Nurture Failure: A Psychobiographical Approach to the Childhood of Jim Jones

(This article is copyrighted (©) 2015 by James L. Kelley, an independent scholar based in Norman, Oklahoma. He has published books and articles about religion since 2009, when A Realism of Glory (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute) appeared. Mr. Kelley’s research interests include new religious movements, western esotericism, and modern Eastern Orthodox theology. He has taught at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, and the University of Oklahoma in Norman. His complete collection of articles for the jonestown report may be found here. Contact James at

“I’ve long since put out a warrant for [God’s] arrest…charging him with murder, abandonment of his children, abandonment of his people, desertion, torture…”

—Jim Jones[1]

Over 900 human beings died by the imbibing or injection of “red Kool-Aid” on 18 November 1978.[2] We know where they were: Jonestown, Guyana. We know who they were: Peoples Temple, the religio-political movement led by Jim Jones. But do we know what they were? That is to say, do we have an understanding of what Jim Jones actually taught? This short piece hopes to shed some much-needed light on what Jim Jones of Peoples Temple believed through an application of the psychobiographical theory of nurture failure to the troubled religious leader’s early years.

The Peoples Temple leader believed that he was a unique embodiment of an impersonal divine force that could equalize all imbalances in the cosmos.[3] Jones called himself the “God ideal,” and promised his followers that “[as] I am God…so shall you become God.”[4] However, Jones began his career as a Hoosier clergyman who specialized in emotional and fiduciary manipulation; in California he sexually abused men and women under his care; he ended his path as a ruthless South American despot who added mass murder to his already-sordid stateside resume. His psyche was made up of warring poles: On the one hand, Jones counted himself a deity capable of bringing universal equality to humanity; on the other, Jones lacked any regard for the sufferings of others and could unblinkingly snuff out those who resisted his high purpose. Indeed, this savior/tormentor contradiction was the core of Jones’ identity: he thought of himself as a humble servant of men; actually, he was a sociopath who ruthlessly domineered those around him.[5]

The problem resided in Jones’ childhood death-wish. There is pain, suffering, and injustice in the world. Knowing this, Jones felt he had two choices: commit suicide, or help the downtrodden to achieve equality, which would end all suffering and pain. Jones thought that if other human beings conformed themselves perfectly to his divinely-attuned will, then a society of perfect happiness and fulfillment would result. To help the process along, Jones saw fit to punish his followers, along with anyone else who got in the way of his plans. When circumstances conspired against him in 1978 to make his dream unrealizable, Jones devised a last solution, one that held out something for everyone: for Jonestown residents—cessation of torment; for the capitalist world-system—a view of the carnage they caused from their half-billion television screens; for Jim Jones—the coming-to-fruition of a long standing death-wish.

James Warren Jones was born 13 May 1931 in Crete, Indiana, to James Thurmond and Lynetta Putnam Jones. The family moved to nearby Lynn, Indiana when the boy was two or three years old.[6] Jones’ father was distant and ineffectual, a sickly war veteran who, in his son’s eyes, contributed little to the world around him. Lynetta, by contrast, was eccentric, intense, and grandiose; unlike the other Lynn matriarchs, Jones’ mother had attended college and was observed by townsfolk wearing factory coveralls and smoking cigarettes.[7] Owing to his taciturn father’s reluctance to stray from his perch near the family radio, and to his garrulous mother’s absence from the home for extended shifts at the factory, young Jim seems to have fallen prey to a syndrome I have termed “nurture failure.”

A child undergoes nurture failure when parents and/or other adult caregivers are unable or unwilling to provide the guidance and structure necessary for the child’s assimilation into the wider community. According to my theory, the neglected child seeks to mask the unspeakable pain of abandonment by reversing the nurture role scenario: the child, in turning away from the shortcomings of those who are supposed to nurture him, appoints himself as nurturer, often reinterpreting and elaborating the abortive strategies and styles of nurturing observed in the adults closest to him.

