Mass Suicide & the Jonestown Tragedy:
Literature Summary

by James Knoll, M.D.

(Dr. James Knoll is associate professor of psychiatry and director of forensic psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University. He is the medical board president of the central New York chapter of the Association For Suicide Prevention (AFSP). He performs forensic psychiatric evaluations for the courts and private sector. He has special interests in the areas of suicide, violence and cultural criticism. He can be reached at: knollj@upstate.edu.)

Mass & Cult Suicide

Mass Suicide: Historical and psychodynamic considerations. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 32(1):91-100, 2002. Mancinelli, I. et al.

Mass suicide can be defined as the simultaneous suicide of all the members of a social group. It is closely linked to the human dimension of existence although the social and cultural context may vary. The term can also be used to describe situations in which a particular population has reacted to oppression by denying all normal activities of sustenance, with the intension of bringing about a traumatic metamorphosis in a cultural context.

Mass suicides can be subdivided into two categories 1) hetero-induced and 2) self-induced. Mass suicides are typical of defeated and colonized populations forced to escape from a reality that does not acknowledge their human dignity. Self-induced mass suicides are motivated by a distorted evaluation of reality without an intolerable situation or a real risk of death. The mass suicides that have taken place in the last 20 years are all related to the establishment of religious sects. Self-destruction of the group may be interrupted as an act of self-assertiveness.

It is not entirely possible to adopt a single model to interrupt the phenomenon of mass suicide because the possible causal mechanisms are so broad and so diverse. The oldest remains of a mass suicide came to light during excavations carried out in 1955, when it was discovered that the tombs of the Sumeri kings terminated with a mysterious well, the venue of a particular funeral right. Because the king was also considered to be a God when he died, the people in his court followed him by poisoning themselves so that they could continue their serve to the king in the afterlife.

In Africa, ritual poisoning which was initially employed as proof of guilt or innocence of a crime, was widely practiced during European colonization as a means of mass suicide. Toward the middle of the 18 th century, 400 people including men, women and children died in British Guyana. This was done so that the people of the community would never be sent off their lands by white men.

On November 18, 1978 Guyana was the venue of another mass suicide, which claimed 912 victims all members of the North American Religious sect called Peoples Temple. Jones began performing an immense amount of welfare work and community service. In 1961 he was nominated Director of the Human Rights Commission by the Mayor. His congregation became a hybrid of church and sect. His sermons were charismatic and he began to produce “miracles of faith.” In the 1960’s he declared that he had a vision. He believed that 2 years later the world would be destroyed by a gigantic nuclear disaster and there would be only a few chosen survivors. To survive the holocaust it would be necessary to move to Ukiah in Northern California.

Ultimately, the decision to abandon Indianapolis probably originated from an awareness that the church hierarchy would not give up the power and importance it had accumulated which were useful for social advancement. Approximately 150 people followed Jones to California. The end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s marked the enormous growth of Peoples Temple. Jones became one of the most influential figures in San Francisco and Los Angeles and received support from prominent politicians and the press. At Jonestown, press by the Guyana authorities to hand over John Victor who was believed to be Jones’s natural son by Grace Stoen. The authorities pressed Jones to hand over the child to his mother Grace. Jones was described as having slipped into a paranoid state.

In April 1993 in Waco Texas, 75 followers of David Koresh (Members of the Branch Davidians) died among the flames after setting fire to their camp. Their leader was accused by the FBI of sexually and psychologically abusing the young men of the sect, as well as detaining firearms and explosives. On February 18, 1993 the camp was surrounded by police agents and a 51-day siege began with a shoot out in which 4 law officers and 5 members of the sect died. After an initial phase of negotiation lasting a few days, the decision was made to intensify pressure on the community so that Koresh and his followers would be forced to leave the protection of the buildings. The plan failed tragically. The leader interpreted the attacks as being part of the apocalyptic finale that he had foreseen as the means by which he and his followers would die and be resurrected.

On October 5, 1994 in Quebec, Canada, the bodies of 5 people (4 adults and a child) were discovered. The following day in Switzerland the remains of 48 people were found. 23 were killed by firearms and 25 were poisoned. These suicides were ordered by the leaders of the sect Ordre Du Temple Solaire. The suicide act was supposed to have carried the members of the sect to the planet Sirius. A letter found beside the victims stated, “We are leaving this land to find a new dimension of truth and absolution, far from the hypocrisy of this world.”

On March 26, 1997 39 members of the sect WW Higher Source committed suicide in the millionaire community of Rancho Santa Fe in California under the direction of leader Marshall Applewhite. The methods used were ingestion of vodka with barbiturates and suffocation in a plastic bag. The members of the sect believed in their own trinity (the bible, the computer and UFO’s) and thought themselves to be angels passing through earth on their journey toward the kingdom of God. They were all top-level computer professionals and science fiction enthusiasts. They were expert Internet users and had their own site called Heaven’s Gate. They were discovered dressed in black uniforms with their hair cut short and lying on their backs with purple triangles covering their faces and chests. They were ready to board a space ship which they believed was hidden behind the Hale Bopp comet. The space ship was to transport them to the promised planet. They had killed themselves in groups in three shifts of 15, 15 and 9 possibly on consecutive days.

On March 18, 2000 in a village Southwest of Kampala in Uganda, about 600 members of the sect the Ten Commandments of God committed suicide by setting fire to themselves after hours of songs and prayers.

Regarding the mass suicides committed in recent history, the most significant finding is the ever-increasing importance of the role played by endogenous factors in the ultimate motivation for suicide. In the oldest historical reports of mass suicide, exogenous factorswere fundamental: incumbent slavery and the threat of pillage and massacre by the invading enemy represented the trigger that caused the suicide. In contrast, the mass suicides that have taken place in the last several decades have involved primarily endogenous factors.

The mass suicides committed by the Old Believers, an orthodox religious community well established in the Russian religious panorama, marked a sort of intermediate passage between the two groups considered. The Old Believers finally committed suicide because the monastery they occupied was surrounded by soldiers who attempted to over throw it. This allowed them to die with the belief that they were defending their faith, just as the ancient Christian martyrs did. Small communities of the Old Believers continued to sacrifice themselves throughout Russia until the 19 th Century.

Over the last several decades, the new religious groups or cults promise the individual a closer and more direct contact with the ultimate divine power by mediation via a charismatic leader. They are taught to believe that they are the possessors of absolute truth, which leads them to condemn all those who hold different ideas. The sect is also seen as a solution to existential difficulties by individuals who, in periods of crisis, have more acute feelings of disorientation and solitude and feel that society cannot adequately fulfill their needs.

