An Interview with Don Beck

Researching the topic of cult behaviors and patterns, I soon realized that by interviewing an actual member (current, or former) of a cult, I would be able to attain a fair amount of knowledge about the inner workings and dealings of these oftentimes-secretive organizations. After doing a bit of research, I chose to interview Don Beck: a former Peoples Temple member living in California. Upon finding his  e-mail address, I sent him an interview request and about two weeks later, was on the phone with him, my computer recording the entirety of the conversation. My nervousness was obvious from the start: To be honest, even after reading his multiple published works, I was feeling a tremendous amount of inner tension as I dialed the number.

Mr. Beck seemed a well-learned older gentleman, with a touch of sadness in his voice. I learned that he is from an upper-middle class background, is an M.I.T. graduate, and was born in Florida. His father was an airline pilot, and he spent his childhood on both the east and west coast. His grandparents (on his father’s side) were midwestern farmers, and his grandmother (on his mother’s side) was a secretary in Texas. During the interview itself, he was never “to-the-point” in his answers; rather, it seemed that he had an infinite knowledge (personal and factual) of what had happened whilst he was a member of the Temple, both in California and in Jonestown.

However, what I noticed most was a stark contrast to what many consider to be the norm for cult members (past and present): He was a completely normal, unfailingly polite man. There was not a hint of anything in his voice that could be attributed to a lack of sanity. If anything, he seemed calm, empathetic, and well learned. In itself, this shattered a common myth surrounding cults, before I asked a single question: not all cult members are crazy. Some may be persuaded by the leader of the group, or by family, while others may be going through a rough spot in their lives (Mr. Beck, himself, was bored and frustrated with what he was studying at the time at college). Some even may join simply for a change of pace.

However, one question remains, in all scenarios: Was it worth it? In Mr. Beck’s opinion, although the end result (the painful death of over 900 members of the group) was one of the worst tragedies in American history, the memories along the way (To quote one of Mr. Beck’s writings, Continuing On, he fondly remembers the tropical rain showers in Jonestown, the children’s chorus, and “The quiet shafts of sunlight shining through the jungle foliage”) provide as close to an equilibrium as one in this situation can have.

I had a wide range of questions for Mr. Beck, and across the board, he was able to inform me, and gave me an honest, personal retelling of what it was like to be a member of Peoples Temple. He also gave me a very large amount of information about the cult, which I would not have been able to garner from research alone. One of my main topics for him was about the communal lifestyle of Peoples Temple. To quote Mr. Beck:

Tithing was considered appropriate at about twenty-five percent of what you earned, and that came, supposedly, out of some Bible passage, I don’t know. But then, eventually, some people suggested [that] we could live communally: we could save money if we lived together and pooled our resources, and at that point, which I think was somewhere around 1972, 1973, one or two communes were formed up in Ukiah of, basically, single people who were doing a lot of work with letter-writing and different activities and so on, and it just went from there.

This refutes another myth: the people were not forced to live communally (in fact, Mr. Beck himself chose not to). The idea of communal living was suggested by the cult followers themselves. That led me to ask, was this of their own accord, or because of the “brainwashing” of Jim Jones? In my opinion, perhaps it was a bit of both.

Another main series of questions I had for Mr. Beck was focused around one, central topic: How has the tragedy at Jonestown affected him, his life, and his opinions? In his responses, he was calm and collected. This was surprising, to me: even though he wasn’t in Guyana on the day of the mass suicides, and therefore, it probably would not have affected him quite as deeply, he discussed the events as casually as if he was buying bread. He told me exactly what I wanted to hear: the unbiased truth, with his own personal opinions scattered throughout. In essence, what he told me was quite unexpected: that, as a whole, being a member of Peoples Temple, if anything, changed him for the better. He knows that it ended horribly; however, he has moved past it as best as he could, and focuses on what was positive about the religious movement itself (in fact, he still maintains contact with some of the members of the Temple):

And when we come together, that, to me, is the beauty I still see. For years, I was trying to figure out, “How could something good, something that seemed so good, end so badly? How do you resolve it?” And the way I resolve it is the fact that, what brought us together is the good in all of us people, and the goodness in all of us is still real. Now, it makes me sad that Jim Jones, who showed that to all of us, at the end, didn’t even believe in it himself enough to follow his own teachings. But, that could be because we didn’t confront him enough, which brings me to the point I wish people would make, which is, whether you’re in a church community, or a family, or a town community, or a state community, or a country community, you can’t give your leaders absolute trust. You need to question what’s being done, and comment positively if it’s good, and comment negatively if it’s bad. If it’s wrong, it needs to be made correct.

