(Ellie A. DeIanni wrote this paper as a student at Ramapo College of New Jersey, where she is majoring in Psychology with minors in Substance Abuse and Criminology. She can be reached at email@example.com.)
This paper examines the amount of control one person can gain over a group’s behavior through the manipulation of situational and social influences. On November 18, 1978, a progressive social movement known as Peoples Temple faced a catastrophic end in Jonestown, Guyana. People who were part of this social movement intended to build a utopian society that was free from the injustices of the United States. Led by their charismatic and divine leader, Jim Jones, they moved into the middle of the South American jungle as a family. None of them realized that Jones had little regard for their lives and was solely focused on escaping his enemies, both real and imaginary. Their blind faith in the self-proclaimed prophet cost nearly 1,000 people their lives as they were told to drink cyanide-laced punch in order to protest the inhumane conditions of the world. Threatened by guns, the unfamiliar jungle, and conformity pressure from the entire community, they had no choice but to surrender their lives. Jones used social psychology principles and cult-like characteristics to exploit the psychological weakness of his members and force them into extreme obedience. Applying his knowledge of psychology, Jim Jones created one of the most controlling and dangerous cults in history.
The Legacy of Peoples Temple
Most people hear the word “cult” and immediately roll their eyes. Although they are often fascinated with cult-related stories they hear on the news, they overestimate their resistance to social pressures and say, “I would never join something like that.” By the time people hear about specific cults, something tragic has usually happened. Therefore, the worldview of cults tends to focus on the members, as in: the members chose to adopt a deviant belief system; the members chose to be part of an isolated group; and the members chose to follow a dangerous leader.
The reality is that people don’t join cults. They join groups or organizations because they are seeking feelings of community, meaning or belongingness. They happily stay because their physical and emotional needs are met. They don’t leave when the group becomes dangerous because their psychological vulnerabilities have been exploited by their leader. In the case of Peoples Temple, members joined a progressive social movement genuinely believing they would create positive changes in the world. Unfortunately, these members were mind-controlled by their narcissistic, psychopathic and destructive leader: Jim Jones. Throughout the years of this movement, he used many social psychology principles and cult-characteristics to coerce his followers into doing unimaginable things. Although Peoples Temple started as a church, Jones applied his knowledge of psychology to create an extremely dangerous cult, causing the death of 918 people.
The Makings of a Monster
The Ugly Baby Eskimo
On May 13, 1931 James Warren Jones was born to Lynetta and James Thurman Jones in Crete, Indiana. Lynetta was always ambivalent to the idea of motherhood because she thought a family would get in the way of her ambitious career goals. When her son was born, she was disappointed because instead of being the beautiful baby boy she had expected, he was “a conglomeration of every nationality in the world” (Reiterman, 1982, 10). She thought he resembled an ugly baby Eskimo at best.
The family lived in poverty because of the Great Depression and were always moving. Lynetta was constantly working and James was an alcoholic. Having two absent parents, the toddler was often alone (Reiterman, 1982). He quickly learned how to fend for himself by teaching himself how to walk and exploring the town on his own. Although he was becoming self-sufficient, he desperately craved love and attention. At the age of 3, Jones realized that animals fulfilled these needs. Wandering like a stray animal himself, he cared for and adopted stray cats and dogs in the neighborhood. His animals followed him everywhere, similar to “the entourage of people” (Reiterman, 1989, 18) that would later accompany him. Jones’ religious neighbor, Mrs. Kennedy, noticed his questionable behavior and sought to give him a proper childhood. She began telling him about God, bringing him along to sermons and letting him attend Sunday school. He later refers to her as his spiritual mother (Reiterman, 1982).
By elementary school, Jones already knew how to structure his environment in a way that suited him. Jones created a loft for himself in the barn behind his house and would invite children over. He attracted playmates at school by being dramatic and spontaneous. Whether he was preaching from the Bible, talking about socialism or holding ritualistic funerals for animals, it became clear that he was “exhilarated at the power of his own voice” (Reiterman, 1982, 14). The other children were drawn to Jones’ charismatic leadership. It soon became evident that Jones had a severe fear of abandonment; in order to prevent his peers from leaving, he locked them in the barn and threatened them with guns (Reiterman, 1982). This had the opposite effect because the more strange and intense Jones became, the less people showed up to his gatherings. Although he was an outcast in the community, his teachers described him as a “voracious reader” (Peterson, 2017, 1) who loved to learn. Jones was constantly reading books about Hitler, Stalin, Marx and the Soviet Union (Reiterman, 1982). He was fascinated and inspired by their powerful stories. Also inspired by concepts in psychology, Jones would later have bookshelves stocked with books about social psychology and mind control (Scheeres, 2011).
Search for Purpose
Jones quickly became known around his neighborhood as a “very weird kid” who was “obsessed with religion and death” (Nelson, 2006). Feeling excluded by his peers, he became determined to find a church community that would accept him even though he did not actually believe in God. He eventually found comfort in a local Pentecostal church (Scheeres, 2011). By the age of 16, Jones could be found on street corners preaching from the Bible and publicly arguing for equal rights, as he empathized with minorities. People were drawn to Jones, and he quickly realized that through religion he had power.
After graduating Richmond High School with high honors, Jones began working at Reid Hospital (Scheeres, 2011). Through interactions with hospital staff and patients, he learned how to perceive what people wanted to hear and sincerely reproduce those desires into his own words. During Jones’ time at the hospital, he met a sweet and gentle young nurse named Marceline Baldwin. When Marceline met Jones, she believed he was the most sensitive and handsome man she had ever met (Reiterman, 1982). They quickly fell in love and a year later, they were married. Throughout their relationship Marceline endured various kinds of abuse from Jones but stayed with him because she trusted her husband and believed he was genuinely a good person. She was blinded by the glimpses of humanity in Jones and refused to accept the evil. She did not realize that she was destructively enabling his behavior.
