The Jonestown Tragedy as Familicide – Suicide

by James L. Knoll, IV, M.D.

(Dr. Knoll is Associate Professor & Director of Forensic Psychiatry, SUNY Upstate Medical University. A previous article by Dr. Knoll appears here. He may be reached at knollj@upstate.edu.)

After listening to Jonestown survivors and experts relate the history of Peoples Temple, it has become more than apparent to me that many mischaracterizations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple persist to this day. In particular, the inaccurate notion that what occurred on November 18, 1978 in Jonestown was a “mass suicide” is perhaps one of the foremost misconceptions. In a companion article in this edition of the jonestown report, I noted certain similarities between the Jonestown tragedy and what is know in the forensic literature as a familicide-suicide. This concept seemed to resonate with at least several survivors and experts. The purpose of this article will be to further explore this concept, and to argue that the psychological dynamics of the Jonestown tragedy bear many similarities in common with the phenomenon of familicide-suicide.

Familicide – Suicide

Familicide is “a multiple-victim homicide incident in which the killer’s spouse and one or more children are slain.”[1] Sadly, it is the family that generates a substantial amount of societal violence: “With the exception of the police and the military, the family is perhaps the most violent social group, and the home of the most violent social setting, in our society. A person is more likely to be hit or killed in his or her home by another family member than anywhere else or by anyone else” (p. 88).[2] Fathers are more likely to kill their entire family, whereas mothers are more likely to kill only their children.[3]

The majority of homicide-suicides (H-S) occur between family members and/or intimate partners. While the most common type involves a man killing his estranged partner and then himself, a less common type involves a depressed father who kills his entire family and then himself – referred to in the literature as a familicide-suicide.[4] He is likely to view his act as a delivery of the family from continued hardships or stressors.[5] Familicide-suicides are rare – in a study of 73 cases of H-S only 5 cases of familicide-suicide were found.[6]

The very nature of the offense seems to suggest that the perpetrator is laboring under extreme emotional and psychological turmoil. Killing one’s family is both counterintuitive and self-defeating: “the lethal destruction of one’s family would seem to attest to a state of mind in which one no longer perceives what is in one’s interests. and/or is disinclined to pursue them, hence is either insane or so despondent as to be suicidal”(p. 278).[7] At least two types of familicidal men have been described: an accusatory type and a despondent type.[8], [9], [10]

The accusatory familicidal man is angry at his wife, who has somehow made known her desire to leave the relationship. The accusatory familicidal man often displays prominent jealousy and hostility, and may have a history of violent behavior. In contrast, the despondentfamilicidal man is depressed, and anticipates impending disaster for himself and his family. He views the familicide-suicide as the “only solution,” and expressions of hostility toward his victims are generally absent. Characteristics common to the despondent familicidal man are listed in table 1.

 

Characteristics of Despondent Familicidal Men[11]

§         Depressed and brooding
§         May apprehend impending disaster for himself and his family
§         Sees familicide as “only way out”
§         Children rarely the object of grievance or hostility
§         Expressions of hostility towards victims absent or ambiguous
§         Characterizes the deed as an act of mercy or rescue
§         Fears his family will suffer degradation
§         Believes family could not cope in his absence
§         Feels entitled to decide his victims’ fates
§         May have prominent social or financial stressors

Table 1

The familicidal-suicidal man has also been referred to as the “family annihilator.”[12] The family annihilator is “usually a senior man of the house, who is depressed, paranoid, intoxicated or a combination of these. He kills each member of the family who is present, sometimes including pets. He may commit suicide after killing the others, or may force the police to kill him” (p. 482). Surprisingly little research has been done on familicidal fathers, perhaps due to the very low frequency of this tragedy. In one case report, Schlesinger described a 36-year-old married man who killed his wife and three young children, and then attempted to kill himself.[13] He had developed a severe depression that appeared to be triggered or exacerbated by his perception that he had failed on a “home improvement project.” As his depression intensified, dormant conflicts involving his competency and self-esteem were rekindled, resulting in pronounced feelings of failure and humiliation. After a period of agonizing about his problems, a course of action became clear to him. He believed that his only recourse was to kill his family and himself to spare everyone the humiliation of his perceived inadequacy.

