(Professor Gary Maynard teaches in the Sociology Department at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at Gary-Maynard@utc.edu.)
In this essay, I will examine whether or not Jim Jones was a narcissist by comparing his behavior and the eye-witness accounts of his followers and non-followers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) definition of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Even in a society like America, where you are rewarded if you are bold, talented and self-promoting, too much self-love and self-aggrandizement is seen as a negative personal trait and carries with it severe social sanctions for those who engage in this type of behavior (Lasch, 1979). If left unchecked, narcissistic personality disorder can pose a serious and direct threat to all those around the narcissistic person. Most people in American society will tell you that they dislike or even hate narcissistic people and will work to cut ties with them. It this is how most people view narcissists, then why do good, smart people fail in love with, join organizations run by and assist dangerous, sociopathic narcissists, like Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein?
Many narcissists are talented, and others view them as special. This element of a narcissist actually having apparent talent makes it hard to convince those around the narcissist that this person is not what they seem and that underneath the talent and feigned empathy is a monster of attention and energy that wishes for nothing but complete and utter power and control over as many people and institutions as possible.
Of course, one logical outcome of this disorder – indeed, one which is necessary for narcissists to wreak the havoc that they do – is that they can’t do the damage to society and their social networks all by themselves. None of the narcissistic despots listed above could have done what they did in their lives without the help and support of others. This observation pertains to Jim Jones as well – he could not have done what he did by himself – but the real question I seek to answer is this: did Jim Jones suffer from narcissistic personality disorder? If so, how severe was it, and how did it progress as he aged? How did he use his talent, charisma and early success in building the church to deceive people about his true nature and goals for the group? What lessons can we take away from Jonestown about being able to recognize narcissistic people and what damage they are capable of? If we are able to identify narcissists, can we neutralize the damage that they do to society and individuals?
I will attempt to answer these questions in this and subsequent essays. For those interested in a wider view and perspective on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder, I have provided a short bibliography at the end of this essay. For the sake of brevity, I will only use the DSM IV-TR definition to evaluate Jones’ personality and behavior.
The DSM IV-TR lists nine characteristics that are used to diagnosis whether or not someone has narcissistic personality disorder. The patient must display five or more of these characteristics before they are considered to be impaired by the condition, and the more characteristics the patient displays, the more acute the disorder. The more acute the disorder and the more intense the symptoms are, the more dangerous and sociopathic the person will be or will become.
The description of a narcissistic personality disorder is as follows:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes (DSM IV-TR Axis II Cluster B).
I believe that Jim Jones displayed many if not all of these characteristics at one point in his life or another, and that there is ample evidence to demonstrate this.
The first characteristic of narcissism is having a grandiose sense of self-importance, Jones clearly used his talents of speaking and preaching to show and display to others his superiority and self-importance. He told Hue Fortson and others in the group, “If you see me as your savior, I will be your savior. If you see me as your God, then I’ll be your God” (The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, PBS). The great majority of people in this world would not say these types of things or even think them. Jones not only thought about himself in this manner, but he spoke these things to his followers. Because he was charming and successful early on, many in the group did not challenge him on this arrogant behavior, even though most Christians consider pride to be a deadly sin.
But did Jones exaggerate his talents? Most would say yes, but many – including people outside the group, like then-California Governor Jerry Brown and San Francisco Assemblyman Willie Brown – were highly impressed with Jones and what he had done with Peoples Temple. This may be one of the keys that allowed Jones to avoid the revulsion that people have towards manipulative, arrogant narcissists – he had talent, he was successful, he performed acts of charity, and he made people feel welcome and special. In Narcissism Epidemic (2009), Twenge and Campbell describe the early stages of being around an extroverted narcissist – when the worst aspects of the disorder are hidden by overtly friendly, warm and charming behavior – as the honeymoon period. This honeymoon quickly turns into a nightmare as the true nature of the narcissist comes out. One woman interviewed by Twenge and Campbell described being married to a narcissist. When she was diagnosed with cancer, the husband was not upset that his wife might die, nor was he supportive and loving in during her illness. Rather he complained that her constant need for chemo-therapy and care was ruining his social life.
Narcissists will also put on an entirely false front from others and many times from themselves. Several former members of Peoples Temple reported that during the early days of their involvement, Jones made them feel very special and welcome (Layton, 1998). He was charismatic, friendly, supportive, and seemed to have “divine” powers to heal the body and soul. But then slowly the truth became more and more apparent – the beatings, the theft of money, the paranoia, the drug use, rape, emotional abuse, and virtual imprisonment in Jonestown made it clear to many who Jim Jones really was or was becoming (The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, PBS).
