Temple Healings: Magical Thinking

A subject of continuing and understandable interest among those interested in the life of Peoples Temple is the genuineness of Jim Jones’ paranormal ministry. Inasmuch as Jim’s healings and apparent psychic power were the glue that held us together as a group, it’s important to consider their role in the structure of the Temple community, the overwhelming personal authority they conferred upon Jim, and, indeed, their genuineness.

To be sure, my assertion that Jim’s paranormal ministry was the glue which held us together is highly controversial within the survivor community. We very much wish to believe that we were there to implement our progressive ideals. In many ways that’s true. It is equally true that few organizations had the structure, motivation, resources, and commitment to engage as well as we did. As a young person, who had a very close personal connection with Jim (at 18, I became Jim’s designated successor), the Temple was indeed heady stuff. Nevertheless, there are many organizations that exist to implement progressive ideals and we didn’t belong to them. Why not? I submit it’s because of the certainty of our belief in the correctness of our vision.

And why were we so certain that ours was the true path? Well, if we’re honest, it’s because Jim asserted that it was so. And why did we believe Jim? Because he was God!! Even for those of us who didn’t believe he was God, we believed he was a being of universal significance. Again, why did we so believe? If we’re honest, we have to admit, it’s because of his apparent psychic ministry and healing ability.

It’s all too easy for non-Temple members to raise an eyebrow in smug disavowal of such beliefs. To them I say, you weren’t there and you simply cannot appreciate the emotional power of those services. The overwhelming belief of a couple of thousand enthusiastic Temple members (and nobody does enthusiastic as well as we did!) combined with prophecies and revelations, which seemed perfectly legitimate, literally made my hair stand on end.

The question about the genuineness of Jim’s psychic “gifts” is really two separate questions: the first, is usually expressed thus: “Do you think Jim had real healing power and psychic ability?” The second is: “Were people really healed?”

I’d like to dispose of the second question first. I genuinely believe many individuals were healed of various, and often nameless, ailments. The placebo effect has a long and honored history in the annals of medicine and worked as well in the Temple as it does on E/R.

With respect to Jim’s “healing power and psychic ability,” I’ve read a number of personal comments in the jonestown report about Jim’s paranormal ministry and I’ve listened to any number of people discuss Jim’s cures and arrive at the conclusion that in some respects, at least, Jim did indeed know that which “no one could possibly know.”

Let’s look at this logically, even though that’s not as simple as you might think. I think we survivors tend to have an understandable bias in favor of the Temple ministry partly to assuage our personal guilt at having been part of an organization which came to so brutal an end, and to justify the gift of so much of ourselves. Also, it’s psychologically imperative (as it would be for anyone) to believe that the object of our overwhelming dedication surely had some positive value. Otherwise, we feel we must condemn ourselves for our gullibility – and surely, well intentioned and well educated people like us cannot have been so foolish. Unfortunately, history is replete with examples of extraordinary people who’ve unwittingly allied themselves with dastardly causes and suffered disastrous consequences. It wasn’t all that long ago that millions of highly civilized, good Germans (not to mention a good many accomplished Americans like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh), fell willingly under the sway of Hitler and Nazism.

As for the “paranormal ministry,” it shouldn’t be a matter of “he said/she said” in deciding whether or not to believe in it. After all, such a ministry is so extraordinary that common sense dictates the proponent must bear the obligation of proving it with clear and convincing evidence. Separate and apart from my personal experience with Jim’s “psychic power,” I’ve reviewed nearly all the comments on this website. In the case of eyewitness reports, the comments are based on thirty- to forty-year-old memories or some passing comment by Jim that an individual “will be fine,” or the notion that a doctor or, better yet, several doctors had concluded that an ailment, which Jim subsequently cured, was incurable. This is not to say those making these claims are nonsensical or, worse yet, insincere. Often the individuals asserting them are highly educated, well-intentioned, and thoughtful people. But I also think it was loose thinking such as this that landed us in the Temple trap in the first place.

Clearly, this is not simply a phenomenon of my community of Temple survivors. Many people, individually and in religious, social, and political movements around the world, seem so desperate for charismatic leaders who have “the answers,” that they happily surrender common sense and reason. By way of example, I happened to surf the website of the famed skeptic, James Randi, and was entertained by his vociferous debate with the silly television psychic, Sylvia Browne. I noted in a comment by one of her adherents, that Ms. Browne accurately predicted the cure of said adherent’s ailment, previously deemed incurable by four doctors. Sound familiar? Perhaps the extraordinary cost of medical malpractice coverage suggests the high level of imperfect diagnosis and treatment by the very medical establishment which occasioned such erroneous conclusions. Of course, I assume the adherent is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Am I saying this good lady lied? Not at all, it’s just that, like the rest of us, she reports those items that square with her belief (perhaps even exaggerates a little) and ignores evidence which does not.

Of course, someone may ask, what was my experience with Jim’s psychic power and why do I think he had none? Hold on now: As I mentioned, common sense does not require that I prove this particular negative. Rather, those who “believe” must bear the burden of proof. Moreover, does anyone seriously contend that Jim Jones is someone to whom we should grant “the benefit of the doubt”? Would we do it for any other mass murderer, psychopath, thief, liar, and fraud (his son’s term)? No, I don’t think so either.

Having said that, I offer my own experiences with Jim’s paranormal ministry.

