My own involvement with Peoples Temple came after the organization came to an end. As Jim Jones had “prophesized” for the last five years of its existence, the organization extinguished itself in a horrifying mass suicide and murder ritual that stunned the world.
The concept of mass suicide for socialism arose around 1973 when Jones first broached the idea to the Planning Commission, the internal church board. His ideas of executing an act of “revolutionary suicide,” as he would later call it – based on a phrase coined by Black Panther Huey Newton – ranged from rounding up members to jump off the San Francisco Golden Gate bridge, to chartering an airliner and shooting the pilot to bring down the plane. But the concept of a poisoned drink always seemed to Jones to be the most efficient and simple means of carrying out his plan.
I was recovering from an injury in my Virginia home when I first saw the news reports on Sunday evening and Monday morning about a congressman who was murdered in another country during an official visit. Being very young at that time, I paid little attention to the event. But the news that followed left everyone aghast, regardless of age. Apparently hundreds of church members had killed themselves in the jungle and were responsible for the murder of the congressman and some reporters. Lurid details followed every day, sparking the prurient interests of people everywhere. How on earth could nearly one thousand people commit this heinous act, and why? Immediately the members of Peoples Temple were labeled as insane and wacky Californians. The question in our household was, what kind of idiot would join such a group and follow such a man?
Soon afterwards, though, my grandmother came to dinner with some news that made our collective heads reel. Apparently my aunt in Indiana had been a quasi-member of Peoples Temple for years. The group had passed through her sleepy Indiana town several times, and she had arranged for members’ shelter by allowing them to camp out in sleeping bags in the gymnasium of the local high school. She was soon showered with not one or two, but literally dozens of letters, thanking her for her compassion and for “being so nice” to let them stay in the gym. Soon thereafter she began to receive solicitations for a wonderful cause unfolding in Northern California. The need was urgent, and the danger of not receiving the money was real. Letters detailing crimes against minorities and possible government conspiracies made this middle-aged Indiana housewife’s head spin. But she liked the people she had met. She considered them “real.” They were committed to social work, something that touched her. Soon after mailing in her generous donation, she was invited to join the Temple and travel to California. The Temple even mailed an autographed album to her.
My grandmother’s story shifted the question in those days after November 18. It was no longer, why did these “nuts” join the Temple and kill themselves, but instead, how did ordinary folk come to belong to this group?
There is no simple “one size fits all” answer to that question. In the Indiana days, people joined for purely religious reasons and for the active role the church took in the community. Jones’ sermons from that time period reveal a normal mainstream church with goals of interracial harmony and feeding the needy. The move to California brought Jones’ self-esteem issues, paranoia and bizarre eccentricities to the surface – thus changing the inner workings of the church – but the public face of interracial brotherhood and caring for the poor and needy attracted thousands in California, from Redwood Valley where the Temple made its new home, to Los Angeles and San Diego.
Perhaps the greatest driving force in Jim Jones’ campaign for expansion was the radical politics of change during the late 60s and early 70s in the Bay Area. The political tone that the Temple assumed was no coincidence. Jim Jones was a master of changing direction to suit his needs, both personal and organizational. By presenting the Temple as a political movement and gradually phasing out the religious aspects of his message, he would lead a large group ready and willing to carry out his goals. Many began to view Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple as they had seen Martin Luther King and his civil rights movement. But Jones was no fool. He knew that to finance his dreams of greatness, he would need money and people and lots of both. By keeping the movement in a church setting, he still attracted the religious. Collecting their donations through tithes and tax-deductible gifts would sustain the Temple and provide it an enormous source of revenue. A typical weekend in the mid-70s of preaching in three cities often netted $70,000. Multiplied by four weekends a month and twelve months a year, the annual proceeds raised were outstanding.
After many years of researching the group, befriending family members of those lost in Jonestown, and speaking with those involved directly and peripherally, I can say that few “nuts” joined the People Temple. Whether the attraction to the movement centered on the healing and religion or on the social programs offered to its members, each family had its own reasons for joining. The son of Elmer and Deanna Mertle told me that his parents were always joining some type of cause, and indeed, after leaving the Temple, the Mertles joined an anti-Temple group known at the Concerned Relatives. Others were attracted to the Temple’s political goals of universal desegregation. And a few believed that Jones was the Second Coming of Christ, and that terrible harm would befall them if they left the Temple or did not follow Jones to the end of the earth.
What most of these people did not see was the ultimate direction that Peoples Temple was taking. Many survivors and relatives of Temple members have told me that they had little idea what was really transpiring within Jim Jones. The public face and the internal “family” face were 180 degrees apart. No one joined the Peoples Temple with the idea of dying in a Guyana jungle.
The responsibility for that final, horrible act lies with Jim Jones, certainly, but it also lies with his many close followers ready to carry out his orders without question, with the isolation and living conditions of the jungle, and with the political climate of that period in the Temple history.
Jim Jones became mentally unhinged and drug addicted in the final years of Peoples Temple. His goal was to take the Temple into the history books by perpetrating an unbelievable act that would cause the world to stop and take notice. On that level, he succeeded… but clearly not with the approval or recognition he desired. Jones was always suicidal and projected his suicidal tendencies onto others for many years. Children in the Temple answered questionnaires with such foreboding inquiries as: When did you first contemplate suicide and why? He would use the pretense that a member was suicidal to elicit carnal relations with countless members, on the pretense that this “counseling” was necessary for their mental health. Jones’ paranoia and real fears of his enemies in former members, their families, the media and the government, coupled with massive drug abuse, led an already destructive personality into a slide towards apocalypse.
Loyal members in Jones’ inner circle are as much to blame as himself. The pathological need to please and appease Jim Jones overrode ordinary common sense. The desire to carry out whatever action necessary for community unity and to please “Dad,” as he was called, was first and foremost on these persons’ minds. Overwhelming peer pressure factored into Temple life in California and was even more exaggerated in Jonestown. The desire to hold the extended family together became pathological, superceding real needs of the community, such as adequate food, shelter and safety.
The isolation and severe conditions of a tropical rain forest – cut off from reality itself – tremendously influenced the final outcome on November 18, 1978. Entire families lived in isolation, far from the nearest city, under constant peer surveillance, and in fear that the community was under imminent attack from the Guyanese government or US intelligence agencies.
Finally, for the Ryan Codel – which consisted of relatives, former members (whom Jones branded as “traitors”), reporters and government officials – to come in November seemed exceptionally geared for disaster in Jonestown. Jim Jones was at his peak in paranoia and – in reality – was losing a great deal of authority in his community. One of the highest level defections, that of Teri Buford, had occurred only three weeks before. Many high-level members and even his basketball team/security squad were bucking his orders. With the basketball team in Georgetown to play in a tournament that fateful weekend, the only real hope of stopping Jones’ final march was gone.
The questions of what motivated people to join Peoples Temple, to compromise their beliefs and to die in Guyana still linger after 25 years, in large part because there are so many variables: there is no “one size fits all” answer. But let no one think it could not happen to them. Only the foolish shelter themselves in the cocoon that they are safe from such tragedy. Anyone was a potential Temple member, even a member of my own “normal” family.