Jim Jones and Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Part III: Early stages of NPD, the hubris syndrome and narcissistic enablers

(Professor Gary Maynard is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. This is Part III of the three-part series. Part I, from last year’s edition of the jonestown report, is here. Part II 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 my last two articles for the jonestown report, I first explored whether or not Jim Jones was suffering from severe Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and then in my second article I examined the potential origins and causes of NPD by looking at the events and conditions surrounding Jim Jones early and middle childhood. In this article, I continue this line of examination into Jim Jones’ life by examining his descent into the early stages of NPD. I will examine how his early successes as a preacher and social activist intensified his feelings of superiority and provided him with reasons to believe that he was special. Narcissists that develop the more advanced and severe forms of the disorder tend to have a series of positive events and successes early in their life that reinforce their own views and feelings of superiority over others. For example, Donald Trump’s success in business fuels his narcissism, whereas continual failure will damage a narcissist’s ability to influence and manipulate people. Narcissists who are failures tend to be anti-social, bitter and unable to do the type of damage to others around them due to their inability to present a charismatic and positive social front. For Jim Jones, his early success, ability to speak publicly, his understanding of Pentecostal religiosity and emotionalism gave him unique abilities to influence and manipulate people.

Many who saw Jim Jones as a young man and minister speak of his positive attitude, his ability to make them feel special and loved, his ability to draw people to him and his ability to alter people’s behavior (many times in a good direction) along with his charisma. Jim Jones was different and he did have highly developed verbal skills and inter-personal skills that gave him an aura of the “divine.” Before he descended into the darker and later stages of NPD (possessiveness, jealousy, exploitation, megalomania and paranoia) he impacted many peoples’ lives and behavior in a positive way. Many of Jim Jones’ parishioners were former alcoholics, drug addicts and social outcasts. Many were “normal” people that were drawn to Jim Jones’ social activism and spiritual potency. According to many inside and outside the groups he founded (from Jim Jones’ first ministry in Indiana to the time in Redwood Valley) Jim Jones was an attractive and talented person who impacted the lives of many people in a positive manner. On the other hand, it was this charisma and power and the love and adoration of others that exacerbated Jim Jones’ NPD and gave him the external evidence that he used. He used the reaction of others to his charisma and skill to reinforce his internal view of himself as a god. This “god complex” and the resultant severe NPD that it represented is what eventually led Jim Jones to the end that he constructed for himself and hundreds of others.

Narcissists are alluring, disarming; they know how to use people’s strengths and weaknesses against them. They know how to manipulate and control others and malignant/megalomaniac narcissists use this power over others to harm those around them or strike out against their perceived enemies like Congressman Ryan. Unfortunately, those around Jim Jones fueled his narcissism – by complementing him, doing things for him, helping him control others, etc inadvertently shielded him from the light of day which eventually led to the situation in Jonestown. Once a narcissist is in total control the results are usually the same: jail for the narcissist or death – murder or suicide or both. Nearly all serial killers fit the profile for NPD as well as many terrorists and dictators like Stalin and Hitler. They all suffered from NPD and very few people attempted to stop them from gaining power in their early adulthood and the results are clear. Those suffering from the later stages of NPD rarely give up power peacefully and rationally and many commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of their “enemies.” But before I examine the early stages of NPD in Jim Jones, I give a brief summary of some of the terms and concepts surrounding the early stages of NPD, the impact of early successes for the narcissist and how those around can enable this disorder, which can eventually lead to severe consequences for those involved with the narcissist.

Even though Jim Jones displayed some of the characteristics of early stages of NPD in his childhood that does not mean he was doomed to suffer from NPD. Social conditions impact the trajectory and development of all potential narcissists and for many narcissist the contradictions in their character like those noted by Jones (1913), Freud (1931) and Reich (1933) and summarized by Salman Akhtar in The Shy Narcissist (2000) make it possible for someone with early stage NPD to turn their life in another direction or conversely the impact of early and highly damaging failures may drive their NPD underground, where it is less likely to be externalized into attempts to control and harm others:

An article describing an early incarnation of NPD was noted by Jones, written 18 years before Freud’s 1931 description of the narcissistic character. While the term narcissistic personality does not appear in Jones’ paper, the “God complex,” it described perhaps the first portrayal of the condition. Jones eloquently described the narcissist’s grandiosity, exaggerated need for praise, search for glory, and love of language. More significantly, he noted that narcissistic grandiosity is often masked by an “unusually strong series” of opposing tendencies. Prominent among these were undue humility, social reserve, and pretended contempt for money in real life. Unlike the flamboyant, openly acquisitive, and assertive type of narcissistic personality, such individuals are: characterized by a desire for aloofness, inaccessibility, and mysteriousness, often also by a modesty and self-effacement. They are happiest in their own home, in privacy and seclusion, and like to withdraw to a distance. They surround themselves and their opinions with a cloud of mystery, exert only an indirect influence on external affairs, never join in any common action, and are generally unsocial. They take great interest in psychology … fantasies of power are common, especially the idea of possessing great wealth. They believe themselves to be omniscient and tend to reject all new knowledge. Following Jones, Reich (1933) also noted that narcissistic personalities either acquire fame and social power or tend toward daydreaming and addiction. (Akhtar 2000)

In this passage it is clear to see many of the characteristics that Jim Jones displayed and at the very minimum if this knowledge of NPD would have been more common among those around Jim Jones as a young adult, many of the worst manifestations of his NPD may have been prevented. More importantly to this essay, is the fact that Jim Jones’ early success as a minister, community leader and charismatic individual coupled with the narcissistic fuel provided by his closest followers pushed Jim Jones into what has been termed “Acquired Narcissism syndrome” or “Hubris syndrome,” which is seen in many politicians and businessmen. The main ideas behind this concept is that those around the narcissist that provide verbal, emotional, psychological and material support to the narcissist (called narcissistic enablers or reinforcing agents) accelerate and exacerbate the internal distorted views and feelings of superiority in the narcissist, thus encouraging the narcissist to go further and further into the delusions of grandeur seen in early to middle stages of NPD. After years of success, coddling and propping up from those around him, Jim Jones did seem to suffer from this “God Complex.” The group-based absolute power reinforced these feelings in him even more. Additionally, the dichotomy between who he was in the group and how he was viewed outside the group, especially from critics like Marshall Kilduff, Tim Reiterman, the Concerned Relatives and eventually Congressman Ryan, helped to exacerbate many of the more severe symptoms of paranoia, persecution and violent outbursts that are seen in the later stages of NPD. For the sake of brevity, I will not go over every detail of Jim Jones’ early adulthood, but Jim Jones clearly took a great sense of validation of his narcissistic feelings as each ministry he started seemed to grow in size. As his sense of power and importance grew it must have been unbelievably empowering to Jim Jones to be able to convince/force people in the group to lie for him, work long hours, have sex with him, give him their money, and give him their allegiance and attention and nearly anything else he wanted. Outside the group, even with the critics beginning to emerge, he was growing in power, too. As Jim Jones and the group moved to San Francisco they became more and more involved in local, state and eventually Presidential politics. The San Francisco Housing Authority appointment and personally meeting the First Lady did a lot to reinforce, in Jim Jones’ mind and the minds of those in the group, that Jim Jones was powerful and important. Jim Jones made it clear to the members of the group that they needed to recognize that fact. This sense of potency that Jim Jones felt is what allowed him to push his behavior to the limit on the road to abusing and harming hundreds of people that he supposedly cared for and loved.

To quote Bertrand Russell in describing hubris – “when the necessary element of humility is missing, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness-the intoxication of power.” He is really in many ways describing the early to middle stage of NPD, which is sometimes called the “hubris syndrome.” This syndrome comes from the seeds of NPD in a person being allowed to flourish in an environment where there power is not checked by institutional means, for instance by prison, execution or ostracism, or by interactional means, i.e. by those enabling the narcissist’s fantasy of power and control. If the narcissist’s power is not checked, then the narcissist is in danger of developing severe NPD that more often than not leads to pain, suffering and death for those near the narcissist. Researcher Gerald Russel (Russel 2011) has compiled a list of characteristics of the hubris syndrome that are reinforced in the narcissist by early success and support of those around them. According to Russel, the Hubris Syndrome is seen in a person who:

