Doctor Sees Danger in Cult Survivors’ Deep Despair

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The New York Times.)

Nov. 29, 1978

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Nov. 28 — A New Jersey psychiatrist who specializes in treating former cult members said today that many surviving members of the People’s Temple were “suffering from severe depression which, if not treated, could lead to suicide.”

Dr. Hardat Sukhdeo, deputy chairman of the psychiatry department at the New Jersey College of Medicine, said the survivors “are coming out of the brainwashing and, if they do not get help, most of them will not be able to adjust to society.”

He arrived here last night and began interviewing survivors.

“These people are very much used to being given directions,” he said, “and they’re going to go through a process of real socialization.”

6 More Members Released

In other developments, as the authorities in Guyana investigating the Jonestown deaths released six more members of the cult from custody, Police Commissioner Lloyd A. Barker disclosed that the more than 900 killings and suicides at the jungle commune in Jonestown on Nov. 18 had stretched over a span of five hours and that an examination of the bodies showed no sign of physical struggle.

The Commissioner said the police found a stack of rifles at one end of the pavilion where members of the cult drank a soft drink laced with cyanide.

He also said he was convinced that the Rev. Jim Jones, the leader of the cult, and about 60 of his security guards had died in the final hours of the bizarre evening.

The Commissioner said that the police also found plates of grilled cheese sandwiches peppered with cyanide, and that investigators had obtained “information that all the food and drink prepared that night had cyanide in it,” adding, “It seems that the intent was to make sure that people did not survive.”

Some Injected Polson

Mr. Barker said there were indications that some of the security guards drank the potions like most of the others, but that some had also injected the poison directly into their veins.

He said the matter of whether Mr. Jones had killed himself with a gun or had been murdered was still being studied, but added that the police had evidence that a gun had been held close to the cult leader’s head, as in a suicide.

The Commissioner also said investigators had failed to find any evidence that several dozen bursts of automatic rifle fire ricocheted through the commune on the night of the killing, as reported by Mark Lane, one of two American lawyers who was at the commune on Nov. 19.

Mr. Barker added that he had no reason to believe that many members of the People’s Temple commune were still in the rain forest surrounding Jonestown, and said that, while there might be a few stragglers, there was no search for possible survivors now.

He refused to discuss the details of the investigation into the deaths of Representative Leo J. Ryan, three newsmen and an American woman at an airport near the commune 10 days ago, and the subsequent murder and suicide of more than 900 members of the cult, but said he expected that evidence now being collected would be presented to a magistrate within two weeks for possible additional charges. Mr. Ryan, a California Democrat, had gone to Jonestown to investigate the cult.

One man has been charged with the murder of Mr. Ryan, the newsmen and the woman, who was apparently trying to escape, and another man has been accused of slashing the throat of the cult’s public relations officer and her three children.

A ‘Protective Gesture’

Dr. Sukhdeo, a Guyanese citizen who received his medical degree from the University of London and taught at Yale University for several years before going to the New Jersey College of Medicine in Newark, said he believed that the most important factor in the disintegration of the cult was not the visit by Mr. Ryan to Jonestown, but the departure of two families that had become disaffected with life in the commune.

“The fact that two families, not individuals, but two families, volunteered to leave was very traumatic to the cult,” Dr. Sukhdeo said. “This made it possible for some of the others to see what they were doing, triggering off a hidden desire in their minds that they should leave. I’m sure Jones knew that as he decided to make that the beginning of the end of the cult.”

Dr. Sukhdeo said he believed that Mr. Jones regarded his followers as an extension of himself and that after the cult leader decided that the only course for himself was death, he ordered the others to join him in a kind of “Protective gesture.”

“He thought it was better for him to die,” Dr. Sukhdeo said of Mr. Jones, “and if that was the case it was better for the others to die, too.”

Dr. Sukhdeo said one factor that may have made it more possible for a mass suicide to occur at the commune was that “many of the people were from a sub‐culture of violence.”

He said he believed that many people had been happy in the cult because, under the totalitarianism of Mr. Jones, their lives — perhaps for the first time — had structure, however harsh it might have been. It was probably the violent destruction of this structure, as much as anything, Dr. Sukhdeo said, that plunged some of the cult members into deco despair.

‘Feeling Dead Inside’

Dr. Sukhdeo said one cult member he talked to, a former drug addict who escaped after the others began drinking the poison, “complained that he was feeling dead inside.”

“When you hit him with what he will do when he goes back, he gets afraid,” Dr. Sukhdeo said. “There are no support systems for a man like this. Without support, he will become addictive again.”

In the last few days, a small army of reporters has been interviewing and reinterviewing about 30 of the survivors housed at the Park Hotel here. Dr. Sukhdeo said he believed that the reporters had had an impact similar to that of team of therapists.

Dr. Sukhdeo also said he paid for the trip to Guyana himself and had come to study the survivors partly because it off erect an opportunity tor nim to “see whole group of people who were suddenly cut off from a cult.”

Cabinet Meeting on Jonestown

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Nov. 28 (UPI) — Prime Minister Forbes Burnham called a cabinet meeting today to decide the future of the 3,000‐acre Jonestown commune.

Government sources said the cabinet was expected to commission the military to exploit the commune as an agricultural station and to harvest the crops of beans, tapioca, bananas, pineapples, oranges and other tropical fruit hanging ripe on the trees.

The sources said it was not likely that Guyanese settlers or National Service volunteers could be persuaded to move into the commune, in a jungle clearing 150 miles northwest of Georgetown.

Mr. Burnham has not made any public statement on the suicides and murders at Jonestown except to say that he will hang Larry Layton, a People’s Temple member charged in the murder of Representative Leo J. Ryan of California and four other Americans, if he is found guilty.

Mr. Burnham also has said that there will be no extradition of any Americans charged here.