In what sense was Jim Jones a victim of nurture failure? Let us begin with a consideration of his relationship with his mother. On some nights, close to her son’s bedtime, Lynetta hurriedly cooked dinner while her son sat at the kitchen table listening to her hold forth. These impassioned discourses ranged across a number of broad, abstract rubrics—what might be termed “the big questions,” or “the meaning of life”—in a manner that always led to the same conclusion: Though no one will help you in life, you nonetheless possess the potential within yourself to overcome all obstacles, if only you persevere in solitary study.[8] However, conventional religion was never part of the equation for Lynetta, who scoffed at her in-laws’ Quaker piety; instead, Mrs. Jones taught her son that, although they were disadvantaged, he—little Jimmie Jones—had a special destiny. Jim was to become an exalted, even godlike being. Though Lynetta often left her son in the hands of babysitters or simply allowed him to roam the streets alone, she could not abide outsiders’ criticisms of him or of his raising; the young Jim came to see the slightest dissent from his will as an “oppression.” This love for the underdog was further reflected in Lynetta’s hatred of social inequality as the worst form of “hypocrisy.”[9]

Lynetta also passed to her son a love of nature and especially of animals. For both mother and son, to protect stray animals was to maintain an ineffable connection to an unseen world of nature spirits.[10] However, the child Jim Jones, having no strong nurturing bond with his overworked mother, carried on her nature-love to an extreme. He gathered around him a veritable menagerie of chickens, cats, dogs, snakes, and other creatures, which he confined in makeshift pens in the family barn. Sequestered in the barn’s loft, Jones lit candles, retrieved boxfuls of discarded bouquets from trash bins which he placed on a primitive altar, and preached to the animals.[11] Alongside this collection of orphaned flora and fauna were human congregants: Jim was amazingly effective at coaxing the neighborhood children up the ladder and into his rustic cloister, where the diminutive preacher would convince them that he knew all of the sins they had committed. On some occasions, the presiding child held funeral services for animals that had died. One onlooker noticed that a pet cat over whom the priestly Jimbo was officiating had been killed by Jones earlier in the day.[12]

It seems that Jim Jones used the barn-church liturgies to reinvent himself as a nurturer: if his idealistic mother and sedate father failed as nurturers (thus causing Jim to “fail” as a “nurturee”), Jim would use his mother’s high-minded self-help to transmute himself into a nurturer. He found animals and even plants that were literal outcasts; these he used as a kind of roadside attraction to bring in youths. Once the latter were cross-legged on the barn-church floor, Jim—the only one seated in a chair—would hold court, sometimes pretending to heal wounded animals but more often than not carrying out inter-species blood transfusions and limb grafts that he claimed were scientific, despite his charges’ obvious distress.[13]

However, Jones later claimed to have been severely traumatized the first time one of his dependents died: “Every day I have lived since I was a child, the first time I felt guilt when a little dog died, I wanted to commit suicide, but I had still some little dogs and cats in life that had me alone to take care of them.”[14] Why does this incident resonate so deeply for the child?

The death of the beloved pet brings Jim Jones full circle. He began as a nurturee whose nurturers had failed him. His response was to reverse the giver/receiver dichotomy: Now Jim Jones was the nurturer, and so he instituted a liturgy that arrayed his outcast nurturees below himself in a plant-animal-human hierarchy.

But then the unforeseen occurs: a nurturee—the little dog—dies. In Jones’ psyche, a dilemma has arisen. Either the nurturer has failed to give, or the nurturee has failed to receive. If the former, then Jim Jones must internalize the guilt and pain stemming from his own neglect; as a recapitulator of his parents’ nurture failure, he must commit suicide to end the cycle by killing the offender and offended in one act. If, on the other hand, the nurturee has failed to receive, then the fault lies either within the nurturee or—as a third option—in a disordered, imbalanced environment. The nurturer (Jones) can thus mete out violence to the nurturee that refuses to be redeemed; or, if by some set of circumstances the redemption event is decisively impeded (Jonestown in 1978), then the suicide option can be embraced by nurturer and nurturee alike, since the cosmos itself has refused (at least in this stage of history) to allow the redemption. In this last case, the collective suicide at Jonestown was indeed “an act…protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”[15]

The foregoing analysis points to three key elements of Jim Jones’ psyche: his belief in socialism, his belief in himself as a unique conduit of higher forces that can bring about a socialist utopia, and his belief that suicide can be an act conducive to a future socialist utopia. Now, to disentangle the skein somewhat, we will examine each of these three psychic elements in order:

I. Jim Jones’ belief in socialism.

As an adult, Jim Jones recalled his childhood conversion to his own brand of socialism: “When I was laying on springs with no covers, and the rain was pouring through the roof of my old ramshackle house, and they told me to pray to God…there was no God that came. The rain kept pouring. I had a beam of consciousness. I said there shouldn’t be any poor; there shouldn’t be any private property.”[16] The child Jim lies alone, uncovered, un-nurtured. The very forces of nature harass his body and his thoughts. Jones has been told to pray, but prayer to a god in the sky has no effect. “When I looked inside of me [at the age of five], I found the power of socialism in me, and quit praying.”[17] Socialism is the answer for the frightened child. Why? Because the problem lies not with Jones’ failed nurturers, nor with a God that does not exist. Rather, the problem is a disequilibrium of forces in the cosmos that causes human suffering.