The sect promises its members a sense of belonging and shared purpose, which overrides the existence of the individual. The sect unites the need of its members to submit to a higher power in the form of a charismatic leader who exerts a dominative force, which gradually becomes absolute. The functionality of the sect is dependent on this dynamic interrelationship. Members are promised eternal life. The charismatic leader makes the promises tangible by ensuring contact with supernatural powers and interrupting future events and revelations via the hidden massages of the scriptures. One typical aspect of the sect’s conception of life is a hostile attitude towards the outside world, perceived as vacuous, chaotic, aggressive and evil. The apocalypse is seen as bringing the millennial fight between good and evil to a definite end.

The lifespan of the sect consists of a series of consecutive operations aimed at ensuring greater homogeneity. A reciprocal dependency develops, and individuals are allowed restricted contact with the outside world, which gradually diminishes until it ceases all together. Ultimately, individual resistance is crushed by coercion. Individuals cease to own belongings, and everything is related to the “higher purpose” in which they are involved. Autonomous decision-making disappears. Apocalyptic themes and futuristic visions are typical of sects that commit mass suicide.

The charismatic leader gradually assumes a placental function in the sect. He acts a filter between the community and the outside world, regulating and allowing the passage of nutritive substances from the environment and the disposal of the refuse produced by the community. The risk of mass suicide is enhanced by a symbiotic organization under the guidance of a placental leader. Within the sect, individuals regress further and become more indeterminate, finally relinquishing their capacity to make autonomous decisions. As they proceed on this journey, all the strength they need to break away from the charismatic leader/placenta ebbs away. The communal life of the sect submits followers to a de-individualization process. The sect encourages the formation of a closed system that shuts itself in and renounces development.

Members are anchored to an entity that they believe to be superior to their own individuality, and who promises them continual life. The emotional bonds of the members to the leader are seen as far more important then the emotional bonds between members of the cult. Projection reins unchallenged. Leaders must defend not only themselves, but the entire group from external and internal persecutors and defectors. The culture of the cult assumes the double aspect of persecutor and persecuted. Within the closed system there is an increase in regressive and aggressive behavior. This aggressiveness may be channeled toward the “enemy,” or be directed inward and lead to suicide when the confrontation with the sources of evil seems overwhelming. The condition of volatility, which distinguishes the separate universe of the sect, is closely related to the intrinsic nature of the charismatic power. This type of power is continually subjected to verification and it needs to be continually revived.

Charismatic leaders simultaneously assume two roles and two functions: First, they are the children who satisfy all the desires of their infinite imagination, whose presumption makes them capable of dividing the world into that which they like and want to possess and that which they can not tolerate. Second, charismatic leaders are the mothers who decide when and how to nurture their children, continually subjecting them to the fear of breaking the contact which is fundamental for their existence, controlling them, and, when necessary punishing them as soon as they wander away. Leaders take out their terror of the world outside their relationship on them; they fill them with resentment toward that world, but calm them with the certainty of divine vendetta. Above all, leaders lull them into the illusion that the embrace will be everlasting and that the world of fairytales really exists on the other side of the restricting and perishable bodily dimension. Members are thus like children and are dependent. They must follow the leader and are frightened of having to go back to the world from which they have fled, a world they feel they no longer belong to, that made them suffer, that did not value them, that made them feel useless, anonymous, disoriented, and frightened.

Destructiveness is the extreme response to the feeling of impotence brought on by life in the outside world; it has the purpose of removing or eliminating the threat from the outside. Suicide represents the ultimate, desperate, attempt to avoid being overwhelmed by the world. The gesture of dying together for a higher purpose and in opposition to the world as a whole assumes particularly significant overtones: martyrdom, the sacrificing ones own life, can provide the reason for and give meaning to an entire existence. Mass suicide leaves outsiders horrified, amazed, upset; it forces them to remove and deny things; it also triggers regret at not having been able to prevent the suicide. This is intensified by the sight of children’s’ bodies. Dying together means that mankind will remember them, and that they will become a part of history. Thus, they are no longer anonymous – they continue to exist and live again each time the ancient gesture is repeated.

 

Apocalyptic Suicide. Mental Health, Religion and Culture 3(2):109-114, 2000. Dein, S and Littlewood, R

The factors involved in apocalyptic suicide include: 1) strong dualistic philosophy, 2) a leader with total control over the movement, and 3) relative isolation in the presence of apocalyptic teachings. The available literature suggests that rates of mental illness among cult members are no higher then among the general population, and that those members demonstrating mental illness were probably ill before joining. To date, there are no accurate estimates as to how common the phenomenon is. Some studies failed to take into account that members may have been murdered as opposed to committing suicide. Regarding leaders, studies have pointed to a number of common characteristics:

  • An absent father from a young age
  • Solitude in childhood
  • Intolerance of criticism
  • A personal revelation
  • Presence of narcissistic and paranoid traits

Apocalyptic suicide appears to be an option in the following circumstances

  1. Following disappointment at divine prophecies not materializing
  2. The group believes they cannot live in the “end times”
  3. Members of the group voluntarily exit their bodies to go to a better world
  4. Members place themselves in situations which outsiders may consider suicidal (believing they are immune to death)

The Branch Davidians were a break away group from the Seventh Day Adventists. They were influenced by the apocalyptic teachings of David Koresh who had a detailed knowledge of the book of Revelations. He claimed to have the ability to open the “seventh seal,” ushering in the end of the world. Circumstances of the branch Davidians’ demise remains somewhat unclear. For example, it is not entirely clear whether it was a mass suicide, or partly a homicide.

The Order of the Solaire Temple, which committed mass suicide in 1994, traced it’s lineage back to the Knights Templar. The leader, Dr. Luc Jouret, believed that environmental disaster was imminent, yet the order could be saved and transported Sirius and reincarnated as Christ-like solar beings.

In attempting to discern which cults are at most risk of suicide, it may be necessary to consider those with strong dualistic philosophies and leaders who assume total control. Cults who isolate themselves, and whose teachings include strong apocalyptic elements are likely to carry a high risk. An understanding of the belief systems, and pattern of leadership is essential. For example, diagnosing Koresh as having a personality disorder or hypomania was of little use in the immediate situation.

Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese group who released poisonous gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995 killing 12 people and harming 5000 others, held a strongly apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the United States and the final battle of Armageddon. The powerful hold which the leader has over his followers, and is generally glossed by the term charisma, raises important issues as far as criminal responsibility is concerned. If a member kills an outsider, to what extent is he or she acting out of freewill?

