Thirty Years Later:
Thoughts About Prevention of Future Jonestowns

(Dr. Olsson can be reached at

The more we understand the malignant narcissism of destructive cult leaders like Jim Jones and the malignant group dynamics that synchronize with them, the better our chances to prevent future Jonestowns.

The Formation Of Destructive Messianic / Charismatic Personalities Like Jim Jones

How do messianic/charismatic personalities form? What enables them to play the role of idealized, worshipped, parental figures for their followers? Psychologically, these destructive cult leaders have experienced painful disappointments in their parents through neglect, abandonment, shame, severe disappointment or humiliation. For example, listen to Jim Jones preaching to his adoring followers one year before the Jonestown Group Suicide event:

“I was ready to kill by the end of third grade. I mean, I was so fucking aggressive and hostile. I was ready to kill. Nobody gave me any love, any understanding. In those Indiana days a parent was supposed to go with a child to school functions…. There was some kind of school performance, and everybody’s fucking parent was there but mine. I’m standing there alone. Alone. I was always alone!” (FBI Audiotape Q134).

Jones’ father was a sickly, distant, and defective role model. James T. Jones came from an Indiana Quaker family and had been a road construction foreman before going to fight in France during WWI. He came back from the war with lungs scarred by mustard gas, with a grade school education and, returning to a work-ethic community, was a medical cripple at age 45. He worked an occasional odd job. His many VA hospital stays were a welcome change for this sad, unsmiling man whose principal occupation seemed to focus on how to draw his next breath. He got government checks like Rev. Jones later collected from his elderly cult members. Young Jim Jones witnessed his pitiful father who daily shuffled to the local pool hall (Reiterman).

Jim’s father didn’t work, but his mother did. Lynetta Jones was a slender, pretty woman who smoked, drank, cussed, and literally wore the pants in the family. Unlike other mothers, she was never home to take care of him, never attended church or slept with her husband. She encouraged him to study hard and claimed to friends that she had seen visions of his future glories and their reflections on herself. “Don’t be nothing like your dad,” Lynetta Jones said to her son. “You have to make something of your life and be somebody. Work at it. Nobody’s going to help you” (Reiterman, 17).

Early childhood disappointments in parents are magnified by further Dark Epiphany or molding experiences during future cult leaders’ late adolescent or young adult years. And so it happened that in his twenties, Rev. Jim Jones became fascinated with Father Divine. Jones identified with this charismatic, black preacher, especially as the size – and wealth – of Divine’s ministry grew dramatically in the nineteen fifties. Jones took busloads of his followers to hear Divine in Philadelphia. Jones adopted many of Father Divine’s methods, including always having his followers call him Father or Dad. Eventually Jones began to equate himself with God as Divine had done. After Father Divine died in 1965, Jones declared that Father Divine, like Jesus Christ and Lenin had entered his soul. Jones grew deeply upset and disappointed when few members from Father Divine’s congregation joined Peoples Temple. What a rejection! This was his Dark Epiphany. But, Jones never forgot Father Divine’s money- and power-making methods. However, he had to be satisfied with his own flock to satisfy his hunger to be the father.

These Dark Epiphany experiences compound, deepen, and magnify Malignant Pied Pipers’ traumatic memories of childhood pain, shame and humiliation. They develop a relentless quest to become strong parental figures for other people. This “Fathering” seems to allow them to finally experience a good parent within himself or herself, for a while.

Rev. Jim Jones bent over backwards to obtain an atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance, as he created his own family. Soon after he graduated from high school, Jones married Marceline, a nurse at the hospital where he worked as an orderly. She was four years older than he, and almost from the beginning of their marriage, considered divorcing him because of his dogmatism, obsessive need for control, and dominating behavior. Marceline probably stayed because of her religious feelings against divorce and the fact that they soon had a large family. They had Stephan, their biological child, and numerous adopted children. Two of the adopted children were black and three were Korean. The Joneses called themselves the Rainbow Family and were the first white family in Indianapolis to adopt a black child.

Jones was strict about the sexual behavior of Temple members, but his own infidelities were well known. His followers were apparently expected to make allowances for their leader-God because his psychic gifts were so highly charged with sexual energy, and so constantly in need of release that Jones claimed to masturbate or need sex thirty times per day (Wright). I believe they reflected strategic expressions of Jones’ unconscious rage, grandiosity and entitlement. Like King Richard III,  he apparently felt that his deformity entitled him to violate the rules that other people were bound to follow (Shakespeare, King Richard III).