As for the second characteristic – having fantasy of ultimate power – it is hard to tell since we cannot peer into the inner thoughts of Jim Jones, but it is no secret that he was forthright in talking about his thoughts on power. What is unclear is whether he wanted to gain political power in the United States, or just over the world he created in Jonestown. In general, from all that has been reported about Jones and his association with high profile politicians – including Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, vice-presidential candidate Walter Mondale, and future First Lady Rosalynn Carter – he did see himself as influential and powerful beyond his small group. If the New West exposé by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy in 1977 had not threatened Jones’ burgeoning career as a political power broker in California, who knows how high Jones would have gone in San Francisco politics or beyond. We do know that he was the undisputed ruler of his jungle community of Jonestown. Jones was father, king, savior, socialist hero and a god to his followers, or at least that is what he wanted them to believe. He had recordings of his voice going 24 hours a day with the loudspeakers permeating the whole camp, so that even those working in the fields and sleeping at night could hear him. Clearly, he did have delusions about the limitlessness of his own power and most likely believed, as many narcissists do, that the world would be better off if they ruled it without question or oversight.
The third characteristic of the narcissist has to do with an excess of self-love that creates a sense of being special compared to others and needing to be around others who are special and talented as well. They are destined for greatness, they believe, and as such, they should only be around other extraordinary people. This may have been one of the things that drove Jones to leave Ukiah and start working with and being seen around powerful politicians in the San Francisco area. Jones saw himself as a celebrity and an important figure in the future of the world. That was part of the reason he founded Peoples Temple: to show Christians and liberal activists a way to make a great or even a perfect life and social order on Earth and not have to wait to die for heaven to come.
This characteristic can lead the narcissist to categorize the people in their life in a highly delineated manner, by grouping them into worthy and unworthy people. The next logical step is that the narcissist really respects only those talented, special people like them, and uses and manipulates all others without conscience. Jones clearly saw himself as superior and above others, and actively sought to be around powerful people, at least later in his life. Those that he felt were below him were treated very badly, being beaten, emotionally abused, held against their will, publicly humiliated, and – of course – threatened with death if they left the group. By the end of his life, it seems as though he was treating nearly everyone in the group like unworthy people.
The fourth characteristic of a narcissist is the need for excessive admiration. This is the characteristic that most people think of when they consider the classic vain narcissist: Someone who is constantly fishing for compliments or showing off new and exclusive possessions, or who otherwise just want to get attention. People who display this characteristic spend a lot of time attending to their looks, getting people to like them, cultivating themselves as the life of the party, having the most attractive romantic partners, and trying to keep up with the latest fashions. The more acute version of this characteristic comes in the form of being needy, possessive, jealous and suffering from separation anxiety. This characteristic is very common in narcissists with low self-esteem and is a form of overcompensation from not receiving enough praise from parents and friends (Fernando, 1998). Conversely, it can be related to be coddled and overly praised by parents, too.
Was Jones in need of excessive admiration? It is hard to tell, but his adopted son, Jim Jones, Jr. reported that he did have issues with people leaving him (Interview with Jim Jones, Jr. in 2010; The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, PBS). He was always the head and voice of the church – he was the center of the group and the center of attention – but did he crave it? From the evidence and accounts of those close to Jones, it seems as though he did need excessive amounts of admiration. This may have been what drove him to create a fortress mentality inside the group where it was near to impossible to leave and where what Jones wanted was law.
The fifth characteristic of a narcissist is a sense of entitlement, whereby those around the narcissist must agree to every request they make or face unwelcome consequences. In addition, they feel that the norms and laws that govern society and individuals do not apply to them. This allows them to violate the rights of others without feeling of guilt and to harm society by engaging in large scale fraud.
Clearly, Jones did not believe that the rules and laws of society applied to him. This is apparent from the various accounts of his rape of women in the group, his abuse of drugs and alcohol – while simultaneously telling his congregation that these things were wrong – and his use of physical and emotional techniques to control and humiliate his followers. The most extreme example came with the order to kill Leo Ryan: it is clear at that moment that he felt that neither the rules of the law nor morality applied to him. He was above reproach and judgment, and anyone who dared to criticize or attack him suffered ostracism, punishment and death.
Narcissists will justify breaking rules and laws by using broad rationalizations to neutralize the feelings of hypocrisy. Many narcissists, like David Koresh, rationalized having sex with all the other married females in his group because, as he said, he was building the “House of David” by fathering children with the female members of the group. In turn, these children would become the blessed elders who would rebuild the Christian world after Armageddon. It is hard to determine if Koresh really believe this or not, and many felt that he was using that excuse for the sole purpose of having sex with other members of the group (Wright, 1995; Waco: Rules of Engagement, 1997).
