Peoples Temple:
From Social Movement To Total Institution

(This article is edited and reprinted with permission from Social Movements: Contemporary Perspectives. 2008. Dentice, Dianne and James L. Williams (eds.) Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholarly Pub.)

On November 18, 1978, more than 900 residents of Jonestown died in their jungle compound in Guyana. Known as Peoples Temple, they were the core members of a social movement organized as a church and were, in fact, a recognized member of the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant Christian denomination (Reiterman 1982). In reality Peoples Temple had become an agrarian experiment built on socialist principles; the pretense of religion was discarded long before the organization relocated to Guyana (Layton 1998). For a variety of reasons which will be explored later, Peoples Temple evolved into a militant total institution, complete with weapons, talk of revenge against enemies and threats of revolutionary suicide (Stroud 1996).

Conflicting stories about the conditions at Jonestown, goals of the organization, the mental stability of the leadership and outside interference have all fueled nearly thirty years of debate over the actual reasons behind the deaths. In addition, questions remain about whether or not Jonestown was a cult, religion or political movement. The reasons for the deaths are complicated and will be addressed later, but the answer to the second question is simple: Jonestown was part of the social movement known first as Peoples Temple.

One perspective of social movements is offered by McCarthy and Zald (1977), who suggest that a social movement is a set of opinions and beliefs held by a population which are directed toward some change in the status quo with regard to social structure and/or the distribution of rewards in that population. Well-documented goals and philosophies make the case for classifying Peoples Temple as a social movement.

While the organization resembled a church at first, it became a socialist community (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). Members believed that personal property was wrong – that people should live with only what they need. They believed in pooling economic resources to support the elderly and the young. Their goal was to live in a communal environment where the able would work to support the unable, regardless of relationship. Ultimately, they sought to spread their practices of communal living all over the country. Jim Jones involved himself in local politics and taught his members how to affect change in government through letter-writing and public demonstrations. When public opinion started to turn against the movement, they fled to South America, where they hoped to set up a completely autonomous community. They hoped to eventually become self-sustaining and prove to the world that their way was the right way (Stroud 1996).

Still, we tend to think of social movements as bringing about positive change, if they succeed. In this case, Peoples Temple became a destructive group that clashed with mainstream society. Beginning in California and ending in Jonestown, Guyana were a series of confrontations that culminated in the deaths of nearly all of the Temple members. The purpose of this paper is to explore the causes of the failure of Peoples Temple and to determine what we can learn about the existence and course of destructive social movements. The focus is on what happens when a social movement, such as Peoples Temple, becomes a total institution (Goffman 1961). After a definition of important terms, we present a case study of Peoples Temple, drawing on evidence from survivors to illustrate the shift from social movement to total institution, culminating in the mass murder-suicides. To expand our discussion, we draw on Goldhammer’s (1996) work on destructive groups, and most centrally, on Goffman’s (1961) work on the total institution. Here we identify the central features of the total institution and illustrate how these applied in the case of the Jonestown community.


Destructive Groups

Before we can understand destructive groups, or credibly attach such a label to Peoples Temple, we must first define the term and then try to understand the forces at work. Goldhammer (1996) defines a destructive group as one that is dangerous as opposed to benign. Destructive groups are considered by their leaders to be more important than any individual member; therefore members give up freedom, autonomy and any sense of self in order to function as part of the group. When Goldhammer (1996) writes about his experiences with the Ann Ree Colton Foundation of Niscience, he writes about many types of groups he termed “destructive.” Types of destructive groups, such as certain religious groups, have common characteristics that Goldhammer terms “heaven and hell.” In “heaven” there is the illusion of superiority and exclusivity, independence and freedom. Those who conform can expect security and protection, respect from others, power, prestige, status – even fame. They have success, (relative) wealth, luxury and the worship of others below. “Hell” includes isolation, economic failure, bankruptcy, poverty and unemployment. There is no health insurance or retirement plan, and there may be homelessness. Being part of the system has great rewards, but punishment can mean being thrown out of the system.

Goldhammer (1996) offers a more extensive list of characteristics, traits and attitudes that destructive groups seem to have in common.

