of her life, Carolyn wrote a memo entitled Analysis Of Future Prospects, which weighs the options for Peoples Temple in Jonestown.
1. A Final Stand If Decided On
– If there were a good way to ensure the deaths of everyone I would consider it about the best alternative in that all would be spared from life. I know if we do it ourselves — the youngsters that some people would like to will be left out, but as you said they cannot continue and their lives won’t be wrecked.
I think we concluded before that (1) there is no good, sure way to do this, (2) a number of people would rather sell out and denounce us than die, (3) some young people who would not mind dying for some tangible ideal cannot reconcile themselves to planning their demise. To me, #3 is the most humane and generous but then I am 33 and have had plenty of convincing experiences to frighten me what can happen in unplanned crises where you cannot insure your ultimate fate and the fate of those you love around you. That worries me about taking a stand — if I did not have a child, it would not even cross my mind.
How does a journey that begins with idealism, racial equality, family, and community, and working collectively for the common good, derail and descend into the hopeless dark madness of planning the deaths of yourself, your son Kimo, other children, parents, and members of your community?
You are destroying the very dream you have worked so hard to create, and the man you love turns out to be the enemy. Contemplate facing this reality and ask if it would be easier to deny the reality before your eyes, or to take a stand against the man you are “spiritually married for life” to, that you have committed everything to, and do the right thing.
It wouldn’t just be Jim she’d be taking a stand against, it would be other devoted members, and it would have been dangerous. She would also be admitting she was wrong about everything, all that she fought so hard for, gave her life to, and believed in.
Reading the whole memo, I see her trying in several ways to appeal to his ego to get him to change his mind about his psychotic plan. She wanted to eliminate incriminating documents because she was concerned about what people would find when they were gone but I think also hoped Jim would be concerned too. (There is a book about Jim that we know was being written, that I’m sure he wanted written. that the Temple was hurriedly trying to finish, needed to be finished, but it would have been more of a paean than an exposé.)
In this memo, though, Carolyn was also talking to a drug addict and a man so detached from reality and dead set to carry out something I think she hoped would never come to be. She belittles herself at the end, saying, “What do I know, it’s only my opinion,” as if hoping maybe he might come around and say, your opinion matters and you make some excellent points that we should consider. Like him and his kids escaping to Cuba.
From its beginning to its end, Carolyn strategically deploys as many ways as she could to persuade him not to go through with it. If anyone knew what Jim cared about most or his soft spots, it would be her. There is a carefully chosen mix of his words that she repeats to him, and she does it with subtle persuasion. She goes for his reputation, his ego, what other people will say, what would be left behind in history, and his legacy. These things are something he cares about or used to care about, and she presents it logically but in a neutral tone, simply stating these are the options. She doesn’t promote one option over the other. She just knows she can’t finish what needs to be done.
This memo makes it clear, that what Jim cares about, she cares about too. It is also clear how insane and dangerous the situation had become. She is concerned, if people leave, what they will say about them, “being held against their will, money taken, and forms of discipline.” There would have been lawsuits, issues involving Social Security payments, “terrible publicity.” She worried that all of this would hurt and follow all the children, because it would have. What was going on behind the scenes and out in the open was terrifying.
Threats that an enemy will take the children, molest, and hurt them, is a common and powerful fear tactic, especially amongst religious groups. The belief that their children would be molested and that they would live in misery without Jonestown was used in part to justify “revolutionary suicide.”
I believe she didn’t want to die, and would rather let the people who wanted to leave, to leave; to let those who wanted to stay, to stay, being left in peace to carry on their mission .
She knew what Jim faced legally, and she most likely knew she had her own legal liabilities. Had the murder/suicide not taken place, Carolyn and Jim certainly would have gone to prison, along with many others in Temple leadership.
What would her son Kimo think about his mother if he knew the truth? What would her father, mother, and sister think? How could she ever face anyone and explain why they beat, tortured, and drugged members, stole their money, and hid it in secret accounts, and planned a mass murder/suicide?
Like her father said, both Annie and Carolyn took the image of Peoples Temple seriously. If the truth were to get out – about what was really happening – it would also be a reflection of their decisions, actions, beliefs, and the horrors they were able to justify and excuse.
On that tragic day, she killed Kimo, the son she had with Jim Jones, and then herself. These are the actions of someone backed into a corner, believing there is no way out, someone who has surrendered their heart and soul to a madman she loved.
As former Temple member Mike Cartmell recalled:
Whatever costs to her family and others around, Carolyn’s loyalty — and her love — for Jim became all-consuming. Similarly, her authority eventually became absolute, as Jim’s dependence upon her became complete. To my knowledge, particularly as time passed and he began to slip, Jim did nothing without Carolyn’s concurrence.
She ensured Jim’s vision was carried out because she loved him and believed in the world that Peoples Temple was trying to create. Her loyalty to and love for him was to help carry out his last wishes. His wishes meant more to her than her own, and “knowing what they had become” may have made the unthinkable easier for her to contemplate and participate in.
Stories about women like Carolyn tend to dehumanize them: they are criminals, they are brainwashed and evil, they want power, and they are money hungry. They are everything except women in love.
In no way does this justify or excuse any of her decisions. It is one of many ways to try to understand an event that is extremely difficult to understand. What I also find frightening are the similarities to what is happening in American politics today.
Families and a nation being torn apart by conspiracy theories and propaganda. Elements of Donald Trump droning on and on in his speeches make me think of Jim Jones during his less energetic, drugged-out sermons: Anyone who doesn’t believe what you believe in is the enemy.
There are many similarities to what happened in Peoples Temple and our current state of politics. It’s hard to comprehend, but this time, the scale is an entire country, and it involves the political suicide of the Republican party. It incites people like Ricky Schiffer, who showed up at an Ohio FBI visitor center ready to kill and die because federal authorities had searched Trumps Mar-a-Lago for classified documents; people like David DePape, who attacked Paul Pelosi in his home because his wife, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, was not there; people like the January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Carolyn’s part in the planning and execution of a mass murder/suicide is an example of the extreme madness of love and how difficult it can be for some to escape the power of what and who we believe in, the lies we are told, no matter the cost of our beliefs. Carolyn loved Jim. As she once said, “he is my alpha and omega,” my beginning and end.
When many of us fall in love, we fall in love with someone who we share dreams and hopes for a future together. We fall for our ideals, not our demise.
(Jennifer Louise Sullivan is a video content creator on her YouTube channel Parkinson’s Wiggles Project. Jennifer is also writing her debut book, a memoir about love, relationships, and her young onset Parkinson’s diagnosis. She can be contacted at email@example.com.)