The man lived after stabbing himself 26 times, and later reported that his “failure” had intensified his personal fears of incompetence and low self-esteem. When asked about his motivation at the time of committing the familicide-suicide, he stated, “If we all go, I wouldn’t have to face this problem and they wouldn’t be left behind to handle the problem for me” (p.201). Thus, the father who is beset with depression and long-standing self-esteem problems may develop a distorted, rigid view of his options. A mounting pressure to act, in combination with a distorted perspective and the need to discharge rage and frustration may result in violence. In Jones’ case, similar issues seemed to apply, in addition to his need to make a lasting statement and exert some last form of control over circumstances that appeared to be spiraling out of his control.

Certainly, depression and depressive cognitions appear to play a prominent role in familicide-suicides. This may be due to the fact that severe depression can distort reasoning, impair judgment, loosen restraints and allow pent up conflict and emotion to be acted upon. However, familicide-suicide cannot be explained by depression alone. The event is the end result of a complex interplay of many factors, and “fully investigating homicide-suicide events requires looking beyond the demographics of the perpetrators and victims to the environment in which these events occur, the roles played by the relationships between the perpetrators and victims, and the personality traits and mental status of the perpetrators.”[14](p. 232).

When cases of familicide are closely studied, themes of overwhelming threats to family integrity and self-esteem are commonly observed. Confronted with “overwhelming threats to their roles as providers, controllers, and central figures in the lives of their families,” such individuals may become “desperate, depressed, suicidal, and homicidal” (p.136).[15] Mortal wounds to self-esteem and overwhelming feelings of shame may precipitate violence in familicidal men.[16] It is important to keep in mind that significant feelings of shame can stimulate the body’s “fight or flight” response. As a result, the individual may either act to “hide” his “self” (or ego) from further exposure, or conversely, react with rage and maladaptive defenses, such as externalization. When shame is combined with an inordinate need for control, violence may become deadly.[17]

For example, a case of familicide-suicide was described in which a man killed his family in the belief that he was “saving” them from a loss of “pride and esteem” that he was actually enduring.[18] A familicidal man in this mental state views the killing of his family “as no more disastrous than the prospect of losing them through desertion! Better perhaps, since at least he has called the shots and exerted his authority” (p. 215).[19] Suicide is not typically observed among familicidal men unless their relationship to the victim was a “direct intimate or parental one,” suggesting that one must “look at the meaning of the relationship to the perpetrator” for a more complete understanding” (p. 110).[20] One may certainly hypothesize that both self-centered/ego-protective concerns, as well as altruistic concerns might motivate the individual who commits a familicide-suicide. The extent to which one is more heavily influencing than the other will of course depend on the individual. As a general consideration, it is important to note that severe depression is often associated with a regression to more self-centered cognitions. Nevertheless, an irrational but “loving concern for the children and the wife may even be part of the man’s suicide project, so that they, like him, should not suffer a bleak future in an inhospitable world.”[21]

Based on the few case reports, small body of research and the author’s forensic experience, the following hypothesis might be put forth to explain the downward spiral of the familicidal-suicidal man’s mental state. First, the individual has some inner conflict or trauma, likely related to his developmental upbringing. At some point, his ego defenses become weakened or injured due to depression, substance use and interpersonal conflicts. The weakened defenses allow rational thought to become distorted. If the weakened defenses cannot be bolstered, or further conflict ensues, emotional tension becomes extreme. This is approximately the time that violent and/or suicidal acts are entertained. In this state of mind, thinking becomes more ego-centric, and the usual cognitive restraints are loosened. At this point, the potentially familicidal-suicidal man is quite fragile, and merely awaits a precipitating event (further conflict, perceived failure) to stimulate him to enact his pre-planned violence. At a certain point, his idea may assume a rigid, inaccessible quality similar (but not identical to) a delusion (e.g., “this is the only way out”).

 

The Jonestown Tragedy as Familicide-Suicide

I cannot separate myself from the pain of my people

– Jim Jones, 11/18/78

Many of the themes and characteristics of familicide-suicide can also be seen when the Jonestown tragedy is viewed from a different perspective – that is, Jim Jones as psychological/symbolic “father,” and Peoples Temple members as his “family.” This perspective requires some acceptance of group psychology and the notion that the psycho-dynamics of the group often mirror those of the individual. Table 2 gives a working list of characteristics common to both familicide-suicide and Jonestown.

