(Dr. Maynard is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee Chatanooga. He specializes in the sociology of religion and social psychology including the study of how those suffering from NPD impact society. His previous writings – including the first three sections of this analysis – may be found here. He may be reach at Gary-Maynard@utc.edu.)
In this article, I explore the violent/destructive phase of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (henceforth to be referred to as NPD) illustrated in the life of Jim Jones in his final years. This article is part IV of a four-part series exploring the theory that Jim Jones was suffering from a severe case of NPD and that this illness contributed to his abusive, controlling and destructive behavior. It is clear to social scientists and those who knew Jim Jones personally, that he was arrogant, overbearing, abusive, vain, hypocritical, violent and suffering from most of the nine characteristics identified by psychologists constituting the mental disorder known as NPD. Most narcissists have very little power over large groups of people; Jim Jones desired and eventually exercised power over hundreds of followers through the strength of his personal persuasiveness, ideas, charisma and speaking skills. His ability to lead and control the behavior of hundreds of willing and well-meaning members of Peoples Temple magnified the direct and indirect damage of his NPD on those around him. Jim Jones, like other megalomaniacs suffering from NPD, acted out in violent and destructive ways in the final stages of his NPD sickness. In this article I discuss the final stages of NPD, how this process played out in Jim Jones’ life and how the final stage of his NPD impacted those under his leadership, guidance and control. Jim Jones negatively impacted the lives of thousands of people who either lost their lives or lost family and friends as a result of his NPD.
When the world spins out of control
The final stage of NPD is the part of a narcissist’s life when the world they have known in the past starts to spin out of their control. The loss of power and prowess over others is devastating to a megalomaniac narcissist. It damages and unhinges the narcissist psychologically and emotionally, leading to an intra-personal implosion followed by a violent explosive end for the narcissist and others around them. Like a star that goes supernova and creates a black hole in the fabric of the universe, narcissists implode emotionally and psychologically, and the damage done by them ripples through their entire social networks damaging more than just the narcissists. Within this implosion, narcissists have a tendency towards feelings of vengeance against those they believe have harmed them by doing things that expose or weaken their position. This leads them to cast others as the villains making it impossible for them to recognize that their failures are being caused by their own behavior. Additionally, when narcissists are backed into a corner and feel threatened they many times lash out violently against society and their own personal social network. Narcissists lash out to punish the world for treating them unfairly, punish their perceived personal enemies and even attack and kill their family and friends, especially if they feel those people have turned on them. Mass murderers, who go on killing sprees or public shootings, many times harbor deep resentments and hatreds towards society or segments of society and use this as a rationale for taking violent action against the public, small groups and/or individuals (many times members of their own families). An extreme example of the narcissistic tendency towards vengeance and violence is Josef Stalin, who is viewed by social psychologists as a megalomaniac narcissist proven by his behavior during the later portion of his life. Later in life, Stalin, in a series of paranoid fits of rage, jailed, tortured and eventually killed his own wife, some of his lifelong friends, colleagues and military leaders. Stalin justified these acts by saying that these people had or were going to betray him and that his actions were taken to protect the state and the revolution, but in reality Stalin was using the vestiges of his power to live out his narcissistic revenge fantasies. Part of what drove Stalin’s violent paranoia was that he knew he was getting older and felt that eventually someone would replace or remove him from power. Stalin did everything he could think of to prevent losing power including abusing his position as the supreme leader of the Soviet Union by jailing and executing millions of his own citizens. Jim Jones was not Josef Stalin and will never be Stalin, but even though the magnitude of their crimes is different the patterns of behavior are similar between the two. In the end, those around these two men were the ones that paid the price for their untreated NPD and megalomaniac tendencies, but what happens, specifically that initiates these changes in the narcissist that pushes them towards a violent end?
A key to preventing narcissistic implosion/explosion events is understanding the markers and signs of a narcissist slipping into fantasies of revenge and violence. It is crucial that those around the narcissist can identify and take action to prevent the violent outbursts of many suffering from severe NPD. Many narcissists do not act in this vengeful manner or even get close to the final violent stage of NPD, but the ones that do create destruction on a vast social and personal scale. With these questions and issues in mind I turn to the specific events and changes that occur in the final years of a violent narcissist.
