A Piece of Driftwood and the High Seas: Speculations on the Mind of a Madman

(This article is adapted from a paper written for a course on “Death, Dying, and the Afterlife,” taught by Dr. Rebecca Moore in the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University.)

The conspiracy theories that revolve around the events in Jonestown maintain that the nine hundred people were murdered, either by Jones through brainwashing and mind control, or by external forces, such as the CIA.[1]  However, I think that the conspiracies fail to do justice to the unique nature of the “true” events at Jonestown, even if we don’t rightly know all of the details. Plots of CIA mind control tests, the destruction of a secret Soviet missile, and a government assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan overdetermine what happened on November 18, 1978.[2]  While I do not mean to say that the conspiracy theories are mistaken — a notoriously difficult task, indeed, to disprove most conspiracy theories resolutely — I do mean to say that these theories are not needed to satisfactorily explain what happened at Jonestown, which was an event perpetrated by a great number of adults of sound, rational mind and idealistic ideology. Yes, there was manipulation. Yes, there was volition.

In my view, what happened to the members of Peoples Temple was akin to the gradual drift of a train off its rails, or a plane off its flight path: a slow deviation from the safe, normal, and happy by mere degrees until suddenly they were very far away from where they began and from where they originally thought they were going. When asked what it was like to live in Jonestown as Jim Jones’ behavior became increasingly erratic, survivor Laura Johnston Kohl says, “It’s just hard to know what is insanity and what is keeping people together in a community that can break new ground.” Kohl goes on to explain how early on it was 95% building a utopia and 5% “absolute insanity,” and gradually the percentages shifted. For Kohl, this shift was not quantized, but rather operated on a continuum: “It wasn’t like there was a day when we crossed the line.”[3]

While the drift of the community as a whole may have been a gradual one, what can we say of Jim Jones’ role? Was he an authentic leader? Was he truly dedicated to social justice? Or was he “simply” – however you wish to define the word – a megalomaniac? Did he secretly have a long-term plan for mass suicide from day one of his leadership of Peoples Temple? Was he just the unfortunate evolution of a damaged kid from a broken home? It is impossible to determine what was authentic, what was planned, what Jones did for others, and what he did as a means to fulfill his sinister private needs and plans, much less what authenticity and what farce was performed consciously. Did he see himself throughout his life in the role he portrayed himself as, that of a loving father figure, or was there a piece of him that understood he was driving impressionable people to suicide as a means to play out a dark fantasy?

There are no satisfying answers to the questions about the nuances of Jim Jones’ character and psychology, in large part because he did not fit in any single one of these descriptions. Rather that he was a little bit of all of them. Part of him loved his people, part of him was terrified of being alone, part of him was a loving leader, and part of him was a sinister, manipulative psychopath. I believe that these various and conflicting aspects of Jones were like driftwood on the ocean of his (sub)consciousness, sometimes hidden below the surface and sometimes rearing up into the realm of awareness. Perhaps he was an authentic and loving leader on the surface, but this love was driven by a deeper, subconscious pathological fear of being alone and/or a need to dominate others.

Nevertheless, we can attempt to extrapolate theories from the words and actions of Jim Jones and the members of Peoples Temple and then attempt to draw conclusions by working with these theories. Accordingly, I would like to look at four factors of Jones’ psychology that I find significant, both in terms of simply being interesting, and in terms of being relevant to the Jonestown “event.” These four factors are: 1) Paranoia and delusion, 2) emphasis on community and non-duality, 3) death as a tool, and 4) the desire to leave a legacy.

Jim Jones’ paranoia preceded his move to Jonestown. According to the PBS documentary,Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, he was so paranoid of a government attack that he had two dedicated members of the church ready to take a bullet for him at all times.[4]  This imagined – or at least semi-imagined – “they” became even more substantive after a fire burned down the San Francisco Temple, and he became convinced that he was eternally under attack by great powers.[5]  This paranoia drove him to Guyana, but he found no relief there either. From the late-night surprise suicide practices and emergency planning sessions – which came to be known as White Nights – to his speeches to his people, we can see that Jones was convinced that he was always being watched. This delusional belief in an eternal audience can be seen, for example, on tape Q135 when Jones says, “And you’re out there, sonabitches, start the first goddamn shot.”[6]  Another instance of Jones speaking to the imagined fascist forces, who were always listening just out of sight, can be found on a Jonestown recording used by NPR in their “Father Cares” special.[7]  In this tape, we find Jones putting on what largely amounts to a performance: he is speaking to “them” (the fascists) as he whips the Jonestown crowd into a frenzy of shouts and “whoops.” Here he explicitly says, “Make no mistake: they can hear us.”

