The membership figures for Peoples Temple just don’t matter. Some sources say that Jim Jones padded the numbers to claim a Peoples Temple membership of 20,000 strong, compared to a reality of 3000. The numbers game is a moot point, though, because we all know how it concludes – the 909 Jonestown dead is the only number essential to telling this tale and perhaps even more questions to ponder than answers ever provided.
But if one considers the relatively short time and relatively limited geographic area Jim Jones had to impart his spiritual connection and to exert his influence on the masses of folks, there’s no telling how powerful he – or more accurately, Peoples Temple – would have become. While it is apparent that his vision of the way things could be was hypnotic – even intoxicating – the skeptic in me doubts that his power lay in his abilities other than his talent to bring together people with the same desires as his. I think ultimately he was in awe of the power within his own “flock” which, broken down into basic terms, is a group of birds in flight with one bird steering them all in a common direction. As I see it, Peoples Temple needed no coercion to create a better way of living. It was already an intrinsic part of the anatomy of the growing membership. Its need for a uniting and cohesive force was personified in Jim Jones.
The means he used to maintain his control over his group was cruel, even more so than the tactics of a street gang leader, because he was able to use people’s deepest desires for a better way of living with one another against the very people he professed to love. I seriously doubt that the membership of Peoples Temple needed to be influenced to do the exhaustive work it took to create Jonestown. To ideate and execute such a monumental task is testament to Peoples Temple’s willingness to see its collective dream come to fruition.
While I have always been unwilling to endow any one person with either all good or all evil intent, I contend that Jim Jones was himself overwhelmed and in awe of his own flock. I can only conclude that he was unable to reconcile his own personal demons with the reality of Peoples Temple membership and, ultimately, Jonestown itself. The pure dedication, fortitude and work it took to make Jonestown a reality was beyond most human comprehension. It is humbling at the very least to logistically realize the heart that went into its making. It took people knowledgeable about agriculture, farming, cooking, engineering, irrigation, plumbing, interior decorating, development, management, medicine, labor relations… and it took muscle and sweat. The tasks ranging from the gargantuan clearing of the jungle to the smallest detail in educating a Jonestown preschooler required the work and cooperation of everyone. For any one mind, such an undertaking is enough to tempt surrender before the work is even begun, especially when one’s ultimate vision of the world – like Jones’ – lies floundering in the dark. His demons simply won the war that rages in all humanity to do and be better. Drop in an unhealthy dose of heady power and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
When the realization that those around you hold you in more reverence than you hold yourself, it must have been unbelievably hard to coexist with people of such hearts.
It is no far stretch of the imagination to think that such a tortured mind would turn his personal demons outward against the very same people who demonstrated their love and devotion. Effectively, Jones painted himself into a corner, unable to admit defeat of a personal nature to those around him. He must have known he was ill-equipped to both accept and give such love and devotion over a prolonged time. Is it not unimaginable that he would rather destroy it all so as not to be faced with his own demons and have to deal with how fraudulent his own dedication was?
My own thoughts of Jim Jones are more conflicted than ever. While I can see love of the man, my anger at him dissipates to woeful pity. My regret, although not as potent as others’ may be, is that his abuse of power was so unjust and cruel, not only for those whose lives he took but for those he left behind. Did he ever see that? Did he ever try to understand it, to grapple with it, to harness the power of those around him. I don’t know if he could have – or would have – first recognized the need for, then accepted psychological help. Oh, but if he had, can you imagine?
(Susan M. White Hicks’ complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)