As an education major at Indiana University, Jones found a new platform to speak. He became a student pastor at the Somerset Methodist Church and began preaching in small churches around Indianapolis (Peterson, 2017). It did not matter that Jones doubted the existence of God because he was overjoyed by the power that preaching gave him. Jones wanted to racially integrate local church services, but people were outraged by his request (Scheeres, 2011).
Jones spent the next few years mastering his preaching skills in hopes of starting his own congregation. Knowing he did not have the financial stability to put down a payment on a church, he began making money through faith healing ceremonies. He also traveled door-to-door to sell live monkeys for $29 each (Pick-Jones, 2007). Taking advantage of the foot-in-the-door phenomenon, Jones would encourage his customers to attend some of his services. Many of them eventually joined the church (Reiterman, 1982). Once he gained enough money and a decent following, Jones purchased a church of his own. At first it was titled Wings of Deliverance, but almost immediately became Peoples Temple (Peterson, 2017). Jones soon became an ordained minister and the church became associated with the Disciples of Christ (Reiterman, 1982).
Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church
When Peoples Temple began in 1956, it was one of the few racially integrated churches (Nelson, 2006). Jones created a loving atmosphere that was welcoming to all potential members. He described Peoples Temple as a church whose “door is open so wide that all races, creeds, and colors find a hearty welcome to come in, relax, meditate and worship God” (Scheeres, 2011, 10). Peoples Temple held services throughout the week that included evangelism, faith healing and youth services. They also had weekly radio and television programs that featured his abilities as a healer, which helped to quickly attract members (Stephenson, 2005). He soon realized that “more people produced more money and more projects” (Reiterman, 1982, 50) which allowed him to gain further recognition and praise.
Jones knew from the start that he had no powers as a healer. His real talent was convincing other people that he did. During his first demonstrations he had his secretaries pretend they needed healing for imaginary disabilities. Members complied because they truly believed that “they were helping [Jones] conserve his real powers for more important matters” (Harary, 2016, 5). Over time, his healings became more deceptive. Peoples Temple devotees would follow potential members and raid their garbage in order to find critical information (Reiterman, 1982). During his sermons, he would use his dark sunglasses to hide the fact that he was discretely reading the notes his members had taken about audience members who needed healing. At this point, everyone learned to rationalize their deception and adopted Jones’ motto: the end justifies the means. Jones eventually began to drug members, put them in casts and claim that they had broken bones due to a fall. They would then be healed during a public ceremony. In extreme cases, Jones would drug members that had defied him and pretend to resurrect them once the drugs wore off (Scheeres, 2011). Blinded by deception, an atmosphere of heightened emotionality and misattribution of emotion, it became difficult to convince people that Jones was not divine (Harary, 2016). Survivors still explain that their devotion to Jones was not due to the content of his sermons but the emotional appeal as they “all believed he was God” (Harary, 2016, 6). He became intoxicated by the feelings of power but, like many narcissists, Jones’ craving was insatiable (Maynard, 2013).
Peoples Temple members ran a soup kitchen, daycare centers, nursing homes, and even detoxification programs (Stephenson, 2005). Wherever there was a person in need, Peoples Temple was there to help. Marceline and Jim began caring for homeless children, later adopting a few Korean, black and white children of their own. The members of this church were selflessly dedicated to improving the lives of everyone in the community. Jones was recognized for his seemingly genuine efforts to help others and was appointed head of the Human Rights Commission in 1961. He helped to integrate many churches, restaurants, theaters, amusement parks and even hospitals (Scheeres, 2011). The more Jones and his Peoples Temple pushed boundaries towards rights for women, blacks and the poor, the more his following grew.
The Rainbow Family
On June 1, 1959, Stephan Gandhi Jones, Jim and Marceline’s only biological child, was born. Jones decided that it would be best for his son to grow up without prejudices and a month later they became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child (Rittenmeyer, 2018). They named him Jim Jones Jr., to emphasize the family’s dedication to fighting racial injustice. Marceline and Jones referred to their family as the “rainbow family” because it included Korean, black and white children (Reiterman, 1982). In Rittenmeyer’s 2018 documentary, Stephan Jones explains that his father’s need to brag about the diversity of his family was one of the earliest glimpses into his father’s suppressed racism. Although Jones had convinced everyone that his actions were altruistic, it is widely believed that his fight for equality and his adopted children were merely props to “generate headlines and attract followers” (Scheeres, 2011, 12). In fact, it is believed that he purposely rigged a Temple vehicle to kill his adopted Korean daughter Stephanie while she was on a trip (Reiterman, 1982). Before the accident, he prophesied that this would happen and when it did, people took this as clear evidence of his divine power.
A Hint of Insanity
The charitable work of Peoples Temple was constantly being publicized. Although Jones always showed his best face to the public, the pressure of all of the attention was too much. Jones was losing control of himself. His insomnia increased, he began to hear voices and soon became paralyzed with fear that people were going to kill him or that he was going to die (Reiterman, 1982). In the early 1960s, Jones read an article that listed the safest places in the world in the event of a nuclear attack. On the top of the list was Brazil. With increased anxiety about his death, he decided that he needed to establish himself there and then send for the congregation to follow (Reiterman, 1982). After spending two years in Brazil with his family, Jones realized that it was not suitable for his congregation due to a language barrier and unstable finances (Scheeres, 2011). During his trip, he contemplated the future of his mission, not knowing what to do next. He met an influential minister named Edward Malmin who saw the human side of Jones and convinced him to continue his mission.
