Jonestown as a Total Institution:
Why Some People Chose Death over Escape from Peoples Temple

by Phyllis Gardner, M.S.; Mahmoud Sadri, Ph.D; James L. Williams, Ph.D

(This article is a follow-up to an article in last year’s report entitled The Irony of Alienation in a Utopian Society. In that article, Phyllis (Marley) Gardner made the case for social psychological alienation as a contributing factor in the deaths at Jonestown. Here, the authors present Jonestown as a “total institution,” a concept first introduced by Erving Goffman (1961). Structurally, it was the total institution that provided the mechanism through which the aforementioned alienation developed. Ms. Gardner can be reached at pgardner@texarkanacollege.edu. Many parenthetical references have been removed from the original for purposes of readability.

Introduction

When we look at the darker periods of history from the outside, it seems easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. That aerial snapshot of life provides certain clarity. After World War II, people were shocked and sickened at what they learned about the activities of the Nazis in desolate camps across the continent. How could things like that happen? Nearly thirty years ago, 918 people died in Guyana, South America. Some of the dead were murdered, including U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan. The rest appear to be suicides. Some people believe that those deaths were the result of CIA and U.S. government persecution of Peoples Temple, a socialist community (R. Moore 1985). Most commentaries seem to imply an element of racism, either in the persecution or the aftermath, since the majority of the dead were African Americans (R. Moore 1985, R. Moore 2006, Lindt 1982, Stroud 1996). Some have concluded that the deaths were the result of cult members blindly following their paranoid leader (Mancinelli, Comparelli, Girardi and Tatarelli 2002). Still others suggest that many people simply gave up and saw death as a release from torment, whatever its origins (Reiterman 1982, Stroud, Lindt, Layton).

Why did so many people continue their involvement with Jim Jones and Peoples Temple when they had overwhelming evidence that their faith had been misplaced (Stroud, Layton)? Newspapers are replete with accounts of groups such as Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate. Some people lump all of these under the heading of “cult.” But Goldhammer suggests the broader term, destructive groups. Such groups are recognizable by the amount of control exerted by their leaders and the lack of autonomy of the membership. Stories of these groups are alarming but curious. Seemingly average people forsake what most would consider common sense, along with their instincts for survival. Some early theorists tended to believe in the sentiments expressed by the Marquess of Halifax in the late seventeenth century: “There is an accumulative cruelty in a number of men, though none in particular are ill-natured” (Goldhammer). Here a specific idea will be offered as a starting point from which to examine the attitudes of Temple members prior to their deaths. Jonestown was a complex web of obedience and conformity that became what Goffman (1961) called a total institution. Like Goldhammer’s discussion of destructive groups and the control exerted by their leadership, Goffman’s concept of the total institution offers specific steps which lead to an individual’s subservience to authority in coercive circumstances.

Definitions

Obedience

Two forces are primary to the success of destructive groups, according to Goldhammer. The first is obedience. In this case, obedience is best understood by an awareness of Milgram’s (1974) distinction between obedience and conformity. Obedience refers to carrying out the will of an individual in authority. Conformity is acting as a part of a larger group – doing what others are doing. Both involve some actual or implied threat of force or punishment, but obedience is acting alone under another’s authority, while conformity is acting in concert with others.

Milgram pointed out that in studying obedience, one must “take conceptions of authority and translate them into personal experience.” In other words, an abstract, clinical look at obedience explains nothing. Milgram suggested that obedience is something that is deeply ingrained enough to override personal emotions such as guilt, sympathy or a belief in moral conduct. He quoted a previous author, C.P. Snow:

When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. If you doubt that, read William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” The German Officers’ Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience…in the name of obedience they were a party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world.

Looking at obedience to malevolent authority does not confine itself to large-scale evil. Every day people are ordered to destroy a colleague’s reputation, put the competition out of business, or ostracize an individual. Those are ordinary people who are just doing their jobs. They have no particular evil ideas of their own; they just blindly do as they are told. This kind of obedience allows average people to become “agents in a terrible destructive process” (Milgram). Looking at obedience and its application in negative or destructive circumstances, it is easy to take the moral high ground. The proper thing to do would be to obey. Yet to obey becomes an evil act. Still it is the disobedience that we generally see as being wrong, not the act of obeying. So an individual might easily become confused. Milgram believed that people who are obeying an authority figure do not see themselves as in control. They are merely a tool or extension of the authority and therefore not responsible for their actions.

