(James L. Knoll, IV, M.D. is Associate Professor & Director of Forensic Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University & the Forensic Fellowship training program at the Central New York Psychiatric Center. He has worked as a forensic evaluator for the courts, corrections, and the private sector. He is the author of over 90 articles and book chapters relating to both psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, and is the Editor-in-Chief of The Psychiatric Times.
I’m gonna lay down my burden. Down by the riverside.
– Jim Jones (The Death Tape)
Gonna lay down my burden,
Down by the riverside
Going to lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Ain’t going to study war no more
– Folk Spiritual song
The death tape is rolling, and it is recording all of us, although we may wish to deny death to varying degrees Hence my undying fascination with the Jonestown death tape, which I believe contains the synecdoche of Jim Jones and Jonestown in so many fragments of preserved dialogue. In this article, I focus primarily on a singular statement in an effort to discern the broad from something seemingly narrow. I seek to understand the whole through the focus on one of its parts.
It is my contention that Jones’ phrase – I’m gonna lay down my burden – can best be understood in the context of the theme of resistance. Jones’ use of this powerful spiritual aphorism about surrender and acceptance represented its complete reversal: oppose and reject. Finally, I argue that one of Jones’ strong motivations was revenge. Because revenge represents an uncompromising, forceful attempt to communicate a profound grievance, it is the very antithesis of surrender, acceptance and a genuine laying down of one’s burden, in the sense that this spiritual proverb was meant.
Truth as Bait
Falsehood is never so successful as when she baits her hook with truth, and no opinions so fatally mislead us as those that are not wholly wrong, as no watches so effectually deceive the wearer as those that are sometimes right.
– Charles Caleb Colton
Jones’ final words, bidding others to join him in “laying down” their “burdens,” have long remained stuck in my consciousness – but in an unnerving and exposing way. Anxious and confused – the same way a child must feel upon hearing something from a trusted adult that should not have been uttered. But in those final moments, Jones did utter these captivating words, which seemed to coalesce all the final drama into a single phrase that flowed effortlessly out of the skilled orator’s compendium of riveting sermons.
It was a vivid example of how Jones could expertly tap into the authority and influence of spiritual guideposts, yet not go beyond them towards the truth to which they point. Instead, he used them to do the opposite. He wielded them in the service of the ego. And because he was so highly skilled at this, the suffering he produced was great. The concept of ego, as used here, subsumes the concepts of self-esteem, narcissism, the innate sense of an “I,” as well as Freud’s conception of an observing, controlling function. The birth of the ego allowed for symbolic events (as opposed physical events), such as humiliations, to pose threats equal to or even greater than threats to physical survival.
Remarking on Jones’ use of the famous Santayana quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Reston points out how it was used out of context, and the fact that Jones had a penchant for using powerful quotes: “Like so many other sayings, he picked the Santayana quotation up as if it were a bauble, in the rough of intellectual thought. It was as if the world’s wisdom was reducible to a book of quotations, from which one could select gems and arrange a resplendent mosaic of his own magnificence.” I would push Reston’s observation further.
The analogy of a “bauble” and mosaic of magnificence approaches, but does not fully capture the effects of Jones’ use of powerful maxims. Using a different metaphor, I would characterize Jones’ powerful quotations as the “lure” with which he “baited” his thought-controlling “hook.” The quotes he used were no ordinary sayings; rather, they were intellectual and spiritual guideposts that contained the power to tap quickly into one’s emotions and inner experience. In this sense, they penetrated the depths of the psyche with pointed efficiency. Once there, the sacred proverbs often have the effect of inducing a momentary state of wonderment and awe.
Were the receivers of the powerful quotes simply let alone, to be in a state of reverence, all may be likely well and good. Indeed, a state of awe seems to be one of the most pure, honest cognitions one can have. It is a state of absolute, limitless wonder and reverie – the mind of a child. In this sense, it is one of the most sacred of mental states. It is exceedingly difficult to maintain, but it is likely only here, on the razor’s edge of awe, that we have the most freedom, depth and genuine connection to the un-knowable.