After two years without Jones and his divine powers, Peoples Temple had noticeably decreased in membership. Nearly 90% of the congregation had left and Jones knew that his absence damaged the church’s reputation (Reiterman, 1982). He referred back to the article regarding safe locations during nuclear attacks and persuaded his followers to move to Northern California, warning that they would not be safe in Indiana (Chiu, 2017). Although Jones was likely paranoid by the article, he saw the move as an excellent opportunity to strengthen his members’ loyalty. Jones knew his followers would feel isolated in a new environment and cling more tightly to him for comfort (Reiterman, 1982). Leaving Indiana with his most devout followers, he also acknowledged that his organization would gain strength because it was now self-selected. He asked his followers to sever ties with friends and family, sell their belongings and follow him to safety. At the time, Peoples Temple members thought they were the chosen ones and that Jones was saving them from danger. They were thrilled to be following their leader to expand their mission but were oblivious to the fact that along with everything else they had left in Indiana, they were leaving behind the last glimpses of innocence that Peoples Temple possessed.
Onward to California
Peoples Temple moved to Redwood Valley, California in 1965 and graduated from a church to a full blown social movement. They began to develop even more community service projects than they had in Indiana (Galanter, 1999). Their shared belief system of racial justice and equality was quickly attracting members of all ages who wanted to change the world instead of just talking about it. The message of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple was so sincere and compassionate that they prevented the possibility of counterargument.
At first the organization experienced a great deal of harassment from the locals. Jones spent most of his free time going door-to-door to counsel and care for his members. Jones created resistance among his members by emphasizing how much people did not approve of what they were doing. Because they were being oppressed by society they tried even harder to assert their freedom. Dedicating all of their time to the mission was not a burden because Jones and the community were fulfilling everyone’s essential needs (Harary, 2016). Belonging to this organization soon became more important than anything else in the members’ lives and consistently required 20 hours a day (Nelson, 2006).
Jones built a sanctuary for Peoples Temple and all of the members worshipped him because of it. As people were more willing to believe what Jones said, he became more extreme. Jones began emphasizing that the belief in God can be interpreted as goodness and love in everyone (Layton, 1982). Although he criticized the Bible often, he did not invalidate it completely. He claimed that the Bible stated there is a living prophet who was sent by God to direct the people (Scheeres, 2011). Of course, the description of the prophet pointed directly to Jones. He continued performing faith healings, compassionately caring for his members and teaching them about socialism. Jones systematically chipped away at his followers’ beliefs until all they had left was the belief in Jim Jones.
Once Jones knew that he had a secure hold on his followers, he took recruitment to a new level. Thirteen charter buses were used to transport hundreds of Peoples Temple members cross-country on their annual bus tours (Nelson, 2006). Many less fortunate members were grateful for these trips because they were able to travel the country while spreading their shared belief system and recruiting desirable members. Often impressed with the exaggerated membership that Jones bragged about, outsiders were eager to join (Reiterman, 1982). Although this was not evident to his followers, Jones meticulously chose locations for their bus tours. Recruitment was focused on lower socioeconomic areas because Jones knew that they could not afford to turn down the possibility of a better life (Scheeres, 2011). He took advantage of these people because the more followers he had, the more validated he felt. Although Jones always preached equality, bus #7 was far from that. Jones’ private bus seemed standard on the outside but had a bedroom, a shower, and many other forbidden luxuries (Layton, 1998).
Jones became obsessed with expanding his congregation but was too impatient to wait for it to happen. He devised a plan to steal members from other places. Father Divine, the founder of the Peace Mission Movement, was a target for Jones as he “possessed the qualities that Jones mirrored for himself and Peoples Temple” (Chiu, 2017, 4). Beginning in 1959, he frequently met with Divine and studied tapes of his sermons in order to learn how to control his own followers. When Father Divine died, Jones thought he could steal members from Divine’s congregation. In 1971 he returned to Philadelphia, claiming that he was the reincarnation of Father Divine and encouraged the members to travel to California and join Peoples Temple. Mother Divine promptly removed Jones, and he managed to steal only a few members (Chiu, 2017).
Jones envied the success of Father Divine and would later copy many of his practices. Jones stopped hinting that he was a prophet and began to openly state that he was a Living God. In a recorded sermon, Jones states “what you need to believe in is what you can see. If you see me as your father, I’ll be your father. If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God” (Nelson, 2006). His main message became “God had done nothing to help humanity; Jim Jones had done everything” (Scheeres, 2011, 25). From childhood, Jones had always felt as if life had cheated him and he desperately wanted a close-knit family. Soon, he began planting the idea that the Temple “family” was more important than blood (Reiterman, 1982). People now not only worshipped him but called him Father as well. This family metaphor caused his followers to depend on Jones as small children depend on their parents.
Sex in Peoples Temple
Jones’ views on sex were constantly changing but were always implemented to prevent pair bonding and ensure he was loved above all else. At first he encouraged free love, or sex with everyone. Then he enforced celibacy. Members believed that Jones followed this practice as well, until it was their turn to find out that he didn’t (Nelson, 2006). His members, both male and female, had no say in the matter because nobody questioned his decisions. He repeatedly expressed that his actions were entirely selfless and he was having sex with them because they needed it (Layton, 1998). He later decided people could have sex only when granted permission. Hebegan claiming that he was the only heterosexual on Earth and that everyone else was compensating (Chiu, 2017). He expertly used this claim to convince women he was the only worthy partner, and he told men that he could use his knowledge to show them how to enjoy it. He loved sex, as it represented power, and he promoted himself as “the ultimate sex object” (Reiterman, 1982, 173) to get what and who he wanted.
Illusions of Love
Almost as memorable as the mission of Peoples Temple was Jim Jones’ unforgettable appearance. With jet black hair, dark sunglasses and powerful presence he was impossible to ignore. Jones was more than just a Christian preacher; he was the hope for a new society that was free of oppression and injustice. Whatever someone needed, Jones seemed to be able to provide it (Nelson, 2006). During services he produced altered states of consciousness by overwhelming people with sounds of music and chanting. This created a very emotionally passionate and loving atmosphere. The social cohesiveness of the group during Jones’ sermons was undeniably powerful in attracting members because the entire congregation seemed like one entity that worked together. Jones dragged people in by creating a divine image of himself and an illusion of invulnerability. People thought they were the chosen ones by following Jones and that he could not be defeated. He managed to produce feelings of communal belief in morality of the group and emphasized the group’s shared belief system. These characteristics were so powerful that many who experienced his sermons wanted to join Peoples Temple.
