The Playbook On Deception:
The Lesson Of Jonestown


“We don’t believe in God… It’s true we don’t believe in God, … We believe in good things.”[1]

Like the sinking of the Titanic, the passage of time does little to dampen the impact of the Jonestown Massacre that ricocheted around the world. The naked truth is that Peoples Temple was not a Church, or a Cause, or a Movement. It was a socio-political organization whose leader Jim Jones used the cloak and cloth of religion to deceive and prosper.

Religion was the most successful recruitment tool as it attracted the type of people Jones preferred to surround himself with since childhood, those he believed he could effectively sway in his direction, and whose loyalty would remain steadfast. Institutionalized domination, therefore, would characterize the nature of the organization from its inception until the very end. It would be the modus operandi of a man who, on several occasions, openly identified himself as an atheist, a man who pathologically enjoyed playing with the lives and emotions of others.

In a nutshell, the story of Jonestown is a story about the rabid exploitation and abuse of power. The most effective weapon in this power equation would be deception which Jones used on anyone and everyone he encountered.

As a result of this deception, Peoples Temple often morphed politically, socially, and religiously. Politically, the Temple’s spectrum swung from right-wing, conservative Republican in the days of Indianapolis, to progressive Democrat in the days of San Francisco.

Politicians on both sides of the aisles were duped, both overtly and covertly. In the jungles of Guyana, without the social pressure of having to maintain a religious face, the pendulum of Peoples Temple swung to the extreme of a full-blown cult. Although cultism was always present in the organization, in that remote environment with the absence of political and religious constraints, and the tacit checks and balances of watchful eyes and voices in a wider society, free reign was given to a personality that would increasingly become unhinged and irrational.

Jim Jones had a single agenda from the outset – destruction. He seemed to have a natural predilection for destroying families, marriages, friendships, and ultimately lives, even as he touted and embraced the cloak of “savior” and “father.” These self-imposed roles, however, would be more indicative of his insatiable thirst for worship, and a narcissism that led to constantly engaging others in a systematic game of chess for which he would claim mastery. After all, up to November 1978, there were avid Temple supporters from all walks of life in the wider society – media, politics and religion – who never critically assessed his words, his ways, or his actions in real time.

Jim Jones did not devolve into evil in the jungles of Guyana. His playbook on deception existed from the outset. Like a rattlesnake (the “gentleman” of all snakes), he always rattled before he bit. The ability to blend in with the environment and the pretty diamonds on his back only served as characteristic features that hinted at a highly venomous and lethal nature that operated even in broad daylight.

The list of people deceived by Jim Jones is long. It included not only his followers and members, but also well-polished, seasoned politicians, activists, pastors and preachers, and even lawyers. Those who remained under his thumb though, would be forced to pay the ultimate price for this deception with their very lives.

The Root

“I was ready to kill by the end of third grade. I mean, I was so f****** aggressive and hostile, I was ready to kill. Nobody gave me any love, any understanding … everybody’s f****** parent was there but mine. I’m standing there. Alone. Always was alone.”[2]

The isolated little boy who grew up collecting and playing with as many animals as he could, would grow into a man who collected and played with as many people as he could. As a child, Jones was socialized to embrace the unconventional. Unfamiliar with conventional family structures, with little or no parental guidance and authority, he grew with the propensity to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted to do it. Being his own “little man,” Jones would know the taste of power from his youth. His unconventional appearance (jet black hair he dubbed “the hair of a raven”), an unconventional precocity with words, his love for leadership roles, and an unconventional admiration for dictators would reportedly encourage the hijacking of his schoolmates into his barn loft (with the password “Heil Hitler”) for several hours at a time. Forced to entertain his role-playing as a pastor, Jones became enamored with the sound of his own voice. Ultimately, this led to incessant talk and domination over the opinion of others. In the end, his friends were made to sit and applaud him, and were only allowed to leave at his behest. This pattern of behavior would be repeated later in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. As far as Jim Jones was concerned, he was the axis of the universe – a universe that he desired to dominate with the creation of his own environment and organization which he could control just like his childhood barn loft.

The Target

He’s laughing with another girl,
And playing with another heart
Placing high stakes, making hearts ache
… Heaven help him when he falls …
No place for beginners or sensitive hearts,
His eyes are like angels but his heart is cold
No need to ask …
He’s a smooth operator, smooth operator,
Smooth operator[3]

To populate his own creation of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones targeted the most vulnerable in society – drug addicts, the elderly, and Christians (whom he viewed as being particularly docile, disciplined, and loyal). As a pragmatist, he also used the humanitarian label to attract humanitarian types, advocates of socialism, and those with little or no family support and/or a willingness to forsake all for him.

Jones constantly searched for the Achilles Heel of each of his followers. It was his way of ensuring exploitation and domination. Strategically, those he helped recover from drug and alcohol addictions would prove to be the most loyal. Those he gave shelter and a meal would readily embrace him as their savior.