 

Characteristics Common to Both Familicide-Suicide & Jonestown

 

Characteristic

Despondent Familicide-Suicides

Jim Jones

 

Perpetrator –  Father or male head of family –     Established self in role of father.
–   Followers called him “father”
–   He called them his “children”
Victims –  Entire family-  Family and “children” of Peoples Temple (PT)
Motivations –   Prevent suffering, “degradation” of family
–   Intolerance of perceived “failure”
–   Exert final authority
–   Views act as “only way out”
 
–   Wanted to avoid “persecution” by outside forces.[22]
–   Distraught over being ridiculed, maligned, denied a place in history[23]
–   “No man takes my life from me, I lay my life down.”
–   “There is no way out, no resolution.”
–   “There’s no way we can survive”
Emotions –   Despondent, brooding
–   Fears impending disaster for himself and family
–   Distress over perceived threats to control of family and circumstances
–   Hostility towards victims absent or ambiguous
–   Hostility towards outside forces present
 
– Despondent, “all was lost”[24]
– Hopelessness, pessimism about future
– Feared impending invasion by U.S. gov’t
– Hostility directed at U.S. gov’t
– Overt hostility towards Peoples Temple members absent or ambiguous
Mental health –   Depression, hopelessness
–   Experiences suicidal thoughts
–   Feels persecuted by societal forces
–   May be abusing substances
 
–   “someplace. hope runs out”
–   “I’m tired of being tormented to hell”
–   Suicidal thoughts, morbid preoccupation with suicide[25],[26]
–   Paranoid beliefs[27]
–   “Hurry, hurry my children.. let’s not fall in the hands of the enemy”
–   Abused substances[28]
Fantasy –   Act of “mercy” or rescue
–   Delivery of family from continuing torment
–   Re-establishment of control and dignity
–   Victims could not cope in his absence< /td>

 
–   “So my opinion is that we be kind to children and. seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece”
–   “We win when we go down”
–   “I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change.”
–   “without me, life has no meaning. I’m the best thing you’ll ever have.”[29]  
Stressors –    Social and/or financial  
–     Social stressors: defectors, “Concerned Relatives,” John Stoen custody, Congressman Ryan’s visit
–   Financial stressor: IRS investigation,
Planning – Pre-planned, 2 stage event  
–   Well thought out plans to commit mass murder-suicide
–   Evidence of acts of anticipation and planning

Table 2

 

Jones purposefully and prominently established himself in the role of the “father” to his Peoples Temple followers. Members openly called him “dad,” and “father,” while he referred to them as his “children.” Clearly, this sets up a powerful psychological dynamic with manifold repercussions. Careful attention to the Jonestown audiotape (“death tape”) reveals that by November 18, 1978, Jones had developed a rigid, fatalistic belief that there was “no way out” other than his plans for homicide-suicide. Indeed, there is strong evidence to suggest that the event was well planned long before November 1978.[30][31]

Jones was described as despondent, and brooding over conflicts and challenges to Jonestown.[32] He had developed an intense paranoia and hostility towards the U.S. government, as well as defectors and Concerned Relatives. His use of substances would have acted to further destabilize his mood and impair his judgment. He was described as sometimes appearing delusional, and would ramble for hours into the night over the community loudspeakers. American Embassy officials visited Jonestown in 1978 and reported that Jones exhibited erratic behavior, slurred speech and confusion.[33] At one point, many Jonestown members began disregarding his incoherent rants. Several actually attempted to unplug or otherwise disable the speaker system in an effort to obtain some peace from Jones’ incessant, intoxicated ramblings.[34]

It is most likely that Jones’ motivations were multiple, complex and subject to volatile changes. In other words, it would likely be insufficient to conclude that there was one main reason for his decision to commit a mass murder – suicide. The more ego-centric motivations would include his desire to exert final control, avoid responsibility, enact spiteful revenge and ensure his long-lasting infamy. In contrast, one may also discern a possible motive of “protecting” his followers from what he foresaw as future degradation. In retrospect, it is quite difficult to determine which of Jones’ motives provided him with the most influence, the self-centered ones or the “altruistic” ones. Indeed, it remains difficult to discern even the authenticity of his altruistic motives, given his past behavior patterns and highly developed skill at manipulating others.