These include:

* Authoritarianism; centralized power structure with secrecy between levels; unquestioned obedience
* Peer pressure characterized by coolness, ridicule, isolation, public humiliation orembarrassment
* Propaganda, public testimonials and information control
* Scapegoating, negative labeling of dissenters, and we/they thinking
* Effusive praise and flattery for leaders; outsiders are seen as threatening; enemy making
* Excessive business; group usurps family; mission more important than individual
* Fear or guilt about leaving the group; need for leader’s permission for every act
* Feelings of superiority and exclusiveness
* Group leaders intrude into personal life choices
* Overuse of plural pronouns: we, they, us, them; loaded language: special clichés, jargon and slogans


Two forces are primary to the success of destructive groups. 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 (1974) points 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 suggests that obedience is something that is deeply ingrained enough to override personal emotions such as guilt, sympathy or a belief in moral conduct.

But 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. At work they are ordinary people doing their jobs. These are people who have no particular evil ideas of their own; they just blindly do as they are told. This kind of obedience allows average folks to become “agents in a terrible destructive process” (Milgram 1974). Looking at obedience to those in authority, it is easy to take the moral high ground. The proper thing to do is to obey. Yet in negative or destructive circumstances, to obey becomes an evil act. Still it is the act of disobeying that we generally see as being wrong, not the act of obeying. So an individual might easily become confused. Milgram believes 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.


The second force in destructive groups, conformity, is about group participation. Milgram (1974) refers 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 learn about conformity. He showed that merely by 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. It worked like this: 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 apparent 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 (1974) details 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 states 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 (1961) makes a highly influential case for viewing some settings as what he terms total institutions. In such cases, obedience and conformity are achieved through a much more complex and planned pattern of manipulations on the part of those in authority. In order to explore possible explanations for 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 several 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 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 an individual’s perceived status is violated by forced mingling with those who are perceived to be of lesser status.

Disruption of customary actions by the individual – 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 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.

Many of the above items are tactics that are used to bring conformity, while others foster obedience. Certainly the characteristics of destructive groups are complementary to the tactics used in a total institution. Authoritarianism and secrecy, for example, help delineate the powerful from the followers (Goldhammer 1996). Clear distinctions between those in control and others encourage and promote obedience. At the same time, excessive praise of leaders and busy work for members promote conformity. Feelings of superiority and exclusivity have the same effect. Loaded language, repetition, overuse of pronouns and dress codes are all ways of encouraging conformity. Loaded language usually includes polarizing language that defines everything in “best” and “worst” terms. In addition to the seemingly positive ways of promoting obedience and conformity, there are negatives. Punishment for failure to conform or obey takes many forms. Humiliation, negative labeling, and scapegoating are examples.

Case Study: Peoples Temple at Jonestown

The following sections offer a picture of life as a follower of Jim Jones, within the context of the  manipulation associated with destructive groups. It will become clear that Goldhammer’s (1996) description of a destructive group is actually a different perspective on, or perhaps results in establishing, a total institution, as defined by Goffman (1961). The aforementioned steps of the mortification of self that occur in total institutions and their presence in this organization, one that was supposed to have been founded on the principles of equality or socialism, suggest a possible explanation for the “surrender” of so many lives.

Few would argue that Jim Jones used his position as leader of a church to further his real goal of building a socialist community (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). People who joined his organization believed that they were becoming part of a movement that could change the world. Jones’ sermons tended to be more about Marx than Jesus. He commented privately that the church was the best way to reach people to bring them into his dream of a utopian society free from capitalist influences and racist beliefs (Layton 1998). Jonestown was a commune. People gave up most, if not all of their personal possessions when they first arrived in the jungle. They worked in the fields in the hot sun for 12 to 14 hours a day in order to grow the food needed to support the people. One of the people who believed in this way of life was “Bobby”. He was a survivor of the mass suicide/murders at Jonestown (Stroud 1996). The narrative here is based on several hours of recorded interviews with Bobby. Although it is the personal account of one survivor, information from another survivor’s account (Layton 1998) is included both to corroborate and expand the account of the primary source.

