Fearful Symmetry: The Balance of Life & Death

(James L. Knoll, IV, M.D. is Associate Professor & Director of Forensic Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University & the Forensic Fellowship training program at the Central New York Psychiatric Center. He has worked as a forensic evaluator for the courts, corrections, and the private sector. He is the author of over 90 articles and book chapters relating to both psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, and is the Editor-in-Chief of The Psychiatric Times.

(Dr. Knoll is also a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of articles for this site is here. He may be reached at knollj@upstate.edu.)

1.      Introduction

Little lamb, who made thee?
…Gave thee clothing of delight?
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?

“The Lamb” (William Blake)

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

– “The Tyger” (William Blake)

All biological organisms maintain life by achieving a balance, or what biological science refers to as homeostasis. Some may recall from their high school biology days the metaphor often used to teach about homeostasis – the thermostat which controls one’s central air conditioning. In medical science, the definition of homeostasis is “the state of equilibrium (balance between opposing pressures) in the body with respect to various functions.” [1] Thus, the blood pressure drops too low causing the heart rate to rise. The body becomes dehydrated causing the individual to experience thirst. Individual brain cells receive signals that there is already enough neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) between cells, causing the cell to reduce its output of neurotransmitter.

The human body is replete with such examples, all working continuously to maintain balance. If one concedes that the mind is a product of the functioning brain, one might reasonably expect that mental processes operate via homeostatic mechanisms as well, although perhaps in less concrete ways. Admittedly, the mind’s homeostatic mechanisms remain much less clear to us when compared to most human physiology and anatomy.

For over 70 years, psychiatrists (and particularly psychoanalysts) have been arguing about one homeostatic theory put forth by Freud: his theory of instinctual “drives”; and more specifically, the concept that two basic instincts, libido (life force) and aggression (destructive force), are operative in the mind, and that a failure of homeostasis between the two may lead to observable disorder in the individual. In the psychoanalytic literature, the destructive force is often referred to as the death instinct, or “death drive.” Today, the death drive remains a contentious issue in psychoanalysis; however, it does seem to play a role in linking psychoanalysis to existential thought. [2] More recently, discoveries in social psychology have elegantly demonstrated how our own awareness of death has a profound effect on our lives. How we resolve this “death awareness” returns to us, and has a direct impact on each individual’s homeostatic “set point” for balancing life and death instincts.

In this article, I will discuss this life and death balance using the final days of Jonestown as a backdrop. As an example of life and death hanging in the balance, these final days stand in bold relief. It is my position that the two key players in this tragic drama, Jim Jones and Leo Ryan, were both strongly motivated by death, yet in different ways.

2.      Calling Death’s Name: The Death Drive Defined

Sleep and dream of this.
Death Angel’s kiss.
Brings final bliss.


Death, hear me call your name…
Suicide, I’ve already died
You’re just the funeral I’ve been waiting for.
Cyanide, living dead inside.
Break this empty shell forevermore.

– Cyanide (Metallica; from Death Magnetic)

What Freud called “instincts” were later referred to by psychoanalysis as “drives,” although sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Drives may be thought of as mental forces representing “the somatic demands upon the mind.” [3] The two basic instincts put forth by Freud were Eros (ie., libido, life force, procreation) and Thanatos (ie., death, destruction, dissolution). While the goal of Eros was to “bind together,” the aim of Thanatos was to “undo connections and so to destroy things.” [4] Thus the final aim of the death drive is to “lead what is living into an inorganic [non-living] state.” [5]

The death drive may sometimes be directed outward. If this is the case, the drive is observed as aggression or destruction. Part of the confusion surrounding Freud’s concept of the death drive may be due to the fact that he originally regarded the life and death instincts “as forces underlying the sexual and aggressive instincts.” [6] In subsequent decades, the more prevalent psychoanalytic view became one in which the dual instincts of sexuality and aggression sufficed to explain most clinical phenomena. Regardless, we need look no further than our own street corner for validation of aggression/destruction diverted into the external world.

