What I Learned from Jonestown,
and What Our Nation Has Yet to Learn

by John C. Wathey

I first met a Jonestown survivor on November 18, 2009, when I attended a lecture by Rebecca Moore at a public library in San Diego. Her talk was based on her newly-published book, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, which remains the definitive scholarly work on the subject.[1]

The word “survivor” is mine. She may not have referred to herself as that during the lecture, but she was clearly one of the deeply wounded. Although she had never been a member of Peoples Temple, she told us that her nephew and two sisters had died in the massacre of November 18, 1978. The pain of that great loss set her on a lifelong quest to find some meaning in that extreme and horrific event.

After the talk, I asked, “Your younger sister joined. Your older sister joined. Why did you not join Peoples Temple?” She explained that it was partly where she was living and what she was doing at that point in her life, but mainly it was because she was not a “joiner.” Some people don’t have much need to be part of a social group, and she was one of those. That little difference in personality is the reason she’s alive today.

As I read her book over the following days, I discovered that I, too, could conceivably have crossed paths with the charismatic Reverend Jim Jones. The evangelistic outreach of Peoples Temple had come to Los Angeles by the mid 1970s, when I was a student at Caltech in nearby Pasadena.[2] I quickly dismissed the thought. I was not a joiner either. Peoples Temple was a church, and I had abandoned religious thinking by that time. I was majoring in biology, deeply immersed in rationality, empiricism, and the strict skepticism of the scientific method. A Peoples Temple meeting would never have interested me. All of that was true, but on some reflection, a disturbing memory from that time came to mind.

My Dalliance with Cultishness

Caltech was a small school where most students lived on campus in “houses.” These were more than dorms but less than fraternities. You joined a house only after its members met you and accepted you. Each house had a distinctive reputation and its own quirky traditions, most of which had to do with upperclassmen exercising authority over freshmen. Ostensibly the goal was loyalty to the house and group cohesion, but I doubt there had ever been any intentional design behind it. It was just a greatly watered-down version of hazing, something humans have done since we lived in tribes as hunter-gatherers.[3]

In my house, a few unfortunate freshmen were drafted into performing silly duties, like announcing at dinner the names of those celebrating a birthday that day. Any dereliction resulted in punishment by what we called “showering”: a gang of upperclassmen would bodily haul the offender, fully clothed, into a shower and turn on the water. As hazing goes, it was pretty mild, but I hated it. The problem wasn’t the wet clothing. It was the stress, the humiliation, and the waste of time involved. I was only showered once – luckily in a context free of humiliation – but as a freshman I would have abolished all of that nonsense if I could.

By my senior year I was living off campus with a few fellow students, so I no longer witnessed the silly rituals. But one evening I was told by a housemate that the freshman in charge of birthday announcements had failed to mention someone’s birthday. The offender was also living off-campus, and some pretext was needed to lure him to the campus at dinner for a public accusation and showering. I was a personal friend of this poor victim, so I was asked to do the deceptive luring. For reasons I still can’t adequately explain, I agreed. I made the dishonest phone call. Three of us collected the victim and drove him to dinner at the on-campus house. The leader of our gang made the accusatory speeches, and we showered the perpetrator.

The next day I learned that this had been no ordinary showering. After we left him there, the victim lay in the shower quaking, unable to speak or move. Someone else had to turn off the water and help him out. He had been traumatized, not by the water, but by my betrayal and the public humiliation. Such is the power of ostracism. I went to him and apologized. I told him I didn’t know why I had done it, and that, if I had a way to go back in time and undo it, I would. I feel the guilt and remorse of that moment even as I write these lines, and I expect to carry that burden, along with other similar ones, to my grave.

My point is that all of us, even non-joiners, are capable of this. It goes by many names – group affinity, the need to belong, tribalism, hive psychology, being a joiner – but they all refer to a deep, innate, and intuitive pull that our evolved human nature exerts on us.[4] We have it, because being accepted by the tribe was a matter of life and death in our ancient prehistory. Although that imperative is long gone, the pull remains. It attracts us to organized religion, segregates us by race and politics, and makes us fanatically loyal to sports teams. We are easily sucked into cliques and factions, and, under the right conditions, into cruel acts of bullying, xenophobia, racism, or gang violence that we would never do alone. And some of us join cults without even recognizing them for what they are. As for my youthful transgression, I got off easy. I shudder to think of the burdens some Jonestown survivors will carry to their graves.

I know the term “cult” is a loaded word. In her book, Rebecca makes a strong case for replacing it with the more neutral phrase, “new religious movement.” I appreciate her argument, but I still think “cult” has a legitimate use. Despite its flaws, “cult” best captures the idea of a group of devoted followers led by a charismatic and exploitative leader, a social structure in which ties to friends and family outside the group are discouraged, control is enforced through fear of ostracism, loyalty of members must be repeatedly demonstrated through costly and continually escalating sacrifices, and defection from the group is extremely difficult or even life-threatening. This was the phenomenon I tried to explain in terms of sociobiology in my previous contribution to the jonestown report.[5] I won’t repeat that here, except to say that a common factor in most cults is the presence of a leader with narcissistic personality disorder. In my earlier article, and later in a book chapter,[6] I emphasized that narcissism is significantly heritable and prevalent enough in the population to suggest that it persists through biological selection.

The behavior of Jim Jones clearly fit that narcissistic pattern,[7] and, like moths to a flame, people who might describe themselves as “joiners” are drawn to such leaders. They enjoy the closeness of friendships forged in such a crucible, and they feel virtuous when sacrificing for a cause greater than themselves. In our distant past, this innately appealing pattern of social behavior worked well, but in a modern context, it can easily run amok, as it did catastrophically in Jonestown.