 

Jones & Suicide

I really have a strong desire to die at the time of this writing. I have been imprisoned in my mind for many, many years – constantly trying to conceal a lifestyle alien to the American society.

– Jim Jones Commentary about himself, c. 1977-78

 

Jones had struggled with thoughts of suicide for much of his life.[35][36] As Jonestown began to unravel, suicide “drills” and the “Six-Day Siege” served to reinforce the imminence and insolubility of the threat of death. From a psychological standpoint, it is likely that such drills served to help Jones discharge his intensely felt feelings of despair, loss of control and need to re-establish his “competence” to make ultimate decisions.

What follows is an assessment of Jones’ suicide risk factors at the time of the Jonestown tragedy; however, it should be noted that a complete psychological autopsy is not possible, as much important data is currently unavailable. Nevertheless, here I will attempt to outline Jones’ risk enhancing and reducing factors, a process sometimes referred to as a post-mortem suicide risk assessment.[37] I remain eager to revise my conclusions should new reliable data be uncovered.

Post-Mortem Suicide Risk Assessment of Jim Jones

Jim Jones’ Suicide Risk Factors

(On 11/18/78)

Static & Historical
1.       Male gender
2.       Age > 45
3.       Morbid preoccupation with suicide
4.       Well thought out suicidal plans
5.       Evidence of acts of anticipation and planning for suicide
Dynamic
6.       Suicidal ideas with positive associations (syntonic) – “revolutionary suicide”
7.       Hopelessness, pessimism about future
8.       Substance abuse
9.       Erratic, labile mood (likely substance-induced)
10.    Probable psychosis (likely substance-induced) with delusions of “doom”
11.    Access to suicidal means – drugs, weapons
12.    Proximal life crises – defectors, Congressman’s visit

 

Jim Jones’ Suicide Risk Protective Factors
(On 11/18/78)

1.       Married status
2.       Possible social supports (?)

 

Unknown, But Important Factors

1.       Past attempts?
• Did Jones have any unknown past suicide attempts or suicidal behaviors?
• Could any of his “suicide drills” be considered attempts?
2.       Childhood abuse – Was Jones’ childhood neglect severe enough to qualify as abuse for the purposes of increasing his suicide risk?
3.       Depression – Did Jones ever meet criteria for Depression?
4.       Chronic physical illness – Did Jones suffer from a chronic or life-threatening medical illness?

Focusing on Jones’ protective factors, one is obviously inclined to question the strength and functionality of his social support system. Not only would he be disinclined to divulge personal vulnerabilities, but many followers lived in fear of him. The extent to which Jones even had the capacity to relate to others in a way that would provide him with this type of emotional support is unclear. While Jones’ married status gives him a statistical reduction of risk, the true quality of his married relationship might be questioned. Responsibility for a child under 18 is often cited in the literature as a protective factor against suicide. However, in Jones’ case, it appears to be neutralized by his “belief” that he and all of his “children” (both literal and figurative) were going to be better off committing suicide.

Upon review of the above factors, it is not difficult to arrive at the conclusion that Jones had significant psychopatholgy, as well as a substantial amount of risk factors for suicide well before the Jonestown tragedy. In addition, his role as “father” to the group had special prognostic implications, when viewed through the dynamics of familicide-suicide.

Conclusions

This article has presented a comparison of certain similarities between the Jonestown tragedy and what is know in the forensic literature as a familicide-suicide. Familicide-suicide is a relatively uncommon type of homicide-suicide. It involves a depressed father who kills his entire family and then himself, often viewing his act as a delivery of his family from continued hardships or suffering. Given the extent to which Jones stressed his role as the “father” to Peoples Temple, the similarities between familicide-suicide and the Jonestown should be further explored.

Due to the nature of H-S and familicide-suicide, they are extremely difficult to prevent. Recommendations may represent hopeful or ideal goals, while the reality is that these events often occur without obvious opportunities to divert a tragedy. Nevertheless, prevention efforts may involve: identifying potentially violent, depressed, substance misusing persons; identifying relationships with ongoing patterns suggestive of homicide-suicides; identifying communities in which it is more difficult to access mental health services; improving nation wide research efforts; conducting long-term follow up studies of surviving victims, witnesses (particularly children), and other family members to fully understand long-term public health effects.[38]

Notes

[1] Wilson M, Daly M, Daniele A: Familicide: the killing of spouse and children. Aggressive Beh, 1995; 21: 275-91.