As membership grew by the thousands, Jones increased monitoring and control. In order to do so he implemented a Planning Commission comprised of his 100 most loyal followers. They helped him keep track of members, prepare for sermons and contact politicians (Scheeres, 2011). However, with the privileges of the inner circle also came intense amounts of fear. The defection of any of them would be the most serious to Jones, and they were constantly reminded of this. They were forced to sync their beliefs with Jones to an extreme level, which produced unimaginable levels of group polarization. There was also a forced sense of similarity in Jones’ inner circle which strengthened their desire to please him and encouraged them to comply with his insanity (Layton, 1998). They would later begin to think as illogically as Jones and push him to even greater extremes.
Jones began to preach for several hours each day and people noticed that his energy seemed limitless. It would be later discovered that he was addicted to amphetamines, which were causing increased paranoia (Scheeres, 2011). He constantly feared for his life because he believed that people wanted to assassinate him. He became obsessed with the idea of making sure people did not think he was insane and went to great lengths to show that his fears were real (Reiterman, 1982). It became common for Jones to claim that there were shards of glass or poison in his food, that he was being followed, or that people were trying to bomb the Temple. Once he even simulated his own assassination with a fake bullet and fake blood. Following the theatric event, he disappeared for a few hours before he came back out and claimed to have used his powers to resurrect himself (Reiterman, 1982). Jones created a siege mentality among his followers and declared they must fully dedicate themselves to the cause, and to him. He was now always accompanied by body guards demonstrating his unusual and paranoid response to external threats. Security checks were now required to get into the church, and members were required to carry ID cards (Scheeres, 2011).
In 1972, the ambitious preacher relocated Peoples Temple headquarters to San Francisco (Reiterman, 1982). Most of their efforts in San Francisco were to “enlarge the sect’s membership and [create a more] favorable view of the group [in the broader community]” (Galanter, 1999, 115). Jones always made sure that the Temple did everything they could to maintain their perfect image by donating money to charitable causes and constantly helping people in need. Impressing people with his good works and charming personality, Jones managed to become an important political figure. Although only a few of his members could vote, he convinced George Moscone and Harvey Milk that he had helped elect them as mayor and city supervisor, respectively (Reiterman, 1982). In 1976, he was appointed to the Housing Commission and in 1977, he was named “the most politically potent religious leader” in California’s history (Layton, 1998, 111). When Jones was facing legal troubles during his last year in the country, Harvey Milk wrote a personal letter to President Jimmy Carter praising Jones as an honest and charitable man (Scheeres, 2011). This political power helped the Temple maintain its positive image.
Although Jones was controlling and inconsistent with his beliefs, his followers genuinely believed they were part of a “nationwide fight for social justice” (Reiterman, 1982, 69), and therefore excused his behaviors. Avoiding his pathological fear of abandonment, Jones was always devising new tactics to keep his followers loyal (Scheeres, 2011). He chose an ideal location to build a closed community for their congregation to stay. Everyone was now required to live communally and turn over all assets to support one another (Reiterman, 1982). Isolated from most of the world, there were extreme amounts of conformity pressures among the group. Members followed what everyone else was doing, often without thinking, because they were unsure of their surroundings. Following an illusion of unanimity, nobody thought they were wrong because everyone seemed to comply with Jones’ demands. Through this isolated support, the in-group/outgroup mentality of Peoples Temple became more extreme.
Jones believed that punishments would bind his followers more tightly to him. Public punishments varied from verbal catharsis sessions to whipping or paddling members and giving children electric shocks (Scheeres, 2011, 42). Public embarrassment became Jones’ favorite punishment because he knew being shunned by the group was even more harmful than his personal disapproval. Accepting a punishment was a public act of commitment that escalated with time. Following a beating, the victim would have to say “Thank you, Father” (Scheeres, 2011). This forced them to change their attitudes and rationalize the punishment, making them even more committed to Jones and the group.
To prove their commitment, members were required to sign false confessions and admit on tape that they had “molested their children, conspired to overthrow the government, or committed other crimes” (Harary, 2016, 3) while they were part of the Temple. They were told that if they ever left, these statements would be used to incriminate them. People would often dramatize these confessions to extreme extents to demonstrate their loyalty. He became more deceptive when he felt that he was losing control of members. He began taking attendance on blank sheets of paper but then would attach their signatures to incriminating documents for blackmail (Layton, 1998). Members developed a high level of dependency on Jones, and the Temple and it was becoming impossible to leave.
Jones soon decided that nobody could leave the mission. If someone defected, Jones and his inner circle would send harassing letters, phone calls and publish obituaries for them in the local newspaper. Eventually death threats were sent to the traitors (Scheeres, 2011). He implemented a fair game policy, which stated that any enemy of Jones was also an enemy of the Temple and people were encouraged to even the score. Jones repeatedly referred to his death squad as “angels,” and warned that nobody could escape (Reiterman, 1982). Members complied because he referred to it as heavenly deception and saw traitors as enemies. Over the years there were many unexplained murders of defectors so his followers knew the threat was real (Harary, 2016).
Jones’ immediate family was subject to even greater levels of emotional abuse. After two members named Larry and Carolyn Layton joined the congregation, Jones systematically implemented his divide-and-conquer tactic to prevent pair bonding. To assert his power, he began an affair with Carolyn that would last until the end. When Jones’ son, Stephan, learned of the affair, he was extremely sad for his mother and tried to tell her, but he found out that she already knew (Reiterman, 1982). Marceline knew that she had to escape her marriage to Jones and threatened to divorce him, but he told her that if she left he would turn the children against her and would make sure she never saw them again (Scheeres, 2011). She knew he would follow through with his threat and stayed to protect her children. Marceline never complained again but throughout their marriage, Jones had affairs with both men and women which he openly bragged about. Jones fathered several Temple children, including Carolyn’s son, Kimo.
