Why I Teach About Jonestown
As a psychology instructor, I’ve seen pictures of the Jonestown carnage in Introductory Psychology texts, often accompanied by succinct captions telling us that Jim Jones persuaded over 900 of his followers to commit mass suicide. To say that such an explanation is inadequate and unsatisfying is a gross understatement. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to assemble some of the many pieces of the Jonestown puzzle so that I can see the big picture more clearly and – in turn – so that I can explain it to my students.
Although my initial goal was to understand the end of the movement, there’s no way to grasp the end without tracing the history of Peoples Temple, including background about individual Temple members. My research started with Who Died? list on this site. For some reason, it simply never occurred to me that there was such a list – yet there were the names, complete with biography boxes. I soon found that Temple members were not so different from me. Sometimes we shared birth years or home states. Many reminded me of people I’ve known at various points of my life. Quite a few might have been friends had I ever met them. Not a single one of them appeared crazy. They were all loved by somebody, and 30 years later they are still missed. I also appreciated being able to associate faces with names that I read in first-hand accounts, scholarly writings, Temple writings and FBI documents. Eventually, I got a sense of the different roles various individuals played in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Each one of those members is part of the puzzle, and all of them are important.
Oddly, as I continue to assemble the pieces, I find that the picture doesn’t look like what I thought it would. For instance, I had read long ago that Jones moved the majority of his flock to Guyana because it would be easier to completely control them in such a remote, isolated place. That could be partially true, but if one really pays attention to the efforts to make Jonestown a viable community, it’s difficult to see Temple members simply as captives doing their captor’s bidding. Jonestown settlers are reminiscent of our early American ancestors who came from Europe seeking religious freedom. Carving a settlement in the jungle was akin to building the first colonies on the East Coast or migrating West to start new settlements in strange territories. Much of the “weirdness” of Jonestown is stripped away by analogy to our own roots.
Peoples Temple and Jonestown were comprised of a unique assembly of individuals, yet there is no reason to believe that the people of the Temple had unique psychological functions. Understanding Temple behavior relies on understanding human behavior in general.
What I Teach About Jonestown
The sudden realization that the psychology of Jonestown was essentially Introductory Psychology within the microcosm of Peoples Temple led to a first-year seminar called “Beyond Jonestown.” To be honest, even a semester isn’t enough time to cover all aspects of psychology relevant to the Temple, but one can cover enough material to see the picture, even if some pieces are missing. The course material was divided into three broad levels of understanding: personality and psychopathology (“They’re All Crazy!”); learning and cognitive factors (“What Were They Thinking?”); and social factors (“Us and Them”). Following a condensed version of the group’s history, we began our psychological assessment of Peoples Temple by discussing personality and psychopathology. This seemed a logical starting point, given that many people assume those who join new religious movements must be “crazy.” Although one could argue that Jim Jones had numerous psychological issues (paranoia, narcissism, drug addiction, etc.), one cannot dismiss the majority of Peoples Temple members as “mentally unbalanced” at the time they joined Peoples Temple.
The learning and cognition unit addressed “brain washing” (a dubious and unnecessary construct for explaining November 18, 1978), perception (“healings” and “psychic revelations”), conditioning, social learning, thinking, and memory processes. This unit led us into discussions of how people can fail to think critically – a phenomenon which is not exclusive to the microcosm of Peoples Temple. We also discussed disparities in perceptions and memories of events in the Temple’s history between different people (and across time), and how all of these reports may be true in the eyes of the beholder at the time the reports are given.
The “Us and Them” unit dealt extensively with social psychological principles, such as conformity, obedience, altruism, attitudes, prejudice, and conflict. For instance, we addressed how people sometimes behave in ways that are inconsistent with their attitudes. Considerable discussion was spent on factors that influence obedience to authority figures and conformity with peer groups. We also discussed how opposing parties in a conflict tend to have mirror-image views of one another. This is particularly relevant when considering the escalating hostilities between Jonestown residents and outsiders, such as the media and the Concerned Relatives. All of the above concepts – and many more – are pieces of the Jonestown puzzle. Similarly, these concepts apply to other “unique” religious, political, and social movements, just as they apply to everyday life.