The most amazing father-son story of all was the tragic life of John Victor Stoen. John Stoen was born to Jones and a married Temple member, Grace Stoen. Grace’s husband, one of the recruits from the Redwood Valley, California years was Tim Stoen, a Stanford law graduate. Tim was an assistant district attorney of Mendocino County, who joined Jones Peoples Temple because he admired its social commitment and its atmosphere of racial harmony.

In February 1972, almost two weeks after John Victor Stoen’s birth, Tim Stoen signed an extraordinary document, witnessed and signed by Marceline Jones. This document and its implications became the focal point of a custody battle, which was one of the legal confrontations that Jones pointed to as leading to a crisis for the group in Jonestown before their doomsday.

I Timothy Oliver Stoen, hereby acknowledge that in April 1971, I entreated my pastor, James w. Jones, to sire a child by my wife, Grace Stoen, who previously, at my insistence, reluctantly but graciously consented thereto. James Jones agreed to do so, reluctantly, after I explained that I very much wished to raise a child, but was unable, after extensive attempts to sire one myself. My reason for requesting Jim Jones to do this is that I wanted my child to be fathered, if not by me, by the most compassionate, honest, and courageous human being the world contains. (Wright, 75).

Tim Stoen left Peoples Temple in 1977. Grace Stoen had defected a year earlier. Jim Jones, who thought John Victor looked just like him, envisioned the boy as the future leader of the Temple and took him to Guyana. Though divorced, Grace and Tim Stoen united in a long custody battle and obtained a court order awarding custody of their son to Grace. But Jones would not return the boy. John Victor Stoen was six years old when he died at Jim Jones side in the Guyana jungle. He was the victim of Jim Jones’ father-himself.

Dependent Followers A Psychological Necessity For Exploitive Cult Leaders

Destructive cult leaders’ lifelong search for their parents-themselves, of course, requires a steady supply of child admirers. Malignant Pied Pipers find them in the codependent enmeshment processes with their cult recruits and followers. Jim Jones once spent twenty-four hours in bed with a young heroin addict to soothe and comfort him as he was going through withdrawal (Reiterman). The young man shifted his life-long addiction from heroin to deadly loyalty to Father Jones. These flawed leaders give psychological birth to their followers through the cult recruitment and seduction procedures. Singer (60-79) terms these psychological coercion procedures: Attacking The Self; Resocialization; Reparenting; Behavior Reconstruction; and, Self Reconstruction. In essence, Malignant Pied Pipers gain a sense of power and mastery over their own childhood psychological deformities, humiliations and feelings of insignificance by becoming overwhelmingly significant and powerful in the daily lives of their followers. Bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan did not neglect group psychology and indoctrination. Bin Laden’s videotaped charismatic, rebellious images will endure in the hero-worshipping minds of young Arab and Muslim fanatics.

Beneath the outward swagger of these exploitive leaders however, is a profound, unconscious sense of shame, rage at failed parental images, and fear of aloneness and humiliation. The rage beneath the brittle external counter-phobic defenses is ready to surface when their fragile narcissism is punctured.

Group Psychology Of Cult Leader / Followers: Why Do Sheep Find Destructive Paths Profound

No person can be the all-knowing, all-caring and perpetual father or mother figure for others in perpetuity. Even God “rested” on the seventh day of creation. So too does the grandiose self of the destructive cult leader eventually erode.

The exploitive cult’s family honeymoon is eventually over, and the formerly abused, neglected, and abandoned inner child of the leader now becomes the abuser, neglecter, and abandoner. Listen to Jim Jones suddenly turn on his followers, right in the middle of their cheers for him during one nightly jungle sermon one year before Peoples Temple’s Jungle Doomsday:

“You’re so naive. You don’t even know what Jim Jones is all about. You can’t even follow him. You haven’t even smelled where he is at yet, much less follow him” (Reston, 223).

Apparently unaware of these ominous third person focused comments, the crowd cheers again. Jones’ scorn and loathing of them escalates as he says:

“You who are stupid piss-ants and reptiles, who are lower than the primates. You can make whoopee if you want, but your whoopee makes me sicky… Peace… Peace… You make your whoopee, while I do something that is far more significant, because I know exactly what’s going to take place. I’ve made some big plans, honey” (Reston, 223).

And in closing later that night:

“You fuckers, I like to look at you now, because you don’t know how clever I am. I made plans for your treason long ago, because I knew I couldn’t trust nothing, only Communism, and the principle that is in me – that is me” (Reston, 244)

Remember Lynetta Jones’ admonition to her young son, the future Father of Jonestown:

“Don’t be nothing like your dad. YOU have to make something of your life and be somebody. Work at it. Nobody’s gonna help you” (Reiterman, 17).