The Eight Revolutionaries. Despite his many restrictions, Jones wanted to keep the Temple youth educated. Aware of manipulation techniques, Jones knew that he must keep his members isolated. He created Peoples Temple dormitories and required that members take classes together if they wanted to attend college (Reiterman, 1982). Jones believed that these dorms would encourage self-censorship and protect the young members from outside influences. However, this distance allowed them to recognize Jones’ hypocrisies. Eight college students defected in 1973. After defecting, they bluntly explained to Jones why they were leaving. This infuriated him and as an act of retaliation he devised a suicide plan. On January 1, 1976 he made his members drink a glass of wine before telling them that it was poisoned and that they were going to die. After watching his followers agonize in pain, he explained that it was simply a loyalty test and based on their reactions he now knew who he could trust (Scheeres, 2011). The idea of revolutionary suicide was increasingly appealing to Jones as he wondered if he had enough power to make his followers obey an order that extreme.
Jonestown: Building Heaven on Earth
In the early 1970s, Jones noticed increasingly unflattering attention from the media. Of course Jones would never publicly admit to his mistakes, but they were becoming increasingly clear to the outside world and even some of his most devout members (Maynard, 2013). Jones was being depicted in the media as a cruel and paranoid criminal. Defectors said that Jones was stealing their money, separating parents from their children, and inflicting emotional, physical and sexual abuse on the members (Reiterman, 1982). Soon after these testimonies, an investigation was launched of Peoples Temple. Similar to his reaction in Indiana, Jones realized he had to relocate. To provide Jones with more time, the mayor told reporters that there was “no proof of criminal activity, only allegations of wrongdoing” (Scheeres, 2011, 55) and Harvey Milk praised Jones in a letter to the President. Although his political acquaintances helped to temporarily limit the damage, he knew that he would have to move quickly to prevent serious consequences.
Several years earlier, in 1974, after years of searching for a place to build their utopia, Jones had leased 3,852 acres in Guyana, South America (Harary, 2016). He decided to call it Jonestown, and began sending people to clear the land and build th community. The original settlers of Jonestown were determined to build a utopia that was free from the inequality they faced back in the United States (Dittmann, 2003). Hopes were high because they believed in the abilities and morality of the group. While Jones was not in Jonestown, the settlers lived happily. Conditions were difficult to adjust to, but not impossible. The settlers worked long hours but made sure to eat enough food, get enough rest, take time out of the day to enjoy each other’s company and indulge in small pleasures such as reading and watching movies (Reiterman, 1982). Stephan Jones was sent to help in Jonestown because his father feared his defection, but Stephan was grateful for this opportunity because he found a sense of belongingness that he had been lacking for years (Nelson, 2006). Stephan even convinced his father to let them build a basketball court; they eventually represented Jonestown in national tournaments. This seemingly minor addition would later save Stephan’s life.
On occasion, Jones came to visit the building site to check on progress and create promotional videos to recruit California members. He advertised the new community as the Promised Land that was free from oppression. (Retierman, 1982). Convinced by his lies, members truly believed that going to Guyana was a privilege. They believed the socialist community would flourish and set an example for the world. Jones moved them to South America because he knew that “generating uncertainty in their new surroundings [would make people] particularly vulnerable, feel lonely and disconnected” (Dittmann, 2003, 3), which would increase his power.
Eventually Jones became so paranoid about losing his life to his enemies that his fears were becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. His paranoia was the only thing forcing Peoples Temple out of the country. Jones was constantly claiming that the government was investigating them, but the government only became interested because the church repeatedly wrote letters asking if they were under investigation (Reiterman, 1982). At this point, Jones had stereotyped his enemies to all of the followers. They were cautious of defectors, the press, and the government. They genuinely believed outsiders were trying to kill them and their mission (Reiterman, 1982). Although Jones’ fears were imaginary, they seemed very real to his followers. When Deborah Layton, the secretary of Temple finances, moved to Jonestown, she immediately recognized that she belonged to “another era of the church” (Layton, 1998, 140). She realized that Jones had changed, the mission had changed, and the members had changed. In May of 1978, she devised a plan to leave Jonestown. A month later, she published an affidavit warning the government about the dangerous nature of Jim Jones and why they should take his threats seriously (Layton, 1998). They did not listen.
Putting Jones in Jonestown
When a sufficient amount of members moved to Guyana, recruitment efforts ceased and the focus shifted to monitoring members (Galanter, 1999). Although the settlers did their best to establish their version of heaven on Earth, it was no longer sustainable. Jonestown quickly began to resemble a concentration camp in which members were required to work long hours of the day with minimal sleep and food (Dittman, 2003). Although Jones used many cult-like characteristics and manipulation techniques to establish Peoples Temple, they were amplified in Jonestown. He used every strategy he knew in order to assert maximum control over his followers and create the ultimate cult. Jonestown worked as a total institution, and his followers no longer had control over any aspect of their life. Once they came to Jonestown, there was no escape.
Systematic Breakdown of Psychological Defenses
Letters, testimonies and eyewitness accounts from Peoples Temple members living in Jonestown illustrate the high intensity of a shared belief system and social cohesiveness. Everyone’s worldview became synced with Jones’ as they were terrified of attacks from the outside and complied with his increasingly strange demands (Galanter, 1999).
Deindividuation. Deindividuation played a major role in gaining complete control over the lives of his followers. Jones systematically removed everyone’s “previous identities, private possessions [and] autonomous thoughts” (Layton, 1998, 151), which created a lack of self-awareness. Upon their arrival, he confiscated their passports and belongings. Everyone was required to dress similarly, and the rest of the clothes were stored away. If he did not like someone’s name, he forced them to change it (Layton, 1998). People quickly lost their sense of self, and became part of a group that was even more obedient to Jones than before. Each member lived with up to 19 others in a cabin identical to the 51 others at the site, with the exception of Jones’ luxurious residence. People were no longer individuals. They simply functioned as part of the group.