 

Cults and Cult Suicide. Sorrel, W: International Journal of Group Tensions.

Dying voluntarily for a cause that transcends death has long been a noble tradition in the history of religion. The members of cults are psychologically searching for a return to the comfort of childhood. They hope to be part of something meaningful. Very often, the common denominator is the need to believe in something. This need becomes exploited by the power hungry leader who becomes the spokesman for the belief and is venerated and obeyed without question. This is then followed by more mass indoctrination.

On April 15, 73 AD, 960 Jewish men, women and children defending the Masada fortress choose self slaughter rather then become slaves of the besieging Roman legions. During the Spanish conquest of the new world, treatment at the hands of the Spanish was so cruel that Indians killed themselves by the thousands rather than endure it. In the West Indies, 4000 men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or killing each other. It was estimated that thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians in Saipan committed suicide before the end of World War II rather then be dishonored by surrender or defeat.

Generally, cults seem to flourish in periods of great social change. Powerful personalities at that time often gather groups of suggestible and dependent admirers around themselves. The recruit who joins a cult surrenders individual responsibility and potential growth for so called spiritual security. The cults can be seen as fascist organizations that take freedom away, and within the communes we find concentration camp conditions. The members of a cult are psychologically searching for a return to the comfort of childhood. They seek security in a leader who assumes a decision making role for them. However, they give up their freedom and individuality. Cult members see themselves as rejects from a hostile world, and the cult gives them a sense of belonging to a family and a feeling of purpose.

As the cult leader accumulates wealth, the cult follower’s take pride in this and see it as evidence that god is rewarding him. To bind the members more cohesively, the leader creates the delusion that there is an evil out group ready to destroy them. This also provides members with a guilt free group outlet for aggression. Cults generally have common denominators of style, which include submission, intolerance and paranoia. They are a microcosm of the Nazi and Marxist totalitarian systems.

Jones bound his follower’s to him by the use of confession, blackmail, starvation, isolation and humiliation. As a teenager, Jones was always talking about religion. When he was 18 he married Marceline Baldwin, a nurse. Later, Jones enrolled in Indiana University and at times talked of becoming a physician. In 1951 he enrolled in Butler University at night where he obtained a degree in secondary education 10 years later. After becoming an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, he used his church as a cover up for the Marxist ideologies and political activities he was to impose on his cult members. In him, political and spiritual forces were joined. He entertained fantasies of a socialist paradise on earth, with himself as the acclaimed leader. He united a charismatic bible belt preaching style with the rhetoric of radical socialism. At the beginning, he and his temple did accomplish some anti-racist and humanitarian good works. Jones promised his members relief from uncertainty and poverty, and the opportunity to be a part of a divinely sanctioned mission. In the end, the cult’s ideological orientation was Marxist rather than religious.

Jones believed he was profit of god, and probably regarding his followers as an extension of himself. Once in Guyana, he began using violence to enforce conformity, and there was little to keep his sadism and paranoid beliefs in check. Cult members wish to be a part of something meaningful and they identify with their leader. If the leader is mentally ill, he intensifies their loyalty by claiming the world outside is evil and terrifying. Thus, the socialist commune turned into a fear-ridden concentration camp. Jones operated the community as a personal police state, enforcing strict discipline by public beatings, death threats, and conducting mass suicide drills.

It was not solely the visit by Congressman Ryan, but probably the departures of those who had become disenchanted with life in Jonestown, that contributed to the final tragedy. This departure became traumatic because it would have created questions about the cult’s values in the minds of those remaining, and Jones would have understood this. After the attack on Ryan, Jones felt that death was the only way of escaping future legal pressures, and the more spectacular the better. When Jones exhorted his followers to die for him, many probably didn’t know how to say no to him.

 

An Inquiry Into the Psychological Dimensions of Cult Suicide. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 9(2):120-127, 1997. Dwyer, P.

The Jonestown tragedy instigated a profound rethinking of the current views regarding cults and mass suicide. The urge to understand stimulated a variety of explanations. One of the most prominent questions was how was it possible for a group numbering nearly 1000 to come to be so completely under the control of one man (or a small group of men). How could they subsume their individual goals, values, moralities, and finally their lives to that of the group? In AD 73, 960 Jewish people (Sicarii) committed suicide on the mountain top fortress of Masada over the looking the Dead Sea. This was done under the direction of Eleazar when the fall of the fort to the Roman 10 th Legion seemed imminent. They were the last hold out of an extensive but doomed revolt against Roman domination. Eleazar made a speech to the people urging them to accept death by suicide rather then return to slavery.

Leaders of a totalist community progressively indoctrinate members into a philosophy of death. Techniques used involve the following:

  • Milieu control
  • Mystical manipulation
  • Cult of confession
  • Doctrine over person

Milieu control has two aspects to it. The first is isolating the group so as to be in complete control of all that each member sees, hears, and experiences. This control extends to the member’s inner life, what Lifton describes as the member’s communication with himself. The second aspect of milieu control involves balance between the self and the outside environment. The constant ebb and flow of perception and reflection, impression and expression is dynamic. It is one by which the individual tests the realities of his environment and maintains his identity as separate from it. The individual is subjected to a continuous barrage propaganda and social pressure which polarizes his beliefs between the real (the group ideology) and the unreal (everything else). The polarization leads to a gradual yielding of the individual’s conscience, old values and decision-making process.

Ideological totalists further milieu control to the point of personal manipulation. They generate a mystique surrounding the head of the community. Mystique is cultivated so that there is a sense of destiny or power becoming manifest around the leader. Included in this mystique is a sense of higher purpose. A mystical backdrop must be created such that the group believes itself to be agents chosen by God or some supernatural force to carryout the higher purpose. One example of this mystical manipulation was Jones’s claims to raise the dead.

Both cult of confession and demand for purity are closely allied in the denigration of life within a cult setting. The demand is for ideological purity, and is the mechanism often used in conjunction with shame and guilt. Proof of ideological purity is given by acting without questioning the directives of the leader. Conversely, hesitancy or failure to perform as directed brings shame and guilt, further facilitated by peer pressure, harassment and even physical punishment by the community. In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting. Even though the confession can be used as a means of control, it may offer some immediate relief to the individual; this further draws him in and becomes an act of self-surrender – an avenue to the merging of the self with the cult and the cult ethic. This can create an “orgiastic sense of oneness,” of the most intense sort.

