The Lessons of Jonestown: An Ethnopsychoanalytic Study of Suicidal Communities. By Domenico Arturo Nesci. Rome: Società Editrice Universo, 1999.
Question: Why bother reviewing a book written nearly twenty years ago? Short answer: Because it shed lights on whether we should read the author’s latest work on the same subject. Longer answer: Because The Lessons of Jonestown presents a unique psychoanalytic portrait of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple that seems to have been ignored by researchers in the United States.
Not that I am a fan of such psychohistories. I don’t see joining a social movement as a regressive return to the womb. Nor do I view the creation of families through adoption, guardianships, and other alternatives to the two-parent nuclear family as a rejection of “genital generation.” And I do not think that Jim Jones believed in some sort of archaic moon cult. Nevertheless, Domenico Nesci’s attempt to construct (or reconstruct) the unconscious fantasies of those who lived and died in Jonestown is a fascinating exploration of history, anthropology, psychology, and more.
A few presuppositions guide the Italian psychoanalyst’s thinking. First, he believes that an “ethnopsychoanalytic study” will illuminate the processes at work in the Temple movement. He also considers the deaths in Jonestown to have been “collective suicide,” and he looks for historical (and mythological) parallels to illustrate his argument. Finally, he relies primarily upon Raven, by Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs, for understanding Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, an early account that has been supplemented, if not superseded, by later investigations.
But he also uses many unpublished documents held by Charles Garry (1909–1991), the Temple’s attorney, some of which I had never seen before. And whatever we think of Freud and Freudianism, Nesci’s biography of the Jones family – Jim, his mother Lynetta, and his father James Thurman Jones – is compelling.
Two key, rather technical, concepts form the crux of the book’s thesis. The first is the idea of the “placental leader,” that is, a leader who is the intermediary between the land (the mother) and the people (the fetus). Just as a literal placenta nourishes the fetus from the mother’s body, the placental leader provides for the needs of the people who are dependent upon the mother. Thus, Jim Jones was a leader who nurtured and encouraged such dependence with his promises of protection through miracles and healing power. At the same time, however, he was a death-dealing pharmakos (healer/poisoner) who expelled evil from one group, ultimately to its own death.
Related to the idea of placental leadership is that of the “syncytial group,” that is, a group lacking boundaries between its members. In biology, “the synctium is a cellular organization with no limits” (62). In human society, some groups are “psychologically syncytial” – meaning that whatever happens to the individual happens to the group, and whatever happens to the group, happens to the individual.
Nesci discusses several primal groups in which this lack of differentiation led to efforts to expel perceived evil persons, such as sorcerers and witches, by forcing everyone to undergo a poison ordeal: the survivors were presumably innocent, while the dead – and a whole lot of others – were guilty. In some extreme cases, entire tribes vanished in this genocidal practice of self-purification.
We can see where this is going in terms of life and death in Jonestown. In Nesci’s view, the group itself was the object of worship, and the goal of community unity (also the name of an early incarnation of Peoples Temple) was to abolish individualism. In this system, the unforgivable sin was separation from the group, which explains the Temple’s obsession with betrayal. The entire body suffered wounds from self-centered traitors.
Leo Ryan’s visit, therefore, was the catastrophe that forced those left behind to prove their innocence, or loyalty, by submitting to the poison ordeal. According to Nesci’s analysis, dying together ensured a future life together. But further, “Only death could disguise the unequivocal signs of the falsehood of the Jonestown utopia” (214). Since the criterion for truth was collective consensus, those who left with Ryan had shattered the illusion of consensus.
Nesci argues – if not convincingly, then certain grippingly – that Jim Jones represented the “sacred king” of mythology. As such, he symbolized the double nature of kingship: in strength, the protector of the people; in weakness, the cause of their death. As well as suggesting an unconscious racist element in the group, the homonyms White Knight and White Night also suggest this doubleness (147). This is why certain primal cultures actually killed the king or leader if he was seen to be sick or old. His infirmity would bring down the tribe. In a similar fashion, an increasingly paranoid and ill Jim Jones could not retire. The Temple would dissolve in his absence, the people would die, or, as in legend and anthropology, the people would murder the king.
The book’s discussion of Jones’ fixation on death is helpful. Nesci presents an account of Jim Jones working with Marceline, who became his wife, to prepare the body of a pregnant woman for the undertaker. He then turns that into an analysis of Jones’ identification with “the dead fetish-object” (the placenta), in which mother and child would be eternally united in death, rather than be divided in life (28–29).
Another example of Jones’ obsession with death appears in the author’s deconstruction of several articles in Peoples Forum. Anyone who has read a couple of issues of the Temple’s broadside published in San Francisco, is immediately struck by the gruesome photos and graphic stories of torture, lynching, and genocide. While we might not accept Nesci’s placental leader/syncytial group hypothesis, we can accept that something weird was definitely going on with all the emphasis on death.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is the assessment of the audio cassette made on the last day. Nesci admits to becoming obsessed with the tape, and listening to it again and again, even so far as to go through the classical stages of grief as he listened. Paradoxically, this tape transformed “the actual moments of the last white night at Jonestown into that sacred time and space where the sacred action could always be re-evoked” (122). By performing this horrifying act, and recording it, Peoples Temple members granted the group eternal life, if popular interest in Jonestown is any indication.
An incredible footnote to all of this is the Bekeranta mass murder-suicide that occurred in Guyana in the nineteenth century. An Arekuna Indian promised his followers that if they killed each other, they would become greater than the white colonialists; they would become white themselves in a general resurrection to occur shortly thereafter. Four hundred men, women, and children died in the massacre. When no resurrection occurred, a party of indigenous people went to the leader and clubbed him to death.
In the case of Jonestown, of course, the placental leader died with the fetus.
This book made me consider Peoples Temple and Jonestown from a radically different perspective. As noted at the outset, I am dubious of Freudian explanations for human behavior. Undoubtedly there are unconscious factors at work in each individual’s actions. But as Sigmund Freud apparently did not say: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. In other words, sometimes adults are seeking human freedom as their birthright, and are not merely looking for a mother, a father, or a binky.
(Rebecca Moore is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She is currently Reviews Editor for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Co-Director of The Jonestown Institute. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are The Forensic Investigation of Jonestown Conducted by Dr. Leslie Mootoo: A Critical Analysis; The Brainwashing Myth; Cult, New Religious Movement, or Minority Religion?; Cue the Kool-Aid: Watching Jonestown Docs in the ‘Fake News’ Era; and Jonestown Journal. Her complete collection of articles on this site appears here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)