In comparison, what is clear from his actions is that Jones did believe he was above the law of the state and biblical morality, but he did use rationalizations to justify his behavior. He used drugs, he said, for his kidneys, but then why would he drink on top of that? He justified having sex with both men and women in the group by saying he was helping them deal with their feelings. The violence he ordered or condoned within the group was good for its cohesion of discipline and self-governance, to do what was right for the collective by making examples out of its miscreants.
But Jones also knew how his behavior would be viewed by the outside world, even if he did not think what he was doing was wrong. On the contrary, he felt the world, especially the United States, was racist, fascist, corrupt and was doomed to fail and spiral into social chaos. He used this vision of America and the American government as the enemy, to keep his followers in fear and prevent them from trying to return to the States. It was his society – with his justifications for sexual, physical, and emotional abuse – that would serve as a model for the world to emulate.
The sixth characteristic of a narcissist – exploiting and abusing others in order to achieve their goals or satisfy their need for power – is indicative of a sociopathic or pathological narcissist. This is more than viewing oneself as superior to others and deserving of admiration and accolades. Rather, it is a means to justify and rationalize the abusive treatment of others. Sociopathic/pathological narcissists (sometimes referred to as fanatical narcissists) seek power over others and in the most severe cases, like Hitler, seek power over the entire world (Millon, 1996). If someone becomes abusive and exploitative in order to achieve their goals or to make themselves feel good, it is a good indication that they have slipped into a more acute state of narcissistic behavior. Narcissists who have reached this stage see all those around them as objects and/or tools through which the narcissist will gain more and more power and influence. Since narcissists are insatiable when it comes to feelings of power and importance, this is a dangerous characteristic or phase for a narcissist, and when their power and abilities are revealed to be based on abuse and manipulation – when outside forces threaten their delusions – narcissists many times will lash out with violence against those they feel are responsible for betraying them. Narcissists who display this characteristic are willing to violate the law, harm others, engage in political/economic fraud to try and gain power and kill people who try to get in their way or threaten their delusions of power and grandeur.
Jones clearly displayed these characteristics throughout the middle and later part of his life, and there is some indication that he planned on manipulating his followers from the very beginning. He certainly abused the trust and love of his followers by convincing them to turn their money and property over to the Temple, and demanding demonstrations of loyalty, culminating in the numerous “White Nights” during which Jones led rehearsals for the group’s mass suicide. Moreover, when he perceived himself and his followers under attack from outside forces – disaffected former members, relatives of Jonestown residents, the press and the government – he threatened retaliation. Ultimately, Jones’ fear that Congressman Ryan – and the others who would inevitably follow – would pull the group apart led him to order the shootings at the Port Kaituma airstrip and the mass murder-suicide in Jonestown.
The seventh characteristic of a narcissist is a severe lack of empathy for the feelings, concerns and predicament of others. This lack of empathy allows the narcissist to emotionally detach from others around them and makes it easier to justify abusing and harming people. The narcissist will objectify and de-humanize others so they can act in the way they want without feeling that they are a bad or unlikable person. In its milder forms, this can lead narcissists to verbally and emotionally assault people. In its more acute forms this characteristic can lead narcissists to torture people – whether physically, psychologically, or emotionally – and eventually to murder. Hitler and Stalin were the most extreme examples, but that’s because they were able to summon the weapons of the large, powerful nations they ruled against their own people, as well as those of other nations. Luckily for the United States, it is very difficult for a singular narcissist to seize absolute power.
It is hard to tell what Jim Jones really felt, but we can examine his words and actions with regards to empathy or the lack of it. In public – whether in the pulpit or during his TV appearances – he displayed an enormous amount of empathy for those in society that were downtrodden or marginalized by mainstream society, including blacks, drug addicts, orphans, the elderly, woman and even abused animals. But were these displays genuine on Jones’ part or were they just the machinations of a narcissistic madman bent on conning all those that followed him? Alternatively, did Jones change from the time he was in his early 20s to his 40s from someone who was genuinely empathetic to others, to someone who became cynical and manipulative as life became less and less like his narcissistic fantasy? It is hard to tell, but it deserves more research and debate. In the meantime, I would say that his actions of abuse and exploitation alone show that – at least in his later life – he did not seem to display high levels of empathy for his followers, but I do not speculate when that became the reality for him.
