Earlier this year, I gave a two and a half hour Continuing Education Unit power point presentation on the subject of Peoples Temple and Jonestown to approximately 70 clinical psychologists and social workers. Four psychiatrists also attended. The goal of my talk was to explain the pathology of Jim Jones beginning when he was a child, and the specific psychological means by which he was able to gradually and insidiously manipulate and shape the behavior of his followers. My presentation included video clips of Jones, Temple members and the Concerned Families, excerpts from television news broadcasts, and audio clips of Jones’ speaking to his followers, both in San Francisco and at the Jonestown pavilion.
I believe that the subject of Jim Jones should be of special interest to mental health workers. Jones used easily identifiable tools of psychological manipulation on his followers, techniques that have been well explained in the psychology literature by researchers and academics such as Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, and Robert Cialdini. The vulnerabilities of Temple members that made them susceptible to Jones’ techniques are also not difficult to understand and are remarkably similar to those found in mental health textbooks on elder abuse and domestic violence.
The post-presentation written evaluations for my talk were uniformly good and the audience appeared to genuinely enjoy the presentation. However, in multiple ways, the talk was a disappointment to me. I’ve spoken to many audiences over the years on the subjects of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and on cults and undue influence, but this presentation was surprising because of the reactions, follow-up comments and questions from those in attendance. These were well-educated people, all of whom had graduate degrees in psychology, and many of whom were adults during the time of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. I was then surprised by the large number present who believed that the Jonestown murders had been suicides. I had erroneously assumed that those in attendance would have known more about undue influence and the incredible psychological pressures – including the effects of living in almost total isolation – that Jones placed on the community’s residents. Assuming that over 900 people willingly killed themselves seemed then and does now a facile conclusion, and I’d hoped for a follow up discussion about free will and the limitations that severe emotional and physical abuse place on a person’s ability to make rational choices. Unfortunately, we could not have that discussion.
I was also surprised by the fact that two social workers who had been born well after 1978, had never even heard of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple or Jonestown. That troubled me and – I suppose – dated me as well. From their standpoint, there have been countless horrific tragedies since then, not least of all 9/11, and what happened in a jungle in South America years before they were born was of little significance to them.
I considered the reasons for this misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about the tragedy of Jonestown. I can only surmise that mental health clinicians are rarely presented with the opportunity to work with clients whose current problems stem from years of manipulation and abuse from a practitioner of undue influence. I also think that it is far easier for clinicians to categorize a Jim Jones as being psychopathic or of having anti-social personality disorder, without considering in detail exactly how he identified vulnerable victims and with what skills he used to coerce those victims into surrendering their own best interests to someone who truly did not at all care about them. This is further complicated by the fact that the study of group dynamics is much more in a social psychology area of study and research than it is in clinical psychology. It is certainly quite possible that the clinical psychologists and social workers who attended my talk had never taken an undergraduate or graduate school course in which psychological and emotional manipulation were taught.
There is also a tendency, I think, in the psychotherapy profession to consider victims of undue influence from the context of the DSM-4. In other words, they were victims because of some underlying psychological dysfunction in themselves, whether a personality disorder like dependent personality disorder, or an Axis I diagnosis such as major depression.
Although we can pity the victims murdered by Jones, it would be a mistake to think of them in terms of mental illness symptoms. The vast, overwhelming majority of those 918 persons killed by Jim Jones were decent, well-adjusted people who believed that they were creating a visionary, utopian community that would be the ideal model for the future. They had strong spiritual faith, most had suffered discrimination in their lives, and they believed both in hard work and cooperation, and in each other. Jim Jones took advantage of his followers’ innate decency and used their naïveté against them. For mental health workers – or for anyone for that matter – to assume somehow that the victims of Jonestown were somehow different from the rest of us is a terrible mistake. It was because they were so much like us, with the same foibles, dreams and determination to do good things in the world, that makes the Jonestown tragedy timeless and heartbreaking. I fear that the majority of the people who attended my talk did not understand that.