Conformity

The second force in destructive groups – conformity – is about group participation. Milgram referred to people acting in accordance with peers of the same status – people who had no right to impose authority or direct behavior. The term “peer pressure” becomes real in arenas other than adolescence. Solomon Asch (1951) performed experiments in which he sought to examine the nature of conformity. He showed as a result of being in the presence of complete strangers who would lie, an unknowing subject could be manipulated into reporting incorrectly in a simple matter of the length of a few straight lines. In his experiments, several confederates reported incorrectly before the subject spoke. By the time the subject was asked for an opinion about the length of the lines, he or she often reported as the others did, even though it was obvious that they were wrong. Fear and embarrassment were the apparent motivators. The confederates were total strangers to the subjects of the experiments, yet they obviously had influence. This is conformity. Milgram detailed the differences between obedience and conformity:

Hierarchy – Obedience to authority occurs within a structure in which the actor feels that the authority figure has the right to expect compliance. Conformity speaks to the behavior of status equals. Obedience is the link between those of different status.

Imitation – Conformity is imitation. Obedience does not have to be. The group models the behavior for the individual who is to conform. The authority figure need not model, just demand.

Explicitness – Obedience requires a specific order or demand. Conformity can be unspoken or implied. There need not be overt demands placed on an individual in order to gain conformity.

Voluntarism – Milgram stated that people will deny conformity but embrace obedience as an explanation for their behavior. People do not seem to want to admit the degree to which others influence them. It seems to be felt as vulnerability. But somehow, obeying authority is a good defense.

Total Institutions

Goffman makes a strong case for viewing some settings as what he termed “total institutions.” In such cases, the requisite obedience and conformity outlined above are achieved through a much more complex and planned pattern of manipulations on the part of those in authority. In order to explore possible implications of this concept for understanding the deaths at Jonestown, it is important to understand Goffman’s view:

A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.

Goffman continues with a description of what he calls the mortification of self that occurs in such settings, as residents are stripped of everything that they are accustomed to, that defines who they are, and what their standing or identity is, as individuals. The process occurs in seven steps:

Role Dispossession – Individuals are usually defined by a collection of roles, such as mother, friend, employee and wife. In a total institution, residents lose the ability to perform the functions associated with these roles, at least in the manner in which they were accustomed.

Programming and identity-trimming – Admission processes to total institutions, such as gathering personal history, searching belongings and rules orientation are instrumental in turning individuals into “units” that follow predictable paths – a sort of standardization process.

Dispossession of name, property, and “identity kit” – Individuals might be assigned new names, first names only, or I.D. numbers. They are usually deprived of some, if not all of their personal possessions – decisions about which are not made by the individuals, themselves. Loss of personal possessions includes items such as make-up and grooming devices that assist people in maintaining a particular public image.

Imposition of degrading postures, stances, and deference patterns – Previously free citizens must now ask for permission to do basic things like go to the restroom, smoke or watch television. In some cases, they must show deference to those in control by using “sir” or “ma’am” while not having the same deference shown to them. In extreme cases, residents must perform degrading tasks such as standing a certain way or suffering indignities such as teasing or bullying.

Contaminative exposure – This might include the disclosure of private information to others, or more literally, the exposure of self – through strip searches – and exposed or public facilities such as toilets or showers. Less obvious exposures occur when forced mingling with those who are perceived to be of lesser status violates an individual’s perceived status.

Disruption of usual relation of individual actor and his acts – In general society, people can show their distaste for others as a manner and matter of self-expression. These acts serve to protect the individual in his or her own mind from the disrespect of others. In a total institution, such expressions might be prohibited, even punishable.

Restrictions on self-determination, autonomy, and freedom of action – Taken together, the previous six stages serve to strip the individual of the expression of any semblance of self-will, causing them to accept this final step.