Growing up in Peoples Temple (Stroud 1996) Bobby grew up in Northern California. His mother and stepfather joined a church in the area, a non-denominational church filled with friendly people who all seemed to be very involved in the church. Bobby remembers getting into a fistfight with a boy who was a year or two older than he was. This was right after they moved into the neighborhood. The older boy was showing off for his friends by picking on the much smaller Bobby. But somehow, they wound up becoming close friends. The bully was Stephan Jones, the only biological child of Jim Jones, leader of Peoples Temple – the church Bobby’s family had recently joined. So Bobby grew up in Peoples Temple and the Jones’ living room. (Incidentally, Bobby insisted that Stephan was not really a bully and he apologized for his behavior when they met, apparently feeling very badly about it. His act of contrition caught Bobby off guard but helped to cement the friendship.)

Bobby remembers that the church was bustling with activity every day after school and on weekends as well. He spent the night with the Jones family nearly every weekend and felt that Jim Jones was as much his father as he was Stephan’s. The older Jones often built tents in the living room with the boys and talked to them for hours about politics and morality. Before Bobby was old enough for his voice to change, he could recite Marxist philosophy, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Bobby said that his Sunday school teacher spent several hours every Sunday and on other evenings during the week teaching a small group of adolescent boys. They talked about God, politics, Marx – even sex. She was a mentor and advisor in all areas. Before long, Peoples Temple was involved in every facet of Bobby’s family’s life. His stepfather was a mechanic who was expected to work on church members’ cars without charging them. His mother spent many hours cooking for church functions, writing letters in the Temple’s numerous letter writing campaigns, and doing whatever else was asked of her by church “counselors.”

Eventually, Bobby’s parents became disillusioned with the church’s intrusion into their lives and began to withdraw. Church leaders picked up on this, and so did Bobby. Bobby was very loyal to the church and to his friends, the Joneses. Angry with his parents, he fought bitterly with them about their involvement with the church. Church leaders came over at all hours of the night to talk to the family about their problems. But what they were really doing was using Bobby to bring his parents back into line. They came to the parents and told them that they knew that Bobby was misbehaving and causing family problems. Bobby said that they knocked on their door at about one a.m. one night and woke up his entire family. They spent hours scolding Bobby and shaming him for treating his parents badly. Bobby felt betrayed because the church was the issue dividing him from his parents. It was his blind loyalty to the church that drove him to disrespect his parents. He had heard them complaining about giving so much of their income and spending so much of their time on church matters, and he had yelled at them and berated them for their sin and selfishness. He had told church counselors about his parents’ failures, and now they had betrayed him. Needless to say, the parents were thrilled with the counselors’ position on the issue, and they once again embraced the church as a force in their lives that they needed. What they did not know was that after browbeating Bobby for half the night, Jim Jones winked at him when he was out of sight of his parents. The whole evening had been a carefully staged act designed to get the parents feeling good about the church again – binding them together in the face of a common enemy, an errant child.

Eventually the family fell away from the church again and moved out of town in order to create distance between themselves and a church that continued to have a hold on their son. Bobby grew up and went into the Navy. But when he wanted out of the Navy, it was Jones that he called, not his parents. Using his political connections, Jim wrote some letters, and Bobby was back in Peoples Temple – without his parents. He gladly went with them to South America so that they could get away from “those who would have them destroyed.”

The Mortification of Self in the 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 (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). Still, two survivors 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 (Moore 1978, Tropp 1978). Nonetheless, many survivor accounts paint a picture that includes numerous disgruntled followers who feared for their safety if they made their disappointment known (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). Below is an overview of those privately guarded complaints, as they relate to Goffman’s steps to the mortification of self:

Role Dispossession: Goffman (1961) describes 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. But both Bobby (Stroud 1996) and Deborah Layton (1998) report 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.Layton (1998) reports that she went to college to become a surgical technician. At one point, while still in California, her success and confidence in her training were labeled as treasonous, because her peers felt that she was too focused on the world outside Peoples Temple (p. 64). Layton was eventually welcomed into Jones’ inner circle and became part of the organization’s financial staff (p. 82). A woman named Maria Katsaris previously occupied her place working on financial transactions. Layton replaced Maria, freeing Maria to become primary caregiver for a child Jones claimed was his. According to Layton, Maria seemed aloof, even hostile toward her and she saw it as jealousy related to their involuntary reassignments (p. 89). Reassignment and reshuffling of duties seemed to be the norm within the organization, as Layton reports holding several different positions during her time there. She was a radio operator, field hand, surgical assistant, finance manager and even lover to Jim Jones, yet she was denied the role of wife to her husband, daughter to her mother and friend to others. Friendships, like close family relationships, were viewed as unnecessary alliances (p. 159).