According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease control, an estimated 50,000 persons die annually in the United States as a result of violence-related injuries. [7] The study summarizes data from the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) on violent deaths from 16 U.S. states for the year 2006. It found that homicides (outward directed aggression) were precipitated primarily by interpersonal conflicts, mental-health problems, and recent crises. But just as the death drive can be directed outward, it is sometimes the case that “self-destructiveness is brought about by diverting the aggressivness” inward, towards oneself. [8] Again, not only clinical evidence confirms this, but research data does as well. In a study of the deaths of 132 young persons, a strong link was found between childhood environment, the development of antisocial behavior, and “sudden violent death” at an early age. [9] The most common causes of the violent deaths were accidents, suicides, murder/manslaughter, and alcohol/drug abuse.

As alluded to earlier, there is and always has been controversy around the concept of a “death drive.” [10] One eminent psychoanalyst, Otto Kernberg, has noted that, “The death drive runs deeply against more optimistic views of human nature, based on the assumption that if severe frustrations or trauma were absent in early development then aggression would not be a major human problem.” [11] Yet as Kernberg points out, his work over “the last 30 years has given even further evidence to the fundamental nature of deep self-destructive tendencies in human beings that clinically would support the concept of a death drive.” [12]

Kernberg has argued that the death drive is more perceptible in severe personality disorders, particularly “severe narcissistic pathology.” [13] This observation is consistent with recent suicidology research suggesting that suicide attempters diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder have suicide attempts characterized by higher lethality. [14] But while the aggressive drive is thought of as naturally present, the concept of a death drive is not invoked unless “such aggression becomes dominant… and when its main objective is… the elimination of the representations of all significant others and, in that context, the elimination of the self as well.” [15]

I shall not here attempt to resolve the long-standing controversy surrounding the death drive, as this subject could fill several texts. Instead, let us proceed for now under the assumption that humans do, in fact, possess sexual and aggressive/destructive drives which can be observed in everyday life. Next, if we are to consider this dual drive theory in more depth and, “[i]f… Freud’s conception of the two instincts is taken to its ultimate conclusion, the interaction of the life and death instincts will be seen to govern the whole of mental life.” [16] The outcome of this interaction then may be attributed to the manner in which these two instincts are balanced against one another.

3.      Homeostasis: Eros & Thanatos

Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years…. an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.

– Seneca

The routinely observable process in the natural world is for biological organisms to undergo a pattern of decay, disintegration, and ultimate return to their constituent, non-living particles. Freud simply applied this scientific fact to the mind and its constituent instincts. He asserted that “instincts tend towards a return to an earlier state,” and theorized that the two basic instincts were simply two sides of the same coin. That is, they are a “pair of opposing forces – attraction and repulsion – which rule in the inorganic world.” [17] Thus, he believed an aggressive/destructive instinct could be traced back to the “original death instinct of living matter.” [18]

Eschewing any value judgments and pressing forward, Freud stressed that “[i]t is not a question of an antithesis between an optimistic and a pessimistic theory of life,” rather, it was merely an issue of biologically “concurrent or mutually opposing action of the two primal instincts” which explained the “rich multiplicity of the phenomena of life.” [19] Thus, one way of conceptualizing Freud’s theory on the death instinct is to view it as part of the organism’s natural function of homeostasis.

While the libidinal instinct endeavored to “combine what exists into ever greater unities,” the destructive instinct sought to “dissolve those combinations and to destroy the structures to which they have given rise.” [20] In essence, this was a balancing act between creation and destruction, observed regularly in the natural world, where the death instinct was simply one side of the equation that acted on living matter in an effort to “return it to an inanimate state.” [21]

To clarify, Freud seemed to simply imply that all living matter inexorably “returns” to non-living matter – no great controversy here. It is in the application of this process to mental life where the controversy arises. Having already described the phenomenon in which humans pursue pleasure and avoid pain (the Pleasure Principle), he went on to explain why some individuals appeared to violate this principle. By invoking a natural homeostatic process, the pleasure principle remains intact.