Awe and the unknowable are intimately associated with uncertainty, and these mental states are typically aspired to for the cultivation of one’s inner life and spiritual pursuits. In contrast, certainty leads to a falling away from awe, and towards mental and spiritual inertia. Jones had to appearcertain – even to the extent that he claimed he could foresee the future. To leave his followers in a state of personal awe and honest uncertainty was far too threatening to his ego. He was incredibly discerning, and as soon has he perceived that an aphorism had resonated with a follower’s psyche in an awe inspiring way, it was time to sink the hook deeper, and reel the follower closer into his sphere of ego control.
In sum, my view is that Jones used powerful aphorisms instrumentally and in the following progression: 1) instill a sense of awe, 2) seize the vulnerable moment, 3) control and manipulate. His use of language to this end was not in accord with a healthy, functioning spirituality which involves the “transcendence beyond the individual’s instrumental interests,” and “material human limitation.” Rather, by the time he arrived in Jonestown (and arguably before), he appeared to be operating continually on the brink of “potential regression into a paranoid polarity,” and deprived the spiritual tenets “of their profound meaning.” As the “final stand” approached, Jones’ mindset moved even farther from spiritual serenity and closer to rebellion against life itself.
Rebellion vs. Acceptance
What I’m talking about now is the dispensation of judgment.”
– Jim Jones (The Death Tape)
The moving spiritual folk song “Down by the Riverside,” likely has its origins in the biblical passage of Matthew 11:28: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” This pinnacle teaching of Christ was meant to signify that the mysteries of grace, peace, and salvation are to be ventured by hope and faith. Here, recall Christine Miller’s plea to Jones: “I feel like that–as long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith.” To which Jones responded with: “Well—everybody dies. Some place that hope runs out…. I’m tired of being tormented to hell.”
The tragic irony of Jones’ statement is that Christ’s encouragement to lay down one’s burden was quite the opposite of what Jones was suggesting. In contrast to a “revolutionary” opposition by enforcing death, the more accurate meaning of the scripture involves obtaining peace of conscience, ease of mind and tranquility of soul. This necessarily requires surrender andacceptance of what is – a true laying down of one’s heavy egoic burden. A rebellious march into death is antithetical to this notion. The word revolution comes from the Latin revolutio, which means “a turn around,” or a sudden, often violent change. Revolution implies an aggressive overthrow of a ruling force – a persistent opposition to some governing influence. Finally, a “rally” to death is neither the end of conflict, nor a crusade towards peace, as it creates an extension of suffering into the future for other humans.
It is by now quite clear that the Jonestown tragedy was not a mass suicide, but a mass murder followed by the suicide of Jones and a relatively small number of individuals in his inner circle. It has been observed that some (if not many), suicides are far from passive acts of giving up the will to live. Such suicides may involve a complex combination of the following forces: 1) anger or sadism turned inward, 2) an act of rebellion, and 3) a desperate attempt to coerce guilt or forgiveness. Note that none of these entails a peaceful surrender of the egoic burden. The ego’s vision of escape into death is an illusory “dream of death,” whereas true peace involves freedom from self-imposed “merciless and unrelenting orders” issued by an ego determined to strengthen itself.
The unrelenting nature of egoic opposition to life circumstances can be clearly seen in a document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act , and written by Carolyn Layton (“chief administrative officer” of Jonestown, and a top member of Jones’ “administrative triumvirate”). In this document to Jones, Layton writes: “A final stand if decided on […]How will you have the knowledge to know now is the time to go ahead and do it? [emphasis added]” The words “final stand” suggest aggressive rebellion, and summon images of an embattled troop, ready to fight to the death. In addition, it should be noted that she is looking to Jones for the “certainty” of precisely when this rebellion must take place. The palpable sentiment Layton seems to express involves a need for certainty, and question of hostile rebellion. Thus, let us now turn to a brief psychological analysis on the relatedness of suffering and uncertainty.