The Mortification of Self in Peoples Temple

It is easy to picture the average American, traditional values-oriented family, fully involved and committed to their church. Move this same family to a mosquito-infested jungle with no indoor plumbing, little privacy, personal possessions or “creature comforts” but with an endless thirst for manual labor. Some would argue that not all of the people of Jonestown regretted their circumstances (A. Moore 1978, Q O42 1978, Tropp 1978, Prokes 1979). And though the logic is a bit circular, one could also argue that these individuals’ lack of complaint hints that the mortification process worked better with some than with others. Transcripts of recorded meetings in the jungle indicate acquiescence – not satisfaction (Q 042). And there are some unanswered questions about the transcript of the final hours of the Peoples Temple because this tape – as were so many others recorded by Jim Jones – appears to have been edited. And if it was edited, how could that be, if everyone was dead? McGehee (2002) discusses another audiotape found that is of newscasts that were aired the day after the suicides (Q 875 1978). The existence of a recording after everyone was to have died suggests that perhaps some, even Jones, himself, did not die until at least a day later – leaving ample time to edit out dissenting voices from the so-called “Death Tape.” Still, two people who died left written “last words” that made clear the vision that they had for their community and their belief that it was being destroyed from without – not within (A. Moore, Tropp).

Nonetheless, many survivor accounts paint a picture that includes some disgruntled followers who feared for their safety if they made their disappointment known (Stroud, Layton). Below is an overview of those privately guarded complaints, as they relate to Goffman’s steps to the mortification of self.

Role Dispossession

Goffman described role dispossession in terms of the lack of freedom to schedule one’s own day in such a way that fulfilling one role did not interfere with another. Some former members reported having their entire day dictated to them. In some cases, followers were unable to care for sick family members because of the demands of the work schedule. Instead, these individuals were forced to abdicate responsibility for their loved ones to the assigned others.

In another case, Layton told the story of a woman who toiled to develop a recipe for good tasting, nutritious jam using only the foods available at the compound. When she proudly offered one to Jones, he rebuked her publicly for wasting the valuable resources of the people on a frivolous pursuit. This woman had prided herself in being a good cook, but her efforts at continuing in this part of her identity only caused her to be shamed by the very individual with whom she sought to curry favor.

These people became drones with no other purpose than to do as they were told. There was no creative expression – that would have been viewed as selfish (Layton, Kahalas 1998).

Programming and identity trimming

Goffman references a process that shapes and classifies the individual into “an object that can be fed into the administrative machinery of the establishment.” Upon arrival at the jungle compound, a member had all of his or her belongings searched, and they were told the basic rules of what was allowed and expected at the compound. It was here that people were assigned a place to sleep, as well as given specific jobs, such as field worker, security guard, caregiver or cook (Stroud). Part of the human identity that is tied to roles is our belief in the value of our contribution. At Jonestown, residents were regularly reminded that they only served as tools by which greater things would be accomplished.

Dispossession of name, property, and “identity kit”

As previously mentioned, followers gave up all possessions upon entering the jungle “utopia.” One survivor (Stroud) told of the long journey to the jungle by boat, only to have to spend the next hour being searched and having his clothing taken from him. Residents were allowed a certain number of clothing items, and the rest went into a common pool for future use by those deemed to be in need. In addition, individuals who were taking medications were shocked to have their prescriptions taken from them. Make-up and extensive collections of personal hygiene items, such as hair rollers or colognes, were confiscated. But remember, these were not jungle people – they were average families who gave up their private lives to follow Jones.

Imposition of degrading postures, stances, and deference patterns

Survivors recounted the many sleepless nights as Jones read the news – or railed at them – from loud speakers all night long. Many of these all night sessions included what Jones called “white night” drills. These were rehearsals for the mass suicide that was to eventually become real. Followers were awakened in the night by the sound of Jones’ voice calling them to come. They must obey, Jones told them, because the government was out to destroy them. In their sacrificial act, they would find salvation and deny the government satisfaction for its evil plot. They did as they were told and lined up to drink Flavor Aid that was to contain poison. More than once, they did so without question.

Every day, workers sweated in the fields with little food or water, doing exactly as they were told out of fear of punishment. They grew vegetables and sugar cane, yet they rarely saw these foods on their tables, and eating even one little piece of sugarcane from the fields was considered to be stealing from the people – grounds for being sent to the “learning crew.” The learning crew was a work detail that was required to do everything in double-time. They ran to their assignments and were expected to produce even more than the others (Stroud).