It was reported that Jones not only insisted upon confessions of crimes, but also of sexual activities and sexual deviance. If there were not sexual deviations to report, false confessions were elicited. Later on, sexual activity itself was solicited for Jones by his inner circle of the community members. Lack of consent indicated lack of ideological purity. A further example of demonstration of ideological purity was the repeated rehearsals of suicide and mass suicide. On several occasions, Jones insisted on the communities eating or drinking items which they had been told contained poisons. Following the test they were told it had been a trial of their commitment and devotion. A lesser example of the same trial of devotion was the forfeiture of all wealth and worldly goods signed over to the temple to be used at Jones’s discretion. Finally, the ultimate test of purity can be seen in the mass suicides as well as the murders of those individuals thought to be the ideological enemies to the cause.

Doctrine over person involves subtle psychological elements. The assertion is that the doctrine is ultimately a more valid realty than is any aspect of the individual’s human experience or existence. Existence becomes conditional upon member in good standing status with the cult. Once this premise is adopted group wide, the final remnants of hesitancy at the dispensing of non-persons is removed. Murder is no longer murder in the usual sense, merely the removal of obstacles to the cult.

 

Cult Suicide and Physician-Assisted Suicide. Psychological Reports, 91, 1194, 2002. Lester, D.

In 1997, 38 members of a cult known as Heaven’s Gate committed suicide along with their 65 year old male leader. 50% of the 38 suicides were women and the mean age of all the suicide was 46.3 years, with a range of 25 – 72.

 

Mass Suicide by Members of the Japanese Friend of the Truth Church. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 19(3):289-296, 1989. Takahashi, Y.

On November 1, 1986, seven Japanese women were found to have died by burning themselves. It appeared that they followed their leader who had died of sclerosis of the liver the day before. Members of the cult addressed the leader as “the spirit of the truth.” His teachings consisted of fortune telling, consulting about problems of daily living and preaching “the true way of life.” The cult combined elements of Christianity and Buddhism. The cult never solicited donations and never tried to persuade neighbors to join them. Members donated most of their salary to support the leader. They lived in an isolated commune by themselves.

The women worshiped the leader, Miyamoto, as a man/god/teacher and father. It was reported that there were no sexual relationships involved. The women were often referred to as “brides of god” by other members of the church. When it appeared that their leader was going to die, they began to prepare for their suicide. They purchased seven 18 liter containers of kerosene. One suicide note read: “If our teacher dies, I wish to accompany him to heaven.” Other members of the church remained eerily calm and serene, and accepted the mass suicide as a natural consequence. In ancient Japan, there was a form of suicide called Junshi. Subordinates followed the feudal lord’s death by committing suicide. Religious cults perform the function of pseudo family, and members experience an intense sense of oneness. Isolated from society at large, they share a unique view of the world that excludes ordinary people.

 

Jonestown Literature

Death in Jonestown: Techniques of Political Control by a Paranoid Leader . Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 10(4):210-213, 1980. Lasaga, J.

Seven basic techniques of political control are identified:

  1. Control of property and income
  2. Weakening of family ties
  3. Sociopolitical caste system
  4. Control of egression (escape)
  5. Control of verbal expression
  6. Cognitive control
  7. Emotional control

Jonestown can be viewed as a mini totalitarian state. Considering the selection of his followers in general, they were people who were highly dissatisfied with the American way of life either because of personal and family frustrations, or because of social frustrations like racial discrimination or because of political idealism. Regarding control of property and income, Jones’ followers were required to turn over their social security checks and personal property. Regarding weakening of family ties, Jones tried to weaken the relationship between husband and wife. He was involved in a large number of extra marital affairs with members. It was also required that he be called “dad” by all his followers, and wanted to be treated by them as a real father. Thus, he tried to portray himself as the most important love object in the community.

Regarding the sociopolitical caste system, Jones was at the top of the power pyramid with a planning commission and guards underneath him. At the bottom of the pyramid were the common community members. Regarding control of escape, geographical realities made it difficult to escape from Jonestown. It was also dangerous to attempt escape because it was equated with treason and subject to severe punishment. Regarding control of verbal expression, overt criticism was harshly punished and a zealous spy network reported all expression of dissent. Regarding cognitive control, there was a process of continuousness indoctrination carried out by Jones. In addition, no other outside sources of information were available to the community.

Regarding emotional control, mass meetings at Jonestown were often frightening emotional experiences. Jones would make long, impassioned speeches for hours on end. Dissenters were often published in public, and members of the audience were encouraged to hiss and boo the victim (and thus identify publicly with the aggressor). Thus, a process of group regression led to an acceptance of Jones’ view of reality. Frequent rehearsals of mass suicide furthered the emotional and cognitive control. Jones insisted on members feeling “piece of mind” during the exercises, making the suicide drills comparable to a process of desensitization. Some information suggests that Jones learned the techniques of political control from the theory and practice of Marxism and Leninism.

 

Reverend Jones on Suicide. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 9(2):116-119, 1979. Seiden, R.

This article presents a verbatim transcript of an extemporaneous speech made by Reverend Jim Jones at an anti-suicide rally on the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge on Memorial Day (May 31, 1977) – some eighteen months before the disastrous events in Guyana. Jones began to unravel about mid-way into his speech. After beginning in an objective manner about his concern for the victims of suicide, he quite abruptly changed to where his remarks became very personalized: he was the victim – persecuted and attacked – and suicide was depicted as an appropriate response to success – an act of social protest. It was rather an unusual theme for a suicide prevention rally. Well before Jones made this speech, he had conducted Peoples Temple members through many simulated suicide drills as a sort of behavioral rehearsal for what would later follow.

In addition to the particularly personal content of his speech, there were two unusual incidents, which we did note upon that occasion. First, it was apparent that Jones was completely in command of his “troops”. There was a decidedly authoritarian and militaristic flavor to the relationship, which was best exemplified when some of his followers begin to boo and otherwise voice displeasure after Jones mentioned a magazine, which was seeking to discredit him and the “administration.” The other incident, which we thought a bit odd, occurred after his speech. When one of our members went over to congratulate Reverend Jones, two body guards jumped up to block and protect him as if anticipating an assault.

The following is a verbatim transcript of Jones’ speech:

Suicide is a symptom of an uncaring society. The suicide is a victim of conditions, which we cannot tolerate, and, I guess that was Freudian slip because I meant to say which he cannot tolerate, which overwhelm him for which there is no recourse. …. Today, our society is caught in a grip of superficial values…. families are being broken up under the impact of a frenzied desire for success. Violence is glorified and paraded in front of the children every day on the media. Basic human values, basic decency, kindness, cooperation are less and less evident. Economic pressures and sociological pressures mount. More and more individuals feel unhappiness – and hopelessness – in their acquisitiveness for pleasure and accumulation in this selfish society. They turn to artificial stimulants, they lose touch with themselves. Their problems, their insecurities mount, and become despondency. The suicides of society cause us to reflect on the terrible trend.