Transformation via Suffering & Unknowing
Thou hast turned cruelly against me…. Have I the strength to wait? What end have I to expect, that I should be patient?
– Job 30:20 – 6:11
In focusing on the experience of psychological and spiritual transformation, let us invoke another biblical cannon and timeless Hebrew poem. The Book of Job deals squarely with the incomprehensible, unrelenting suffering of a faithful believer. It sets forth a profound and inspired sequence of events for our consideration: “deprivation, unknowing, and transformed awareness.” This sequence of human experience describes a “path to the profoundest transformations of religious awareness for those who choose the contemplative or mystical traditions… [as well as] the transforming workings of psychoanalysis.”
Job could be considered a primer for what mistakes to avoid in ministering to a fellow being who is suffering. In it we see the “convictions and certainties of well-meaning men destroying their attachments to a suffering friend, as well as their ability to learn or to minister to him.”11How is this so? Each of Job’s would be counselors approach him with great certainty about what has caused Job’s ordeal of suffering. Yet all Job’s advisors fail miserably, as it is the case that the “mind plagued by uncertainty clashes with minds glutted with certainty,” and “a mind seeking transformation clashes with minds seeking its appropriation.”11
One of the most profound teachings of Job is that genuine transformation only follows the uncomfortable “ordeal of unknowing.”11In fact, through his suffering and ordeal of uncertainty, Job even becomes a catalyst for the transformation of his deficient counselors as per God’s concluding instruction that they look to Job for their own transformation. It could be said that through his own suffering and surrender to the unknowable, Job finally “becomes the means for others to find their own transformed awareness.”11
The sequence (deprivation, unknowing, transformed awareness) can be seen not only in spiritual transformation, but also in psychological transformation. Here it is important to recall that “the play of uncertainty and transformed awareness against conviction and refusal to learn was… what Freud made the heart of his instructions about psychoanalysis:’[…]if he follows his expectations he is in danger of never finding anything but what he already knows; and if he follows his inclinations he will certainly falsify what he may perceive.’”11
The transformational point of unknowing in the midst of great suffering was presented dramatically to Jones, particularly after the Congressman Ryan visit. Burdened with his heavy, crippling ego, Jones was unable to accept the circumstances as they were. The actual circumstances versus the story his ego had created so conflicted that he could not accept the reality – the is-ness of his situation. Jones’ own egoic story involved obtaining his “rightful place in history” – which he then perceived as unjustly stolen. This caused Jones to grow “despondent and say that all was lost.”
When talk of “winning” or “losing” arise, it is a high probability sign that the ego is in control. Being and reality are then related to in terms of net gain or loss, a continual struggle which often precludes acceptance of uncertainty and transformed awareness. Striving to “win” and avoid “loss” in Jones’ situation amounted to being consumed with the certainty of his predicament and potential outcomes. For example, consider Jones’ statement: “A person’s a fool who continues to say that they’re winning when you’re losing.” By the time Ryan began leaving Jonestown, it seems clear that Jones viewed “Ryan’s departure with Jonestown residents as the dramatic symbol of Peoples Temple’s ‘defeat.’” Defeat in this scenario was Jones’ egoic mental construction – both certain and utterly unacceptable. This is to be contrasted with the actions of other religious, spiritual and political leaders such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela who “transformed their personal painful experience into a quest for social justice.”
