The Perception of Mass Suicide with Hysteria

Branch Davidians. Heaven’s Gate. Images associated with these names raise some of the most fundamental and perplexing questions of our time. How is it that a person can join a group, submit to punishment for the smallest infraction, and still profess loyalty and allegiance to that establishment? Why do otherwise decent, well-meaning parents allow their children to be used as sexual objects for the person who is head of such an organization? Why is it that so many follow the leads of those who have fallen by the wayside? Why does cult-like behavior continue?

Jonestown, led by Jim Jones, certainly represents a turning point in the group behavior and public perception of extremist religions, much as the more recent examples mentioned above. More than 900 souls proceeded to lay down their lives for their “father.” There were many kinds of abuse – physical, sexual, and mental – at Jonestown. As with all the other religious operations that become extreme, Jones started out on a well-meaning and good-natured role of recovery, rehabilitation, and resurrection of lost and wayward souls.

What was it that interested me in Jonestown? First and foremost, even before I decided to study to be a psychologist, I wanted to understand the reasoning behind people’s actions. I have always been interested in serial killers and other aberrations of society, as well as mental illnesses and the possibilities of a cure. I do believe, as Freud stated, that the unconscious is the major motivational factor for what is actually shown “outside” a person, that is, the conscious. It is easy to see, for instance, why a mother would steal a loaf of bread for her starving children. They are hungry. But why would a person kill, lead others to commit murders, rape and other criminalities? Is there a “wiring problem” in that person’s inner being, or is it the power aspect? It would be beneficial to the world if we could get rid of all murderers, all manipulators, and all those people who make the rest of us lock our doors and windows at night, who will not allow us to let our children go outside to play without being chained to us at the hip.

When it came to requesting Jonestown tapes, I thought I could find what I was looking for in a tape of Congressman Leo Ryan addressing the Jonestown community on the evening of November 17, and the actual death tape. I wanted to hear the final moments of Jonestown. I do not want to upset or aggravate you with that comment, but to me, listening to the final moments of Jonestown is much like being able to go back and witness a murder after it happened, and to decide who did it and why. I found it amazing that, even though the people of Jonestown had been told there was an option of escape to the Soviet Union, they would not even allow the subject to be brought up more than twice after Jones himself knocked it down. Residents were so enthralled with Jones that hardly any of them could believe that his seemingly inexplicable dismissal of that promise had anything to do with his dream of a martyrdom.

Today we watch television and movies and become accustomed over time to more blood and gore. The same applied to the followers of Jim Jones. If Jones started out with a light punishment for stealing food – a few hours in the sensory deprivation box, for example – the miscreant, as well as the observers, would more likely accept it. Administer the same punishment for the same crime – but increase the amount of time – and no one would notice. Months later, long periods in the box and other deprivation tools, such as drugs, would sometimes not seem to be enough.

Psychology of human beings has always been the same. If a person sees a group of others accepting something, he or she is more likely to accept and go along with what has happened. Thirty-eight people witnessed the murder of Kitty Genovese one night in 1964, and no one did anything to stop it. In my opinion, the same thing happened in Jonestown: 900 people witnessed their families, children, friends being “murdered,” and the protest amounted to a single shouted-down dissent.

In my mind, it was murder, not suicide. While not exactly committed in the right frame of mind, suicide usually occurs because of feelings that the person has from inside them, not transplanted into them by another person. For instance, Bob at work can tell you that you are fat, and that might lead you over time to kill yourself. But, if you believe it yourself – that you are fat – then that is considered more suicidal. However, if Bob helps starve you to death so you can lose weight, that is considered murder on Bob’s part. Jones did the same thing. He told the people what they wanted to hear – that he would always protect them, care for them, and love them – then he would have sex with them, punish them, and treat them badly, and the ideals were so ingrained inside the parishioners that they refused to leave.

All of us – Ph.D. candidates, trash collectors, schoolteachers, preachers, biologists, and songwriters -can say that we are too smart, too strong in our own thoughts to ever be brainwashed and brought into a cult or exhibit a Stockholm Syndrome. Strip away the foundations of our world, such as a comfortable home, a reliable means of transportation, and a cushy office job, and send us to a place where we cannot change – or even challenge – the rules and boundaries of our new environment, change our ideals, habits, and mindset over time, and anyone can be converted. Minor conversions happen all the time, and all over the world. If Tina keeps missing her curfew after dates, her parents may ground her. After a certain number of groundings, Tina will start coming in on time, or even earlier. If Ted flunks his Statistics test, and his parents take away his car for a month, Ted might learn how to study more and receive a passing grade on his next test and get his car back. These “conversions” happen all the time. They just usually are not life-threatening or long-lasting.

Unfortunately, for those 900 in Jonestown, we cannot go back and change the conditions or the circumstances or the leadership or the outcome. Hopefully, though, the study of what happened at Jonestown – as partially revealed in these tapes – can help us find a “cure” to the mania of mentally unstable cult leaders.