Over the past decade of researching Peoples Temple for a theater project, I have pored over dozens of transcripts, read books and essays, studied documentary footage, and listened to audio clips. And while I gained a deeper perspective on the Temple itself, the man at the center has always been the hardest to grasp.
Jim Jones was not the focus of my historical fiction piece, but since he was a crucial character, I needed to have a sense of his motivations. While his true intentions can never be known, some details of his life point to compulsive and addictive tendencies. His thorough collection of recorded sermons, meetings and radio broadcasts suggests an obsessive mindset. As for addiction, his various drug dependencies are well-documented. With this in mind, I began to draw connections to a condition related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
“Hoarding” is now understood as a mental disorder in its own right. Most of us personally know someone who struggles with hoarding tendencies: a lady with too many cats, a neighbor with a basement full of junk. Thanks to recent reality TV shows about hoarding, it’s no longer easy to mistake such behavior as a lifestyle choice.
If you’ve seen one episode of Confessions: Animal Hoarders, you’ve pretty much seen them all: people from varying backgrounds and upbringings all experience the symptoms in extremely similar ways. Animal hoarding is doubly tragic in the sense that the animals are subject to neglect and injury because the owners have more pets than they can realistically care for. The disorder creates a disconnect with the reality of their situation, and even threats of legal action often aren’t enough to break their compulsion to obtain or breed more animals. Even though they have deep attachments for their companions, they don’t seem capable of recognizing the poor environment they’ve created by housing too many.
Jim Jones collected animals throughout his life, from the strays he led around town as a child, to the animal shelters he listed among the Temple’s attractions in Redwood Valley. But perhaps his compulsive nature was more oriented to collecting people rather than animals or objects. Is it possible that other variations of hoarding exist? Have “people hoarders” existed in the human population for centuries, only to be written off as unexplainable anomalies? Sociologists have drawn parallels between leaders ranging from Rev. Sun Myung Moon to David Koresh. But the rhetoric has usually focused on the charisma of men like Jim Jones, their alleged egomania, their need to control people. Could there be one underlying condition they all shared?
Jim Jones’ behavior was laden with so many contradictions, there is no single personality disorder or simple diagnosis that can explain why he led the Temple to such a tragic end. According to many members’ accounts, Jim Jones was capable of genuine goodness and concern. His passion for social equality was evident, not just in his sermons but in his actions. If he did indeed have a compulsion for collecting people, it may account for a certain mental disconnect between his intentions and the actual conditions that he expected his followers to live in.
For someone to successfully “collect” followers, one needs to create a social framework that allows for it. For Jim Jones, that framework was church, even as the religious teachings within the Temple gradually shifted. As his movement grew, his ties to traditional religions diminished in inverse proportion to his social and political activism until it disappeared altogether, as illustrated by the fact that there has not been a single religious address or sermon identified among the tapes known to have been recorded in Jonestown. Was this all part of a careful plan? Was it an evolving value system? Or, was he simply revising and refining his message to strengthen devotion and keep attendance numbers on the rise?
If Jim Jones’ need for followers was an addiction of sorts, a rare and specific compulsion, this in no way excuses his actions. But as research advances our understanding of personality disorders, it’s possible that future generations will be able to pinpoint these tendencies and perhaps even treat those afflicted.
Is it possible that some respected corporate leaders and successful politicians struggle with an irrational need to collect followers? Would it be far-fetched to imagine some of the musical and film celebrities who have the public in their thrall might be motivated by an unquenchable need to raise their number of twitter followers?
Perhaps the compulsion has potentially positive outcomes, if the person isn’t overwhelmed by it. But what if the person succumbs? Imagine that level of compulsion combined it with a bipolar disorder and you have a leader who drags his followers on his/her emotional ups and downs. In Jonestown’s final months, Jim Jones’ exhortations ranged from rallying the troops to doomsaying, often during the same night. Some could argue he was intent on confusing Temple members and wearing them out with exhausting mind games. But he might have been less calculating, more of a frantic addict, suicidal at the thought of having his human menagerie disassembled by outside forces. Like the animal hoarders who feel deeply connected to every pet that they own, he might have truly believed Jonestown was a sanctuary.
Did compulsive thoughts blind Jim Jones to the reality of Jonestown’s very real problems? This alternate view of his modus operandi leaves room for the possibility that part of him truly cared about the Temple Members up to the very end, even as he drove them to destruction.
For more information on hoarding, visit Live Science.
(Carl Kelsch is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His previous article is Studying and sharing the story of Jonestown. He can be reached here.)