Tactically, the toxic US socio-political environment of the 1960s and 1970s provided a ripe field for a predator of the vulnerable. Poor US race relations during this period gave the deceiver hundreds of people to deceive. Jones strategically targeted the charismatic Pentecostal Church movement with its belief in divine healings. This gave him another major platform to exploit – the desperation of the sick and suffering. In order to increase his credibility, heighten his profile, and accommodate his position in high places, he also courted and deceived politicians on the right and the left. To further boost his power, he attempted to court the media – particularly those who wrote favorably about him and flattered his organization.

After close scrutiny, Jim Jones also targeted people he deemed malleable (he seemed to prioritize those with little education) because in his playbook, he thought they would be easier to manipulate, deceive, control, and destroy. Practically speaking, Jones knew that immense gratitude for his assistance and care would morph into admiration which he could then craftily mold into robotic worship. After all, to this knowledgeable animal lover, the most loyal pets would be the ones saved from near destruction.

The irony with Jim Jones, however, would be the reset button he kept hidden from those he targeted and recruited. Working in tandem with his love for deception would be his love for deconstruction. Jones would “break-down” his followers emotionally, psychologically, and sometimes even physically, only to press the reset button at the end of this initial process, to ultimately re-create and re-cast them into an even deeper chasm of torment, fear and vulnerability. His followers, therefore, would unwittingly jump from the frying pan into Jones’ fire. It was almost as if he loved saving a drowning man only to strangle him on the shore.

At the end of all the manipulation and deception, Peoples Temple comprised several hundred senior citizens, who were promised shelter, health care and constant companionship in exchange for relinquishing their Social Security checks and their homes to the Temple. Over time, these demands would be placed on all members, deepening their dependence and vulnerability on a man who frequently compared himself with God, preferring the name of Father above all else. It is instructive that Jones wanted a title and role he had very limited exposure to as a child.

The Game

“Let me present to you a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein….and Chairman Mao.”[4]

The outcome of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Jonestown, Guyana proves that no one really knew Jim Jones. The bottom line is that the Temple leader maintained two faces, one public and one private. To many outsiders he was a hardworking, loving and kind zealot who deserved all the public support due to such noble works. To the insiders, the members of Peoples Temple who dealt with him on a daily basis, he was someone to be feared. Through strategic alignments, associations, and constant public relations endeavors, Jones maintained a profile and persona that essentially pulled the wool over the eyes of those who readily found themselves identifying with the man and his so-called mission. Inside the Temple, however, many would tell an entirely different story.

Jones’ constant need for applause and adulation seemed to reveal a root of insecurity bolstered by an inferiority complex. His love of shameless self-praise did little to erase that impression. For the insiders of the Temple, adjusting to the vicissitudes of his personality and character would catapult them into the arena of a never-ending roller coaster ride, one that would result in several defections from the organization and maintain a tense intimidating environment for those still hopeful of a better future.

One practice that inadvertently left members on the edge of their seats was Jones’ need to constantly test the loyalty of his followers. It is this very need that fostered an organizational system of spying and armed security within the confines of communalism to ensure that everyone was “kept in line.” Of course, the playbook on deception demanded the creation of a justification for this loyalty credo. Forever claiming to be pursued by countless enemies (of which the press was dubbed No. 1), the Temple leader constructed two workable paradigms.

The first was the “Victim Paradigm”; the second was the “Us versus Them Paradigm.” In the former, Jones always presented himself as the “victim” and never the perpetrator. Under this guise, he would deceive members by justifying the need for heavily armed security whom he tacitly used as intimidators and enforcers. In this paradigm, he lambasted the media and select government agencies such as the FBI and CIA for conspiring against him. Forever the victim, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Jones always presented himself as “a man more sinned against than sinning.”

While the first paradigm assumed the character of a daily routine and means of escaping responsibility for the Temple leader, the second paradigm would be the one to prove lethal to the residents of Jonestown. Under this rubric, Jones would paint the scene and create the impetus for destruction. By instilling the “no way out” plot into his members, the inevitability of their destruction was sold to them lock, stock and barrel. Mental manipulation and the discouragement of individual thought allowed many to accept this ploy.

These two paradigms formed the foundation of paranoia and conspiracies used by Jones to lure unsuspecting members into the lion’s den waiting in the jungles of Guyana. They were also used as the cornerstone for the dangerous game of control, subjugation, oppression and domination unleashed to its fullest in the isolation of the borders of South America.

Ironically, while constantly instilling fear in others, Jones himself apparently lived in constant fear of exposure and discovery. This fear fed directly into his hatred of any media outlet that did not speak glowingly about him. It was for this very reason that he often did not grant press interviews, preferring instead to choose the reporters he wished to entertain. Obsessed with bad publicity, Jones even barred reporters from the Temple. In the end, the unwanted interest of key outsiders would be triggered by his clandestine ways and the reluctance of members to reveal Temple affairs.

