Jim Jones and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NDP) – Part II: Origins from Jim Jones’ early childhood and teen years

(Professor Gary Maynard is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. This is Part II of the three-part series. Part I, from last year’s edition of the jonestown report, is here. Part III is here. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at Gary-Maynard@utc.edu.)

In an article I wrote for last year’s edition of the jJonestown report, I explored the issue of whether or not Jim Jones conformed to and displayed the nine characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and to what level of intensity he displayed these nine characteristics. I found strong evidence of a very severe form of NPD with elements of megalomania – an element of power madness and paranoia found in some people suffering from NPD. This severe form of NPD undoubtedly contributed to Jim Jones’ behavior during the existence of Peoples Temple and the action that led to the destruction and death of the group and the individual members in 1978. Jim Jones was, by all accounts from friends, family and outside observers, a dangerous, maniacal, controlling and paranoid narcissist bent on total vacuum.

As of yet it does not appear that severe forms of narcissism are genetically caused. What is needed, therefore, is a more thorough examination of the social factors and social environmental cues and events that led Jim Jones to see the world the way he did and to see himself and his goals in life the way he did. In this article, I will focus solely on Jim Jones’ early childhood and adolescent development and the social and family conditions that likely contributed to the development of Jim Jones’ megalomania and NPD. I will use historical accounts, documentary sources, first-hand accounts and Jim Jones’ own statements and actions when he was young to identify the causal agents from a sociological and social psychological perspective. I will examine how Jim Jones’ social environment shaped his personality early in life and how several transformative events and series of events changed him into the malignant narcissist that directed the deaths of over 900 people.

Before I examine the particulars and specifics of Jim Jones’ early childhood and adolescent years and how it may have played into the development of NPD in Jim Jones, I will give a brief overview of the theories and evidence surrounding the causes of NPD. Even though there are many theories surrounding the various causes of severe forms of narcissistic personality disorder there is a paucity of empirical and clinical studies on people suffering from moderate and severe NPD. However, there are some and I will briefly review the findings of these studies.

In general, the theories surrounding the causes of moderate and severe[1] forms of NPD focus on developmental issues in childhood related to family relationships, presence and level of abuse, perceived or real social exclusion, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy due to real or perceived threats in the social environment, and other issues like traumatic events coupled with a somewhat anti-social and/or borderline personality and temperament that studies suggest may be related to genetic factors.

The following statements regarding the causes of NPD from the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic and Psychcentral.com sum up the general theories surrounding the social psychological causes of moderate to severe forms of NPD:

The exact cause of narcissistic personality disorder is not known. However, many mental health professionals believe it results from extremes in child rearing. For example, the disorder might develop as the result of excessive pampering, or when a child’s parents have a need for their children to be talented or special in order to maintain their own self-esteem. On the other end of the spectrum, narcissistic personality disorder might develop as the result of neglect or abuse and trauma inflicted by parents or other authority figures during childhood. The disorder usually is evident by early adulthood. (The Cleveland Clinic)

The cause may be linked to a dysfunctional childhood, such as excessive pampering, extremely high expectations, abuse or neglect. It’s also possible that genetics or psychobiology – the connection between the brain and behavior and thinking – plays a role in the development of narcissistic personality disorder. (The Mayo Clinic)

Researchers today don’t know what causes narcissistic personality disorder. There are many theories, however, about the possible causes of narcissistic personality disorder. Most professionals subscribe to a bio-psychosocial model of causation — that is, the causes of are likely due to biological and genetic factors, social factors (such as how a person interacts in their early development with their family and friends and other children), and psychological factors (the individual’s personality and temperament, shaped by their environment and learned coping skills to deal with stress). This suggests that no single factor is responsible — rather, it is the complex and likely intertwined nature of all three factors that are important. If a person has this personality disorder, research suggests that there is a slightly increased risk for this disorder to be “passed down” to their children. (psychcentral.com[2])

Other researchers have identified a series of inter-related factors and experiences that have been correlated with NPD in the limited research available. These causal factors include oversensitive temperament that appears to be partly or wholly genetically determined. However, temperament alone is not enough to create the perfect storm of bio-psycho-social forces to push the potential narcissist into full blown NPD. The additional factors that work with a person’s temperament include, but are not limited to, undifferentiated self-image or an overly distorted or unrealistic view, many times related to the internalization of extreme cultural views about the importance of vain measures of success like money. Another prominent factor on the road to NPD for many people is parental abuse and neglect as well as experiencing over praising for good behavior or minor successes and/or excessive or extreme criticism and punishment for deviant behavior in early childhood. Along with these factors is the internalization of feelings of inferiority brought on many times by a severe social or physical stigma that leads to bullying, teasing and social exclusion. Further research has identified the role of negative emotions tied to childhood and early adulthood experience like shame, guilt and insecurity. But these negative feelings have to come from somewhere and that again leads us back to the social conditions under which some narcissists develop. Although people of all classes and income levels suffer from moderate to severe forms of NPD, it seems that poverty and growing up with that stigma and the social exclusion and feelings of shame that it creates in children, may lead to or accelerate the development of narcissistic tendencies as a defense mechanisms to the emotional onslaught that social shame and stigma place upon a developing child. Still, even all this may not be enough for NPD to flourish. It may also take a lack of parental concern about the growing feelings of shame and insecurity in the child. If the feelings are allowed to linger, fester and grow without any real attempts at psychological and emotional counseling and intervention the chances of developing severe NPD is very high.