Both Stroud (1996) and Layton (1998) tell stories of working in the fields. Layton remarks that they all looked more like a prison chain gang or troupe of migrant workers than anything else (p. 158). Yet Stroud had been a teacher’s aide and nurse’s aide before the move to Guyana, and Layton was trained as a surgical assistant. Later, Stroud was assigned to guard weapons, as part of the security detail. Both Stroud (1996) and Layton (1998) could be described as “city kids,” and yet they were living and working in what Charles Krause said was more like a concentration camp in the jungle (p. xiii). 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 1998). Each of these stories represents lost opportunities to fulfill previously held roles, while having new one thrust upon the individual.

Programming and identity trimming: Goffman (1961) 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, Bobby (Stroud 1996) had all of his belongings searched and was 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.

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. When Bobby was in the jungle, he had a serious accident (Stroud 1996). While riding through the jungle on the running board of a truck, Bobby fell and broke both of his legs. Apparently the truck hit a pothole. and Bobby was bounced off and rolled down an embankment. Bobby was later picked up and transported to a hospital for treatment, but not before being chastised for his accident. First, Jim Jones told him that he had a death wish, then Jones’ wife Marceline scolded him for causing his accident by leaving the compound with a bad attitude that morning; God was punishing him. On one hand, religious expression was mocked in Jonestown (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). On the other hand, God was used as a tool to punish. Further, this secular socialist organization was using karma or superstition as a mechanism to control members like Bobby. Certainly this demonstrates how rules for social conduct shifted at Jonestown, but an additional message is that Bobby caused his own accident, and he took responsibility for it for a long time.

Dispossession of name, property, and “identity kit: As previously mentioned, followers gave up all possessions upon entering the jungle “utopia.” Bobby (Stroud 1996) tells 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; 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. It might be safe to suggest that the average suburban churchgoer is accustomed to daily bathing; but showers were cold and infrequent in the jungle compound.

Layton (1998) refers to the individuals who took all of her belongings as the “Confiscation Committee” because, in spite of all the personal items she had packed, they left her with nothing but four t-shirts, jeans and changes of underwear (p. 183). Just as she mentions the young mother who kept a teddy bear hidden in her bunk, Layton gives examples of other personal items that were forbidden. Their passports were taken (p. 143). They could have no letters from outsiders (p. 149). Even her mother’s pain medications were taken (p. 151). Layton had a pair of thick, wool socks that would have been considered an extravagance, and mirrors were only for the vain; she was told that no good socialist is vain (p. 183).

Imposition of degrading postures and deference patterns: Both Stroud (1996) and Layton (1998)  tells stories of how they were expected to “write up” their peers. Such write-ups were the trigger for lengthy and degrading “counseling” sessions. Individuals were encouraged to shout obscenities and declare their hatred of the targeted individuals, and the offender was expected to simply stand and remain silent (Q 641; Q 638). Meanwhile, Jones played observer, in many cases coming to console the individual later – and privately (Layton 1998; Stroud 1996). On one recorded occasion, Jones demanded that individuals who wished to be released from the Learning Crew must perform a phony religious demonstration that he called a “Holy Ghost fit” (Q 597). When Jones was sufficiently amused and the individual was equally humiliated, they were dismissed to the sounds of howling laughter. That same recording includes more laughter as Jones discussed the size of a particular Temple member’s penis.