A Flawed Group-Self: Roots And Soil Of “Acted-Out” Group Death Wishes

Acting out is the expression of unconscious conflicts or feelings in actions rather than words. There are group forms for this defensive process of externalization. The extreme forms of these acted-out scenarios of spurious, unconscious fantasies of restitution/revenge for the leader and group occur during group suicide events like Jonestown or Waco. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote:

In Projection, we experience an inner harm as an outer one: we endow significant people with the evil which actually is in us.

Erikson talks about the development of Basic Trust in mental development:

The amount of trust derived from the earliest childhood experience does not seem to depend on of absolute quantities of food or demonstrations of love, but rather on the quality of the maternal relationship. Mothers create a sense of trust in their children by that kind of administration which in its quality combines sensitive care of the baby’s individual needs and a firm sense of personal trustworthiness within the trusted framework of their culture’s lifestyle. This forms the basis in the child for a sense of identity which will later combine a sense of being “all right,” of being oneself, and of becoming what other people trust one will become…But even under the most favorable of circumstances, this stage (Basic Trust), seems to induce in psychic life, a sense of inner division and universal nostalgia for a paradise forfeited (Erikson).

We know that beyond her self-sanctimoniousness and grandiose ambitions for her son, Lynetta Jones was not there for her son Jim at the level of trust described by Erikson (Reiterman, pp. 16-18). Mother Jones could have chosen to leave with Jim and not just put his father down. She could have helped young Jim to understand his dad’s medical situation. She might have obtained more reliable childcare. Without solid Basic Trust, it is no wonder that Jones had a flawed sexual and personal identity, rather than a sense of Generativity (Concern for the identity, security and welfare of the next generation, Erikson, 267). Jones stagnated as a person, and in bitter, paranoid despair, he took his fantasized replacement, John Victor Stoen, to group death with him. Rather than caring for it, Jim Jones destroyed the next generation of Peoples Temple.

Bin Laden’s mother visited him in Afghanistan on several occasions to try to convince him to abandon his terror project (Mayer). His “Basic Trust” in her did not prevail and the horror of his infectious rebellion is now past and future History.

Goldberg (pp. 206-207) points out that a common attribute of many cult leaders is that they present as some absurd, melodramatic character that could not attract a large following without some substantial degree of “follower behavior” that reflects a subtle desire for “Self-aggrandizing lapses of reality-testing by the followers.” Many of these “Followers” seem to be seeking a social movement that is involved with extreme or deviant behavior without having to accept full existential responsibility for action-decisions for himself or herself.

“Followers” are bowled over by “Mind Control” recruitment strategies or swept up in a dramatic, narcissistic, Group-death Myth. As destructive cult group time goes on, the Group-Self develops a dramatic life of its own. There is a reverberating, symbiotic, codependent circuitry between the pathological, destructive narcissism of the ‘leader,’ and the passive – receptive pathological narcissism of the “followers.”

All utopias emerging out of the psychological cesspools of malignant narcissism and fundamentalist mentality are destined for tragedy and destruction. It does not matter if the doomed utopia is formulated in terms of religious metaphor and precepts or political ideology or propaganda. Jim Jones’ Socialist Heaven, Hitler’s fascist utopia, Osama bin Laden’s islamofascist caliphate, and Stalin’s communist state were/ are all headed for tragic failure.

Destructive Cults Compared To Healthy Religious Groups

One way to gain perspective on the prevention of future Jonestowns is to compare destructive cults to healthy religious groups. It also is helpful to understand the power and dynamics of apocalyptic cults’ doomsday scenarios or group myths. A Healthy Religious Group has central shared experiences of worship, reverence, and community service. The healthy spiritual leader shares leadership with group members. The healthy religious group gives positive support for life-long, loving connection, communication and support for, and from, the family of origin. A healthy religious group promotes respect and support for the sanctity, fidelity and self-respecting boundaries of couples’ freely chosen marital and sexual commitments.

The healthy religious congregation embraces projects that contribute to the betterment of the community at large and not just their group. Monies raised over and above parish staff salaries and building expenses are used for projects to help the broader community or society.