The Jonestown operation did not allow for any deviation from Jones’ rules. Followers who complained and asked to leave were as likely as not to wind up in a secret barracks, under sedation (Stroud, Layton). The mere existence of “learning crews” and secret barracks of sedated followers makes it very clear that the structure was firmly in place to deal with any straying from the goals of the leaders. Other examples can be traced all the way back to the days before moving to the jungle compound. Survivors and apostates have told of public meetings that were held to chastise individual members for various transgressions (Stroud). These Temple members were expected to sit silently, with heads bowed, as other members of the Temple hierarchy publicly criticized them – even exposing private family matters to the entire congregation.

Contaminative exposure

Deborah Layton’s story of the woman who made jam and the public shaming she received is an example of the kind of humiliation that was commonplace within the culture of the group. Jonestown had an atmosphere of isolation from the outset (Stroud, Layton). People did not form close relationships beyond a certain point because private thoughts confided in a weak moment could end up relayed to Temple leaders. Such confessions of unhappiness or criticism were met with public humiliation or even more harsh punishment. One survivor remembers going into one particular barracks that was supposed to be part of the infirmary (Stroud). While inside, he saw a couple of members asleep in beds. The faces he saw were the faces of members that Jones had announced had chosen to leave the Temple – one of them months before. Layton corroborated this with her account of the special barracks where many outspoken or complaining members were kept sedated, using the medications taken from other members as they arrived at the compound for the first time.

Disruption of usual relation of individual actor and his acts

While the story of Jonestown is rife with examples of this disruption or denial of one’s usual recourse, the one that sticks out most vividly relates to the way parents lost the ability to discipline their own children. Further, Temple members were encouraged to tell on their peers. Layton reports that she never knew whom to trust for fear that anything she said would be repeated to church authorities. Such a consequence limited residents’ ability to deal with others effectively. Imagine a situation where one individual just wants to take a break from working in the fields. The person is tired and just wants to sit for a few minutes to rest. Living in this compound was supposed to be voluntary. Therefore one’s contribution, logically, should also have been voluntary. Yet failure to do exactly as prescribed was a guarantee that someone would report that individual – who would then be assigned to a “learning crew.” Confronting the person who told would not be an option, simply because it would result in more reporting. So while one’s instinct might be to confront the individual for interfering in a personal decision, to do so could have dire consequences.

Because of the atmosphere of Jonestown, people learned to keep their mouths shut, tell no one their innermost thoughts, and turn in anyone who failed to do the same because it might be a test of loyalty! Jones had the members convinced that sometimes people would tell them things that they didn’t really feel in order to test their loyalty to the Temple. Failing to turn in the so-called traitor meant failing the test and putting oneself in jeopardy.

Restrictions on self-determination, autonomy and freedom of action

Although followers were forced to work the fields, they did not all regularly enjoy the benefits. Many insist that they rarely saw the fruits and vegetables that they farmed. Some survivors reported eating mostly rice and gravy. They also reported that followers knew their own duties but often knew little about what others were doing or what was going on with Temple leadership. One member remembers working as part of the security detail and carrying a gun although he was never really sure what they were guarding because he saw no signs of the people Jones insisted were hiding in the jungle ready to strike at any moment.

There are numerous accounts of the fieldwork and the people’s bewilderment at what they were doing there. They were disillusioned with the whole system, unable to see Jones’ grand vision for the sweat in their eyes and the bugs on their skin. Seeman (1959) referred to people feeling a sense of meaninglessness by being unsure of what they ought to believe. Certainly some survivors reported such feelings because they knew that they were supposed to be happy to be making the sacrifices they were making, but they didn’t feel grateful, and they certainly didn’t see the point. This resulted in strong feelings of guilt as well as confusion. There was a feeling of disconnectedness from the real goals of the organization. Some said that they felt like prisoners in a situation that they did not understand because their activities did not seem to properly relate to the stated mission of the leaders, such as a pacifist organization having guns. In this atmosphere of fear, emotional isolation was both a defense and a consequence.

Workers had no decision-making authority, so information was pointless anyway. Every aspect of the followers’ daily lives was dictated to them. In addition, they had no means of escape, so there was no incentive for those in authority to behave any differently.