The eighth characteristic of a narcissist is a high level of envy of others, particularly people the narcissist thinks are a challenge to their rise to power, either inside of an organization (which led Stalin to purge Trotsky and others), or just in their general social environment (demonstrated by Hitler’s persecution of the Jews). Using this envy to feed a desire for more and more power, narcissists can never let their guard down. A logical corollary is that narcissists believe that others are envious of their success, a belief which plays into the paranoid delusions of persecution that many narcissists display. It also feeds into a black-and-white worldview: you are either with me or against me. Finally, the narcissist may use the envy of others to dismiss their own failures or deflect the criticism of others, by explaining that the naysayers are jealous of the narcissist’s greatness.
Jim Jones displayed aspects of this, mostly with his hyper-vigilance about outside groups and government agencies trying to destroy him and his group. He certainly felt that the media were smearing Peoples Temple, partly due to their intense envy of his own power and grand place in American society. Although this characteristic does not seem to be a serious issue on the surface, it can combine with several of the other characteristics, such as lack of empathy, to lead the narcissist into paranoid delusions and revenge fantasies.
The ninth and final characteristic is a high level of arrogance and rude and/or self-promoting behavior, meant not only to prop up the narcissist in front of others, but also to belittle and embarrass others. This characteristic leads narcissists to overestimate their looks, abilities, charm and power, which in turn can lead to major mistakes. These failures can induce panic in the narcissist after it is revealed that they are not as great as they made themselves into in public. Hitler’s ill-fated attack on the Soviet Union – culminating in the horrendous defeat at Stalingrad – and his limited number of public appearances afterwards serves as an illustration of this.
In other cases, these failures have led narcissists to blame others for the subsequent hardships and to focus on revenge or suicidal fantasies which will elevate the narcissist to the level of a martyr or sacrificial savior. Jim Jones displayed these characteristics, both in public and in private. In public, he presented himself as a dynamic, intelligent, open-minded, talented and powerful leader. In private, he made it clear to those in his group that he was more powerful and talented and deserving than others, and no one else could ever rise to that level of competence or “sensitivity” as a leader.
* * * * *
From this brief analysis of Jones’ behavior using the DSM IV-TR diagnostic criteria, it is apparent that he suffered from at least eight – if not all nine – of the characteristics at some point during his life. The question then becomes not whether he was a narcissist, but how severe was his narcissism? By the time he died, it is clear that he was suffering from an acute case of narcissistic personality disorder with violent and paranoid delusions and tendencies. Most psychiatrists would have put him on strong medication combined with intensive therapy. They may have even separated him from others. But because of his social reputation and past successes, he was instead lauded by local, state and national politicians until he left the US and went to Guyana for the last time in 1977. The failure to identify these characteristics and arrest them before they spiraled out of control led to the abuse, murder and suicide of more than 900 people in November of 1978.
What could have been done? It is hard to tell, but the media, Congressman Ryan and the family and friends of those isolated in Jonestown tried to draw attention to Jones and the danger he posed. By 1978, Jones was in a prison of his own making, one of paranoia and megalomania. The attention from the outside – especially as it turned against him – seemed to trigger the worst aspects of his personality disorder.
In addition, what Jones’ life represents is a warning to everyone of the allure and danger of narcissism and narcissists. Many narcissists are very attractive, talented, inspiring and charming, but this is mostly a front, intended to disarm the narcissist’s victims. The cleverer the narcissist is at manipulating his/her followers and supporters – and in hiding the dark side of narcissism – the more powerful the narcissist will become and the more damage they can cause, not only to their followers but the world as a whole.
If we are able to use Jim Jones and other narcissists as examples of what to look for, then we will be better able to reduce the damage that narcissist do in our lives and in society. In a world with a large number of weapons of mass destruction, small arms, easy access to poison, growing access to social media coupled with general feelings of alienation and narcissistic cultural tendencies in American culture, it is imperative that we are able to identify and control these dangerous sociopathic narcissists before they become powerful enough to do too much damage. The fate of this nation and the world may depend upon this understanding.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2007). New York: Firelight Media.
Lasch, Christopher (1979). The Culture of Narcissism. New York: Norton.
Layton, Deborah (1998). Seductive Poison. New York: Anchor Books.
Millon, Theodore (1996). Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV-TM and Beyond. New York: John Wiley and Sons. p. 393.
“Narcissistic personality disorder” (2000.) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth edition Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). American Psychiatric Association
Twenge, Jean M. & Campbell, W. Keith (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Free Press.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997). Los Angeles: SomFord Entertainment
Wright, Stuart, ed. (1995). Armageddon in Waco. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wurmser, L. (1987) “Shame, the veiled companion of narcissism,” in The Many Faces of Shame, edited by Nathanson, D.L. New York: Guilford, pp. 64–92.
Zanor, Charles (29 November 2010). “A Fate That Narcissists Will Hate: Being Ignored.” The New York Times.