[2] Gelles R, Straus A: Crime and the Family. (A, Lincoln and M. Straus, Eds.). Springfield IL: Thomas, 1985.

[3] Byard, R. W.; Knight, D.; James, R. A.; Gilbert, J: Murder-Suicides Involving Children: A 29-Year Study. Am J Forensic Med & Pathology, 1999; 20(4):323-327.

[4] Saint-Martin P, Bouyssy M, O’Byrne P: Homicide-suicide in Tours, France (2000-2005) – description of 10 cases and a review of the literature. J Forensic & Legal Med, 2008; 15: 104-109.

[5] Selkin J: Rescue fantasies in homicide-suicide. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 1976;6(2):79-85

[6] Comstock R, Mallonee S, Kruger E, Rayno K, Vance A, Jordan F: Epidemiology of Homicide-Suicide Events: Oklahoma, 1994-2001. Am J Forensic Med & Pathology, 2005; 26(30: 229-235.

[7] Wilson M, et. al: Familicide.

[8] Wilson M, et. al: Familicide.

[9] Daly M, Wilson M: Evolutionary social psychology and family homicide. Science, 1988; 242: 519-24.

[10] Cooper M, Eaves D: Suicide following homicide in the family. Violence Victims, 1996; 11: 99-112.

[11] Wilson M, et. al: Familicide.

[12] Dietz P: Mass, Serial and Sensational Homicides. Bull NY Acad Med, 1986; 62(5): 477-491.

[13] Schlesinger L: Familicide, Depression and Catathymic Process. J Forensic Sci, 2000; 45(1): 200-203.

[14] Comstock R, et al: Epidemiology of Homicide-Suicide Events.

[15] Ewing C: Fatal families: the dynamics of intrafamilial homicide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.

[16] Aderibigbe Y: Violence in America: A Survey of Suicide Linked to Homicides. J Forensic Sci, 1997; 42(4): 662-665.

[17] Aderibigbe Y: Violence in America.

[18] Cooper M, et al: Suicide Following Homicide in the Family.

[19] Daly M, Wilson M: Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988.

[20] Cooper M, et al: Suicide Following Homicide in the Family.

[21] Wilson M, et. al: Familicide.

[22] Pozzi, E, Nesci, D, Bersani, G: The narrative of a mass suicide: The people’s temple last tape. Acta Med. Rom., 1988, 26:150-175.

[23] Affidavit of Deborah Layton, dated 6/15/78.

[24] Affidavit of Deborah Layton.

[25] Seiden, R: Reverend Jones on Suicide. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 9(2):116-119, 1979.

[26] Stephenson D: Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. Heyday Books: Berkeley, Calif., 2005.

[27] Lys, C.  The violence of Jim Jones: A Biopsychosocial Explanation. Cultic Studies Review, 2005, 4(3):267-294.

[28] Lys, C:  The violence of Jim Jones.

[29] Jonestown audiotape (the “death tape”).

[30] Memo from Carolyn Layton to Jones entitled “Analysis of Future Prospects.” See esp. p. 4: “A Final Stand If Decided On.” [obtained via the FOIA].

[31] Memo from Dr. Schaact to Jones addressing research on cyanide. [obtained via the FOIA].

[32] Affidavit of Deborah Layton.

[33] Lys, C:  The violence of Jim Jones.

[34] Tim Carter, personal communication, 7/24/08.

[35] Black, A: Jonestown – Two Faces of Suicide: A Durkheimian Analysis. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 20(4):285-306, 1990.

[36] Seiden, R: Reverend Jones on Suicide.

[37] Simon R. Murder, Suicide, Accident, or Natural Death? Assessment of Suicide Risk Factors at The Time Of Death. In: Retrospective Assessment of Mental States in Litigation (R. Simon & D. Shuman, Eds.); American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.: Washington, DC, 2002; pp 135-153.

[38] Comstock R, et al: Epidemiology of Homicide-Suicide Events.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on May 13th, 2017.
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