The final years of a violent narcissist
The final stage of narcissism is marked by several events and changes in the life of the narcissist. The first change that occurs in the narcissist is related to the process of aging. In general, narcissists are vain and revel in their looks, youth, physical prowess and vitality. Narcissists use their youth and looks as a way to gain power and confirm to themselves that they are better than others. As a narcissist ages, becomes ill and begins to lose their looks a panic ensues inside them. This panic drives narcissists to use alternative means of controlling others as their looks and health fade. The process of aging and losing their looks punches holes in their inflated self-esteem and damages their image in front of others making them seem less attractive. In the case of Jim Jones, it appears that as his health and looks began to fade he employed more repressive measures to control those in Peoples Temple. He seemed to become more and more paranoid about the threat of people leaving him and the group. This was not just due to the loss of his health and looks, but it can be suggested that his aging and ill-health accelerated the paranoia and fear he had about people leaving him. Jim Jones most likely saw the loss of his health, vitality and looks as being slowly stripped of one of his sources of his power. To further illustrate this point, in part III of this series of articles I examined NPD and the hubris syndrome, which is a particular type of NPD where the narcissist sees themselves as not only better than others, but that they should rule over all others. The desire to rule others pushes the narcissist to engage in repressive and exploitative behavior in order to satisfy their lust for power. When this power is taken away or begins to fade many narcissists panic and seek to harm those they blame for their loss of power. It may seem strange to those not suffering from NPD that the loss of health and looks would create such panic and fear in someone, but losing vitality and looks is a massive blow to a narcissist. Jim Jones’ increasing drug use and general loss of health damaged his image in the group and most likely in his own mind. When the physical fantasy of the narcissist starts to deflate or blows up in their face the narcissist is pushed closer to panicking and lashing out.
Second, as a narcissist goes through life they begin to experience failure in their personal and professional life. The failure in their personal and professional life brings on feelings of anger, panic and fear that many times push the narcissist to act out in violent ways. To use another historical example of a megalomaniac narcissist, Adolf Hitler clearly was suffering from a severe case of NPD and his NPD was magnified by his early successes, which he used as evidence that he was better than others. As he rose up to ultimate power in Germany he began to internalize and believe that he was the savior of Germany and the greatest leader the world had known. Then as things in Germany and the war effort began to crumble he was unable to deal with the consequences and realization that he was going to lose the war. As his power faded, others around him started to believe that he was not the savior of the German nation. With the Russians closing in on him and his war machine smashed he eventually ended up killing himself in a dingy bunker with several of his friends/associates while still sending child soldiers off to their certain death, all because he refused to surrender to the Allies. Death, destruction and suicide – grim ending that some violent NPD sufferers face in the future if they do not get help for NPD – maybe not to the level of Hitler, but a micro-holocaust in and of itself. Those around the narcissist face similar risks of violence by continuing to associate with a narcissist who is imploding. Even though Jim Jones was gaining influence and power in various social arenas beyond Peoples Temple as he aged, in the Temple as time went on, many were beginning to question his behavior, beliefs, attitudes and the direction of the group. In the mid-1970s, Jim Jones was appointed to the Housing Commission in San Francisco, but his appointment quickly turned into a major issue for him due to the large amount of public exposure related to his new position. Jim Jones and the other members of the group that attended the meetings received intense scrutiny from the local and state media due to their “strange” behavior at the meetings. Jim Jones’ need for bodyguards and the revelations of former members about his behavior inside the group made those on the outside think that something was not right with Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. At the same time, Jim Jones was being challenged by some members in his group about his ideas and his abusive behavior. Some members of the group left and formed a group with family members of some of the other members in the group called the “Concerned Relatives” whose goals were to reveal the maniacal, controlling, abusive narcissist that many felt Jim Jones really was by the mid-1970s and get their friends and families away from him.
The negative attention and questions being raised by journalists about Jim Jones’ misuse and abuse of his position in the group drove him to become more and more paranoid. Those that were around him at the time reported that Jim Jones’ paranoia and desire to leave the United States went up precipitously as the attacks from outside the group increased. Marshal Kilduff and others investigated Jim Jones’ finances, talked to disgruntled former members that detailed stories of abuse in Peoples Temple while many former members told the press about the public beatings and other brutal tactics used by Jim Jones to control his followers. Most narcissists when exposed to this type of sustained public assault on their intensely high level of self-esteem will react by blaming those that are attacking them, create and execute plans of evasion and revenge and in general will act in an emotionally imbalanced and erratic way. In the simplest evaluation when a narcissist’s life implodes and the things they believe about themselves and their feelings of superiority begin to be chipped away or utterly destroyed by failure in their personal and professional life they are unable to accept this and this many times leads to the cycle of violence that end the life of the narcissist and others around them.
