Asking Why

I am a reporter and fiction writer, and over the past twenty-five years, I have interviewed many members of fringe sects. I have spoken to former followers of an Englishman who preaches meditation and survivalism, of a young man who convinced a tiny flock who met in a park that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, of a woman who claimed to channel a 32,000-year-old spirit who speaks with a Yoda-like accent.

I have also interviewed members whose sincerity and idealism led them into the company of more dangerous shepherds. Among these leaders is Tony Alamo, who is serving 175 years in federal penitentiary for transporting girls as young as nine across state lines for the purpose of sex. Marshall Applewhite persuaded his male followers to have themselves castrated, and both men and women to kill themselves by ingesting a lethal concoction of Phenobarbital-laced pudding and vodka. And most notorious of all, there is Jim Jones himself.

Late last year I sent my agent a novel manuscript whose cast included a bizarre cult leader named Roy Conquest. An excerpt of the manuscript, titled The Vanishing, appeared in Narrative magazine earlier this year. The novel is about housepainter named Paul Christy whose wife has disappeared. Their five-year-old son has died, hit by a car as he chased seagulls across a parking lot, and Rachel Christy, reeling from grief, finds solace in the meditations taught by a hypnotist guru with a fondness for firearms. My agent hired a freelance reader to review the full manuscript. Among the reader’s comments, one remark in particular highlighted the difficulty of creating a believable character who lures disciples even while employing coercive methods of a sort described in Robert Jay Lifton’s classic Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China: beatings, verbal rants, sleep deprivation.

The reader wrote of the cult leader in my novel, “Roy’s particular brand of spirituality is so abusive, it was a bit difficult to believe he would attract followers.”

Was this reader simply unaware of the nature of totalistic leaders? Or was the problem mine as a writer? Did I need to rethink my character?

Now, stipulated: if a reader whom my agent trusts feels my portrayal of Roy Conquest and his Institute of Christic Love and Enlightenment needs work, only a very foolish writer would refuse out of hand. Still, her disbelief seemed to echo the incredulity that survivors of such groups face, the astonishment that greets their anguished recollections, the looks that say yeah, but you seem like a normal person, how could you fall for that? Those with no experience in coercive sects sometimes think, ignorantly, that no sane person could end up following such a leader.

“If he was so abusive, why did you stick around?” former members have been asked. “Why didn’t you just walk out?”

If people find it hard to believe that anyone could follow a real person like Jim Jones, how can the novelist hope to create a believable fictional character of his sort? Imagine a work of fiction appearing any time before 1978 in which a preacher convinces a multiracial congregation to relocate their families from the San Francisco Bay Area to the jungles of Guyana? Who would buy his “apostolic socialism,” his claims that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, Mohandas Gandhi, and Vladimir Lenin? Would anyone believe the denouement at a settlement overlooked by guard towers, where the leader argues, amid the sounds of children sobbing, that his followers should kill themselves along with their children?

“I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear,” he says, “I don’t care how many anguished cries: death is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight. … Now stop this nonsense. Don’t carry this on anymore; you’re exciting your children.”

“Right,” the crowd calls. “Right.”

Oh, come on! a skeptical reader might say. Would anyone really act like that? Would parents help poison their children? Yet the words above come from the FBI transcript of the so-called Death Tape recorded in Jonestown on November 18, 1978.

Nonetheless, as a writer and teacher of writing, I know that it is the worst excuse of the novice, when criticized, is to say, “This scene is based on real events! It happened just like that!” This is a way of evading the hard work of creating characters who are believable within the universe of the work of fiction itself. It seeks to shortcut the subtleties of characterization. If readers of a journalistic account find a story incredible, the reporter can shrug and say, “Believe it or not. It’s your choice. I don’t care. But that’s how it happened.” The novelist has no such fallback; he or she must create a work of verisimilitude, or give up.

The freelance reader’s remarks drove me to reflect on how I might better portray a spirituality that is by turns charismatic, repellent, and abusive. How could I convey both the allure and the darkness of a Roy Conquest? I set aside the manuscript while I worked on another project, but I kept interviewing members of totalistic sects, among them a survivor of Peoples Temple. I spoke at length with followers of the Tony Alamo Christian Fellowship, whose recollections of forced sleeplessness and what amounted to slave labor recalled Lifton’s descriptions of the methodology of the Chinese gulag system, known as the laogai.

This assault on autonomy [he wrote] even extended to the level of consciousness, so that men began to exist on a level which was neither sleep nor wakefulness, but rather an in-between hypnogogic state. In this state they were not only more readily influenced, but they were susceptible to destructive and aggressive impulses arising from within themselves.

My hope as a writer is to render the madness of a noxious spiritual leader in a convincing manner, to shed light on why such shepherds retain their followers’ devotion despite their monstrous nature. If you are a former member of Peoples Temple, or a similar group, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Jim Jones and Tony Alamo’s particular brands of spirituality were so abusive, it is difficult to believe they would attract followers. But they did, hundreds of them. Why?

(Russell Working is the author, most recently, of The Irish Martyr. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Paris Review and elsewhere. He can be reached at