My first experience was based on an incident in Santa Rosa, California, in late 1966, when I was a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College. As my Temple friends may recall, I aspired to be a musician and played tenor sax in the Temple choir and band. Innocently enough, I accepted an invitation to play a pick-up session with a local rock band. During the set, four or five middle-aged men – in suits, no less – walked in and stood silently for awhile until we finished the set. Immediately, uniformed policemen entered the room through doors and windows and ordered us all to remain where we were. The middle aged gentlemen, whom I thought were simply well dressed aficionados of straight ahead rock, pulled out badges and repeated that order. They promptly searched the place for “drugs” and performed some fascinating chemical tests on the cigarette ashes they found in the ash trays. Evidently, a neighbor had reported us to the police because. to her ears at least, we sounded like we were playing on marijuana (I still don’t know if that meant we were good or bad). Clearly disappointed by their lack of success in finding the hoped-for incriminating evidence, the policemen gave us all warnings, and left as suddenly as they’d arrived.

The following weekend, when I was speaking on the phone with Jim on other matters, I mentioned the incident to him. He admonished me, quite understandably, to stay away from the guys in the band. A week or so later, I saw a headline in the local newspaper in which one of them had been arrested for marijuana possession. I mentioned this to Jim and spoke briefly about it publicly in a Temple meeting.

As my Temple friends may recall, this story is the basis of my principal “testimony.” Of course, my oft-repeated testimony slightly rearranged the truth. After I first spoke about this experience publicly, Jim pulled me aside and thanked me for my comments but asked that I change my “testimony” (1) by eliminating any reference to our first phone call in which I casually informed him of the incident and (2) by asserting that he called me, told me what had happened, and instructed me to stay away from the musicians who’d been busted. He justified his request simply by saying that while the story as I told it had some meaning to us (him and me), it would be misunderstood by anyone else. I’m still not sure how that tracked. Nevertheless, loyalist that I was (and on my own initiative), I further enhanced the story by adding that all the musicians had been arrested.

My second experience occurred much more spectacularly in the Los Angeles Temple in the early 1970’s. In those days, I managed the offering crew, which counted the funds raised in the many offerings taken in each of our services. As I walked to the podium in the middle of a large Saturday meeting to give Jim the totals of the day’s collections, he lifted his hands in a flourish and in amplified voice told me to stop and clear my mind. He explained to the congregation that he was going to perform the afternoon’s healings remotely through me. On Jim’s incantation, and to the hushed astonishment of the congregants, I named three people (the only name I recall is that of Exie Elleby) I did not know, told them about items in their homes, identified ailments they suffered, and pronounced them cured. As I recall, all three of them swooned and the building itself seemed to rock as the entire assembly erupted in pandemonium. To be sure, this was an extraordinary and magical moment.

The choice of words here is deliberate: it was magical, not paranormal. Earlier in the day on the Temple bus caravan to Los Angeles (and who can forget them), I was called to Jim’s quarters on Bus Seven. He described the eventful healing service he was planning for the afternoon and explained that I would be called upon to participate in the healings of a few of the parishioners. Although I was honored to participate in any endeavor to advance the “cause,” I suffered from stage fright and was assuredly no psychic. Jim brushed aside my self-doubt with a laugh and a pat on the back. He told me to see Carolyn Layton, his chief of staff, for details then sent me on my way.

Dutifully, and with butterflies massing for an assault on my queasy stomach, I met with Carolyn, who gave me three blue 3” by 5” cards, which displayed highly personal details about each of three Los Angeles Temple members, who were unknown to me (including Exie Elleby). This information included the individual’s prescription medications, unusual household objects, specific articles of clothing (and where they were located), etc. Carolyn instructed me to memorize all the details on each card, explained how the healings would be staged and, much like a theatrical director, assisted me in preparing for my role and shored up my confidence.

Although I don’t wish to digress, perhaps, I should offer my thoughts on Jim’s reasons for engaging in this particular shenanigan. First, and perhaps most important, he enjoyed the theatrical – and you may be sure it was great theatre. Indeed, I was so moved by the assembly’s response that I nearly believed it was real. And, of course, great theatre meant bigger “box office receipts” – or in Temple parlance, larger offerings. Second, given my status as Jim’s designated successor, I think he wanted to show the congregation that even in his absence, he could use those he’d chosen to continue his “healing ministry.”

So, what’s it all mean? We were bamboozled. That doesn’t make us bad or stupid. I think everyone knew most of the healings were fake. We just hoped, against all reason, that some were in fact “genuine.” And aren’t we all (this means you non-Temple folk, too) tempted by the notion that “a little evil in support of a great good” (to wit: our single-minded belief) is perfectly acceptable. Nevertheless, we do ourselves, our community, and our world a disservice in attempting to defend the indefensible. Moreover, given the ancient legal dictum, “Falsum in uno, falsum in omnibus” (false in one thing, false in all things), it’s obvious, even to a blind horse, the healings were utterly and preposterously fake!

Perhaps, the real lesson here is that we must each resist the urge to believe. The great jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., once observed that the essence of freedom of thought is the freedom for the thought we hate. None of us wants our “reasonably held” (and we’re too smart to be unreasonable, aren’t we) views questioned. Yet, we must subject our beliefs to continued scrutiny if we, as a species, are to avoid another Jonestown.

(Mike Cartmell is a former member of Peoples Temple. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at mbcartmell@aol.com.)