It would be the scrutiny of the press, Concerned Relatives, and one US Congressman that would unravel the threads of a garment delicately sewn together from the outset. Unknown to most, Jim Jones had reportedly suffered a mental breakdown as early as the Fall of 1961, way before the ascendancy of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The claim of being bombarded by extra-terrestrial voices resulted in a weeklong hospitalization. This  history of mental instability appeared to hover beneath the surface at all times, but the experience itself apparently remained hidden from Temple members.

The Tragedy

“We are serving our country in two ways, taking a burden off the taxpayers, reducing crime astronomically, and then helping good relations by building agriculture in a country that is trying to feed, clothe and house their people.”[5]

The playbook on deception would climax with the conversion of 300 acres into a colony for approximately 1,000 people. Billed and sold as the Promised Land, the leader of Peoples Temple once again used the most lethal weapon in his arsenal to further his destructive agenda. With the closure of US bank accounts and the sale of some US properties, it seemed that Jones consciously prepared to enter the Land Of No Return. Unlike his ham radio broadcast where he gave the impression of goodwill, Jones would complain to many in the US that his “enemies” were responsible for the Temple’s exodus to Guyana.

In fact, evidence of plans drafted in 1973 point to the leader’s intention to create another universe – a much larger barn loft – for himself outside the United States of America. This time, however, the use of extra-territoriality would largely place him beyond the reach of the checks and balances of the US media and government watchdogs. In the Promised Land, Jones could become the ultimate autocrat and despot. Given his tendency to sell any plan as readily as a used car salesman, he obviously misrepresented the reality facing the new residents of Jonestown. In fact, at this stage of the game, the art of seduction would now be written into the playbook on deception.

Author Tim Reiterman captured the magnitude of this betrayal practiced against those lured into the false dream of Paradise in another land: He says,

A larger problem remained unspoken: that Jonestown was not the Promised Land depicted in promotional films and brochures. The soil described as rich was poor, even by  Guyanese standards. The trees did not even produce mature fruit, let alone a fruit that tasted like ice cream sherbet. The people could not fish and swim; the nearest body of water was almost seven miles away on muddy roads. Jonestown required sweat and strain for survival itself.[6]

The downward spiral into the abyss of destruction becomes clear at this point. The need to seduce and deceive always signals the worst of intentions. Completely isolated from the rest of the world, even living isolated within the chosen country of resettlement, the residents of Jonestown would now be literally staring down the barrel of a gun. The severance of Guyanese field hands meant that Temple members now labored approximately 12 hours a day. Their physical, psychological, and emotional well-being were taxed to the breaking point.

In the midst of it all, the degeneration of their leader became evident. What was applauded as compassion in the US became cruelty in Guyana. Intolerance grew and a fearful toxic environment burgeoned in No Man’s Land. While Jones felt the need to keep his followers entertained in the US by playing the religious card, deep in the recesses of the Guyanese jungle, the need to maintain multiple faces would diminish. Naked, without any masks, Jim Jones revealed himself as a man unfettered, unhinged, with no higher authority than himself, with no one to challenge his mania, and no restraints and fear of consequences. The die had been cast, deception reached it zenith, the lion closed its jaws, and the unsuspecting, the trusting, and the vulnerable would forever be etched into the annals of history as “the fallen.”

Of course, there was nothing casual or happenstance about the shipment of arms and ammunition along with a stockpile of cyanide into a so-called Paradise. Naturally, security was needed in the jungle, but the high degree of secrecy about the so-called security arrangements that never really materialized, eliminated any legitimate claim of bona fide planning to secure the well-being of Temple followers. Also, the stockpiling of poison was not only pre-meditated, but curious at best for life in Paradise.

Despite the occurrence of frequent suicide drills, known as White Nights, Jones’ declining mental state seemed to cast a shadow over the real danger facing the people of Jonestown. It was almost as if they placed White Nights in the same category as his frequent, incoherent, uncontrollable rants: they were not to be taken too seriously. The general outlandishness of what occurred in the colony on a daily basis seemed to inoculate members into lowering their sensitivity to real danger.

The greatest evidence of the consequence of this psychological and emotional immunization would be captured on what became known as the Death Tape. The eager complicity of members willing to readily lay their lives down for their leader or a cause is not heard on that tape. Instead, we hear the slurred words and cajoling efforts of a man desperately trying to get the cooperation of his people in this final hour. Undoubtedly, the open expressions of dismay, pleading and emotionalism that patently rang through when the vats of cyanide were opened indicate that the people of Jonestown were ambushed that fateful day of November 18, 1978.