In addition to Rebecca Moore’s Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, we read original writings from Temple members and ex-members. We also watched Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple and listened to excerpts of Peoples Temple audiotapes (including Q042) to allow Jim Jones and members of the Temple to speak for themselves. In the end, I had more material than I could incorporate into a one-semester class.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the course was the “We the People” segments at the start of our class sessions. Each day, biographical information was presented about three individuals who died at Jonestown. I included these segments for several reasons:  the individual Temple members drew me into studying Jonestown in the first place;  the biographical information helped the students learn the history of the movement; and  917 people (Jonestown residents and other victims) shouldn’t be overshadowed by one person (Jim Jones). I will admit to stacking the deck a little: the people who were remembered on any given day likely fit in with that day’s discussion topics. For example, we didn’t talk about November 18, 1978 in depth until November 18, 2009, when it seemed most appropriate for students to present brief biographies of Christine Miller, Don Sly, and Larry Schacht. Across the entire course, we covered all strata of the congregation, and by the end of the semester the students recognized where these individuals in the big picture. Perhaps more importantly, the students identified with Temple members and no longer saw them as different than themselves.
What We Learned from Jonestown
Check the internet and you’ll no doubt read that an important lesson from Jonestown is that good people can be deceived and led astray. Others tell us we need to learn to prevent such things from happening again (although that lesson was prompted by George Santayana’s quote hanging in the Jonestown pavilion). In our seminar, there were several important lessons relevant to – but not peculiar to – Jonestown that I wanted my students to learn:
Lesson #1: Steer away from simplistic explanations of behavior. There is rarely ever one single reason why anyone does anything. Peoples Temple members’ behavior (before and on November 18, 1978) was influenced by many factors, including the groups’ belief system and numerous situational factors. The social influence of the collective was a powerful factor in individual members’ compliance with group activities. In general, behavior is multiply determined, and it is next to impossible to identify all of the variables involved in a given case. There wasn’t any single reason for joining Peoples Temple, or for staying, or for dying on November 18. It’s inaccurate and unfair to explain behavior in a one-sentence caption.
Lesson #2: Behavior is probabilistic, not absolute (“actual mileage varies”). Behavior varies across individuals in the same situation. Some Jonestown residents believed in revolutionary suicide. Some may have acquiesced given the gravity of their situation. Still others may have found drinking the potion impossible to resist because of social influences. Even for those who believed that death was the only way out, the reasons for accepting this conclusion may have varied. Behavior also varies within the same individual across different situations. Some Jonestown residents may have resisted death despite having little history of resisting Jones’ authority or the collective’s influence in the past. There’s no “one size fits all” explanation for the behavior on that day. We simply cannot say Peoples Temple members did X because of Y.
Lesson #3: Behavior inconsistent with our own belief systems might be consistent with other peoples’ beliefs. Try to understand people within their own cultural frameworks before judging them or their behavior. “Crazy” is relative, not absolute. We need to avoid what psychologist Fritz Heider calls “fundamental attribution error” – our tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to personality factors rather than situational ones. We do not know how we will behave in a given situation until we are in that situation.
The Final Lesson: I began the first day of class by reading excerpts from Dick Tropp’s Last Words, which I have taken to heart in my efforts to see the big picture: “Please try to understand. Look at all. Look at all in perspective.” I don’t believe he asked people to study this movement for self-aggrandizing reasons. He goes on to say “May the world find a new birth of social justice.” Peoples Temple was not created in a vacuum, and the broad social issues that concerned the movement have not gone away. In fact, some of them seem to be experiencing a resurgence. The strained economy has increased the numbers of jobless and the visible numbers of homeless. Prejudice and discrimination still exist, despite the election of our country‘s first African-American president. We are faced with a burgeoning elderly population, many of whom are warehoused in nursing homes. Non-Judeo-Christian religious views are not well accepted by many in our culture. In a nutshell, what seems to still be missing 30 years after Jonestown is affording other people human dignity. I believe this is what Dick Tropp wanted us to learn from Peoples Temple. Sadly, this elementary lesson has been overshadowed by the horror of the final day.
Slowly, my image of Jonestown is coming together, although there are still missing pieces to the puzzle. But it’s possible to gain a level of understanding, and we should, because the big picture is worth viewing. If people see nothing else, may they recognize that the lessons of Jonestown are not restricted to the actions of more than 900 people on November 18, 1978. They apply to all of us, and they always will.
(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)