The Negative Effects of the Social Isolation of Jim Jones in Jonestown

Social Isolation (SI) is a sociological concept that refers to “a complete, or near-complete, lack of contact with people and society for members of a social species.” The impact of SI on human beings has been publicized recently in psychological studies of inmates in American prisons who have been kept in solitary confinement – with no interaction with other human beings – for extended periods of time. These studies have shown that the deleterious effects are profound three separate ways: physically, emotionally and psychologically.

This article will be examine the SI experienced by Jim Jones his last 16 months in Jonestown, from July 17, 1977 – the day he arrived there for the last time – to November 18, 1978. This article will also examine the three-pronged affects of SI in general, and will provide examples of how Jones exhibited the symptoms that are associated with them.

My fundamental contention, that Jim Jones suffered from any sort of isolation, might seem odd to many readers. After all, he lived in a large community of 1000 people in Guyana. In a way, though, the fact that there were so many people surrounding him contributed to two factors which exacerbated his isolation: 1) he was the supreme leader of the collective, a position which allowed him to cognitively believe that he was superior to, and, in many ways, isolated from, the other inhabitants; and 2) Jones was trapped inside of Jonestown, that is to say, he believed he couldn’t physically leave without fear of arrest, however far-fetched or insignificant that might have been. The effects of this completely self-imposed withdrawal into his “Promised Land” only added to the psychological issues already present in his life, including a sense of alienation from others, paranoia, and a persecution complex. The escalation of these pathologies severely altered his thinking patterns over time, and culminated in the decision to commit “Revolutionary Suicide” on November 18, 1978.

First of all, it is important to note that, by choosing to live in Jonestown, Jim Jones and the members of Peoples Temple encountered varying amounts of SI in numerous ways. Jonestown was a self-contained settlement deep within the Guyanese jungle, 24 hours away from Georgetown – the country’s capital and only major city – and thousands of miles away from anything resembling home. No doubt, every person who lived in Jonestown suffered from SI to some extent, but even when we make that concession, we must also recognize that the amount and degree of SI on Jones was far more severe than what others inhabitants experienced.

Much of this stemmed from a decision he made for a method of action – or rather, a method of inaction – very early after his arrival to the encampment. Shortly after moving to Jonestown on July 17, 1977, Jones faced a crisis involving the child custody dispute over John Victor Stoen. The boy was only five years old when he entered Jonestown along with the Temple’s leadership group, but the legal custody battle for the boy had already raged for more than a year. John’s mother, Grace Stoen, had left Peoples Temple in 1976, and, thinking that it would be better for her son both emotionally and psychologically if she allowed John to stay with the membership, she had not tried to take her son with her at that time. By August of 1977, when Grace had changed her mind and began custody proceedings, her son was in Jonestown. Even though she and her husband Tim Stoen had prevailed in a preliminary round in a California courtroom, there was no assurance that the American court order would have any effect upon the Guyanese judicial system. Nevertheless, the government in Guyana was not about to jeopardize its relations with the United States in order to placate a group of American expatriates who had only recently moved to their country. When a judge in Georgetown found the custody matter before him, he ordered that Jim Jones appear in court and “produce John Victor Stoen.”

It was an impossible order for Jones to obey. If he chose to surrender John, he would lose all of his credibility as the leader of the people in Jonestown who had thundered scores of times – both in Guyana and before that in the U.S. – that he would always, and at whatever personal cost, protect them from any sort of harm. Having claimed for many years that John Victor was his son, and that Grace was an “enemy of the cause” who had abused the boy, Jones’ act of handing the boy over to the Guyanese courts would have weakened him irreparably in the eyes of his people. After all, if he couldn’t protect his own son from the authorities, how could he protect anyone else who had traveled to the Promised Land with him? More importantly, how would his followers then perceive that vow for their safety and security? For both principled and pragmatic reasons, then, Jones had to ignore the court order.

But this decision turned Jones into a fugitive from justice in his new home country. More importantly, in his own mind, it also meant he could never leave Jonestown again for fear that he might be arrested on a warrant for “failure to appear.” Jonestown thereby became his self-imposed prison from which he could never escape. Isolated from the world that existed beyond the settlement’s borders, Jones began to experience strong, negative affects of SI.

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As previously mentioned, there are three dimensions in which SI can have negative effects on human beings, the first being physical symptoms. Research conducted over the years has revealed that a correlation exists between SI and the worsening of already existent medical issues; low energy; difficulty in sleeping; dietary problems (such as loss of appetite and weight gain/loss); the increased use of both legal and illegal substances (such as alcohol/prescription medications, and illicit drugs); the weakening of the immune system; a higher instance of stroke and cardiovascular disease; higher levels of stress cortisol in the blood stream; higher blood pressure; distortions of an individual’s sense of time; and higher “all-cause mortality,” or deaths due to all causes. In a 2002 study, for example – “Loneliness and Health: Potential Mechanisms,” led by John Cacioppo, a professor of social psychology and researcher at the University of Chicago – researchers found that younger individuals between 18 and 24 years of age who experience loneliness due to SI, have higher blood pressure than their peers who do not feel lonely or isolated. Even greater problems with high blood pressure was found in a second group of older participants between the ages of 53 and 78.