The playbook on deception would be used one last time. The residents of Jonestown were first called to assemble at the Pavilion, only to be informed about the deaths of visitors Congressman Leo Ryan, some members of the accompanying NBC crew, defecting Jonestown residents and Concerned Relatives. The shock of that news was not allowed to settle, as the plot thickened. On the spot, without any warning, the residents received the order that the time had actually come for their eternal departure. Ironically, this would be the first and last time the rattlesnake would not rattle before striking its prey. The emotional cries, distress, chaos and mayhem heard on that death tape reveals unequivocally the fruition of Jones’ destructive agenda.

Many may ask, why build, only to then tear down? To attempt to find logic in a mind perennially clouded by delusions of grandeur, conspiracies, paranoia, and power is elusive and pointless. Not to be glib, but the horror of tragedies are sometimes better understood from the realm of resignation, for hindsight is always 20/20.


“Here’s a man who says as long as I have a home, you have a home….”[7]

Clearly, the focus here should be on the word “says”, because after the dust settled on November 18, 1978, the Temple leader would prove to be a man whose words belied his actions. The willful and calculated destruction of life at Jonestown proved an unwillingness to allow his followers the ability to choose their own fate and their ultimate home. The bottom line is that Jones’ use of deception was raw. He sought to conquer, corrupt, compromise, divide, and destroy, living always by the motto “the ends justify the means.”

Unfortunately, many people became enamored with his form of supposed charity, dismissing in turn the substance of his operations. Concerned Relatives, defectors, some journalists and one US Congressman attempted to confront what many ignored. Apart from this small group, few questioned why a man claiming to wage a socialist war would choose to do so 6,000 miles away in the deep recesses of a jungle, far removed from the political and social structures he claimed to oppose. Few questioned why someone who claimed to be a “Reverend” would also openly describe himself as an atheist, denying the very existence of the authority whose name he invoked for his so-called wonders and miracles. Few questioned why a supposed minister of religion would not focus instead on traditional outreach missionary work in a foreign country partly inhabited by unconverted indigenous peoples. Few questioned why a supposed “progressive” with disdain for the absence of liberty would seem to prefer placing his “troops” constantly under the watchful eyes of armed security. Few questioned why defectors from this particular organization always seemed to live in fear of their lives even after leaving it. Few questioned the glaring contradictions and open duplicity that signaled fundamental problems with the leadership, the organization, and its operations. Few questioned the apparent preoccupation and venom hurled constantly at the media, government agencies, and those who dared to be critical of him.

The list of forgotten and/or neglected questions is long. Their absence, however, point to a deeper dilemma: if so many outsiders failed to see the red flags hoisted along the way, how could those living under oppressive dehumanizing conditions, deliberately masked by claims of a higher cause, embrace the truth so skillfully woven into a tapestry of deception and lies after so many years of mental manipulation.

Too often, the victims of Jonestown – those who died in the massacre, those who escaped the massacre, and those who left the organization prior to its demise – are flippantly characterized as “gullible, weak-minded, idealistic and naïve.” Tacitly, many view them as being partly culpable for the tragedy that befell Jonestown.

For all intents and purposes, however, the victims of Jonestown were not atypical in their hopes, dreams and aspirations for a better life, particularly during the trying times of the 1960s and 1970s. To be sure, while economic prosperity abounds even today in the 21stcentury, it would be myopic to think that duplicity and seduction still could not sway the vulnerable and those captivated by form over substance.

Within the Jonestown Pavilion was a plaque that read: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Although these words first coined by George Santayana in The Life Of Reason are inaccurately quoted here,[8] the essence of their meaning should not be dismissed. While many may claim “never” to being deceived by the likes of another Jim Jones, the passage of time does not ensure the revision of the playbook in another place, time, chance or circumstance. Recognizing “the game” therefore, remains the only insurance for insulation. To make the point – 106 years after its demise in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean – never has another vessel been designed like the RMS Titanic. It is always important to learn the lesson.


[1] This statement represents the admission of one member when confronted by a concerned parent in Jonestown. To read the full account see, Tim Reiterman, Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Penguin Group, 1982: p. 387.

[2] In a September 1977 tape, Jones admitted his childhood distress and trouble. A partial transcript was published December, 1978 in the Guyana Chronicle after the tragedy.

[3] These words are from the song, Smooth Operator, sung by Sade Adu, 1984.

[4] Former San Francisco Assemblyman Willie Brown enthusiastically introduced Jim Jones to a group with these words.

[5] This was one of Jones’ first ham radio broadcasts upon arriving at Jonestown.

[6] Reiterman, p. 340.

[7] A former member of Jonestown gave this testimony of Jones at a meeting in Jonestown.

[8] The accurate quote is: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

(Angelique J. Lawrence is a Fulbright Scholar currently based in the Caribbean. She can be reached at