Effects of Isolation on the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project

(Edward Cromarty is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His complete set of writings for this site is here. He may be reached at edwardcromarty@hotmail.com.)

Social and economic isolation is a very important concept in the fabric that wove Peoples Temple into what it was. Eventually, of course, this same isolation helped to cause the collapse of a cutting edge experiment at Jonestown that – had it succeeded – would have been a wonderful example of a community of people having a socialist ideal working together to achieve a common goal. In this paper I will review social and economic isolation from the group perspective of Peoples Temple and from an individual perspective. I will review how leadership styles affect isolation and I will touch upon the health effects of isolation on the individual. I will also examine the writings of Annie Moore, a young woman who became one of Jim Jones’ personal nurses at the end of Jonestown’s history.

One effect of isolation on a group is social discrimination against that group, but modern theory looks at isolation from economic and social perspectives rather than one based on race. There are poor and wealthy members of all races and both genders. The poor tend to become isolated in concentrated social groups, while the wealthy integrate much more easily into mainstream society. Race may become part of the isolation equation in the later development of concentrated groups, but it is social and economic disadvantage that is the cause of isolation which affects all races.

This is an important concept to understand when considering the fabric of Peoples Temple. Much is made of the fact that the majority of the membership of Peoples Temple was black while the leadership was white. In fact both groups were from economically and socially disadvantaged communities. The majority of members, white and black, shared the experience of having come from disadvantaged backgrounds in a time when poverty was much more concentrated and opportunities to integrate into mainstream society were limited. Later young liberal college-educated members – largely from California – were attracted to the Temple in part because it allowed them to live out a commitment to help the poor and disadvantaged. It is this fabric that comprised the foundational social influence of Peoples Temple.

Social and economic isolation among individuals and institutions prevents interaction with mainstream society. Impoverished communities develop as a result of the lack of access to social resources and a lack of social mobility between these communities and mainstream society. The social interaction that develops within disadvantaged communities creates new behaviors, belief systems, and realities. Members of isolated communities become aware of these differences, especially within black communities. The beliefs of these communities about their reality and the world outside are reinforced by their poverty and social isolation. For the members of Peoples Temple, this was exacerbated by its relocation to a community in an even more isolated setting – Jonestown in the jungles of northwestern Guyana – which allowed them to develop their own values, beliefs, and culture, but it also led them to lose focus on the values of the outside world.

Employment within disadvantaged communities is often informal and unorganized. In Latin America 30% to 70% of women are employed in informal employment (Esim, 2000). Informal employment includes selling food products as fruit and vegetables, retail shops, factories, home-based employment, crafts, sewing, hairdressing, and other low-paying jobs. As evidenced by the wide range in the estimates, these jobs are often hidden from government statistics and labor legislation.

Economic “solidarity groups” have formed in poor communities around the world. They are called gamayes in the Middle East, oususus and tontines in Africa, and roscas in Latin America (Esim, 2000). These are collective savings schemes to which a monthly fee is paid for the right to withdraw the aggregate amount when large sums are needed. Both of these developments in low-income communities – informal employment and economic collectives – characterized Peoples Temple, both as it became increasingly communal in San Francisco, and by definition, in Jonestown.

Leadership played an important role in the isolation experienced by those living in the Jonestown project. Peer pressure and psychological and physical coercion were all used to manipulate the daily lives of the membership. Positive influences that conformed to the beliefs and emotional needs of those living at Jonestown were used to influence behavior, as was the threat of punishment for unacceptable behavior. Studies on Russian, Chinese, and Korean POW’s have proven that simple group pressures and emotion-laden tactics are more effective than physical coercion. The Chinese method of behavior modification holds that a person remains useful after “conversion” through a change of attitude in which the social group and persuasion is used as a tool, rather than the Russian method which favored isolation (Richardson, 1993). The leadership at Jonestown appears to have favored the Chinese method of control and behavior modification in acclimating its members to an agricultural community that favored a communist political system.

Most alternative religious groups have a very low retention rate, but the isolated setting of Jonestown prevented members from leaving the commune. The policy of travel of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project as a communist agricultural community adhered closely to the policies of most communist nation states by limiting the ability of members to leave its borders. Nevertheless, it may be said that Jonestown offered greater freedom of travel than some communist nations, including Albania, Cambodia, and North Korea.

Isolation prevents communities from having contact with mainstream society and will weaken the experience, culture, and decision-making ability of the isolated community. The Janusian experience of contrasting ideals and values is a vital ingredient in the evolution of effective decision making within an organization. The influence of values, ideas, culture, and experiences originating from outside an isolated community is essential for strengthening that community, giving it fresh experience with which to develop its own culture and form values that are acceptable to the worldview of society. New values formed within alternative communities will also add creative value to the culture and ideals of mainstream society.