And so it appears to have happened with Jim Jones. As his isolation in Jonestown continued over the last months of his self-imposed exile, he began to complain of numerous physical maladies. His isolation also meant that he had to place his complete care in the hands of Dr. Larry Schacht, the physician who was tasked with providing medical services to all of the 1000 individuals in the encampment. No one is sure what illnesses Jones was suffering from – and the embalming of his body after his death made it forever impossible to determine – but more than one individual, including Carlton Goodlett, his physician friend who visited Jonestown in the fall of 1978, advised Jones to seek medical treatment in a city like Georgetown or Caracas that had the ability to perform more precise tests than could be done in Jonestown. During community meetings recorded throughout 1978, Jones described symptoms of insomnia, high blood pressure, fluctuating blood sugar levels, and a seemingly uncontrollable temperature. In addition, as is often seen in cases of SI, Jones was taking a great number of pharmaceuticals, as well as amphetamines to keep him alert and barbiturates to help him sleep. By November 18, 1978, he had developed such a high tolerance to pentobarbital (see related story here) that tissue samples taken during his autopsy a month later, were found to have an extremely high level of the barbiturate. According to the autopsy:

The tissue levels of Pentobarbital are within the toxic range, and in some cases of drug overdose have been sufficient to cause death. The liver and kidney pentobarbital levels are within the generally accepted lethal range… The cause of death is not thought to be Pentobarbital intoxication because… tolerance can be developed to barbiturates over a period of time.

Taking all of this information into consideration, there is absolutely no doubt that the SI that he experienced in Jonestown either created new symptoms or exacerbated pre-existing ones, and contributed to his demise.

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The second dimension in which SI has a negative effect relates to the emotional responses of a person, the most common of which is the occurrence of “alienation,” defined as “a powerful feeling of isolation and loneliness.” In 1959, sociologist Melvin Seeman described alienation as “encompass[ing] powerlessness, isolation, self-estrangement, and meaninglessness.” Individuals who suffer from feelings of alienation believe, not only are they rejected by society, but that there’s nothing they can do to alleviate the issue and make their lives better. Their logic often becomes circular and self-defeating. Alienation leads to depression and anger in those who suffer from it.

This condition is different from the sense of alienation which Jim Jones and members of Peoples Temple may have experienced in the United States. Many of Jones’ followers came from socially disenfranchised groups: they were poor and black with lifelong experiences as second-class citizens in American society.

These feelings of alienation are not part of a pathology, such as the effects of SI, even if some of the manifestations are similar. Jim Jones had experienced alienation from very early in his life. Born on May 1, 1931, into a poor family in Crete, Indiana, he was not well accepted by his peers or his community. As a young adult, he had already begun to identify with the alienation of the African-American community, and indeed, this empathy formed the basis for his founding of a church in the mid-1950s that was all-inclusive in regards to the racial background and socio-economic status of its membership. Over the years, Jones was able to parlay his knowledge of socially alienation into a tool for recruitment, and 20 years later, as Peoples Temple prepared to emigrate to Guyana, the church could boast more than 5000 members.

Whatever personal feeling of alienation from American society Jones may have had, the time he spent in Jonestown only increased it. His contact with the outside world consisted of daily radio news reports from highly-subjective sources – such as the Tass Soviet news agency – static-filled ham radio conversation with Temple leaders in Georgetown and San Francisco, and periodic visitors from U.S. Embassy officials and sympathetic relative and Temple friends. Separated from the stimuli of the outside world, Jones began to spiral into depression. As his deterioration accelerated, he began to broadcast outrageous claims about the news of the world beyond the Jonestown, charging that the United States had begun to put African-Americans citizens into concentration camps and that the Ku Klux Klan had taken to the streets of major American cities. Did he himself believe the words he was saying? Or were they solely for the benefit of his increasingly-disgruntled followers? While we may never know the answers to those questions, we can see how the alienation behind those words only exacerbated his sense of not fitting into the times or world he lived in. Indeed, Jones expresses this in Q 042, the so-called “death tape,” when he says, “Paul said, ‘I was a man born out of due season.’ I’ve been born out of due season, just like all we are, and the best testimony we can make is to leave this goddamn world.” Jones later reiterates his expression of alienation – and his reminder to the inhabitants of Jonestown that they have had those same feelings – when he says, “We used to think this world was — this world was not our home.”

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Of the three dimensions of SI, the one that seems to take the greatest toll on an individual is the psychological effect. In the case of Jim Jones’ final 17 months in Jonestown, this is especially true.

Human beings are, at their core, social animals: going all the way back to the dawn of mankind, we have depended upon living in groups in order to insure our survival. Those individuals who are socially isolated feel that they’re in constant physical danger because they don’t have the protection of living in a clan. Simply put, human beings need to be around other human beings in order to feel secure, especially if an individual’s ability to survive has been compromised, such as by being weak or wounded. SI can make people feel that they are physically unsafe and in danger of imminent harm, a feeling which – not surprisingly – causes a great deal of stress.