Isolation. Isolation was a major factor in the end of Peoples Temple. Jones claimed that the physical isolation was necessary to protect the members from external threats. He censored their mail and decided that they were not allowed to leave Jonestown (Scheeres, 2011). In part, this was due to the idea that outside opinions from Guyanese society could raise questions about the cult-like nature of Jonestown, therefore causing authorities to be notified (Layton, 1998). However, the social isolation cannot be justified by a reason other than Jones did not want his members talking to one another or thinking for themselves.
Severing Ties with the Outside World. Once members entered Jonestown, they were immediately separated from their family. Babies and young children were raised communally. A Relationship Committee was put in place that enabled Jones to decide who could stay married or have sex (Scheeres, 2011). Jones made sure that members in Jonestown had no access to external information because he knew it might spark critical thinking in his members. Every morning he provided the community with fake news that he created to intensify the risk of external threats. He would say things such as “Los Angeles was abandoned due to severe drought and that the Ku Klux Klan was openly marching through San Francisco” (Galanter, 1999, 118). His members were still under the illusion that he would not deceive them and genuinely believed his stories.
Communal Obligations. There were reduced social roles in Jonestown because they no longer worried about relationships, parenting, finances or jobs (Nelson, 2006). Jones controlled every aspect of their lives and made every decision for them, leaving the members nothing to think about. They obeyed as they were commanded. He assigned each member with a job to help enhance the community. In addition, all members, including women and children, were required to use guns to guard the compound (Scheeres, 2011). They were instructed to kill members if they tried to escape, and in compliance with the power of roles, they took their positions very seriously. Out of obedience to Jones’ leadership, they all fulfilled this role. Not only was there no way to leave, but if the members admitted to themselves that they had followed an unstable megalomaniac into the jungle, the state of cognitive dissonance would be unbearable.
Loaded Language. In Jonestown, members made sure to keep their radio transmissions coded so that they would not be spied on or persecuted by the government. They used loaded language by referring to weapons and ammunition as “Bibles,” suicide drills as “White Nights” and defected Temple members by alternate names (Layton, 1998, 127). There was an elaborate vocabulary that had to be memorized in order to give and interpret the secret radio transmissions (Layton, 1998). This private jargon not only kept them safe but reinforced the in-group/outgroup mentality of Jones’ inner circle. Together they stereotyped all outsiders as enemies who were trying to destroy their mission.
Altered States of Consciousness. Members were required to work for over 12 hours a day. They were only allowed to sleep a few hours each night and were given rice to eat for every meal. Jones required his members to listen to his voice over the loudspeaker 24 hours a day (Nelson, 2006). When a member complained about the noise, he began mandatory quizzes on the information for that day. If people were non-compliant with his demands, they were punished or drugged into submission (Scheeres, 2011). All of these factors created altered states of consciousness among the members. They were unable to think rationally.
The new conditions in Jonestown were so inhumane that no one could have been immune to the deterioration of their psychological resistance. Along with the psychological abuse, they also faced serious punishments. Committing to a life in Jonestown meant that the members had the option of accepting Jones’ actions or being severely tortured. Punishments could be given for expressing discontent with Jonestown, failing a socialism exam, stealing food from the kitchen, and even laughing during work (Layton, 1998). For minor offenses he had catharsis sessions where people had to publicly admit to what they had done. Those who were caught speaking negatively about Jonestown were forced to publicly revoke their statements, causing cognitive dissonance which forced people to blame themselves instead of Jones (Reiterman, 1982). Punishments escalated over time and included the Box, the Well and the Special Care Unit.
The Box was buried underground and was “dark, hot and claustrophobic” (Layton, 1998, 177). People would be placed in there for days at a time with minimal food or drink. This contraption functioned as a sensory deprivation chamber. The Well was often used for children. They would be “hung upside down by a rope around their ankles, and dunked into the water” (Layton, 1998, 177) repeatedly. People would hide at the bottom of the Well to scare them. The Special Care Unit was for people who refused to submit or were seen as a danger to Jones. Essentially they were forced into drug-induced comas (Scheeres, 2011). If people were caught having sex not permitted by the Relationship Committee, they were forced to engage in intercourse while the entire community watched (Reiterman, 1982). This was embarrassing enough to discourage people “from any form of closeness with each other” (Layton, 1998, 54). Temple members were constantly reminded of their inferiority. They were demeaned, abused, publicly humiliated, and forced to remain loyal. But they still relied on Jones for security (Galanter, 1999). This is an excellent example of the Pincer and Relief Effect because the more they were punished, the more they wanted to please him.
Spies. Loyalty to Father required members to spy and report on one another, even if that meant punishment for a family member (Layton, 1998). Jones repeatedly told his members that he instructed certain people to act as if they wanted to defect. It was the job of the rest of the community to report these people back to him. If they did not comply, they would be severely punished. In reality, Jones was creating mindguards to find out who wanted to leave and ensure that nobody disagreed with him. The possible defectors were severely punished while the people who had reported them were given rewards (Layton, 1998). Compliance with Jones’ insanity existed for three reasons: members were terrified of Jones’ demands, they wanted to stop their suffering, and they were “too emotionally dependent to leave” (Galanter, 1999, 116).
The Beginning of the End
Jonestown was built with good intentions but when Jones arrived, he brought clouds of darkness with him. Other than the inhumane conditions and the abuse occurring in Jonestown, several additional factors aided in escalating their demise.