Conclusion: Life and Death in a Total Institution

Goffman clearly believed that life in a total institution made people controllable. He was speaking more of institutional settings in the traditional sense of prisons and mental hospitals, but the central features are the same: the control of self through the denial of self. Whether in a prison, mental hospital, religious cult or other destructive group, the absence of personal identity and the continuous degradation led to a kind of alienation from self that must have made the idea of death seem tempting.

There were complex reasons why so many people chose to die, and for many of the dead, it seems to have had precious little to do with loyalty. Certainly, there is evidence that some followers remained loyal to Jones until the end, but that same evidence suggests that these people were probably in the minority (Layton, A. Moore, Reiterman 1998, Stroud, Tropp, Q 042). The rest were held in place by a calculated combination of factors that caused them to be more easily manipulated. This is the hallmark of the total institution. Rather than viewing Jonestown as a bizarre tragedy carried out by zealots or the mentally ill, we should focus our attention upon the salient explanations found in interpretive sociology. Each individual who joined and stayed with Peoples Temple brought his or her own reasoning, pathological or otherwise. The common element, however, is sociological not psychological in nature. To miss the sociological element is to miss the essential component of understanding its nature, causes and outcome.

Jim Jones set up his model Utopia, and then through a variety of mechanisms he destroyed it before it ever fully came into being. It seems that Jones could not resist the temptations of control and superiority, thus he unwittingly created a total institution or at least allowed his closest followers to do so. But he lacked the formal authority to keep outsiders, such as Congressman Ryan, from invading. Coupled with his reported drug addiction and paranoia, Jones was unable to sustain his perfect system (Stroud, Layton). So while he espoused openness, he behaved with greed and secrecy. While he lectured on giving according to ability and need, he took while others suffered. While he enticed new followers with a sense of belonging, he rewarded them with a profound sense of isolation and meaninglessness. It was that isolation and meaninglessness that most likely led Temple members to be willing to die, not mental illness or zealotry.

There have been other tragedies like Jonestown, but they pale in comparison when one considers the number of lives involved. Still, when such a story appears in the news, people speak of the tragedy, then just shrug at the crazy things people do. So what happened at Jonestown is largely viewed as a freak action taken by an extremist group. Such actions in today’s world happen not in the far away jungles, but in our cities and among our families. And the victims are not the followers, but the unsuspecting and unprepared. Perhaps in this “post-September 11th world,” we need to take a more serious look at what causes people to blindly follow another – even to the point of death.

Works Cited

Asch, Solomon. 1951. “The Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortions of Judgment.” H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Goldhammer, John. 1996. Under the Influence: The Destructive Effects of Group Dynamics. New York: Prometheus Books.

Kahalas, Laurie. 1998. Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown. New York: Red Robin Press.

Layton, Deborah. 1998. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. New York: Anchor Books.

Lindt, Gillian. “Journeys to Jonestown: Accounts and Interpretations of the Rise and Demise of the Peoples Temple.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review. Vol. XXXVII, 1 & 2, Fall/Winter 1981-1982.

Mancinelli, Ignina, Anna Comparelli, Paolo Girardi and Roberto Tatarelli. 2002. “Mass suicide: Historical and psychodynamic considerations.” Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior. Vol. 32 (1) p. 91-100.

McGehee, Fielding. 2002. November 19 tape adds perplexing postscript: A commentary.

Milgram, Stanley. 2004 [1974]. Obedience and Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper Collins.

Moore, Annie. 1978. Last Words.

Moore, Rebecca. 1985. A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple. Lewiston/Queenston: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Moore, Rebecca. 2006. The Demographics of Jonestown.

Prokes, Michael. 1979. Statement at his suicide/press conference.

Q 042 transcript (also known as “The Death Tape”)

Q 875 summary.

Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. 1982. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc.

Reiterman, Tim. 1998. “Remembering Jonestown: Twenty years after the mass deaths in Guyana, a reporter tells how time has not diminished the horror.” Los Angeles Times. 11-14-98.

Seeman, Melvin. 1959. “On the Meaning of Alienation.” American Sociological Review. 24:783-91.

Stroud, Robert. 1996. Unpublished interview.

Tropp, Richard. 1978. Last Words.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 26th, 2020.
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