So I have learned two lessons from Jonestown. One is the biological interpretation I have just reprised. The other is the painful lesson in personal morality that I learned from my brief dalliance with cultish behavior as a college student, the connection to Jonestown being made as I read Rebecca’s book. My only consolation is that my lapse in moral judgment ultimately taught me to be a better person.

America’s Dalliance with Cultishness

Combat veterans often speak of the thin veneer of civilization that is easily stripped from the human heart by war.[8] What they find beneath is not only bravery, loyalty, and sacrificial devotion to comrades, but also xenophobia, cruelty, vengeance, and brutal dehumanization. It is the same primitive sociality evident in cults at their most extreme. It is not so much that cruelty is innate and kindness a thin veneer of learned civility: all aspects of human morality have their roots in intuitions deeply engrained in our nature. Instead the veneer of civilization is a learned bias that makes kindness, civility, and cooperation the norm and barbarism unacceptable.

Yet barbarism is a big part of human nature, and we need to teach our children about it. We need to warn them about the seductions of bullying, cliquishness, and mob violence. We need to help them see through narcissistic bullies rather than follow them. We must teach them to opt for tolerance, kindness, forgiveness, and generosity, mainly through example. We must make that thin veneer as thick as we can.

In the America of 2018, it is not thick enough. Our president, by some accounts, has all the signs of narcissistic personality disorder,[9] and a large fraction of his followers exhibit the dangerously uncritical devotion of a cult.[10] As candidate Trump once gleefully put it, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”[11] He has now hijacked the once-proud party of Lincoln, transforming it into an institution guided only by loyalty to its leader. The degeneracy is so complete that many thoughtful conservatives have publicly renounced their membership in the Republican party.[12]

It should be no surprise that white evangelical Christians form the core of Trump’s following, despite his lack of such traditional Christian virtues as modesty, forgiveness, good manners, and sexual fidelity. There is a strong tendency toward authoritarianism in this flavor of Christianity, along with a heavy dose of infantilism. Evangelicals see God as a fearsome, judgmental, and punishing father; they see themselves as his helpless and dependent children. In my book I call these two aspects the social and neonatal roots of religion, and I point out that cult-like movements heavily exaggerate both.[13] In Peoples Temple, Jones was feared for the cruel beatings, sexual abuse, and other strange punishments he inflicted, yet he was affectionately called “Dad” by his faithful flock. In much the same way, our most popular formulations of God are two-faced: He will damn you to hell if you don’t obey, yet He loves you unconditionally. We seem to invent Gods in the image of two powerful and innate human intuitions: (1) that there exists a loving mother who will save us in our infantile helplessness, and (2) that the tribal leader demands absolute loyalty and an endless stream of painful sacrifices to prove it — the hallmark of narcissism. Now evangelicals have elected a president who fits the mold, too.

Donald Trump is not the first president to have a problem with narcissism, but he is the first to be elected solely on the basis of his narcissistic appeal.[14] He lacks experience in government. His much-touted expertise in business is dubious at best. He is profoundly ignorant of history, economics, science, and constitutional law. He fans the flames of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. His paranoia and self-centered emotional insecurity make him a serious threat to our free press and institutions of government. There will likely be more painful lessons to come from his presidency, but one is already evident: too many Americans have not yet learned the lessons of Jonestown.


[1] Moore R (2009) Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Praeger: Westport, CT

[2] Moore R (2009) p 26

[3] Schlegel A, Barry H III (2017) Pain, Fear, and Circumcision in Boys’ Adolescent Initiation Ceremonies. Cross-Cultural Research 51(5):435-463

[4] Haidt J, Seder JP, Kesebir S (2008) Hive Psychology, Happiness, and Public Policy. Journal of Legal Studies 37(2):S133-S156

[5] Wathey JC (2013) From cuttlefish to cults: Can biology explain Jonestown? Jonestown Report 15: http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=40231

[6] Wathey JC (2016a) The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing. Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY, chapter 9.

[7] Maynard G (2011) Jim Jones and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Jonestown Report 13: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29416

[8] Ward GC, Burns K, Novick L (2017) The Vietnam War: An Intimate History.  Alfred A. Knopf: New York, chapter 7.

[9] McAdams DP (2016) The Mind of Donald Trump. The Atlantic Monthly [June] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/

[10] Jacobs T (2018) A Cult Expert Finds Familiar Patterns of Behavior in Trump’s GOP.Pacific Standard https://psmag.com/news/a-sociologist-explains-the-similarities-between-cults-and-trumps-gop

[11] Holland S, Gibson G (2016) Confident Trump Says Could ‘Shoot Somebody’ and Not Lose Voters. Reutershttps://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election/confident-trump-says-could-shoot-somebody-and-not-lose-voters-idUSMTZSAPEC1NFEQLYN

[12] Boot M (2018) I left the Republican Party. Now I want Democrats to take over. Washington Post [July 4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-left-the-republican-party-now-i-want-democrats-to-take-over/2018/07/03/54a4007a-7e38-11e8-b0ef-fffcabeff946_story.html?utm_term=.ef9097c5e558

[13] Wathey JC (2016a) chapter 7

[14] Wathey JC (2016b) It’s not that Trump is an alpha male: It’s that he’s so little else.  Huffington Post https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-c-wathey/its-not-that-trump-is-an_b_10315434.html

Originally posted on September 25th, 2018.

Last modified on October 12th, 2018.
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