The Stoen Custody Battle
Tim Stoen and his girlfriend, Grace, became members of the Temple in Redwood Valley in 1970. Although Tim was fascinated by Jones, Grace did not buy into his act. Understanding that he would not get Tim to join without Grace, he encouraged them to have a Temple wedding (Scheeres, 2011). Against her better judgment, she agreed. In an attempt to prevent pair bonding, Jones then convinced Grace to have sex with him. A few years after joining, Grace gave birth to a boy named John Victor. Without her permission, Tim Stoen signed a paternity document claiming that Jones was the father (Reiterman, 1982). When Grace left the Temple, she was determined to divorce Tim and get custody of her son. However, Jones would not give the child up. He fled to South America hoping to avoid punishment. Shortly after moving to Guyana, the United States granted Grace Stoen custody of John (Scheeres, 2011). She and 25 other defectors and family members created an organization called the Concerned Relatives. They were determined to free their families from Jonestown (Nelson, 2006).
As the media attention and custody battles were becoming more intense, Jones felt more threatened. He did not care about his followers or even the life of John Victor. He knew that if he lost the custody battles, he would lose respect from his community and they would no longer obey or fear him. The Guyanese government was increasingly bothered by Jones and set a court date in Georgetown, in compliance with the United States’ warrant for his arrest. The day before his court date in Georgetown, he staged an invasion. This siege lasted six days, and the entire community was terrified that they were under attack (Reiterman, 1982). Jones said that if they tried to take John Victor away, the whole community would end their lives in protest. Jones had extended his self-destructive tantrum to nearly 1,000 innocent people, but he did not care.
Having suicide drills – which he called White Nights – became common whenever Jones was threatened. The members demonstrated the highest extent of their strong behavioral norms because everyone complied with these frighteningly real drills. In accordance with in-group/outgroup mentality, Jones made it seem as if it was Peoples Temple against the world. Stephan Jones protested his father by saying, “you’re putting people through unnecessary pain” (Reiterman, 1982, 381) but again, Jim Jones only cared about Jim Jones. He noticed that his community had an “overwhelming desire to live” (Scheeres, 2011, 99), so he began calling White Nights on a biweekly basis and was determined to desensitize them to his death wish.
Jones’ substance abuse was spiraling out of control. At all times he had hypodermic needles, liquid Valium, morphine and many other substances in his cabin (Reiterman, 1982). He began to slur his words noticeably, and his speeches no longer made any sense. With his increased drug use came increased paranoia, and Jones could no longer tell the difference between reality and his delusions. When Marceline expressed concern and proposed that they help Jones detox, Stephan said, “you can’t tell God that he has a drug problem,” (Nelson, 2006) knowing that his father would overreact. In addition to his mental stability, his physical condition was also deteriorating. Jones had spiked high fevers during the last few months and was increasingly weak (Scheeres, 2011). He knew that he was losing control, and the thought was unbearable.
Events in Jonestown escalated to an even greater extent with the death of Jones’ mother, Lynetta. He was annoyed when people acted as if nothing had happened after her death. He stated “She’s all alone,” he said in one audiotape, “and I wanted to cry… and that’s a bad pattern I have, not crying. Because some people need to cry [but] the leader can’t afford to cry (Jones, 1977, audio). Perhaps the most disturbing part of Jones’ story is the moments, such as this, where he shows his human side. Underneath the manipulation, the narcissism, and the insatiable desire for power, was a human dealing with intense amounts of pain. Although that does not excuse any of his actions, it is important to recognize that even the most psychopathic people have a human side that allows them to relate to other people and draw them into their madness.
The Visit of Congressman Ryan
In May 1978, the Concerned Relatives began filing lawsuits against Jones and Peoples Temple, had conversations with government officials, and handed out flyers illustrating the inhumane living conditions in Jonestown (Stephenson, 2005). They enlisted the assistance of Congressman Leo Ryan, who was well known for his efforts to expose injustice and was determined to help investigate Jonestown. Ryan decided that he would visit Jonestown with a news team and concerned families to try and bring some members back to the United States (Reiterman, 1982). He had a false sense of confidence as he doubted that Jones and the conditions in Jonestown were as bad as everyone had said. He believed he was safe.
By the time visitors came to see Jonestown, it was too late. Jones had spent a great deal of time inoculating his members and preparing them for the visits. The entire community knew that enemies were coming to convince them to leave, and had practiced interviews with Jones (Scheeres, 2011). They thought that they were all in danger and they lied as best as they could to protect themselves. In reality, they were only protecting Jones. The entire visit was staged. Although the people of Jonestown had been eating only rice three times a day for many months, they suddenly had enough food for the visitors. Members provided lively entertainment, gave testimonies praising Jones and were able to convince the congressman that they were happy (Reiterman, 1982). That same night, Vernon Gosney slipped one of the visitors a note saying that he and another member wanted to leave (Nelson, 2006). The congressman’s illusion was shattered, and he knew that he had to help get people home safely. He promised to help them escape the following day but did not realize what would follow.
November 18, 1978
On November 18, 1978 Congressman Ryan and members of the press were determined to help those who wished to leave. He thought that this would be easy, but Jones was already a step ahead. He declared a free day for the people in Jonestown. They were allowed to do whatever they pleased, which helped create a relaxed atmosphere in attempts to prove to the congressman that everyone was satisfied (Scheeres, 2011). When the congressman was leaving, 16 members expressed their desire to leave. Jones agreed to let those members go. He pretended that this did not bother him, but it was clear that he could not handle the defections and was quickly falling apart (Reiterman, 1982). A few members of his inner circle felt the tension as well, especially after Don Sly, a devout member, went behind the congressman and tried to slit his throat (Nelson, 2006). Congressman Ryan finally realized his life was in danger and left immediately.