The narcissistic implosion/explosion
As the media and former members continued to hound and attack Jim Jones, he seemed to feel that his life was spiraling out of control and that he was losing his influence and grip on the situation in San Francisco. During this period of time in the 1970s, Jim Jones’ behavior was described by those around him as erratic and heavily laden with fear. These are telltale signs of an impending narcissistic implosion and explosion. Most normal people when faced with failure or public attacks may not want to accept it, but they do. Most normal people when faced with failure and the loss of friends and family will engage in self-examination and attempt to change their behavior or re-focus their life. Most normal people will not blame others for 100% of their failures and would not plan revenge against those involved in pointing out the failure. By contrast, narcissists never blame themselves or their own actions for the failures in their lives. Narcissists blame other people, invisible enemies, amorphous threats, the jealousy and judgment of others for their failures. The more narcissists fail due to lack of skill or the exposure of their faults publicly, the more potentially angry, vengeful and violent they become. As mentioned in the previous essay on NPD and Jim Jones (Part III), narcissists harbor resentments towards all those who embarrass or harm them and make plans for revenge against those people. Plans that many of them carry out with intense anger and hatred for those they seek to harm. In the face of failure, it is kill or be killed to many narcissists and if you couple this homicidal anger with the deterioration of the body and mind due to aging, the later stages of NPD can be very dangerous and damaging to society.
Finally, as the narcissist ages, loses their health, starts to fail in their personal and professional life they also begin to damage/destroy the relationship of those who have supported them all their lives and propped up their narcissistic feelings. This final characteristic of the last stage of NPD is driven by intense separation anxiety and feelings of loss of power that a decreasing social network causes. The collapse of their power and social network connections exacerbates the other issues of aging, ill-health and failure in their personal and professional life. As the window of power begins to fade and family and friends begin to isolate the narcissist, many narcissists panic emotionally and this fuels their desire to try and re-assert control over what they feel they have lost. This desire to re-assert control usually leads to increasing attempts to harm family and friends who threaten to leave the narcissist. The fear of loss of power and the failed attempts to re-assert control can sometimes lead the narcissist to create a permanent solution to the rapid implosion of their life. Many times this permanent solution takes the shape of a murder-suicide or mass-murder event. This also occurs with jilted, narcissistic lovers who cannot stand for anyone to reject them and cannot accept that their marriage/relationship is over and they lash out at their spouse/partner and all others they blame for the break-up. In the case of Jim Jones, he seemed to follow this pattern in many ways. As friends and family left or tried to leave the group, he felt betrayed, panicked, paranoid, angry and vengeful. He took deliberate action to target and threaten the lives of all those who he considered to be his personal enemies – former members, the US government, Rep. Ryan, the members of the Concerned Relatives and the press who Jim Jones felt had led to his downfall by spreading lies about him. Many narcissists know no limits to what they will do to those they hate and blame; the narcissist is never wrong in their own mind and so taking violent action against their enemies is justified in their mind. In the end, 900 people died along with Jim Jones in a horrific event: the results of Jim Jones’ actions were clear and evident. Not only did he attack those he blamed for the “trouble” and “threats” to his group, but Jim Jones’ narcissistic madness drove him to force those in the group to take poison and kill themselves as an act of “revolutionary suicide”. Many took the poison without questioning it, but many did not want to die that day and they did anyway. A few made it out alive. In the final stage of NPD, Jim Jones led to the death of those he thought were his enemies, but also led to his death and the death of those he supposedly loved.
The importance of taking NPD seriously
The actions of Jim Jones and the expression of the worst aspects of NPD are a lesson to all humanity. A lesson to be weary of those who seem too good to be true and think too much of themselves. A lesson to be cautious of those who tell you they have all the answers and will take care of all your needs and desires. A lesson to all that malignant self-love and the lust for power lead to death and destruction. If we are to prevent such events in the future we must not be afraid to confront and remove severe narcissists from society. They must be treated psychologically and medically and perhaps even kept in isolation from society for the rest of their lives. It is difficult to determine if those suffering from severe NPD can be “cured”, but perhaps they can be changed enough to prevent the death and destruction that many narcissists cause in society. If we take their condition seriously.