Stroud (1996) remembers his arrival in the jungle and some of the things he eventually saw but did not understand. He found one individual being held in a small box. He was told that she had been there for days as a punishment for some infraction. Layton (1998) remembered when she first heard about “the box.” A man was in trouble for falling asleep during one of Jones’ marathon meetings. With Jones’ encouragement, people shouted their hatred of the man. “Why don’t we put him in the box, Father?” one member suggested. But then that member was in trouble for not remembering from a night or two before when someone else was put in the box – meaning that it was still occupied. “Stand!” Jones bellowed at the sleeping man, “…Speak up and explain yourself!” After a lot of yelling and name-calling, the man’s son was instructed to put a snake around his father’s neck. It was a ten-foot boa constrictor and the man was made to stand before his peers with the snake around his neck until he became so frightened that he wet himself (p. 175). References to “the box” and its use are also found on the audio recording Q 597. Additional references to sleeping as an infraction are found on audio recordings Q 641 and Q 591.

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 or working double-time in silence on the Learning Crew (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). The mere existence of Learning Crews and a secret barracks of sedated followers make 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. Bobby (Stroud 1996) told of public church meetings that were held to chastise individual members for various transgressions. These church members were expected to sit silently, with bowed heads, as other members of the church hierarchy publicly criticized them – even exposing private family matters to the entire congregation.

Contaminative exposure: The previous story about the man wetting himself is also an example of contaminative exposure. Another standard practice at Jonestown demonstrates this step more vividly. Layton (1998) describes the toilet facilities in Jonestown. They had outhouses that seated as many as 16 people, side by side. Jones had insisted that bathroom matters were simply body functions that no one should be ashamed of, so there was no privacy – even between the sexes. In one incident, Layton became ill and had diarrhea. She was humiliated to find herself hunched over seat number 15 in the 16-seat latrine. A male friend had escorted her there. As mortified as she was to be in the company of anyone, much less a man, she was sicker than she was embarrassed (p. 191). No amount of insistence by Jones could make up for sharing open toilet facilities with others, particularly the opposite sex. Meanwhile, Jones had private, single-seat facilities outside his cabin and real toilet paper rather than the magazine pages rationed to the members (p. 195). Showers, which were rationed to two minutes each, offered the same lack of privacy, making rainy days a welcome substitute (p. 185).

Layton (1998) also recalls Jones’ sexual exploits and how he used them to further damage members. He routinely maintained that all men were secretly homosexual, except him. Others, too, have told of Jones public meetings in which he called various men “homos” and even had sex with them himself in order to prove it (Kahalas 1998, Mills 1979). Some members left the organization back in California because of the focus on sex. The best documented of those is the group of college-age members known as the Eight Revolutionaries, who wrote Jones a letter explicitly detailing their reasons for leaving (Moore 2006).

Jones had sex with numerous men and women and later claimed that they needed it (Kohl 2004, Layton 1998). Since Deborah Layton had been one of those sexual partners, she knew that such activities were often not at their request, but at Jim’s behest (p. 72). Still, Jones publicly accused his sex partners of demanding his sexual favors; else they might commit suicide (p.76). Those members were then publicly scolded, even cursed and berated by other members for their selfishness. In one audio recording, Jones discussed the lost scent of a female member’s vagina as the cause of the break up of her relationship with a male member of the group (Q 635). In the same recording, Jones announced that the male partner to the aforementioned female was, in fact, a homosexual and insisted that his sexual experiences with women were accompanied by vomiting.

Not all contaminative exposure was related to sex or body functions. Both Stroud (1998) and Layton (1996) discusses the extreme lengths Jones went to in order to damage the reputations of defectors and those who, in his eyes, misbehaved. While persecuting defectors and others with outrageous claims and intimidation tactics may not seem to directly affect all members, it did, in that they lived vicariously through those others, fearing that any wrong move would result in public humiliation. In some cases, such tactics led to intense guilt and self-examination, as members realized that they were secretly guilty of similar infractions or that they harbored a secret desire to leave (p. 162). Finally, the application of physical punishment – beatings – left bruises and swelling that provided a lasting brand of an individual’s lesser status, or contamination.