Destructive Cults concentrate a large percentage of their efforts on recruiting new members and controlling the financial, social, familial, and sexual or aggressive lives of their members, often couched in the language of “For their own good.” These cults promote isolation from the ferment of ideas abounding in the broader society and culture. They actively seek to alienate all their members from potential moderating influences found in healthy families, communities, and churches of origin. In fact, the cult group itself is often inserted as a member’s new and – by implication – “Superior family.” The destructive cult leader becomes a Father / God / Prophet Himself. Fund-raising is a high priority. First Amendment protection and tax-exempt status in America and democratic countries can obviously aid and abet exploitive and terror cults. Freedom of religion and speech in America and Western democracies allows for subtly, incrementally-constructed Trojan horses masquerading as new religious forms of expression.

The Apocalyptic Cult And The Unique Function Of Its Doomsday Scenario

Apocalyptic cults are a uniquely malignant form of destructive cult. An ominous element woven into the core of their cult ideology, doctrines and pragmatic day-to-day behavior is the Apocalyptic Group Death Scenario. The leader repeatedly and boldly holds forth the noble and gradually treasured fantasy of dying together, murdering together, or being imprisoned for “The Cause.” Becker observed that a central human fear is the fear of death, but a more important fear is having lived a life that has no significance or meaning. Apocalyptic and terror cults offer excitement and meaning to followers.

The group suicide or homicide event is rehearsed in the confident, vividly descriptive and inspiring sermons, lectures or informal talks of the leader. The powerful, exciting, special “Ace-in-the-hole” of cult group life and group identity is for everyone – or at least its special members – to die in a mass suicide or participate in murder for the cause. This “In-group” secret allows a protest or battle against the injustice or evil of the external enemy. The enemy is described by and designated by the leader and his lieutenants, but always in the codependent cult group context.

The apocalyptic group death scenario is not a sudden, impulsive command from a panicked leader at a time of crisis. Group death or group homicide is woven into the ongoing day-to-day lectures of the leader. Group suicide or homicide are portrayed as a departure to heaven or a better, advanced spiritual place of rich spiritual rewards or better existence. An apocalyptic cult leader like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson, Shoko Asahara, Marshal Applewhite or Luc Jouret relies on the universal search for meaning and inherent rebellion against authority among late adolescents. Many idealistic or disaffected young Arabs all over the world idolize terror cult leader Osama bin Laden as a sort of Muslim spiritual Robin Hood hero.

Doomsday Scenario As Defining Myth

The group death scenario gives the leader and the cult group a special, exciting, and dramatic defining myth. It becomes a source of underdog heroism and paradoxical group-cohesion. The besieged group prepares earnestly and “courageously” for the end game or triumph over evil. Evil is defined by the leader but has gradually been co-authored with the cult group as their collective myth. Just as one theft doesn’t make a thief, but rather accumulating thefts form a thief over time, so the group-death myth becomes a central portion of the Cult-Group-Self.

The codependent leader holds the group-death myth over the heads of the “followers,” so as to magnify the special, though limited domain of his power. He or she is thus needed – even more. Strong, dramatic, group action provides the ultimate fantasized “celebrity” and triumph over the leader’s insecurity and phobia of helpless aloneness. Pain and martyrdom are both means and ends of a spurious fantasy of group victory.

For the codependent followers, the group-death idea brings heightened meaning and excitement to their otherwise impoverished or humdrum lives. I have listened to hundreds of hours of recordings of Jim Jones rantings and free- associative “white night” sermons to Peoples Temple in Jonestown. I was fascinated with his followers’ comments in the background of the recordings. These group affirmations of group-death reveal the codependent dynamics of a mutually-affirmed doomsday. The idealism, excitement, and drama of the group-death scenario is one of the elements that both energizes and empowers the bond between leaders and followers in destructive apocalyptic cults.


It is important for all thinking, independent, freedom-loving, and personally-responsible people to be aware of the chicanery of malignant cult leaders. Preventing cult indoctrination and terrorism is ultimately a battle for the civilized Mind and Soul. Hopefully, there will be a victory in our world of healthy narcissism, educated inner responsibility, and altruistic leadership, over the tendency to externalize, project and act out hatred and narcissistic rage. DeMause (pp. 305-307) points to a hopeful and positive solution to both the problem of terrorism and that of destructive cults. He describes a proposed UN-sponsored Marshall Plan designed to reduce the abusive childrearing that is creating the terrorists. As models, DeMause cites Robert McFarland’s 23-year-old Community Parenting Program in Boulder Colorado; the Home Visiting Program run by the state of Colorado; and Margaret R. Kind M.D.’s program in New York City. DeMause says of these remarkable programs and I concur:

I have found during my four decades of research – child abuse and neglect are the central causes of wars, terrorism and social violence, and prevention of terrorism can only be accomplished by helping the family to be more loving, more nurturing and more respectful of their children’s independence (307).


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