Most spiritual teachings contain the theme of the individual “finding God,” and therefore peace, through surrender. That is, through total acceptance of what is, which they had been forced into by their suffering. Even at the time that the death tape began rolling, there remained the possibilityof transformation. Everything in his life had brought Jones to this very point. Before him was the opportunity to truly lay down his burden, and thus be transformed. Indeed, “All must reach this point, and go beyond it […]For from this lowest point will learning lead to heights of happiness, in which you see the purpose of the lesson shining clear.” Suffering is hereby distinguished from surrender. Suffering brings one to the point of surrender, and the possibility of transformation. Returning to the example of Christ: “The way of the cross is a complete reversal. It means that the worst thing in your life, your cross, turns into the best thing that ever happened to you, by forcing you into surrender…”
Surrender means freedom, but also a corresponding diminution of ego. Rebellion against such opportunities leads to a strengthening of one’s sense of self (i.e., ego). The transformation that takes place in this instance is complete identification with egoic demands, which obscures and annihilates reality. Ultimately, this results in a pervasive unawareness, particularly with one’s connectedness with the whole of life. Neither reverence in the face of the unknowable, nor transformed awareness was accessible to Jones. As a result, thoughts of revenge were cultivated from his perception of being in an unfair, persecuted and “defeated” position.
Revenge & Ego Survival
So they’ll pay for this. They brought this upon us. And they’ll pay for that.
– Jim Jones (The Death Tape)
The desire for revenge “is a ubiquitous response to narcissistic injury.” Fear and anger, in the form of the flight, freeze or fight response, are linked physiologically and psychologically. With the development of civilization acting to reduce daily threats to physical survival, threats to self-esteem assumed a more prominent role. Indeed, affronts to our ego, self-esteem or narcissism are responded to “as though they were a threat to our survival.” The end result, and current psychological predicament for over five thousand years, has been the mind’s tendency to create the illusion that there exists a “self” or identity desiring to sustain itself, seek pleasure and avoid narcissistic injury just as zealously as one would attempt to avoid harm to the physical body.
The ego survival instinct became “sublimated into striving for an enduring sense of self which is an object of value in a field of social meanings.” Thus, violent revenge may be viewed as a “fight response” to a perceived threat to the sense of self. Vengeful rage fulfills a function in that it provides a sense of restored power (a pseudo-power) to combat intolerable and humiliating feelings of weakness. Ego threats may become so overwhelming that “the only thing that remains is to persist in the ‘unremitting denunciation of injustice.’” When Jones sacrificed his own and others’ lives, he was in fact following a kind of logic – albeit perverse and ruthless: He had to sustain his refusal to compromise – against all odds – lest his ego surrender to a reality he found utterly intolerable.
In certain disturbed individuals, revenge fantasies may encompass rage at the self, leading to either suicide and/or murder-suicide. The revenge fantasies may become inflexible and persistent due to the fact that they provide desperately needed emotional scaffolding, without which the individual’s psyche would collapse. The vengeful person is able to regulate his mood and ward off ego threats with the power he feels by ruminating on, and planning out his vengeance. The fantasies allow him to experience some amount of pleasure, as well as pride at being on the side of some spiritual or cosmic primal justice. In essence, the revenge fantasy serves as a powerful, but temporary remedy to a humiliated ego, by providing an illusion of strength and a sense of restored control.
In clarifying expressions of vengeful rage, Menninger has used the example of a child who suffers some type of pain. Immediately, the child “wants to let others know about it… to know exactly how he or she hurts.” The internal dialogue may be represented as: “When I am hurt by you, I want you to hurt like I hurt; therefore if you hit me, I will hit you back.” But in the case of certain individuals who labor under a very forceful and sadistic ego, the drive for revenge cannot abide by the principle of functional symmetry. The type of severe narcissistic rage they experience demands excessive retaliation, and a transfer of a disproportionate amount of pain to others.
In its dreadful finality, the revenge fantasy serves to obliterate the individual’s intolerable reality and aversive self-awareness. The revenge taker not only denies his powerlessness, but from his perspective goes further, gaining “virtually limitless power. An eye for an eye soon gives way to a life for an eye.” In this way, revenge fleetingly restores the grandiose self and egoic primacy, allowing the ego’s “omnipotence” to rise triumphantly from the ashes of shame, loss and vulnerability. Yet note that this entire process is precisely the opposite of acceptance, peace and serenity of consciousness. The reverse of “laying down one’s burden,” it is a desperate fight to the death (and beyond) to preserve the ego.