Research by Brummet in the 1970’s and 1980’s (House, 2001) shows isolation to have negative effects on individuals both biologically and psychosocially. Little is known of the reasons that social isolation produces negative behavior. In Brummet’s research, isolated individuals reported fewer interactions with others, fewer sources of support, and lower levels of religious activity. It has also been shown that although isolation will increase mortality two- to three-fold, the addition of relationships to remove the deficiency will not improve health. Brummet’s research showed that the type of relationship – a friend, family, or spouse – was of less importance than having the functional relationship itself. According to House, three theories are consistent with the idea that isolation affects the health of individuals. First, isolation causes anxiety and stress causing physiological change which, if prolonged, can produce mortality; conversely, contact with others reduces this physiological change. Secondly, social relationships affect health beneficially as a result of the social control others promote over an individual, encouraging good health such as sleep, diet, exercise, medical compliance, and discouraging unhealthy activities. Third, social ties give people access to social networks and resources.

Nevertheless, closer attention needs to be paid to the negative effects of social relationships (House, 2001). Most people try to avoid negative social relationships unless locked into them by blood (family) or law (marriage). The negative effects of social relationships on the individual must be considered in determining the detrimental effects of isolation on the physical and psychosocial health of the individual.

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The writing of Annie Moore, one of Jim Jones’ personal nurses in Jonestown, gives us an idea of the effects of isolation on the individual. Two examples of her writings are instructive. The first come from her personal letters written to her sister Becky between 1972 and 1974, and excerpted in The Jonestown Letters (Moore, 1986). The second is a memo written on November 5, 1978 to Jim Jones and two of his top aides, Maria Katsaris, and Carolyn Layton, Annie’s sister. The memo discusses what Annie perceived to be a plot by Joyce Touchette, another nurse, to poison Jones.

In the early letters, we see Annie’s entrance into Peoples Temple. Her family was concerned she would “cut herself off” from them in a similar way that her sister Carolyn had done. Her letters begin with her decision not to stay with Becky in Washington after a visit to see Carolyn and Peoples Temple. She states in her letter of August 7, 1972 that most of the people who join stay with the Temple. This is very unusual with alternative groups. Most people who join alternative groups are young, and still experimenting with new ideas, thus the majority of those who join such groups do not stay very long. The easy development of trust with new members, Jim Jones’ liberal social message, and the Temple’s return to the action-based doctrine of the early Jewish Christians and away from the faith-based theology of later Pauline theology help offer an explanation. It was a message that very much fit with the aspirations of youth in the 1970’s. As Annie wrote on September 3, 1972, “it’s the only place I have seen real Christianity being practiced.… I kind of want to be a follower because, I sure can’t try to change the world by myself.”

Annie was a normal idealistic high school graduate who was looking for activities in which she could help improve the world. She wanted to go to junior college to study nursing so she could help people. Peoples Temple maintained a dorm at Santa Rosa Junior College in which Temple students lived, and it was quite common for the girls to study nursing, a logical choice which fit into the needs of Temple activities and an activist philosophy. Early in her letters we see the “persecution effect” of Temple isolation in her claims that she was not being “brainwashed” and in her defense of Jim Jones’ faith healing. Her belief in these healings was partially the innocence of her age, but was also a much more commonly held religious belief in the 1970’s than today. This belief may seem surprising when considering her nursing studies; however, it has been shown that medical professionals as scientists are looking for firm answers, and faith healing does just that, it gives a solid answer and appears to achieve the end goal of healing. This also explains why medical professionals and scientists are often attracted to cults which try to give set answers to unanswerable questions such as religion. To Annie, this must have seemed to be an attainable path to address the unanswerable difficulties of the world.

As we read through the letters, we see how concerned she is with passing her nursing courses, but we also see the progression of the isolation within the Temple on her. She still shows an awareness of the plight of the poor and less fortunate which was part of the social message of Jim Jones and the People Temple that first drew her in. But she also speaks of no longer wanting to get married, of those around her being homosexuals, of counseling sessions until 5 AM, and of the constant work and sleep deprivation of Temple life.

These latter statements were encouraged by the Temple. Discouraging marriage and reproduction was a practice in other cult groups, such as Colonia Dignidad and Synanon, which saw families as a financial burden. These groups did not want to lose control over the person and community or permit development of other social groups within their group. This behavior was often encouraged by the sexually abusive inclinations of the leader. Discouraging natural physical and emotional activity is very abusive behavior by a group towards its members.

On August 1, 1973, Annie mentioned that she had an EKG taken in a lab for one of her nursing classes, and it was the weirdest one of all. This may have been a result of the anxiety caused by the pressures on her as a student and her isolation and overwork as a Temple member. Isolation causes unnatural levels of anxiety which would affect her physical condition. The studies of Brummet show similarity between the level of anxiety caused by isolation and that of cigarette smoking on the physical health of the individual.