Other psychological symptoms associated with SI are: hallucinations; frustration and anger leading to aggression; panic attacks; cognitive deficits – muddled thinking, problems concentrating – obsessive thoughts/rumination, problems with impulse control, the occurrence of violent fantasies, and paranoia. Jim Jones exhibited nearly all of these symptoms in one way or another, and by the last few months of Jonestown’s existence, his experience of the symptoms was so severe that they were literally overwhelming him and greatly interfering with his cognition on a daily basis. While there is no evidence uncovered to date that Jones was experiencing hallucinations, he most certainly was displaying an aggressive and hostile attitude towards others. When the Temple learned that California Congressman Leo Ryan was planning to visit Jonestown, for example, Jones immediately began to speak of Ryan with contempt, ascribing beliefs and views to the congressman which he had never expressed. Ryan was a threat to the entire community’s existence, in Jones’ view, and the Temple leader’s response was disproportionately confrontational. And that was before the irrational and fatalistic response Jones had when Ryan actually showed up.

There are no mentions of Jones actually having panic attacks, although there wasn’t a psychiatrist there to diagnose them if he was. We can say, however, that Jones was definitely experiencing anxiety on a daily basis. We know that he was taking an abnormally high amount of barbiturates at the end of his life. We also know that individuals who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, but who are not under the care of a psychiatrist, often self-medicate with sedative drugs and alcohol (another sedative) in order to make the anxiety stop. Therefore, it is quite possible that Jones taking so many barbiturates was in his own effort to ease his anxieties. There are many Jonestown tapes which clearly illustrate that Jones was having problems with thinking clearly and maintaining focus on one subject at a time. The same tapes also show that his thinking was obsessive: he could speak for hours about the “enemies” of Peoples Temple – whether they were former Temple followers such as Tim and Grace Stoen, longtime dissidents like Deanna and Elmer Mertle, or the Concerned Relatives oppositional group which they founded – or members of the news media, or “spies” among the visitors to Jonestown, or government officials, including (once again) Leo Ryan.

There really is no direct evidence that Jones had issues with his impulse control. Even the decision for the people of Jonestown to commit “revolutionary suicide” was not an impulsive one. Discussions of suicide had peppered meetings of the Temple leadership for years before the mass migration to Guyana, and while the actual plans were secret, the suicide rehearsals were not.

In 2003, psychologist Craig Haney studied how long-term solitary confinement in prison leads to mental health issues for those placed in isolation, and found that “high rates of violent fantasy” were correlated to high rates of SI in prisoners. He could have been speaking about Jim Jones and his followers during the last months of 1978. While many Jonestown tapes make allusions to some sort of vague “revenge” on the “enemies” of Peoples Temple, there are also tapes like Q 594, in which Jones discusses the violent ways that he would like to see their enemies meet their end. Even worse, members of the Jonestown community come up to the microphone and – with his encouragement – spin out their fantasies of torture, mayhem and humiliation directed at their perceived adversaries. Although it is apparent that Jones is a bit inebriated, it is still absolutely chilling to hear how delighted he is as the community mirrors his own violent desires.

By far, though, the single most powerful psychological symptom of SI that Jim Jones experienced was paranoia. For most of his life, he had exhibited a propensity to believe that others were out to get him: perhaps in the earliest days of Peoples Temple – when the group was in Indiana, and when Jones was pushing for a racially integrated membership in his church – his fear was valid. After all, segregation of the races was the norm in 1956. However, as time went on, Jones’ paranoia became much more than a concern that his views on racial integration were gaining him enemies. In the last months of Jonestown, Jones became so paranoid that he trusted only a handful of people around him. He was constantly afraid that someone else would defect from his movement, and he saw any and all entities outside of Jonestown as being determined to destroy him and his extended family. An interview conducted by NBC correspondent Don Harris on Jonestown’s final day shows just how defensive Jones had become, as he begs the reporter to go away and leave them in peace. The paranoia then explodes on the death tape when he warns of the impending attack by outside forces upon their community in light of Leo Ryan’s death, and presents death as the only option to pre-empt it. “We must die here, by our own hands, in order to have dignified deaths in the method that we choose.”

It was the combination of all of these symptoms of SI that contributed to the physical, emotional, and psychological deterioration of Jim Jones and culminated in his decision to end the lives of everyone in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. The effects of his having been trapped within the confines of the settlement for over a year had weakened him so badly that he was quite literally on the verge of dying, and, no doubt, he sensed it. The visit by Congressman Ryan wasn’t the final straw for Jones in terms of the harassment that he and the people of Jonestown had experienced over the years, it was merely the excuse that he had been looking for to enact his plan for mass death.

In reality though, it was the severe SI of Jim Jones that brought everything to a bitter end. Physical, emotional and psychological sickness came to him, and it killed them all.

(Bonnie Yates is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous articles may be found here. She may be reached here.)