…. And so this week my son said to me, “for the first time, dad, I felt like committing suicide.” He said, “I want to tell you what was on my mind. Maybe it might cause people to care if I jumped off the bridge while you were speaking.” We worked our way through that, but I think that perhaps we should all identify closely with that kind of personal experience, because at one time or other we have all felt the alienation and despair. I think the despair got to me yesterday. If it hadn’t been for an Academy Award winning actress joining our church … I think I would have been in a suicidal mood myself today for perhaps the first time in my life, so I have a particular and personal empathy for what we are doing here today.

 

Jonestown – Two Faces of Suicide: A Durkheimian Analysis. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 20(4):285-306, 1990. Black, A.

The residents of Jonestown died for very different reasons, and two types of suicide occurred simultaneously on November 18, 1978. Altruistic and fatalistic. Some of the residents of Jonestown died because they put the group above the self – they committed altruistic suicide. The majority, however, died for fatalistic reasons. Jonestown in fact had become a hopeless, demeaning, and antagonistic environment. The analysis here suggests caution to those who assume that a mass suicide is necessarily a homogenous event. The professed goal was to build a utopian community based on their belief in fundamental socialist principles.

Many of the members of Peoples Temple were poor. Most had been inhabitants of ghetto America. 71% of residents were African Americans. Many had run afoul of the law and had criminal records. There were also 209 White Americans, 15 Latinos, 18 Mexican Americans, 7 Native Americans, and 3 Asian Americans. 63% were women and children. There is a disproportionate percentage of “seniors” as Jones called them. 232 of the 900 or so members were above the age of 50 (196 females and 36 males). Most of them had come from a deeply religious background. Some members were clearly murdered. No one knows the exact number, but Guyanese officials estimated that it was approximately 75 people. This number does not include the approximately 275 children of Jonestown.

Psychological Aspects of Jim Jones

Jones said he was always alone, always being deserted. He learned early in his life to compensate for this experience by caring for others, especially those who were weak and dependent. This allowed him the belief that those whom he cared for and who were dependent upon him would not desert him. Yet this was exactly what happened in Jonestown. In the end, many of Jones closest aids deserted him. When they left, they not only abandoned him; they also organized against him. These departures threatened him and made him feel deeply unappreciated. The fact that they organized against him aroused intense anger in him, as he felt he had sacrificed himself for them.

The other factor that contributed to his deterioration was a neurotic and ultimately a psychotic need to control others. Jones was obsessed with this issue. When his control over others was threatened, Jones became desperate and his behavior became more extreme. He would go to any lengths to prevent his lose of control over others, and the more he attempted to control his followers, the more their privacy and freedom were curtailed. Many soon tired of this, and the smartest and “strongest” among those closest to Jones began to plot escape attempts. This only exacerbated Jones’ fears of abandonment, and increasingly frustrated his desperate need for control.

These two major traits, fear of abandonment and the need to control, alternated as cause and effect. Each defection would cause him to reinforce his control over his followers; this, in turn, would infringe more and more on their freedom, causing some to plot their escape. Every attempt to escape, successful or not, would begin the cycle again. Add this set of dynamics to the fact that Jones had been suicidal most of his life, and perhaps we can understand why Jim Jones decided to take his own life. Physiological factors were relevant as well: the diets of the residents of Jonestown were known to be deficient. Members were described as emaciated and malnourished, yet were forced to work long hours of manual labor.

Charismatic Leader

Charismatic leadership is tenuous, precarious and uncertain. It is in need of continual reinforcement. The charismatic leader experiences the precariousness, and must go to further and further extremes to protect and sustain it.

The followers of Jim Jones died for very different reasons than did the leaders of the Jonestown community. In altruistic suicide, the perpetrators are totally submerged in a particular social group. Death in such a context becomes an obligation or a duty. One example would be a suicide bomber or kamikaze pilot. Such deaths are considered heroic sacrifices for the group or its leadership. In altruistic suicide, the individual’s life is not his or her own property.

In contrast, fatalistic suicide occurs in societies dominated by inflexible rules against which there is no appeal by the individual. The individual counts for little or nothing and the individual’s life goals are blocked. There is no relief from oppressive forces and individual hopelessness emerges. Individual life finally becomes so unbearable that dying seems preferable to living. The prototype of fatalistic suicide is that committed by the despondent slave. In the real world mixed types are likely.

Jones begin to put forth the idea of mass suicide as early as 1973, after becoming unhappy with a number of members who had defected. In 1975, he brought in a number of cases of wine and demanded that each person drink the wine. After they had consumed the wine, he startled his followers with the following statement: “Now that you have all finished your wine, I have something to say to you. The wine you just drank has a slow-acting poison in it. Within 45 minutes each of you will begin to get very sick, and soon after that you will die. I have drunk the same wine and I will die with you.”

Afterward Jones explained, “I have tested you all tonight. As you were reacting, I had my staff watching each of your faces to determine if indeed you are ready to die. I know now which of you can be trusted and which of you cannot. We will never mention this night to anyone.” Subsequent to this meeting, Jones began to refer to mass suicide as “revolutionary suicide.” It was his belief that it represented the freedom to choose. The revolutionary group remained beyond the control of its oppressors. If mass suicide became necessary, it would leave an indelible mark on history in which members martyred themselves for a future society without oppression. For Jones, total commitment meant a willingness to die for what one believed in without any compromise. In addition, he promoted the idea that death was not final and that in death his followers would achieve “life”. This is one of the familiar rationales for altruistic suicide. Jones believed that under certain conditions, suicide was a duty and an obligation and thus promoted altruistic suicide as a group expectation. Thus, his own concept of revolutionary suicide was synonymous with altruistic suicide.

The Death Tape

At one point Jones states, “…. Take the potion like they use to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide, we are committing a revolutionary act…. We must die with some dignity. We had no choice. Now, we have some choice….

“We’re going to set an example for others. 1000 people who say we don’t like the way the world is. Take our lives from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

There is evidence that there was planning and premeditation before the November 18 mass suicide. Letters were discovered left by Jonestown leaders bequeathing their worldly goods to the Soviet Union. They were dated prior to Congressman Ryan’s visit. It is interesting to note that the mass suicide could not have been accomplished without the participation and complicity of the medical staff, which included the doctor and nurses. They were probably responsible for the forced injection of some 75-85 Jonestown residents, as well as the preparation of the poisonous concoction and is distribution.