As a charismatic leader who controlled the availability, presentation, and interpretation of information for the community of Jonestown,[8]  Jones’ paranoia did not remain his own, but rather it affected the mentality of the community as a whole. This stemmed in large part from another aspect of life in Jonestown, as Jones also emphasized a sharing of identity. This non-duality within the community is attested to in many places, but perhaps most poignantly on tape Q135 from the fall of 1977, when he explains to the residents before him that he was offered asylum to Cuba with his family but that he refused it because either everyone would go or no one would. Similar expressions appear multiple times on Q042, the “Death Tape,” including these:

“I’ve always put my lot with you. If one of my people do something, it’s me.”

“I can’t live that way. I cannot live that way. (More emphatic) I’ve lived with — for all, and I’ll die for all.”

“I’m standing with those people. They’re part of me.”

“He’s just one of my children. I don’t prefer one above another. I don’t prefer him above Ujara. I can’t do that. I can’t separate myself from your actions or his actions. If you’d done something wrong, I’d stand with you. If they wanted to come and get you, they’d have to take me.”[9]

This emphasis on non-duality also appear in the writings of influential members of the Jonestown community, including Annie Moore, whose suicide note includes the observation: “Jim Jones showed us all this — that we could live together with our differences, that we are all the same human beings.”[10]  [emphasis added]

From the psychoanalytic perspective, perhaps we can connect this emphasis on non-duality and community to a subconscious fear of being alone that developed out of Jones’ rough childhood. As the PBS documentary tells us, Jones grew up the son of an alcoholic and unemployed father, and he suffered through a childhood defined by alienation and isolation. The documentary implies that this led to Jones’ later affinity for minorities, such as African Americans, as well as his attraction to the Pentecostal Church, in which the preacher served as a father figure (it should be noted that the members of Peoples Temple exclusively refer to Jones as “Dad” and “Father”). It seems plausible to me that Jones’ adult personality was heavily influenced by his childhood, but it seems as though there was always something in his “nature” that was perhaps “unlocked” by his “nurture,” which is perhaps attested to by the fact that even as a very young boy he had a strange obsession with death.[11]  I believe that Jones’ subconscious need for community and fear of isolation, as well as his experience of his own destitute father, contributed to the development of his personality as a charismatic and dominant leader. Furthermore, his emphasis on non-duality amongst the members of Jonestown was his method of expanding his ego by way of “absorbing” all of these other egos. From this perspective, the various suicide practices can be seen not as a test of loyalty, as Jones claimed, but rather as a test of his own potency—his own power over his congregation.[12]  In this reading, Jones’ paranoia was his way of creating meaning through providing a sort of twisted telos of imagined war, and his potency tests were his way of gauging both how not-alone he had been able to make himself and how likely these people were to help him leave his mark on history.

As we know now, this mark was one of death, but before I discuss the significance of the mass suicide/murder from the perspective of Jones’ psychology, it is worth examining his own views on the subject. For Jones, death seems to have been a tool for his ultimate goal: the leaving of a legacy.[13]  On Q042, Jones can be heard referring to the poison as “medication,”[14]  and of death as sleep. He also equates life with death when he says, “It’s far, far harder to have to walk through every day, die slowly — and from the time you’re a child ‘til the time you get gray, you’re dying.” [15]  I believe that Jones’ view of death – which would have become the view of the majority of Jonestown’s members[16]  – would have made the idea of suicide easier, especially when taken in conjunction with the desensitizing effects of suicides rehearsals,[17]  the assertion of suicide as the only viable option,[18]  and the equating suicide with a revolutionary action.

The events of November 18, 1978 was, for Jim Jones and many of the members of the Jonestown community, an act of “revolutionary suicide.”[19]  For them, this was significantly different than suicide, as they were choosing this option as a means 1) to exercise their own agency and die on their own terms and 2) to protest an unjust world.[20]  Thus, their suicide was not indicative of passive defeat but rather of active defiance. This revolutionary suicide was a means for these people, and especially for Jim Jones as the leader, to leave their mark on history.

This emphasis on history pervades Jones’ thought, and we can find good examples of it on tapes Q642[21]  and Q643[22]  from a White Night the previous spring, and from Q042.[23]  I believe that Jones’ focus on history speaks to his desire for achieving (creative) symbolic immortality through the establishment of a legacy. This desire for symbolic immortality can also be seen in the fact that he recorded everything because, as the NPR special “Father Cares” notes, he saw himself as a historical figure. Even Jones’ delusions and paranoia can be interpreted as manifestations of his desire for symbolic immortality: his habit of speaking to this imagined omnipresent audience is indicative of the desire to want to be more than just another mediocre face in the crowd. On the contrary, he was so special that people were always there listening. Furthermore, not content with being a single, small ego, Jones expanded his ego to absorb a thousand other egos as a manifestation of his battle against death, isolation, and anonymity. In fact, this childhood fear of being alone can perhaps be implicated in his obsession with going down in history in a particularly volatile instance of symbolic immortality, as death threatens to erase all, and if one is forgotten, then one never mattered: death threatens ultimate isolation. By transcending this feature of death through symbolic immortality – the establishment of a legacy – Jones insured that he would never be truly alone or forgotten.