How? By observing that some individuals may become fixed in an emotional state so painful, that “escape” into death is preferable, as it means no more pain. The immensity of pain weighing in on the side of continued life can only be balanced by the finality of the weight in direct opposition: non-life. This is simply an early metaphor for describing what more recent social science has confirmed. For example, the “escape theory” of suicide has been used to explain the suicidal individual’s motivation to escape from aversive (excessively painful) self-awareness. [22] When the drive to avoid painful emotions becomes strong enough, there is a significantly increased risk of distorted judgment that may lead to suicide and/or self-destructive behaviors.

Returning to Kernberg, he singles out specific, severe “personality disorders” when pointing out the relevance of a death drive. [23] Further, he notes that the death drive is not invoked unless aggression becomes “dominant,” and produces the desire to eliminate the self and/or others. Yet I would like to broaden this hypothesis with the observation of a simple fact: aggression has been dominant throughout the entire history of Homo sapiens for many thousands of years. Indeed, we all “belong to the human race that killed over one hundred million members of its own species in the twentieth century alone.” [24]

Just as the homeostatic conception of life and death can be applied to the individual, it may also be applied to groups, nations and species. In sum, while the “individual dies of his internal [instinctual] conflicts… the species dies of its unsuccessful struggle against the external world if the latter changes in a fashion which cannot be adequately dealt with by the adaptations which the species has acquired.” [25] How often has our species been on the brink of potential self-destruction, particularly since the advent of nuclear weaponry?

There are certainly no guarantees that we will continue to tip the balance for our species in the favor of life. It is a sobering fact that “no society, no country is free of the history of senseless wholesale massacre of imagined or real enemies. The relative ubiquity of these phenomena throughout the history of civilization cannot be ignored.” [26] Yet, as Ernest Becker so keenly observed, death is ignored. In fact, it is outright denied in a variety of ways.

4.       Death: Magnetic, Yet Denied

Death is in front of us, rather as on the schoolroom wall there is a reproduction of Alexander’s Battle. The thing is to darken, or even indeed to blot out, the picture in this one life of ours through our actions.

– Franz Kafka [27]

All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all reasons for hoping that our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death…. it’s always in the background…. life is like getting into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.

– Pema Chodron [28]

In a previous article, [29] I touched on the profound, yet often overlooked theory of the “denial of death” as put forth by Ernest Becker. [30] While Becker was one of the first to so thoroughly and starkly lay out our psychological need to deny the reality of death, others before him had theorized that our death fears may occur as early as infancy. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein had noted that “if we assume the existence of a death instinct, we must also assume that in the deepest layers of the mind there is a response to this instinct in the form of fear of annihilation of life.” [31] It seems likely then, that fear of annihilation was one of our earliest fears, along with loss of the early maternal figure and loss of love.

But it was ultimately Becker who articulated how we have fabricated cultural meaning systems and complex social organizations that are designed to push the bleak certainty of death out of consciousness. [32] Becker’s theories have been researched extensively, and are now referred to as Terror Management Theory (TMT). [33] Put simply, TMT “concerns the impact that awareness of the inevitability of death has on how we live our lives. Thus, it is essentially a theory about the effect of death on life.” [34]

Perhaps the central insight of TMT is that “human beings attempt to fulfill culturally sanctioned dreams forged to escape the encompassing nightmare, not just of human history but also of human existence itself.” [35] Only humans are aware of their awareness, and as a result have become “time-binding” animals that can reflect on the past and anticipate the future. [36] But knowing one is alive and “being able to anticipate the future inevitably produces the unsettling awareness of one’s inexorable death.” [37] There is also the awareness that death can and does occur tragically, prematurely and arbitrarily.

