Why We Left

Over the past thirty years, those of us interested in the life and death of Peoples Temple have focused overwhelmingly on why individuals of such diverse backgrounds joined the Temple and, of course, why they died. Although these imponderables, at least in the case of 918 members, will never be answered, such questions are becoming more important, not just for us, but for society at large. 9/11 and other religiously-motivated suicidal attacks throughout the world since then give such questions an increasing and regrettable relevance in the twenty-first century.

We who have experienced the deaths of family and friends in Jonestown share a heart-to-heart connection with the families and friends of suicidal fanatics and their victims worldwide, as these families and friends grieve their extraordinary losses. We and they continue to wonder why and to ask what could have been done to forestall such incomprehensible damage so devastatingly wrought.

Considering the time and thought spent, and spent inconclusively, on why thoughtful and sensitive individuals join extremist organizations, and on the earlier phases of individual radicalization, perhaps it’s time to spend some effort – and spend it more profitably – on the later phases and specifically on why people leave.

In its last years, Peoples Temple, in my view at least, was just such an extremist organization. It became even more so as its violence turned both outward and inward in its final days in Guyana. Understanding why fanatics reject the radical message and drop out should also make it easier to help stop radicalization altogether and, at the very least, help concerned and aggrieved friends and relatives craft messages that can peel away people from these groups.

My own experience as just such a dropout – or “defector” in Temple terminology – may offer some insight. My family joined Peoples Temple in 1959, when I was eleven. They were active Temple members right up to the end. I grew up in the Temple, spent a lot of time with Jim, and ultimately married his daughter. For me, the church was the whole of my environment until early adulthood. And I wasn’t just passing time while I was there.

Given my impoverished and itinerant childhood, Peoples Temple became my golden hope of life filled with meaning and significance. Jim became my true father, teacher and mentor. I hoped to repay my many heartfelt obligations to the church and to Jim with dedication and pride in my membership. To reconcile my internal balance sheet, I served in many staff and advisory positions in the church throughout the course of my involvement.

With such a bio, why in the world would I drop out? As I finished law school and, in the interests of the Temple, started a career in the outside world, I began to comprehend the intense paranoia and suffering in the church. I realized that, as distinct from middle class life in America, existence in the church was going to be, for me anyway, one of misery and hopelessness. My despair was accompanied by my growing connection to the outside world, a world which, for a poor kid like me, held some promise of happiness, independence, individuality and rationality. None of this was on offer in the Temple.

My weakening faith in both message and messenger was further shaken by my close relationship with Jim. Increasingly, he seemed to live in a paranoid fantasy related to his personal dictatorship of the organization. His delusions of grandeur (even in my private discussions with him) caused me, however reluctantly, to see him as a megalomaniac in the tradition of Stalin and Mao (leaders, by the way, with whom he increasingly identified).

My disquiet and disgust as I began to learn more about his sexual predations tore away the few remaining supports of my dedication. Thus, in early 1977 – two years out of law school, with no job, almost no money, and only two or three non-Temple friends, and fully aware of Temple treatment of defectors – I walked out. More honestly, I sneaked out. Soon after I left, my family was ordered to Guyana, where they died.

And what of others who left and risked the condemnation of their friends and family who remained in the Temple. Over the years, I’ve discussed this with my fellow defectors. Reasons for their change of heart can be strikingly prosaic: family, money, petty grievances. But most frequently, their reasons, like mine, revolve around shaken ideology or lost faith in Jim’s leadership.

As I prepped this “reflection,” I read a couple of articles (see below) on the closely-related topic of why terrorists quit. While we weren’t terrorists, we were most certainly extremists (and proud to be so). Thus, the reasons why terrorists desert their organizations and reject the message and tactics of terrorism often parallel the reasons why we left the Temple. Of the young adults who joined the Temple individually during my tenure, those who were most successful in leaving were the ones whose non-Temple family members never ever gave up contact.

It’s significant that the Islamist who piloted United Flight 93 on 9/11 almost dropped out of the plot because of his relationship with his German fiancée. Another potential member dropped out when he returned to his family in Saudi Arabia after leaving a training camp in Afghanistan. The research is fairly conclusive that terrorist cell members who maintain contact with friends and family outside the organization are more likely to withdraw.

Of course, this is why organizations like the Temple spend a lot of time keeping members away from any influence – particularly that of family – which would taint their adherents’ ideological purity. Jim was deeply suspicious of any among us who maintained a significant connection to outside family. And any member who continued to hold such sentimental ties after a private word of caution, risked strong public criticism and found his or her loyalty called into question.

Nor was concern over family ties limited to those with non-Temple family members. Who among us survivors doesn’t remember the rule that anytime a member was subjected to any sort of criticism or punishment in one of our “catharsis meetings”, family members who were also Temple members were required to be the first to attack the individual being criticized and to do so vociferously on pain of suffering similar criticism and punishment.

One of my clearest memories of just such an event is that of a “boxing match” in an open Temple meeting in which three-year-old Martin Amos was forced to box an older and stronger opponent for three or four rounds. In these matches, which were a routine part of the Temple’s “public” disciplinary process, the malefactors’ opponents were usually changed every round and instructed to strike as hard and as often as possible. In Martin’s case, as in all the others, Jim was as enthusiastic a fan as if he were ringside at the local gym’s Friday night fights.

Even more troubling than my image of Jim standing at the podium and jabbing the air while Martin was being pummeled, is my memory of Linda Amos, Martin’s mother. She not only encouraged Martin’s adversary to increased violence with every blow but at the same time shouted abuse at Martin. And all little Martin had done to warrant such punishment was to have been involved in a minor scuffle at nursery school.

* * *

Even though there are no obvious silver bullets, it seems to me that retaining one’s family ties with members in like organizations, therefore, should provide a means of negating the attraction of extremist groups. So, I encourage friends and families to “hang in there.” Equally important – since organizations like the Temple are really about money and power, irrespective of professed dogma – I strongly recommend that anyone with financial ties to those in these organizations cease all financial support, in spite of tearful cries of need, even to the extent of changing estate plans to leave generational wealth transfers to such family members only in trust.

These of course are simply my observations. I’d encourage anyone interested in learning more about why people leave extremist organizations to read these two articles: “Reverse Radicalism” by Amanda Ripley and Zamira Loebis in Time Magazine, and “Why Terrorists Quit: Gaining from Al-Qa’ida’s Losses” by Michael Jacobson in the July 2008 issue of CTC Sentinel, the journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Ms. Ripley and Ms. Loebis are writers for Time Magazine. Mr. Jacobson is a senior fellow in the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

(Mike Cartmell is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. A second article, Life Worth Living, appears in this edition’s special section on 30 Years After Jonestown. His complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. He can be reached at Beemermcart@aol.com.)