Annie’s letters acknowledge and defend her self-isolation within the Temple and apart from her family when she quotes Jesus (Matt. 10:37: “If you love me less than your family you are not worthy of me” and forsake mother and father, sons, and daughters, and follow me”; Matt. 19:21: “Go sell all you have and give to the poor”). Being in junior college, Annie had little to sell, except her records, which she did – to her mother. To a normal young person who owns so little, and who has not yet developed a complete view of her future possibilities, giving up what she had must have seemed logical, a way she could achieve her idealistic goal of helping others and curing the ills of society.

Comparing these early letters to her memo of November 5, 1978 concerning the poisoning of Jim Jones, we can see how isolation at Jonestown had changed her emotional and physical state of mind. Dated only 13 days before the deaths at Jonestown on November 18, the memo lists 20 signs that Jim Jones is being poisoned by his Joyce Touchette. While her fears of poisoned food, of CIA involvement, and of Touchette’s malevolence seem to be paranoid – and they certainly are the result of her isolation and experiences at Jonestown – there are other factors that must be considered. The fear of food being poisoned was common within the drug culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The CIA fear is another common sign of anxiety-induced paranoia which may have been heightened by her knowledge of Rep. Leo Ryan’s impending visit to Jonestown. Beyond that, she was well aware of Jim Jones’ drug use. Jones had been abusing pharmaceutical drugs for many years and had become increasingly paranoid as a result.

Her claims have additional credibility. The first of her twenty claims describes terrible headaches and diarrhea after tasting the meat. This does not sound like drugs, but rather food poisoning from salmonella in the heat of Guyana. She goes on to describe crushed pills and sediment in the food and milkshakes. In fact, drugs were being used in the medical facilities of Jonestown to sedate and force compliance on other Jonestown residents, especially those placed in psychiatric care for disobedience. As a nurse working in those facilities, Annie would have been exposed to these activities.

Although there is evidence of limited and selective use of drugs on the malcontents and dissidents in Jonestown, there is no mention of their use on the general population through the food supply. However, other cults of the time, particularly Compania Dignidad in Chile, which Jonestown very closely resembled, did in fact use drugs in the general food supply to force compliance and sedate its members. In fact, in the Compania Dignidad compound, drugs were applied through the powdered milk in exactly the manner in which Annie claims Jim Jones was being poisoned. Perhaps drugs were being given to members in the medical facility through the milkshakes, or even to the general population through the powdered milk supply, and Annie was fearful that Jones had been subjected to them as well. It should also be noted that other communist states did use drugs for compliance in both practice and experimentation in this time period, as was done experimentally in the USA.

Such mass drugging in Jonestown would have had deleterious effects on a community which depended upon the strength and productivity of its residents for survival. Even so, inspection of the Jonestown medical facilities after the deaths revealed large stores of drugs, especially psychiatric drugs, that went well beyond the long-term needs of Jonestown, the city of Georgetown, or the local Guyana region. For some reason Jonestown was being used as a storage facility for these drugs.

In reason #19, the caring nature of Annie shines through when she shows concern for the health of Stephen Jonas, the son of Jim Jones, who she is afraid will be poisoned as a result of Touchette’s treachery.

Annie’s suspicions of Joyce Touchette, her fear of drug poisoning in the food, and her suspicions of the CIA and the FBI in her final days at Jonestown are partially a result of the anxiety and pressure her isolation at Jonestown would have on her over a long period of time. As a nurse she was being exposed to the drugs and abuse of patients in the Jonestown medical facilities. Considering the other facts, it is possible that there was some form of wider drug use being used on members possibly through the powdered milk supply. Combined with the pressures of her isolation at Jonestown, the emotional and physical conditions had become too much for her to handle in her final days. Annie’s condition is a microcosm of the same influences that were occurring for all the members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project and describe the general condition of those who lived there in November 1978.


Annie Moore Memo on Poisoning of Jim Jones” November 5, 1978.

Czarny, Dr. Frank, “Transformational Leadership Times 1.47: Cult Leadership.”

Esim, Simel. Solidarity in Isolation: Urban Informal Sector Women’s Economic Organizations in Turkey.” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1. pgs 140-152. January 2000.

House, James, S. “Social Isolation Kills, But How and Why?” Psychosomatic Medicine (American Psychosomatic Society) 63 (2):63:273-274 (2001).

Leadership and Organizational Behavior

Moore, Rebecca. “Letter from Annie Moore.” The Jonestown Letters: Correspondence of the Moore Family 1970–1985. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986.

Richardson, James, T. “A Social Critique of ‘Brainwashing’ Claims About Recruitment to New Religions.” Center for Studies on New Religions. 1993.

Young, Alford, A. “Social Isolation, and Concentration Effects: William Julius Wilson Revisited and Re-Applied.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 26 No. 6, pgs 1073-1087. November 2003.