Jones had been personally suicidal and fatalistic for much of his life. In a Jonestown monolog from December 1977, Jones stated the following: “Everyday I’ve lived since I was a child, the first time I felt guilt when a little dog died, I wanted to commit suicide, but I had still some little dogs and cats in life that had me alone to take care of them. At that age, that was all that kept me through. Then a little bit later my mom needed me and some poor sole down the road needed me that was poor and minority and had been treated badly and then came along blacks in the community, that I was always their champion.”

Jones became considerably more fatalistic as some of his former leaders defected and filed suits against him. On 7/13/77, Grace Stoen began legal action for the custody of her son. Later, the Guyanese court issued an arrest order to take the child into custody. Jones was also ordered to appear and explain why he should not be held in contempt. This was a critical turning point in Jonestown and it lead to the “September Siege.” Jones threatened a number of mass suicides during the “White Knights,” but at no time were the threats as serious as during the September Siege. Jones realized now more clearly then ever that not only would people defect, but they would also seek redress in the courts.

Prior to the mass suicide, four people actually attempted suicide as they had already begun to welcome death as a form of escape. The more Jones worked to alter the behavior of his followers, the more they became increasingly frustrated and continued to act out and complain. Jones’ system of punishment included the use of a sensory deprivation box and mind altering drugs. Seniors who expressed desire to visit their relatives were physically threatened and assaulted. Jones became increasingly bitter and distraught, complaining that he had sacrificed his whole life for people yet he could not trust anyone. As his behavior became more extreme, people looked for opportunities to escape. Jones warned that if escapees were caught they would be shot.

On 4/11/78, a group of defectors and Jonestown family members called the concerned relatives denounced Jones in the public media. They reported that Jones was keeping people against their will and that Jonestown had become like a concentration camp. When their concerns were finally heard by the federal government, Congressman Leo Ryan agreed that an investigation was needed. On 5/13/78, Deborah Layton, one of Jones’ confidants, fled to the US Embassy in Guyana. She reported that Jones had become obsessed with his “place in history” and that the unfavorable press made him fear that he would be denied the credit he thought he deserved. She also made it clear that whatever happened to Jones would affect the whole group. She explained that life in Jonestown had become so wretched that the residents had become indifferent as to whether they lived or died. Thus, not only was Jones becoming increasingly fatalistic, but so were the majority of residents.

Jones promoted an extreme conspiratorial community. He developed a way of testing whether followers were obeying his decrees. He would have certain people tell others things that they were not suppose to say, and if the people who heard these things did not report the guilty persons they would be punished for not following the rules. Thus, wives and husbands spied on each other and children spied on their parents. No one could escape the rules and no relationship was sacred. Ultimately, he engineered a fatalistic scenario by systemically depriving his followers of sleep, physically exhausting them and malnourishing them. Those who committed altruistic suicide in Jonestown may have experienced an overlay of fatalism as indicated by their description of their circumstances as hopeless. In addition, those who committed fatalistic suicide may have experienced an overlay of altruism.

 

The group psychology of mass madness: Jonestown. Ulman, R. and Abse, W. Political Psychology, 1983, 4(4): 637-661.

This article provides a theoretical concept of collective pathological regression within a charismatically lead mass movement. Cults initially boost self esteem and self worth, and thus help to repair earlier narcissistic damage to the self image. The charismatic leader can be seen as a catalyst for a collective regression. According to Max Weber,charismais a special personal quality endowing a leader with supreme authority. The charismatic leader captures the hearts and minds of a mass following. It also implies a special relationship between the leader and the led. This involves both the leader’s belief in his destiny and the followers’ faith in this. To speak of charismatic leaders is also to speak of charismatic movements, as the two phenomena are inseparable. Other than special personal qualities of the charismatic leader, a movement may also depend upon socioeconomic and historical factors for the necessary preconditions.

Freud suggested that the charismatic leader awakened in the follower’s a portion of his archaic heritage which had made him compliant towards his parents. Thus, what is awakened is the idea of a paramount and dangerous personality towards whom only a passive, masochistic attitude is possible and to whom one’s will must be surrendered. Freud hypothesized that the primal father is the group ideal which governs the ego in place of the ego ideal. For example, Stalin became enthroned as Supreme Being endowed with attributes of a father image.

One of the main weapons of the charismatic leader is charm, which conveys not only magic power, but the leader’s own delicate need for love and protection. Encouraging others may be very reassuring and indicative of the kind of treatment wished for, but vigorously defended against. Intimidation of others also provides reassurance. The need to intimidate or encourage other stems from the unconscious identification with an extraordinarily powerful aggressor or an omnipotent provider. Thus, charismatic leaders are habitually intimidating and encouraging, often alternating rapidly between the two. Their charm is based on both inspiring awe and love.

Some individuals may spend their lives attempting to rediscover the imago of the early mother in an effort to save themselves from the terror associated with the increasing responsibilities and the progressive independence involved in maturing. Thus, in addition to a group’s need for hope and salvation, the charismatic leader also fulfills the followers’ need for an early maternal imago to assuage never fully surmounted developmental fears.

According to Kohut, the charismatic leader is an individual whose ego and grandiose self have merged. The individual is capable of presenting himself as the object of other’s need to rediscover their own grandiose self. The narcissism of the leader is invariably the result of earlier severe traumas and injuries to self esteem and self image. The image the leader projects is one of absolute self assurance, as far as he is able to sustain this facade. Thus, he provides the comfort of certainty. Charismatic leaders may gravitate to the political arena protesting against an unjust state of society and affirming an ideal ethic of some sort. In this context, they seek to gain a new personal identity suffused with a feeling of power. Once in the political arena, their need for power and action has merged with the people’s need for a savor.

A charismatic leader must find an audience to save him from either failure in society or serious psychiatric illness. The course of events during and after the leader’s achievement of power often raises the question of whether the attraction of followers was the means for a time for stalling or preventing a break with reality. The leader may seem to need to generate a crisis – not only to preserve momentum with followers, but also for reassurance of the ability to cope with and to overcome difficulties.

The process of collective regression involves the group’s intense identification with and introjection of the idealized leader. The charismatically led group readily identifies a “group self”. Group members have a shared, elevated conception of themselves as a group and a shared group fantasy of merging with the omnipotent leader. In order to gain the leader’s support, masochistic submission to the leader’s will and ideas are essential. This inevitably generates some secret hostility and rage within individual group members. The effective charismatic group leader displaces this destructive hostility onto outside groups or individuals. Displacement of group anger prevents group disillusion and also tends to lead to group paranoia.