In fact, we know very little about death. This is precisely one of the reasons it is so feared. Let us set aside our understandable fear of death for a brief moment, and consider some of the foremost meanings death has for us. For example, death may be thought of as: [38]

1.      The negation of life
2.      Inescapable
3.      Inevitable
4.      Unknowable
5.      The end of individuality
6.      Often arbitrary
7.      Outside our control
8.      Indifferent

The common thread running through many of these factors is our complete lack of control. In addition, there is a depersonalized, de-individualized theme. The fact that death “can be completely indifferent to us” produces terror, in that this suggests “that we might not count, that nature itself is blind to us.” [39] Given these two powerful, terrifying notions – lack of control and indifference – it should not be the least bit surprising when we find someone insisting on dying “in their own way.” Indeed, when circumstances allow, is this not exactly what we try to provide for our loved ones whose deaths are foreseeable?

Of interest here is the “criteria for a good death” put forth by famed suicidologist Edwin Shneidman – what he calls “a fantasied optimal dying scenario.” [40] Dr. Shneidman stresses, among other things, that one’s death should be “honorable,” and cause “as little pain as humanely possible to the survivors.” [41] After all, he properly notes, “It is your last chance to get your neuroses under partial control.” [42] What we know from studies of dying persons is that their primary concerns are often dying with dignity, and not dying alone. The dignity, I would submit, assuages the lack of control, whereas not being alone provides comfort in the face of indifference.

Perhaps of necessity, we rarely experience the resulting existential terror directly and/or consciously. Rather, we have created culture(s) that enable us to view our plight in such a way as to “solve” our existential crisis. [43] Cultural belief systems, when shared by a group, bolster our ability to deny the dread of the inevitable. At the individual level, we create our own “immortality projects” designed to cement our status in some “heroic” fashion – e.g., celebrity, wealthy mogul, captain of industry, revered statesman, etc.

TMT involves the concept of homeostasis as well. Its core implications involve our maintenance of “psychological equanimity” (ie., balance) by sustaining: “1) faith in a culturally derived worldview that imbues reality with order, meaning, and permanence; and 2) belief that one is a significant contributor to this meaningful reality.” [44] The balance achieved by finding our death-denying “sweet spot” allows us to deny our transience and relative insignificance in a universe so vast that it exceeds our brain’s conceptual capacity. But keep in mind that imbalance may lead to disaster. Too much denial or conversely, too much reality, may result in some form of eventual self-destruction.

One may reasonably argue that strong evidence for our denial of death lies in our instance on “guarantees” in life. These include guarantees that our health will not fail if we eat right and exercise regularly, that our regular church attendance or performance of good deeds will ensure a particular kind of afterlife, or that our hard work will all “pay off” in the end. Via our system of guarantees, we will somehow magically secure our final satisfaction of the three “tormenting lusts”: 1) the desire to be viewed favorably by others, 2) the desire for material riches, and 3) the desire to surpass or defeat others. [45] It is usually not until a tragic event occurs that our core belief in an “orderly and benevolent universe” is shaken or challenged. Events such as extreme violence or terror, particularly against innocent people, have a tendency to undermine all our former assumptions. This may then lead to “a collapse of the normal means by which people protect themselves from the frightening aspects of life.” [46]

Our comforting assumptions and guarantees may be threatened not only by reality itself, but also by “others” who do not share our culturally fabricated “social consensus.” The mere “existence of others with different cultural worldviews is threatening,” explaining our psychological inability to tolerate others who do not “subscribe” to our “death-denying cultural constructions.” [47] This is frequently the cause of wholesale aggression to eliminate the threat of death, and ironically produces a scenario of humans willing to die in order to overcome death. We begin to see the dreadful, destructive power of death denial, as entire groups or cultures may store up a reservoir of annihilation fears, creating suffering and perpetuating self-destruction.