Interference in the pattern of actions customary to the individual: 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. The story was told earlier (Stroud 1996) of the way Jones rebuked Bobby for his disobedience to his parents. But another piece of this “counselor assistance” in family matters goes much deeper. Church members were encouraged to tell on their peers. Layton (1998) reports that she never knew who 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 the 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, doing so could have dire consequences. Because of the atmosphere of Jonestown, people learned to keep their mouths shut, to tell no one their innermost thoughts, and to turn in anyone too stupid to do the same because it might be a test! 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 and freedom of action: In addition to the threats, “the box” and the Learning Crews, Jones had another way to deal with problem members. Both Layton (1998) and Stroud (1996) report stumbling onto an area of the health clinic that was not open to other members. In this area, members were kept heavily sedated. In one case, Stroud reports seeing an individual whom Jones had told him had chosen to go back to the United States.

Members of Jonestown had to be given “clearance” to miss a town meeting, work assignment, or socialism class (Layton 1998). Missing a meeting without clearance might result in assignment to the Learning Crews. Another way to get assigned to a crew was to misbehave at a public function. Layton reportedly drank a beer that was served to her at an event in Georgetown. She knew that she was expected to make a good impression, so she politely sipped the beverage that she had been offered. Later Jones confronted every member who had attended the event, demanding to know who drank the beer (p. 161).

Daily life was regimented, with tasks assigned to each individual by a specific crew leader or committee (Layton 1998). Even intimate relationships were governed by committee (p. 155). Both Layton and Stroud (1996) speak of the relationship committee, to whom a couple must apply for permission to have a romantic relationship. Such relationships were actively discouraged. Instead, unions that were seen as most beneficial to the organization were sanctioned.

Many tactics were used to discourage defection. Guns were used as part of security, and locals, at the behest of Jones, held visitors at gunpoint (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). Gunfire coming from the jungle was a common manipulation used to convince members that they were under attack (p. 181). Members were also told that there were “moles” inside the U.S. Embassy and that they would not be allowed to leave the country. At least once, again as an obedience test, Jones announced that he had secretly asked some loyal followers to pretend to want to defect so that he could test the loyalty of those to whom these fake defectors pretended to confide (p. 164). Members were also aware that defectors and other Temple enemies were routinely followed and harassed by Temple operatives (p. 178). In one of the more remarkable cases, Layton describes working with another loyal member to coat a letter with poison ivy, so that an unsuspecting defector would innocently handle it, transferring the poisonous substance everywhere, thus developing the itchy rash with no idea of its origins (p. 91). Both Stroud (1996) and Layton (1998) give accounts of suspicious deaths that they, rightly or wrongly, were led to believe were a consequence of defection. One entire audio recording (Q 594) centers on Temple members and Jones fantasizing about what they would like to do to defectors and interfering relatives. It is a discussion of torture and murder. The presence and use of guns is discussed on numerous audiotapes including Q 596-A, Q 242, Q 600 and Q 601.

Interference in the Pattern of Actions Customary to the Individual: It is clear by now that some behaviors served multiple purposes. For example, the denial of a young mother’s right to care for her child shows a dispossession of her maternal role. At the same time, such a denial is also linked to denial of the mother’s right to complain about it. In traditional North American culture, a mother’s role is unassailable. Here, the mother was not only denied the right to act as mother, but also the right to protest; instead she pretended to like the arrangement (Layton 1998).

Also previously noted was the reality of “informing” (Layton 1998, Stroud 1996). Members were expected to write daily reports, making notes to Jones for even the smallest infractions committed by their peers. The subjects of such write-ups were not afforded the usual responses to such perceived betrayal. Instead of being allowed to be angry with the reporter, these individuals were expected to submit themselves for the counseling sessions mentioned above, accept the criticism and confess. Here again, individuals were not allowed to defend themselves, because to do so was considered “being defensive” which was, in itself, yet another infraction (Layton 1998). Audio recording Q 596 is a lengthy discussion by Jones of the reason it was important to “report” on each other: it was for their protection.