And how is this problem of a disordered world to be solved? By raising each human being’s consciousness, so that they may understand that they have the power to reestablish cosmic equilibrium. Thoughts are higher than matter, just as thinking beings are higher than both instinctive beings and insensate beings in Jones’ barn-church. But the highest thought is of Principle, which for Jones means the cessation of all inequality and all consciousness of having less than any other being or thought. Jones presided at the barn-church because he, unlike his subordinates, “recognized that my father was infinite spirit.”[18] Like Jesus Christ before him, Jones felt that he was the latest in a long line of prophets who though “being [men], make [themselves] God.“[19]

II. Jones as God

Jones saw socialism as a “dual concept” of doubt-belief according to which the seeker overcomes all inequalities and injustices through the power of thought; specifically, the content of this power-granting thought is that God is a force within the human mind that, as it becomes progressively recognized and unfolded by the knower, erases all limitations and deficiencies in the world.[20] Jones’ claim that he was God and that others could follow his deifying path was propped up by his claims to be clairvoyant. This prophetic power, Jones admitted, was not divine in any traditional Christian or religious sense. Rather, Jones was simply more psychically evolved, and thus had access to higher, “paranormal” dimensions.[21]

III. Jones and Suicide

Our short discourse ends with a word about a few possible implications of Jim Jones’ early views on suicide. First, a reminder that Jones’ tenderness toward and sympathy for the downtrodden had a cruel counterpart: pets underwent mutilations and neighborhood boys were brutalized during barn-church sessions.[22] The same charismatic youth who felt “guilt” over a pet dog’s death unflinchingly tortured and starved his other pets. We have already quoted Jones to have said that, ever since the pet dog’s demise, the only factor that staved off his unrelenting and deep-seated desire to commit suicide was his discovery of dependents that he could nurture.

As we have stressed, Jones’ nurturing could turn to punishment without interval. His childhood friend Don Foreman experienced this on a number of occasions, as when Jones locked him and another child in the barn loft.[23] Here the intent seems to have been to keep the boys from forsaking the holy precinct with their weak wills. Jones maintained this sadism throughout his entire life, forcing congregants to stand for hours, straining them to their breaking point, though, he claimed, it was for their own good. Jones railed against his followers as “dummies” and “stupid,” even as he pleaded with them to start “giving a f*ck” for the Divine Socialism that would deliver them. Don Foreman, on another occasion, was asked by Jones to continue to speak with him in his living room past the former’s curfew. When Foreman refused (thus, perhaps, failing to receive Jones’ nurturing), Jim brandished his father’s gun and shot at the fleeing young man.[24]

So, how do we bridge the gap between Jones’ childhood conversion to Divine Socialism and the “revolutionary suicide” that ended over 900 lives? In the jungle of Guyana in November 1978, group suicide may have seemed reasonable to a man whose ministry, from childhood on, had been nothing if not a constant oscillation between telling people they are gods and treating them as if they were less than human.

In this essay we have suggested that hiding behind Jones’ psychopathy was a childhood of abuse and neglect punctuated by occasional pulses of idealistic rhetoric from his mother. This combination became lethal once the child Jones began to think of himself as a pseudo-gnostic redeemer whose task was to save humanity from limitations that could be attributed either to a deficiency in the environment or to a deficiency in the wills of his followers.


[1] FBI tape Q1053, part 1, cit. in David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, revised edition (Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2003), 54.

[2] The potion was actually potassium cyanide mixed with grape Flavor-Aid, the latter ingredient giving the concoction its wine-like appearance (Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People [New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008 (1982)], 559). Deborah Blakey, who endured Jonestown “white nights” between December 1977 and May 1978, recalled: “Everyone, including the children, were told to line up. As we passed through the line, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink” (“Affidavit of Deborah Blakey,” reprinted in United States Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Staff Investigative Group, The Assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana Tragedy [Washington, D.C., 1979], 316, emphasis added; cit. in Chidester, 132); also available here.

[3] Jim Jones, Annotated Transcript Q353: Sermon (1972), Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, accessed 15 August, 2015.

[4] Jim Jones, Q353. In the same sermon, Jones proclaims of himself: “You are looking at the body of Jesus Christ.”