Jones’ last death tape statement is undeniably a pure proclamation of revenge: “So they’ll pay for this. They brought this upon us. And they’ll pay for that.” There are two other notable elements contained in this statement. This powerful declaration reveals: 1) the presence of externalization of blame (“They brought this upon us”), and 2) the need for a dramatic act to be recognized by others. The very public and arguably theatrical nature of mass murder would seem to speak clearly to the “need for recognition from an audience.” Why go to such an extreme as the mass murder of over 900? Because the dramatic act of revenge functions to reestablish a connection with an “audience” to whom Jones wished to convey a message.
From a broad perspective, that message might be translated and distilled as: “This version of life is abhorrent and unbearable. I shall expose this injustice on the world’s stage where all will behold my virtue, and the other’s depravity.” Annihilation of unacceptable reality thereby has the aim “of exposing the ‘good’ order” of the avenger. Such hyperbolic and gratuitous acts of revenge do not “aim to bring justice but to annihilate” unacceptable reality. Because the vengeful individual “cannot contain his painful experience” resulting from life as it is – he must annihilate the external order – the is-ness of life itself.
An inability to accept reality is transformed into a mandate to destroy reality. That which is unjust and must be destroyed is, de facto, one’s mortal enemy. Making an enemy of life and resolving to destroy it serves to: 1) position oneself against reality, 2) transform reality into a mental projection of all that is unjust and persecutory, and 3) strengthen one’s ego (eg., “I” am right and life is wrong). It could be said that the ego strengthens itself in this way by seeking a form of “reverse specialness.” By becoming a lone, yet exceptional protestor against an “unjust” reality, one assumes a powerful victim role in which one can “win” – even by losing: “We win when we go down.” The battle is lost by the avenger; however, he “shatters the monstrous [reality] for generations to come.”
This is a revolutionary suicide.
– Jim Jones (The Death Tape)
Living is the greatest revolution. Living has no pattern, but death has: the past or the future, the what has been or the Utopia. You are living for the Utopia, and so you are inviting death and not life
– Krishnamurti (Living Is the Greatest Revolution)
There was never a “problem” on November 18, 1978 that was not self-created, or otherwise a product of Jones’ controlling and demanding ego. Even unto the moment he gathered Jonestown members in the pavilion, there was the opportunity to accept the circumstances as they were, and genuinely lay down his heavy egoic burden. This was also noted by Jones’ advisors immediately after the Ryan departure with defectors. The option of acceptance was apparent to “Temple attorney Charles Garry [who] advised Jim Jones to accept the departures gracefully.” Garry later noted that even after Ryan’s departure, the Jonestown “community could have endured the loss of a handful of defectors.”
Among Jones’ options was accepting the circumstances of the moment, and allowing Ryan and others to leave unharmed. Of course there would be consequences to this particular choice, just as there would be for any choice. Governmental extradition to the U.S. to face various charges was quite a possibility. And this would have been a set of circumstances for him to accept and make decisions about. Yet his choice of mass murder-suicide was born of continued resistance and nonacceptance of his present circumstances. The result of his ego driven choice was continued, immeasurable suffering for survivors, family and society.
Rebellion and revenge are aggressive, desperate attempts to strengthen the ego, as opposed to laying down the heaviness of an ego that is creating suffering. In the end, no burden was laid down, no suffering was transcended and spiritual transformation escaped Jones’ grasp even as the opportunity was before him. This brings more poignant irony to Annie Moore’s final message, which was undoubtedly influenced by Jones: “We die because you would not let us live in peace.” It was in fact their own minds that would not let them live in peace. The way to peace, alluded to by Jones’ quote: “I’m gonna lay down my burden,” was not through an imposed death, but through acceptance of uncertainty and transformed awareness.
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