The phenomenon of Resonance describes the ways in which the message each member receives within the group are unconsciously weighed with reference to the socio-sexual developmental level at which they are set. Some members may be relating to the group leader as pre-oedipal mother, and some may be relating to him as oedipal father. It is possible that the leader’s pathology will result in the group regressing to forms of psychic life that they have formally surmounted in their own individual development. Thus a paranoid leader will cause others to resonate with this passion so that they develop group paranoia.

Individual members may regress to the level of a child in relation to a parent. Rational thought becomes overpowered by the image of an all powerful superhuman leader whose doctrines provide an absolute and all embracing answer to the conflicts and confusions of life. Just as the parent offers a total orientation towards social reality, the charismatic leader offers his “children” an all encompassing ideology or grand design. Ultimately, group members begin to entrust the leader with control of their feels, thoughts, sayings and deeds. This repeats an unconscious psychic process that was already completed during childhood and adolescence. The rediscovered parental imago takes over the individual members’ regulatory functions of conscience and reality testing.

Jim Jones was born near Lynn, Indiana on May 13, 1931. The economy of his birthplace was based on the manufacturing of coffins, and thus the theme of death was constantly in the air. His father was 47 years old when he was born. His father’s disability resulted in his mother becoming the center of the household. His mother conveyed to him very early on that he was destined to become a savior, and gave him the sense he was on a messianic mission. From an early age, he imitated the skills of preacher delivering a sermon and had the capacity of holding people’s attention in a spellbinding way. He would also use sadistic and authoritarian forms of discipline to get smaller and younger friends to obey him.

Jones’ warnings that a nuclear holocaust would destroy everyone and that blacks would be put in concentration camps now seemed to have been a projection of the danger to the group that lay within Jones himself. The group was in danger of annihilation not from external forces, but from the disintegration and collapse of Jones’ inner subjective world. The pattern of interaction between Jones and his followers was characterized by his sadistic demand for mirrored grandiosity and their masochistic surrender in hopes of merging with an idealized and omnipotent self object.

The Guyana incident: Some psychoanalytic considerations. Zee, H: Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 1980, 44(4):345-363.

The narcissistic individual’s relationship with a significant other is essentially ideal and grandiose – the other is an extension of the self without the other person’s uniqueness getting much recognition. Jones’ religious and socialistic ideology degenerated into a scheme for self aggrandizement. Congressman Ryan’s presence must have been particularly menacing to Jones, who probably considered him to be a substantial vengeance seeking rival who had even pursued him to his far off exile. The threat to the group’s integrity unleashed intensely violent aggression, previously directed only toward a vague outside enemy and to the cause. Suicide allowed him to avoid facing the consequences of his acts and exploitative behavior. It was also an act of defiance – a narcissistic triumph over his enemy.

When a leader is idealized, members are freed from moral constraints in the need to be critical and responsible, making a more regressive group adaptation possible. The leader’s enjoyment of a special status has been observed with such regularity among cults that it cannot simply be ascribed to the leader’s narcissism, but must represent a collusion that meets a number of the members’ needs. Jones saw himself as the embodiment of the mythical hero who championed the oppressed and acted as father figure to his followers.

The narrative of a mass suicide: The people’s temple last tape. Pozzi, E, Nesci, D, Bersani, G: Acta Med. Rom., 1988, 26:150-175.

American newspapers reported that a tape had been found at Jonestown and a portable tape recorder beside the throne from which Jones had directed the murder suicide. Later, the FBI had reproduced the tape. The first complete transcript of the Jonestown tape appeared in 1987.

The suicide ritual began about 5 p.m., one hour after the attack on the airplanes carrying Congressman Ryan. The tape recording lasts 43 minutes, but actually covers about 3 hours of the collective suicide. The tape appears to have been a careful selection of what “deserved” to be saved for posterity. Behind the recording of the cassette was a careful direction of what the authors believe was a performance. The performance demands the elimination of meaningless pauses. The cassette is marked by at least 40 interruptions which indicate moments when the tape recorder was stopped because that reality was not “real” enough to warrant becoming history.

On the tape, Jones speaks about suicide and uses the technique of denying suicide itself and redefining it in positive terms. Further, he describes it as preferable to living. At one point, Jones stresses racial tensions when he points out that mostly white people left with the Congressman. However, in reality 13 out of the 20 defectors were black. The self annihilation of the group is blamed on external persecutors. Jones attempts to reframe the mass suicide as a revolutionary suicide committed by the “tribe” of Jonestown. The persecution by the external world appears to be a projection of the internal aggression of Jones and the group.

During the last moments, Jones’ personal nurse Annie Moore wrote out what appeared to have been a suicide note. The notes states:

I am 24 years of age right now, and don’t expect to live through the end of this book. I thought I should at least make some attempt to let the world know what Jim Jones and the People’s Temple is or was all about. It seems that some people and perhaps the majority of people would like to destroy the best thing that ever happened to the 1,200 or so of us who have followed Jim. I am at a point right now so embittered against the world that I don’t know why I am writing this… Jim Jones is the one who made this paradise possible, much to the contrary of the lies stated about Jim Jones being a power hungry sadistic mean person who thought he was god-of all things. I want you who read this to know that Jim was the most honest, loving, caring, concerned person whom I ever met and knew.

The violence of Jim Jones: A Biopsychosocial Explanation. Lys, C. Cultic Studies Review, 2005, 4(3):267-294.

In times of radical social change such as the 1970’s in America, some individuals may disconnect their psychic and economic ties to mainstream society so they may pledge total allegiance to sects that offer alternative social and political views. When the grandiosity of a sectarian leader merges with delusions of persecution and paranoia, the result is often religious violence. Due to the complexity of the Jonestown tragedy, no single factor can be cited as the cause of the tragic outcome.

Jones was often left to care for himself from an early age. While most of his peers in Indiana were fair haired and light skinned, Jones’ appearance was rather different. He lived a painful childhood as a loner and outcast. He described the anguish and anger that it caused him: “I was ready to kill by the third grade, I mean, I was so fucking aggressive and hostile, I was ready to kill. Nobody gave me any love, any understanding.”