In a sense, death-denying cognitions are a form of a “wish.” Held up to the light of day, this fantasy wish is for nothing other than to provide a “compensatory sense of triumph over reality.” [48] But of course, reality cannot be overcome (or even resisted), and to maintain such a stance towards life is to increase one’s suffering. Indeed, “[s]ome people’s resistance” may even intensify, “and so it becomes a decent into hell.” [49]

Certainly, this dilemma may be considered a major facet of the human condition. When considered deeply and clearly, one cannot help but conclude that “We are all living within a tough situation and all deserving of compassion.” [50] Viewed in this manner, death becomes a unifying concept pointing us all in the direction of a humbling and profound lesson. Still, one must keep in mind that for most, “death is only bad if life is good.” [51]

9.      The Shadow of the Valley: The Death Motivations of Jones & Ryan

[Ryan’s] politician’s interest not only to fulfill his mission but to milk it for every ounce of promotional value now took over and doomed him. [52]

…the only fuck I want now is the orgasm of the grave.

– Jim Jones [53]

Whatever man you meet, say to yourself at once: “What are the principles this man entertains about human good and ills?” … then it will not seem surprising or strange… if he acts in certain ways…

­– Marcus Aurelius

a)      Jones’ Death Motivations


In discerning death motivations between Temple leader Jim Jones and Congressman Leo Ryan, Jones is, of course, by far the easier of the two. For much of his life, Jones had struggled with thoughts of suicide. [54] , [55] By the time he had become fully substance dependent, this struggle would only have become exacerbated. He began to neglect his own health in a way that placed his life in jeopardy. After seeing the media coverage of Jones’ final hours, his personal physician, Dr. Carlton Goodlett, “concluded that …Jones would have died from natural causes in another ten days.” [56]

But beyond suicidality and self-destructive behavior directed both inward and outward, Jones had another, over-arching source of his substantial destructive instinct. This motivation was articulated with startling clarity by one of Jones’ most trusted followers turned apostate. According to Deborah Layton, who left Jonestown in May 1978 and who wrote our her concerns and fears about the community in an affidavit, [57] Jones’ biggest motivator was his fear that “he would be denied a place in history. His obsession with his place in history was maniacal. When pondering the loss of what he considered his rightful place in history, he would grow despondent and say that all was lost.” [58]

In this point from Layton’s affidavit, Jones’ death motivation is uncovered. He desired, “maniacally,” to be immortalized. But at a certain point, he must have realized that he was personally unable to achieve this via his “good works” alone (ie., creative energy, positive life force). His aggressive drive was too strong, and he had begun to lose control of it. This became painfully obvious in the totalitarian way in which Jonestown was run. He took hold of the project too tightly, and squeezed the life out of it, literally and figuratively. When he realized that he could not “force” his utopia to succeed, he was in a position that was psychologically thoroughly unacceptable to him. Eros had become extinguished, and Thanatos had the stage. His fatalistic, “revolutionary suicide” messages were broadcast with increasing frequency and intensity. This was absorbed by those around him, and his most trusted assistants became like-minded.

For example, his faithful, cyanide-obtaining physician Dr. Larry Schacht told the community: “Dad’s been saying it for a long time: life is shit.” [59] If Jones’ most prominent cognition could be distilled to a simple equation, it would be this: Death = Peace. Indeed, this was the sum and substance of the last note left by one of his inner circle, Annie Moore: “We died because you would not let us live in peace.” [60] There has been some speculation about whether or not this note was actually dictated by Jones.