The element of shame in the development of NPD was examined in both a theoretical and empirical context by Robins, Tracy and Shaver (2001) who states that a number of studies[3] show a strong connection between intense feelings of shame coupled with some of the other elements discussed earlier in the crucial developmental stages of childhood can lead to and accelerate the development of NPD. Robins, Tracy and Shaver further suggest that shame based on attacks and threats to an individual’s self-worth is particularly harmful. For hyper-sensitive children and young adults these threats and attacks seems to cause many more instances that become defined as threats to self-worth and self-esteem, which may in turn lead to the lashing out that many narcissists engage in when they feel trapped or under direct assault by others. Studies[4] further suggest that these feelings of shame are many times suppressed, externalized and lead to overt self-aggrandizing behaviors, thoughts and feelings that constitute NPD. Rhodewalt and Morf (1998) go further and suggest that narcissistic tendency, for many, are seen as the only reasonable course of action for narcissists to defend themselves from the onslaughts of the social world around them. Robins, Tracy and Shaver summarize and extend Rhodewalt and Morf’s theories surrounding the causes of NPD stating that,

Like Morf and Rhodewalt, we believe that narcissism serves a broader function as well. Morf and Rhodewalt present a variety of different motivational interpretations of narcissistic processes, but they do not explicitly propose a single, coherent functional account. Certain kinds of social experience (rejection, lack of acceptance, high parental demands) might lead a person to view narcissistic strategies as the only rewarding ones available. For example, the young A. J. Ayer was made to feel like an outsider, weakling, and misfit (e.g., by virtue of being from a foreign country, being unusually short in stature, being a Jewish boarder in a Protestant preparatory school). If we focus more on feelings of being excluded, ridiculed, and having the rug of security pulled out from under oneself, it is perhaps easier to understand why narcissists seek recognition and admiration, having been badly injured in the search for social acceptance, affection, and shared intimacy. Presumably, it is better to make some positive impression than to wither away anonymously in an isolated comer. Thus, at an intra-psychic level, strivings for power and achievement may be an attempt to compensate for underlying feelings of alienation, helplessness, vulnerability, and humiliation, which may be rooted in early interpersonal rejections by parents or peers. (Robins, Tracy and Shaver 2001)

There are many more studies and theories than can be reviewed in this essay, but the general theories along with empirical evidence presented here suggest a highly complex matrix of inter-related causal factors particularly co-occurring in childhood and adolescence that creates the fertile ground for NPD to develop.

There may not be agreement among social scientists and clinical researchers on the precise causes, but all the factors mentioned seem to play some major role in NPD. By examining a case study like Jim Jones, it will become clearer how some of these factors intertwined into Jim Jones’ early life and experiences to create the conditions for NPD inside of him. In the next section of the essay I will examine how Jim Jones’ childhood development, his specific family environment, the abuse and neglect he suffered, his internalization of the social stigma of poverty, his shame at his family, particularly his alcoholic, disabled father, and his temperament helped to create the megalomaniac that was directly and indirectly responsible for the abuse and deaths of over 900 people. Through this exploration of Jim Jones’ early life the specific causes and the interaction between these factors will be illuminated and this essay will lead to a greater understanding of the damage that was, is and can be done when children are abused, neglected, bullied and when they internalize the shame and stigma placed on them by an seemingly cold world where there appears to be no allies and no safe place to go to. This is the life and psychology of the severely abused and neglected child and if not properly dealt with and treated the abused becomes the abuser.