The same situation from the opposite perspective represents another example of the interference between actor and acts, as well as “obedience testing”. The individual who reported on a comrade only did so out of fear that he or she was being “tested” (Layton 1998). One’s usual response to the minor faults of a friend is a protective posture. In the case of Peoples Temple, a protective posture was another infraction (Stroud 1996). So many behaviors that are taken for granted in traditional Western culture were frowned upon in Jonestown. In an individualist culture, individuals generally choose to work someplace or worship someplace – or not. If attendance or membership in an organization becomes displeasing, one resigns. Members did not resign easily from Peoples Temple. According to Stroud (1998), they had a committee charged with harassing “traitors.” So again, one’s usual behavior in a given situation was disallowed by threat of harassment or even death, as Stroud suspects had been the case with at least one defector.

Examining the usual relationship between loved ones, it seems unremarkable that an individual might excitedly relate personal or professional achievements to others. 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.

The Final Days of Peoples Temple

Bobby says that Jones became increasingly paranoid in the jungle, and it was common for members to be sent on missions with only one person knowing what they were going to do until it was absolutely necessary (Stroud 1996). The “White Nights” occurred more and more often with followers never knowing whether or not the Flavor Aid would be poisoned for real that time – just as they never knew when a private thought confided was genuine or a test from Jones.

When the mass suicide did actually occur, Bobby was in the city with Stephan and his brother (Stroud 1996). According to Bobby, Jones’ wife had sent his son, Stephan and his brother to the city earlier for a basketball tournament. The morning before the suicides, she came to Bobby and told him that he had another appointment with the doctor who had operated on his broken legs. Bobby was surprised – he knew of no appointment. Marceline told him that there was a truck leaving for the city in an hour, and he needed to be on it. Peoples Temple also owned a house in the city of Georgetown, Guyana. It was lived in and maintained by a loyal follower, her two young children and teenage daughter (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). Bobby was asleep in the house when he heard screaming; it sounded like the children. By the time Bobby hobbled through the house and found the source of the noise, it was too late. What he found in the bathroom were the bloodied bodies of all four. Layton’s (1998) version reports that the mother cut the throats of her younger children, and with the help of the older daughter, she then cut her own throat. Last, the teenager cut her own throat.

Bobby and others made their way to the radio room to speak to Jones out at the jungle compound, but no one responded, which was alarming because there was always someone manning the radio at both ends (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). Bobby said his next coherent memory was that of Guyanese government agents raiding the house and taking him and the rest of the residents of the house into custody. It was from those agents that Bobby learned of the fate of Congressman Ryan and the other Temple followers.

Deborah Layton escaped a few months before the suicides (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). It was her flight from the jungle that led to Congressman Leo Ryan’s decision to visit the compound. One might expect lower level followers to try to escape the fields and lack of comfort, since upper level followers had more privileges and comforts. It is interesting to note that Deborah Layton’s job was at the heart of the operation of the Temple up until her escape. Deborah was responsible for making bank deposits and transfers, many of which had to be done in person, in foreign countries, wearing disguises to make her look older than she was. Sometimes she carried huge amounts of cash on her body onto airplanes (Layton 1998). She achieved the highest level of status and prestige within the organization (Stroud 1996). And yet, she eventually became disillusioned with the organization and made her escape. Jones told followers that she ran away with a lot of the Temple’s money (Stroud 1996). Layton insists that she barely made it out of the country for lack of money (Layton 1998). But while Layton ran, others, such as Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, were even higher in the organization than Deborah Layton. They were confidants and intimates of Jones who, by the accounts of both Stroud and Layton, never showed any discernable signs of disillusionment or alienation. They chose to stay and die with Jones (Reiterman 1998).

Layton’s  (1998) account includes second-hand descriptions of Jones’ followers drinking the poisoned Flavor Aid willingly, but she insists that they did it not as loyal followers, but out of a desire for relief. She reports that many times on “white nights” she privately wished “this would be the time it was real.” Others who failed or refused to drink were reportedly forced to drink or injected with the poison by members of the security forces. In short, this was not a cohesive group that chose to make a political statement, nor was it a group that chose to martyr themselves for a greater good. If Layton’s (1998) feelings reflect the feelings of others, this was a group of desperate, depressed, despondent people surrendering to what appeared to be both inevitable and inviting. Essentially, the conditions associated with the total institution serve to make people easier to control (Goffman 1961). Unfortunately, they also appear to demoralize such individuals. Both Layton (1998) and Stroud (1996) make direct connections between their feelings of despair and what we now understand were the characteristics of a total institution at work.