  1. sees the world as a place for self-glorification through the use of power
  2. has a tendency to take action primarily to enhance personal image
  3. shows disproportionate concern for image and presentation
  4. exhibits messianic zeal and exaltation in speech
  5. conflates self with nation or organization
  6. uses the royal ‘we’ in conversations
  7. shows excessive self-confidence
  8. manifestly has contempt for others
  9. shows accountability only to a higher court (history or God)
  10. displays the unshakable belief that he will be vindicated in that court
  11. loses contact with reality
  12. resorts to restlessness and impulsive actions
  13. allows moral rectitude to obviate consideration of practicality, cost or outcome
  14. displays incompetence with disregard for the nuts and bolts of policy-making.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple can see evidence of these characteristics in Jim Jones. These attributes were encouraged by Jim Jones’ followers and inner-circle and his controlling tendencies were not being put in check by outside forces, even though eventually outside forces did step in when Jim Jones was in the later stages of NPD. But, by that time Jim Jones was, in many ways, too far gone to be reasoned with and bent on holding control of the group or dying and forcing others to die with him. The hubris syndrome precedes and then initiates the final and terrible stages of NPD when the narcissist feels trapped, paranoid and violent. Before that occurs the signs of the hubris syndrome are usually very clear:

We believe that extreme hubristic behavior is a syndrome, constituting a cluster of features (‘symptoms’) evoked by a specific trigger (power), and usually remitting when power fades. ‘Hubris syndrome’ is seen as an acquired condition, and therefore different from most personality disorders which are traditionally seen as persistent throughout adulthood. The key concept is that hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader. The ability to make swift decisions, sometimes based on little evidence, is of particular importance—arguably necessary—in a leader. Similarly, a thin-skinned person will not be able to stand the process of public scrutiny, attacks by opponents and back-stabbings from within, without some form of self-exultation and grand belief about their own mission and importance. Powerful leaders are a highly selected sample and many criteria of any syndrome based on hubris are those behaviors by which they are probably selected they make up the pores of the filter through which such individuals must pass to achieve high office.

Hubris is acquired, therefore, over a period. The full blown hubris, associated with holding considerable power in high office, may or may not be transient. There is a moving scale of hubris and no absolute cut-off in definition or the distinction from fully functional leadership. External events can influence the variation both in intensity and time of onset. Dictators are particularly prone to hubris because there are few, if any, constraints on their behavior. Here, this complex area is not covered but the matter has been considered elsewhere. Hitler’s biographer, Ian Kershaw, entitled his first volume “1889–1936 Hubris” and the second “1936–1945 Nemesis.” Stalin’s hubris was not as marked or as progressive as Hitler’s. As for Mussolini and Mao both had hubris but probably each also had bipolar disorder. Khrushchev was diagnosed as having hypomania and there is some evidence that Saddam Hussein had bipolar disease.” (From Owen and Davidson 2009.)

From these general description and the details of Jim Jones’ life and the accounts of those around him it is clear that Jim Jones’ early success, unmatched and unchallenged power along with the support of narcissistic enablers in his inner circle and the other members of the Peoples Temple accelerated the malignant NPD in Jim Jones. This accelerated NPD took the form of the hubris syndrome and that in turn fed into the later, darker and self-destructive phases of NPD that led Jim Jones and the group down the path to 18 November 1978. Again, the lessons here are clear to me and many other social scientists: First, child abuse in all forms has severe social consequences for everyone in society and especially on the psychology of those that are abused. Second, early recognition of NPD in young children needs to be taken very seriously. Third, those suffering from NPD must not be allowed to succeed with impunity in society and gain more and more power over others and institutional authority like state power. Fourth, if someone suffering from severe NPD is not stopped the final results are devastating for the narcissist, those around him and society as a whole. Over 900 people would be alive today if Jim Jones had been stopped or dealt with before he gained more and more power in his little world. In my final article in this series I will examine the later stages of narcissistic personality disorder that Jim Jones displayed, particularly Jim Jones’ delusions of paranoia, tendency for violence, fear of his group leaving him and his desire to progressively tighten his control.

Works Cited

Akhtar, Salman. 2000. The Shy Narcissist. Changing Ideas In A Changing World: The Revolution in Psychoanalysis. Essays in Honor of Arnold Cooper, 111-119

Owen, D. and J. Davidson. 2009. “Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years” in: Brain 2009: 132; 1396–1406.

Russell, G. 2011. Psychiatry and politicians: the ‘hubris syndrome’” in: The Psychiatrist Online, 35:140-145.