Jim Jones was born in the depths of The Great Depression in May of 1931 in Indiana near the Ohio border and he grew up in a small, poor and racially divided town in Indiana called Lynn until he was 16 years old. Jim Jones’ parents owned a farm that they eventually lost due to The Depression and with his father being disabled from mustard gas injuries from WWI and collecting government assistance, Jim Jones grew up in a world where poverty was all around him. Even though he grew up during The Depression in a relatively poor rural area, he seemed to know that he was one of the poorest of the poor. According to Jim Jones’ own words and the accounts of his family and his school aged friends it was a source of great pain for him to be one of the poorest in town and to have a father who did not work and suffered from alcoholism. Jim Jones seemed to have internalized this element of shame and being poor which in turn made him feel as an outcast not only at school, but even in his own home. Jim Jones’ very early childhood was marked by neglect, loneliness, the shame of poverty while all the time being in a nation that told all its people that they could succeed no matter how humble their beginnings. The concepts surrounding the American Dream of rising out of poverty by your effort and talent must have impacted the young Jim Jones as he experienced the daily humiliation of being poor. In his book, Raven: the untold story of Jim Jones, Tim Reiterman states that Jim Jones’ mother was very ambitious and taught his son to try and make something of himself and not become like his father,

Jim Jones’ parents, especially his father, did not spend “quality time” with his son nor did he spend time teaching him how to be an adult and how to better himself. Instead his father neglected his son and when he did give him attention it became a conflict. As an adult Jim Jones related an incident between him and his father when he was 16, which is telling of their relationship. Jim Jones had brought the only black child in town home to his father’s house and his father told him that his friend could not come into the house. Jim Jones then told his father that if his friend could not come in then he wouldn’t come in either. Jim Jones claimed that the disagreement caused a split between him and his father for many years. His mother, unlike his father, was hard working and had to take on the role of the head of the household in her early and middle adulthood.

Jim Jones’ mother was educated and had ambitions to be a businessperson, but her husband’s affliction and the gender discrimination in American society at the time were obstacles to her professional success. She eventually worked at various factories and canneries in the surrounding area. She would leave for work early and come home very late and still have to cook, clean and take care of Jim Jones. Jim Jones was an only child, but he was still neglected through his childhood by both his parents. Childhood friends of Jim Jones report that his mother could be cold and harsh and note that when they visited his house, they did not see any overt signs of affection like hugging and kissing[5] . A neighbor, Myrtle Kennedy and others told of times when they would see Jim Jones as young toddler, unattended and covered in his own feces (Reiterman, 2008). Jim Jones’ friend Donald Foreman reported that when he went there for dinner there was no desert and that the family did not eat together[6] . There seemed to be a serious distance between Jim Jones and his family.

Jim Jones’ parents not only abused him and created a dysfunctional household, they also provided terrible role models for his future development. In a young child, this type of upbringing of neglect, lack of positive role models, severe poverty and stigma as well as being labeled an outsider and a “weirdo” at school would tend to create a high level of self-centeredness in an individual as a defense mechanism. This use of self-centered behavior as a defensive posture from social and personal harm is one of the precursors to the development of NPD. In addition, the high level of shame and pain that Jim Jones reported feeling about the things that happened to him as a child fit into the theoretical perspectives of the relationship between issues like abuse, neglect and the mitigation of shame and pain by using narcissistic behaviors as a defense against emotional damage or reliving past emotional pain and harm. Jim Jones seems to be the victim of a tremendous amount of abuse, neglect and ostracism over a long period of time which would tend to accelerate and deepen any growing narcissistic tendencies.

In school, Jim Jones was an outcast on many levels. First, his severe poverty made him stand out and gave him a sense of inferiority, but he seems to have managed this somewhat well and was still able to succeed in school and make some friends. Second, Jim Jones did not like to get dirty and engage in physical activity and so he did not play tag and other games that may have gotten him dirty (Reiterman, 2008). Third, he was very smart and into reading and the use of language and was quickly becoming a skilled orator even at a very young age. He gave religious sermons to classmates in his loft in the back of his house as well as lectures on school subjects.

As time went on some of these issues became worse and began to distance Jim Jones from his peers even more. In middle school he dressed up in a white sheet and would preach on the street corners attacking “sinners” and vices that he saw residents of Lynn engaging in at the local pool hall and other places. His involvement with Marxism and his interest and attendance at the local Pentecostal church set him apart from his classmates, family and most of Lynn. While in school and in public Jim Jones felt and was treated as an awkward and strange person. Conversely, at his loft in the back of his house with his peers, he was in total control and his behavior towards his peers in these situations foreshadows his later issues with separation anxiety, control issues and narcissism. For example, he locked several of his friends in the loft just to see how they would react.