Mr. Beck’s obvious opinion is that the good of the community outweighed – heavily so – the end result. By being a part of the Temple, he was part of something greater than himself; however, bogged down by bad leadership, the group could not flourish. This disproves yet another cult falsity: that all facets of all cults are bad. To the contrary, Mr. Beck believes that most of the Peoples Temple experience was fantastic, to say the least. This raises a lot of questions. Can being part of a cult be a good thing, comparable to a “normal” religion? Is there such a thing as a “perfect,” unflawed cult? Are there any religious negatives that are corrected by cults? Each of these questions can be answered in many different ways; however, quite frankly, I need a bit more research time before I am able to place a definite answer.

Finally, the remainder of the interview was made up of small, relatively unimportant questions. For example, when I asked whether Jim Jones interpreted the Bible as the ultimate, divine truth, Mr. Beck explained that Jim Jones did not regard the Bible anywhere near that level. To expose his true feelings to his followers during one of his numerous sermons, he threw his Bible into the pews, to show that it was “powerless” against the people. He also was able to tell me that most of Jim Jones’ “healings” (most notably, an elderly lady in a wheelchair, after being touched by Jim Jones’ palm, is able to walk) were cleverly organized frauds. However, he did note that, while the healings were fraudulent, the thoughts and prayers of the people always rang true.

It’s hard to say that 1,000 people sending love…you can’t definitively say that that’s not going to do some good. I mean, how do any healings that have been documented happen? So, I don’t know if I believe that he actually healed people on demand, but I think, as a group, our own love, as a community, kept us healthy.

Mr. Beck was obviously very spiritual, and while his logic does have some truth to it, I was a tad skeptical at first. However, the power that many religious movements have cannot be denied, and after a bit more research, I am able to (at least partially) concur with his statement.

Photo Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

Finally, one of my last questions was about Peoples Temple recruitment methods. This, I found most interesting: Along with seminars and word of mouth, Jones in the company of some of his followers would ride around the country in buses, preaching in cities along the way. In addition, at each stop, he would welcome possible members to leave their old life behind, and come with him on the buses. Many listened; his trips were often very successful, and membership in the church steadily rose.

This raises a final question in my mind: How does impulse affect the human mind? With Jones at the ready, and with a new and exciting opportunity in front of a person, is the idea of a brand-new start, a “new life” of sorts, more attractive to a person than something that will require paperwork, fees, and the like? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

During this interview, I, quite honestly, was enlightened far and beyond what I would have expected. Mr. Beck was extremely informative, and brought to my attention multiple facets of both Peoples Temple, as well as those of cults as an entirety. However, although he responded to almost all of my questions perfectly, this interview raised even more questions (in my mind) than it answered. How does a cult leader (in this case, Jim Jones) persuade people to join his/her movement? Are certain types of people more vulnerable to being persuaded into joining a cult? As I thanked Mr. Beck, and hung up the phone, I was speechless. I tried (as best I could) to absorb all of what I had just learned. I knew that this interview alone would not answer all of the questions I would eventually come to ask, but at the same time, felt (and still feel) that I had been able to grasp an understanding of cult behaviors and patterns that I would not have been able to attain in any other way. This is exactly what I needed out of my interview with Mr. Don Beck: a knowledge of Peoples Temple (and, through their many similarities, many other cults) from a perspective most extraordinary. In short, I was able to finally understand what life in an extremist religious organization is actually like, without any bias or “spin.” Therefore, although I still have much research to do before I can claim to truly be familiar with the subject of cult behaviors and patterns, I now know what membership in a non-“mainstream” religious organization is like on the inside.