Goffman (1961) clearly believes that life in a total institution makes people susceptible to manipulation. The tactics that Goldhammer (1996) identifies as characteristic of a destructive group are very similar to the tactics that Goffman finds operational in total institutions. While Goldhammer’s definition of groups includes a variety of organizations or social structures, Goffman restricts himself to describing institutional settings in the traditional sense, including prisons and mental hospitals. However, the central features remain the same: control through denial. Whether in a prison, mental hospital, religious group or social movement, the systematic erasure of personal identity and continuous degradation leads to a kind of alienation from self that, at Jonestown, must have made the idea of death seem tempting. Certainly both Deborah and Bobby believed that to be the case (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). And it seems that some of Goldhammer’s (1996) conditions, such as the feelings of superiority and exclusiveness experienced by members, might have worked initially to draw people in, but were not sustained, although the structures of the total institution kept most followers from attempting to escape.

Jim Jones founded a social movement that thrived in a historical period rife with distrust of the government and marked with a promise of self-governing communities. He set up his model Utopia, and then  justified its failure with the use of conspiracy theories, accusations of treason and irresolute membership. It is clear that Jones could not resist the temptations of control and superiority: thus he, wittingly or otherwise, created a total institution. Nevertheless, he proved unable to keep outsiders, such as Congressman Ryan, from entering the premises and making inquiries. Jones’s reported drug addiction and paranoia probably played a role in his inability to maintain his perfect system (Stroud 1996, Layton 1998). He espoused openness, but he indulged in greed and secrecy. While he lectured contributing according to ability and receiving according to need, he took while others suffered. While he enticed initiates with a sense of belonging, he gradually burdened them with a profound sense of isolation and hopelessness.

Some authorities maintain that social movements do not always owe their continued existence to their members’ full support (McCarthy & Zald 1997). The burden of organizational survival falls on zealots: members who are more passionately committed to their goals than the rest. Without implying that passionate followers are murderous or suicidal, it is plausible to assume that they are more easily manipulated by leaders in whom they have placed their trust. In this case, the added isolation and campaign of disinformation seems to have exacerbated the disempowerment of the membership, facilitating the zealots’ enforcement of mass suicide among the dispirited inmates of this idiosyncratic total institution.

Jonestown is, of course, not the first tragedy of its kind, but it dwarfs all other similar cases by the sheer scale of its final tragic episode. Still, when stories such as this are reported, the dramatic and shocking features of them are highlighted. The next stage in public reaction, framed by the media’s reporting, is the utter insanity of the perpetrators. As a result, structural mechanisms and psychological causes that gave rise to the event are obscured and soon forgotten. Is it surprising, then, that what happened at Jonestown was largely viewed as a freak episode? As a result of this myopic and distorted media reconstruction of the event, the public learned nothing from conditions that made it possible. Such actions in today’s world happen not in the faraway jungles, but in our cities and among our families. And the victims are not the followers, but the unsuspecting and unprepared citizens. Perhaps in these post-September 11thdays we need to take a more serious look at what causes people to blindly follow others – even to the point of certain death.


Asch, Solomon. 1951. “The effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortions of judgment.” In Groups, leadership, and men, ed. M.H. Guetzkow, 117-190. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie.

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.

Kohl, Laura Johnson. 2004. Sex in the City? Make That, the Commune.

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

McCarthy, John D. and Mayer Zald. 1977. “Resource mobilization and social movements: a partial theory.” American Journal of Sociology 82:1212-1241.

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. Annie Moore’s Last Letter.

Moore, Rebecca, site manager. (F. McGehee, archivist). 2006.

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

“Q” tapes. 2005. Transcribed through the Jonestown Institute, Rebecca Moore, site manager.

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, Nov. 14.

Stroud, Robert. 1996. Unpublished personal interview.

Tropp, Richard. Dick Tropp’s Last Letter.

(Dr. Phyllis Gardner is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. She can be contacted Her other article in this edition is Recovery from Jonestown.)