During his sermons and ceremonies in the loft he would not let people leave until well into the night. At one point after a meeting with Donald Foreman while he was in high school, Donald repeatedly tried to leave and Jim Jones implored him to stay. As Donald finally tried to leave and was walking away Jim Jones shot at him with a .45 caliber gun. These early views of a young Jim Jones and what he went through and how he behaved in various situations around his schoolmates and peers (Reiterman 2008) give us an idea of what factors combine to create some of the personality characteristics that lead to severe forms of NPD

In addition to the traumatic events and chronic neglect and social exclusion that Jim Jones seems to have suffered is the repeated statement by his classmates, friends and family about his high level of intelligence and his high level of spiritualism (spurred on by his meeting Mrs. Kennedy) both of which may have enhanced certain elements of Jim Jones’ growing narcissism. His high level of intelligence might have created in him a sense that even though he was poor and considered strange by some, in this area his was superior to others. His high level of intelligence also allowed him to study ideas surrounding social inequality and discrimination. This innate intellectual ability certainly fed into his early success as a young adult, but as a child it may have given him a sense of having a gift, which, coupled with his belief in spirituality may have implanted some of the ideas that eventually turned into his messiah complex and feelings that he himself was a god. This brief analysis of the events and social environment of Jim Jones’ childhood offers confirmation of many of the theories surrounding the causes of narcissism related to childhood development.

Jim Jones was neglected. He was made to feel or felt like an outcast, which is reported in his taped recordings and by various school aged friends and family. He responded to the events of his childhood and his family background with shame and emotional pain. Still, through it all Jim Jones was able to carve out a space for himself in the larger world by the use of his immense intelligence. This had to have given him the first taste of what it felt like to be superior to others and may have fueled his desire to be a religious leader or leader of a group. Jim Jones stated in an interview quoted in Raven that by third grade he felt:

I was ready to kill. I mean, I was so fucking aggressive and hostile, I was ready to kill. Nobody gave me any love, any understanding. (Reiterman, 8).

In this quote from Jim Jones himself we see the very essence of argument about the role of shame and internalizing the social pain of life and in that respect Jim Jones was not very different from many others suffering from severe forms of NPD.

In addition to the actual events in Jim Jones life is his interpretation of what happened in his childhood and how he dealt with it and reacted to it. It certainly impacted his future relationships and how he viewed his role in life. In a biographical interview from 1977[7] , Jim Jones discusses the impact of his childhood and how it played into his decision to become a Marxist. What is just as telling is how Jim Jones described his feelings around his home town, his family and what happened to him at school. In his account, he expresses a deep shame over his upbringing and uses the word pain over and over again to describe his early and middle childhood in Lynn, Indiana. This along with the above quote give an insight into the forces working inside Jim Jones’ emotions and psychology while he was young and how this impacted his adult personality and behavior. Many of the things Jim Jones discusses and describes comport with the theoretical and empirical suggestions about the origins of severe forms of NPD.

Jim Jones further elaborated on this in September 1977 in a couple late night conversations he had about his childhood with some other trusted members[8] suggesting that he was bullied and it bothered him. He was a prankster and seems to not have had much respect for authority, especially the principal. These transcribed conversations give further evidence of the origins of Jim Jones’ NPD. Clearly, Jim Jones had self-esteem issues and issues with his self-worth and his attempts to deflect and externalize these feelings may have been one of the major causes of the early stages of NPD in his life.

Over time, as I will explore in the next article, Jim Jones’ success and the accolades, obedience and adulation from others fueled his NPD to new heights of madness including feelings and thoughts of megalomania and severe delusions of grandeur and paranoia.


Cleveland Clinic

Kernberg, O. F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. New York: Aronson.

Kohut, H. K. (1971). The analysis of the self. Madison, WI: International Universities Press.

Lewis, H. B. (1987). Shame and the narcissistic personality. In D. L. Nathanson (Ed.), The many faces of shame (pp. 93-132). New York: Guilford.

Mayo Clinic

Notorious. Biography Channel Documentary. “Jim Jones.”


Reiterman, T. (2008). Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Tarcher Press.

Rhodewalt, F., & Morf, C. C. (1998). “On self-aggrandizement and anger: A temporal analysis of narcissism and affective reactions to success and failure.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 672-685.

Robins, Tracy and Shaver. (2001). “Shamed into Self-Love: Dynamics, Roots, and Functions of Narcissism.” Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 4 (2001), pp. 230-236.

Wright, F., O’Leary, J., & Balkin, J. (1989). “Shame, guilt, narcissism, and depression: Correlates and sex differences.” Psychoanalytic Psychology, 6, 217-230.

Various materials from the Jonestown Institute.


[1] Meaning that the disorder is causing real harm to the individual and those around him (or her) emotionally, psychologically and physically and that he poses a threat to himself and others due to the condition.

[2] http://psychcentral.com/disorders/sx36.htm

[3] Wright, O’Leary and Balkin (1989), Kernberg (1975), Kohut (1971) and Lewis (1987).

[4] Kernberg (1975), Kohut (1971) and Lewis (1987)

[5] Account from Jim Jones’ childhood friend, Donald Foreman reported in the documentary “Notorious” by the Biography Channel.

[6] Reported in the documentary “Notorious” by the Biography Channel.

[7] Q 134 Transcript

[8] Jim Jones’ Autobiographical Statements