In this highly destructive, death motivated state of mind, Jones must have been on high alert for an opportunity – some pretext – for ending his pain. But it needed to at least have the suggestion of an “honorable” act in response to a provocation. Ryan’s visit was “just the funeral” he had been waiting for. Hearing of it for the first time must have seemed, perhaps on an unconscious level, like the reassuring whisper of an angel. For, in Jones’ pain-filled world, “This was the moment. There would never be another like it.” [61] Jones’ life work and “his bid for history came down to one phone call” announcing the intent of Ryan and the press to visit. Note that shortly after, Jones “ordered a 100 pound drum of potassium cyanide. It arrived… several days before the press and congressional and class enemy phalanx arrived in Guyana.” [62]

Based on Jones’ state of mind and the details released through the FOIA in recent years, it seems likely that Jones had made his decision well in advance of Ryan’s actual visit. There has been some lack of clarity as to whether he actually ordered the murders at the airstrip. Nevertheless, as John R. Hall notes, “The strong likelihood that Jones ordered the murders at the airstrip serves as an index of how far the leaders of Jonestown were willing to go to stage the circumstances wherein they would choose death.” [63]

That Jones had reached a state of mind wherein he sought homeostasis in death is exceedingly apparent in his statements recorded on the death tape. Some notable examples of this include:

1.      “I call on you to quit exciting your children, when all they’re doing is going to a quiet rest.”

2.      “Can’t some people assure these children of the relaxation of stepping over to the next plane?”

3.      MILLER: But, ah, I look about at the babies and I think they deserve to live, you know?

JONES: I agree. But also they deserve much more; they deserve peace.

As previously noted, the Jonestown mass murder-suicide served a number of purposes for Jones, including allowing him to avoid facing the consequences of his illegal acts and exploitative behavior, an act of defiance and imagined “triumph,” sealing his place in “history,” etc. [64] To this list, we must now add homeostasis – his own aggressive/destructive drive demanded that he escape intolerable pain by tipping the scales towards death.

b)      Ryan’s Death Motivations

In contrast, Leo Ryan’s death motivations were far more subtle. Here was a man who was anchored to, and indeed, full of life. It would seem based on his lifestyle, achievements, family connections, etc., that his libidinal instincts easily offset any death instincts he may have harbored. And this is likely quite true. But this does not imply the complete absence of any aggressive instincts, as are present in us all. Indeed, as a politician, he would require a strong aggressive drive to be successful.

Ryan was described as a “theatrical” type of politician. [65] He was one who sought out and attempted to stay in the spotlight. Certainly, it is safe enough to say that he was a man filled with ambition. The trip to Jonestown offered Ryan another potential venue in which to demonstrate that ambition, as well as to perform a daring deed others might consider heroic.

Ryan had carefully designed his career to ensure his role as a “significant contributor” and statesman. As TMT suggests, many of our actions along these lines are performed with goal of warding off death and achieving a lasting self-representation. With the stage thus set, “Into conflict came ambitious men who wished to carve their place… and hold it… in their different professions…. issues were secondary to theatricality, politics and journalism and religion so entwined with entertainment that one hardly knows where to make a separation.” [66]

But Ryan was said to have been going on a “fact finding” mission alone. How does such a benign encounter signify danger? In fact, the truth was that Ryan, his aides and the media were well aware that they were heading into a potentially dangerous situation. “There was no doubt that both the Congressman and the newsmen appreciated the potential danger of their assignment.” [67] In fact, the visiting party members were specifically chosen because of their military and/or death-defying backgrounds.

Of significant interest is that Ryan aide Jackie Speier “began to have premonitions of her own death and updated her will. Yet she was making the trip at her own expense and had been affected by Ryan’s philosophy of denying fear to do a job.” [68] Further, another Ryan aide, Joe Holsinger, had “tried for the last time to talk Ryan out of the mission.” [69] It would seem that the visit was well understood by Ryan beforehand to be anything but low risk.

If Jones could be likened to a destructive tornado, Ryan was the “storm chaser” who got too close with his video camera. Death-defying acts often belie a counter-phobia – the daredevil must “prove” he is not afraid to die by placing himself in the situation he is most afraid of. This behavior also has the secondary benefit of transforming one into a celebrity – a famous person who has “proven” himself – and thereby secures his name in annals of history.