[5] Jones, on the last day of his life, told Tim Reiterman and others present at the Jonestown pavilion that he wanted his epitaph to read: “I’ve given my life for people, serving people” (Reiterman, 515).

[6] John R. Hall, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1987), 5.

[7] Lynetta Jones, in a narrative called “Town Employment Solved” (Index of Stories Written [by Lynetta Jones], Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, accessed 23 August, 2015,), describes her husband as “a semi-invalid all of our married life,” and writes of herself as “of slight built and limited strength, but according to my philosophy, nothing was impossible and my ambition for my son knew no bounds!” Reiterman has the following about James T. Jones: “A road-construction foreman before going to France to fight in World War I, he had returned home with lungs scarred by mustard gas. With no more than a grade school education and cursed with bad health…Jones had become a semicripple in the land of the work ethic” (Raven, 11). Lynetta found her in-laws closed-minded and bigoted; Jim Jones himself later decried his father’s cynicism, thus commending obliquely his mother’s optimism (Hall, 4).

[8] Lynetta “encouraged Jim to study, to put in his hours with his books at the kitchen table each night. ‘Don’t be a nothing like your dad,’ she harped. ‘You have to make something of your life and be somebody. Work at it. Nobody’s gonna help you’” (Reiterman, 17). Also note with Hall (p. 4) Lynetta’s frustration with her in-laws’ emphasis on isolated “facts” (apparently specifics about Christian faith and about the ways of the world at large) an approach that veered off from Mrs. Jones’ less dogmatic, more expansive tendency.

[9] Rebecca Moore, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (London and Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009), 11.

[10] Hall, 6.

[11] See Lynetta Jones, “Town Employment Solved” and “Animal Friends” in Index of Stories Written [by Lynetta Jones]. From “Town Employment”: “[Jim’s] animals…, and there were many, had taken up comfortable positions in (they hoped) quiet and less frequently disturbed place: The salvage of these rejected and needy fellows had been my son’s very first objective. ‘These things ARE my work,’ he very often said, ‘you must understand, Mother, that I was sent to earth to do many things that others do no wish to do—or cannot do.”

[12] Danny Wedding and Ryan M. Niemiec, Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology, 4th edition (Boston, MA: Hogrefe, 2014), 242. For Lynetta’s nicknaming of Jim as “Jimbo,” see Lynetta Jones, Index of Stories Written.

[13] Domenico Arturo Nesci, The Lessons of Jonestown: An Ethnopsychoanalytic Study of Suicidal Communities (Rome: Società Editrice Universo, 1999), 16.

[14] FBI tape Q636, cit. in Albert Black, “Jonestown: Two Faces of Suicide. A Durkeimian Analysis,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 20.4 (Winter 1990): 285-306, here 295-296.

[15] Mary McCormick Maaga, “Suicide Tape Transcript,” accessed 25 August, 2015.

[16] Reiterman, 150. Jones’ epiphany, it should be noted, contains all of the elements of the “ambrosial nectar” theme central to many Black American new religious movements (MSTA, Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, etc.). Jones is in a womb of darkness (his room); he feels moisture on his body; he sees a flash of light that comes out of the darkness, granting him gnosis. See James L. Kelley, “Western Esoteric Influences on the Nation of Islam’s Cosmology,” Jay’s Analysis, accessed 25 August, 2015, Downloadable version at: Cf. the following from Jim Jones, Q1059-1 Transcript (1974), Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, accessed 23 August, 2015: “Can you imagine, that there wasn’t any heaven, and you gonna have to built it? Can you imagine out here in this swirling bit of space, that’s there only energy, and you can take it and make something with it? Or it’ll just leave you cold and void for all eons of time. (-) …[I]f I was sitting out there and looked on this planet, and I saw military generals and rich oil and steel magnates robbing the poor, I’d come down with a stroke of my power, if I had all the power you say he’s got— said he’s omniscient, omniluscent, omnipresent, omnipotent—that means all-powerful. (-) I’m saying God is Principle. God is Energy, and you’ve got to learn that energy, and appropriate it yourself.”

[17] Jim Jones, Q1059-1.

[18] Jim Jones, cit. in Hall, 10.

[19] Jim Jones, cit. in Hall, 30.

[20] On the doubt-belief concept, see Hall, 38. On God as a force within humans, see Hall, 30.

[21] Chidester, 57-59.

[22] Lynetta Jones recalled of Jim, “if [the children in the barn got] smart with him, he’d just rip the lard out of ’em” (cit. in Hall, 10).

[23] Reiterman, 20.

[24] Reiterman, 27.