But how much of this was conscious? I find that it stretches credulity to suggest that Jones intentionally orchestrated the trajectory of Peoples Temple from the outset. With thousands of members, external factors, an expanse of time, and the general nature of the world, I think that it is implausible to think that a young man starting a church in Indianapolis, Indiana in the 1950s had the ability to decide that one day he would manipulate disaffected minorities and other alienated individuals in order to bring them to the point where they would all kill themselves so that history would remember him. Instead, I find it more plausible to believe that Jones’ youth made him a man authentically dedicated to social justice, but also a man with a deeply troubled and profoundly disturbed side. These two dimensions of his personality engaged in a dance of their own volition, and it is this dance that set the trajectory of Peoples Temple. I think the Jonestown phenomenon was something that neither the members of the community nor Jones himself truly controlled. Like the sweepers in the sport of curling, they surely influenced the path of the phenomenon, but they did not exert anything close to full control over it. There were certainly major players and minor players, and good intentions and sinister intentions, but no single volition could have completely dictated the trajectory of such a group. As the sport of curling shows us, the stone goes, in large part, where the stone was going.

(Alex Howe is a graduate of San Diego State University, where he earned degrees in both Philosophy and Religious Studies. His interests include the qualitative character of experience, AI, and mysticism. He may be reached at howe101@gmail.com.)


1 Rebecca Moore, “Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories About Jonestown,” Journal of Popular Culture 36, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 200-20. It is available online on this site.

2 Conspiracy theories also ring similar to the common human need for ‘cosmic justice’ as they, in the words of Moore, “attempt to restore morality and order to a chaotic and immoral world.” Moore, “Reconstructing Reality.”

3 Qtd. from minute 11 of NPR’s “Remembering Jonestown,” (2003) which streams at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1509317.

4 Qtd. from minute 36 of the PBS documentary, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2007). The full transcript can be found at https://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/media/pdf/transcript/Jonestown_transcript.pdf.

5 Qtd. from minute 37 of the PBS documentary, “Jonestown.”

6 Qtd. from the transcript of Tape Q 135.

7 Qtd. from minute 29 of section 2 of NPR’s special, “Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown” (1981), at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1509317.

8 Qtd. from minute 53-45 of the PBS documentary, “Jonestown.”

9 Qtd. from the transcript of the Q042 “Death Tape”.

10 Qtd. from Annie Moore’s Last Letter, which has been published in a number of places, including on this site.

11 Qtd. from minute 8 of the PBS documentary, “Jonestown.”

12 This is also suggested in minute 33 of the PBS documentary, “Jonestown.”

13 In my nonreductionist understanding of Jones, perhaps it would be more appropriate for me to say that Jones had twin goals, one conscious and the other unconscious: 1) to save and do right by his people and 2) to leave behind a legacy. The remainder of this paper largely focuses on the second goal so that I may interpret Jones’ actions from the perspective of symbolic immortality, rather than entirely from the perspective of what he thought he was doing.

14 Which is oddly reminiscent of Socrates’ final words: “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” (Asclepius being the god responsible for curing illness, implying that Socrates viewed life as a disease and death as the cure.)

15 Qtd. from the transcript of the Q042 “Death Tape.”

16 Give the nature of the community—Jones’ dominating personality, his convincing rhetoric, his infectious personality, and his other strategies, such as playing his speeches 24/7 through the public address system of Jonestown and controlling what information came into Jonestown from the outside world. It is also worth noting that these factors bear a striking similarity to what occurred in the United States following the September 11th attacks and leading into the bombing of Baghdad, the invasion of Iraq, the officially sanctioned use of torture, and the passing of the so-called Patriot Act.

17 Qtd. from Rebecca Moore, The Sacrament of Suicide.

18 The summary of the Q642 tape deals with this in a concise manner.

19 Jones uses this term several times in the Q042 “Death Tape.”

20 These are actually the last words of the Death Tape: “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

21 “It’d be maybe black people having to kill black people that they’d use to come after us and we would lose our moral impact.” (qtd. from transcript of Q642.

22 Pam Moton: I was going to say, that I don’t think that going into the jungle would be the most feasible in terms of uh, completing a revolution. Uh, we have– I feel that we have too many seniors and too many children that would require uh, too much assistance to go at a very fast pace.

Jones: You think somebody in history might interpret that as inhumane?

Pam: (unintelligible)

Jones: History might interpret that as inhumane that we took all those people out there without medication and so forth.

Pam: I don’t feel that it’s inhumane, I think it’s–

Jones: I don’t care what you– I– I said, do you think history– We gotta think about history.

(qtd. from transcript.

23 “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” (also qtd. from the transcript of the Q042 “Death Tape.”