As an adult Jones had the following paranoid believes:

  • His food was being poisoned
  • He was targeted for murder
  • He was dying of an illness
  • The IRS was investigating him
  • The CIA was scrutinizing his every move

The problem is that some of his paranoid beliefs were not entirely unfounded. Members of the temple were faced with the opposition from former members, reporters and government agencies. However, Jones’ paranoia likely over-inflated the criticism and investigations into full blown conspiracies. He often magnified the real hostility from the outside community, blowing it into a siege mentality that would remain to the end. He rationalized that members needed the false illusion of his deification in order to dedicate themselves totally to the temple’s worthwhile goals.

Jones’ own son Stephan described him as “pretty lost long before Jonestown” due to increasing drug use. Among the many drugs he abused were the following: amphetamines, barbiturates, quaaludes, valium, codeine, morphine and alcohol. Tolerance of the tranquilizer phenobarbital was evident in Jones’ autopsy – levels found in his kidneys and liver would normally be lethal in nonusers. Jones’ mood cycled from the highs caused by stimulants to the lows of depressants, and over the years his drug use steadily escalated out of control. In 1978, two American Embassy officials visiting the Jonestown commune reported that Jones “exhibited erratic behavior, slurred speech, and mental confusion.” Towards the end, the substances had taken ahold of him:

His voice, once so riveting, now sounded pathetic, raspy, as if he were very drunk or his tongue coated with peanut butter. Words collided with each other in slow motion. He would read from typed notes, but often not finish sentences. Sometimes he could not read at all.

Jones had neither the temperament nor the will to be a joiner or follower of a particular religion for very long. He wanted his own house of worship, his own following, and his own mission. In1956, he started a Pentecostal sect called the Community Unity Church, which he renamed Peoples Temple a year later. Trying to collapse racial and religious bearers, Jones concentrated on a message of social justice. He used the bible to justify the socialism he demeaned as religious communalism. In 1959, he declared that the members of his congregation should sell all of their belongings and donate the proceeds to Peoples Temple.

By the early 1960’s, Jones had eventually rejected the Christian faith altogether and was publicly criticizing contradictions in biblical scripture. In October 1961, he preached to his congregation that he had experienced an apocalyptic vision of Indianapolis, Indiana coming under nuclear attack in the near future. This paranoid fear was fueled after having read a magazine article about the “nine safest places in the world” during a nuclear holistic. As a result of this article, he relocated Peoples Temple in Ukiah, California, and then ultimately in Guyana in 1977.

Religion acts as a framework that a leader can use to justify and make sense of otherwise illogical or unexplained events in their followers’ lives. According to attribution theory,people seek to make sense of their experiences and events by attributing them to causes. Causal attribution is an attempt by individuals to maintain effective control over events and experiences. Religion provides followers with a broad scale meaning system that individuals can use as a frame of reference for interrupting the whole range of life events. Thus, individuals create causal attributions for all experiences through the lens of their chosen religious meaning systems. Religious systems allow for a misattribution of life events by allowing the follower to interrupt events that are potentially discouraging as further evidence of truth of the system.

By choosing the time, place, and manner of his death, Jones could deprive his enemies of the chance to bring him down and he would avert defeat. This would not be forgotten and would have “meaning”. Such an act would also define Jones’ place in history, about which he was eminently concerned. Jones was able to manipulate followers by misattributing revolution as reason for suicide. While individual suicide was seen as selfish and irrational, collective “revolutionary” suicide was seen as a logical and rational means for achieving other worldly salvation, as well as dying for a cause.

Religion can often foster violence to the extent that is subverts self preservation by substituting faith for reason, and obedience for questioning. Jones ultimately used and abused the power differential inherent in the family-like relationship with his followers where he was a parental leader and the members were child like appendages. Jones was also said to have suffered from a number of hypochondriacal concerns. He complained constantly of specious ailments such as cancer, heart conditions, fungus in his lungs, fever, headaches, dizziness and high blood pressure.

 

General Literature on Cults

Cults and Families. Whitsett, D, and Kent, S: Families in Society: the Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 2003, 84(4):491-502.

Approximately 2 to 5 million Americans have been involved with cultic groups. Cults become fictive families that demand commitments that parallel those made by dysfunctional and abusive families in society. Cults seek to eliminate emotional connections among family members that might compete with members’ loyalty. The language cults use to describe themselves is frequently filled with family images and metaphors, and leaders take on parental roles. For example, the Reverend Moon was referred to by his follower’s as “true father.” Jones also had his followers call him father and dad. This was also the case with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.

Cults breakdown individual and family boundaries by the use of the following:

  • Re-socialization
  • Punishment and shaming
  • Severe restrictions
  • Time commitments and constant demands.
  • An ethic of radical obedience.

In cult situations, biological parents become what amounts to “middle management.”
Whereas the cult leader is the ultimate parental figure, parents may then regress to a similar level as their children. The cult then becomes an undifferentiated mass of siblings in which both children and parents compete for the cult leader’s approval. The actual children therefore suffer emotional abandonment.

The most virulent forms group regression probably reflect the disordered personalities of the leaders. For example, Jim Jones operated primarily via humiliation and sadism. David Berg, the Founder of the Children of God cult, operated by highly sexualized group practices. Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heavens Gate cult was deeply troubled about his sexual identity and this was reflected in his group doctrines.

Cults divide the world into discrete categories of good and evil, saved and dammed, winners and losers, etc. These divisions represent splitting, which is a primitive defense mechanism that reduces the anxiety of having to live with life’s uncertainties. The Cultic division of the world into simplistic dichotomies reduces psychological stress. Members are comfortable with their certainty of “truth,” and the related delusion that through it they will live forever.

Advanced levels of cognitive development are characterized by relativistic and dialectical thinking – that is the ability to integrate and synthesize various perspectives into a coherent viewpoint. The group’s missions or grandiose purposes become the internalized ego ideal against which members measure their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This dynamic is known as the “demand for purity” according to Lifton. Because no one can live up to these unrealistic expectations, members live in chronic states of guilt and shame.

Cults may use some of the following tactics to breakdown the resistance of members

  • Dietary inadequacies
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Long hours of exhausting activities
  • Thought reform programs

All of these activities serve to debilitate the body and the mind, and sap the energy that people otherwise might use to think critically argue or leave. Experts who treat cult survivors recommend a psycho-educational and cognitive approach. The goal is to re-stimulate the client’s higher cognitive functions, involving skills such as judgment, perception, and reality testing. These re-stimulated functions assist the client in reducing self blame and confronting cognitive and emotional distortions. Cult survivors often report PSTD like symptoms, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, guilt, shame, distrust, anger, dissociation, intrusive thoughts and nightmares.

Last modified on March 17th, 2017.
Skip to main content