This has powerful allure for us all, as evidenced by the way we treat such individuals as worthy of celebrity status. Even unto our last breath, we may seek this type of immortality. It was noted that after the knife attack on Ryan in Jonestown, and when the party had made it back to the airstrip, he “sat down in the tin shack on the side of the dirt runway, waiting for the television crew to set up its cameras, so he could convey via film the details of his brush with death.” [70]

10.        Conclusions

Everything has two handles – one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne; but rather, by the opposite: that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus, you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.

Epictetus (Quoted in Pies, 2008 [71] )

Jim Jones and Leo Ryan were both strongly motivated by death, yet in different ways.  While both were highly concerned with being recognized and immortalized via their own death-defying immortality projects, only Jones appeared to have the additional motive of pursuing death to end intolerable emotional pain. Clearly, Ryan was willing to take substantial and dangerous risks in pursuing his heroic, death-defying statesman image. There was no overt or discernable evidence that Ryan wanted anything other than a long life propelling him towards an even greater political and celebrity status. Jones craved immortality as well by means of chiseling his place in history. However, he had long struggled with his own powerful sadistic, aggressive impulses, both towards himself and others. While Ryan may have had a form of egotism seen in many (politicians or otherwise), Jones had a malignant form of narcissism.

In the study of antisocial behavior, one current construct places such individuals on a continuum, rather than in neatly defined taxons with clear borders. In the antisocial spectrum of disorders, one finds the syndrome of “malignant narcissism,” which has been defined as consisting of: 1) narcissistic personality disorder, 2) severe antisocial behavior, 3) significant paranoid traits, and 4) ego-syntonic aggression. [72] In contrast to psychopaths, malignant narcissists are believed to retain some ability to admire and identify with powerful and aggressive people, as opposed to simply trying to dominate or manipulate them as seen in pure, impulsive-aggressive psychopaths. All of these criteria seem to fit Jones’ character well.

These traits, no doubt exacerbated by his substance misuse, would have significantly impaired Jones’ ability to escape mental pain and achieve homeostasis via any other route than death. For Jones, death was a powerful force calling his name. It simply promised him too much: relief from intolerable emotional pain, immortalizing himself, and gaining final, “incontestable” revenge against his perceived enemies. The call of death appeared to be so intense as to become a relatively conscious matter.

For Ryan, it is simply unknown how conscious or unconscious his drive was pulling him towards Jones, “attracting one another inexorably” towards “a tragic explosion.” [73] Was Ryan’s tendency to risk danger more part of a death-defying attempt to achieve immortality, or did it also contain the slightest traces of a more purely instinctual death drive such as with Jones? Here it would seem that the evidence is extinguished.

In stepping back and viewing the whole of Jonestown from a distance, it is not difficult to see the balancing act – a group of humans’ attempt to find homeostasis. From this viewpoint, it is a tragic, cautionary parable about the extreme difficulty we have finding balance between the two instincts nature has endowed us with. The Jonestown “experiment” could be said to have symbolized “the eternal struggle between the forces of life and death, of building and destroying in the human race.” [74]

However, the outcome of this particular experiment impresses upon us “the power of the death forces.” [75] It is also a reminder that in life, “Things come together and fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart. It’s just that way – nothing personal about it. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” [76]

Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation – for living an insightful, compassionate life. But warding off death is our biggest motivation…. the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing…. we must face the facts. No escapism. Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with death, no resisting the fact that things end and everything is changing all the time.


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[4] Freud.

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[13] Kernberg, “The concept of the death drive.”

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[15] Kernberg, “The concept of the death drive,” 1018 [emphasis added].

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[17] Freud, 149.

[18] Freud, 243.

[19] Freud, 243.

[20] Freud, 246.

[21] Freud, 246.

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[23] Kernberg, “The concept of the death drive.”

[24] Tolle E: The Power of Now.  Novato, CA: New World Library, 2004, 109.

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[64] Knoll.

[65] Reston.

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