Port Kaituma Airstrip
At 3:30pm, Congressman Ryan, his team, and a handful of defectors left Jonestown and headed towards Port Kaituma, the airstrip six miles away from Jonestown. A few minutes after they had arrived and were planning to board the plane, they noticed that they were being followed. As the truck traveled around the side of the plane where everyone was standing, it became clear that there were men with weapons in the back (Reiterman, 1982). They began shooting and didn’t stop until they thought everyone was dead (Scheeres, 2011). The NBC cameraman, Bob Brown, captured some of the ambush before he was shot and killed. Congressman Ryan and four other people were murdered in the ambush. Eleven more were injured (Nelson, 2006). Larry Layton, a devout follower of Jones, had been given a gun and thrown into the situation without any knowledge of what was happening. He would be the only one sanctioned for this day, even though he did not kill anyone (Layton, 1998). While this was occurring, Jones was initiating a final White Night in Jonestown.
The death of the congressman triggered an irreversible chain reaction that led to the death of nearly 1,000 people. Jones realized he had lost control of his followers and he decided that the only way to ensure his control over them was through death (Pick-Jones, 2007). The speech preceding everyone’s murder began at 6:00pm, almost an hour after the death of the Congressman. “How much I have loved you,” Jones began, “how much I have tried to give you a good life” (Reiterman, 1982, 556). Jones sat in his pathetic lawn chair above his followers in the pavilion for the last time. In front of him was a vat filled with grape Flavor-Aid and enough cyanide and phenobarbital to sedate and kill his entire community. Only one woman stated that she was against his plan. She was immediately silenced by members of the group who were incapable of overcoming the group’s conformity pressure (Reiterman, 1982). Jones ordered that the children be killed first knowing that after watching them die, nobody else would want to live.
According to Galanter (1999), “For most [members], no coercion was necessary” (p.114); this is a wildly inaccurate statement. November 18, 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana should never be referred to as a mass suicide. The residents of Jonestown knew that they could either drink the poison or be shot down by the guards. Whatever they chose, they knew that they were going to die. While members screamed in pain and were dying in front of him, Jones encouraged them to die with dignity. He said that they were committing “revolutionary suicide” (Reiterman, 1982, 560) and should be happy that they were protesting the inhumane conditions of the world.
Jones’ control over his members was so strong that 150 miles away, at the Peoples Temple house in Georgetown, his order for death was obeyed. Sharon Amos was permitted to live in Georgetown with her family because she was one of Jones’ most trusted members. She proved her loyalty on this day when she complied with Jones’ death wish by slitting the throats of her three children and then killing herself (Reiterman, 1982).
Nine hundred fourteen Peoples Temple members died on that day. Jones’ son Lew, his wife and their child were found dead in Jones’ cabin. Jones’ main mistresses, Carolyn Moore Layton and Maria Katsaris, along with his nurse, Annie Moore, and other close members. John Stoen and Carolyn’s son Kimo were also found dead there. All were injected with poison except for Annie, who had shot herself. Lying beside her was a powerful suicide note, praising Jones and their efforts to create a better world (Reiterman, 1982). She worshipped him until her last breath.
Jim Jones was shot in the head, with no traces of poison in his body (Reiterman, 1982). In his last attempt to assert his power, he knew he could not be killed the same way he had watched everyone else die. There is a possibility that Jones shot himself, although this is highly unlikely due to his inflated self-image and rapidly deteriorating health conditions. Some say that Jones planned to escape because there were millions of dollars waiting for him in foreign bank accounts (Scheeres, 2011). Others speculate that he was shot by his nurse, Annie Moore, but whether that was on her own or following his request is unknown. The question as to who shot Jim Jones will forever remain unanswered.
Out of 1,000 people, only 87 who were in Guyana that day survived. Hyacinth Thrash, an 84-year-old African American woman, hid under her bed believing that it was just another drill (Stephenson, 2005). Leslie Wilson, her 3 year old son, and seven other Temple Members luckily escaped earlier that morning by telling everyone they were going on a picnic. They walked 35 miles through the jungle to safety (Chiu, 2017). After watching their families die, two men – Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes – were able to escape into the jungle through a combination of luck and deception (Scheeres, 2011). Several other Temple members were fortunately not in Jonestown that day. Among these people were trusted members of his inner circle and the entire basketball team, including three of Jones’ sons (Reiterman, 1982).
Many scholars believe that Jones wished to “preserve [Peoples Temple’s] identity in spirit if not in living membership” (Galanter, 1999, 118) but, on Jones’ part, it was much more self-serving than that. Jones wanted to be the last one living. By killing all of the members, Jones would ensure that nobody could reveal the dark secrets about life in Peoples Temple (Harary, 2016). Jones watched his followers die one by one and was likely high off of the feelings of power it gave him. Even after the death of everyone in Jonestown, his “angels” were still active in California. In 1980, two high-profile defectors were found murdered in their home in California. The crime is still unsolved (Chiu, 2017).
The Women behind Jonestown
In the end, Jim Jones was too sick to have gone through with the mass murder alone (Maynard, 2013). The members of Jones’ inner circle demonstrated group polarization because as a group, they pushed each other to make the extreme decision of death for everyone. The women helped inject cyanide into the mouths of screaming children and ensured that everyone was dead (Scheeres, 2011). They gained power from their positions. After analyzing the events of the final days, it becomes increasingly clear that the women who stood by his side were just as determined and just as crazy. Annie Moore, Jones’ personal nurse, remained disturbingly loyal until the end. After seeing everyone die, she kept herself alive long enough to write a suicide note that reads, “Jim was the most honest, loving, caring concerned person whom I ever met…we died because you would not let us live in peace!” (Moore, 1978). If Annie had admitted she had followed a psychopath into the jungle and assisted in killing nearly 1,000 people, the cognitive dissonance would have killed her faster than the poison or gunshot to the head.
Remembering Jonestown: The Legacy of Peoples Temple
It should be evident at this point that Jones skillfully took advantage of social psychology principles and cult characteristics in order to mind-control his followers into obedience. Peoples Temple illustrates the lengths that people are willing to go in order to find a loving social support system and sense of belonging (Pick-Jones, 2007). It is important to understand that studying the dynamics of Peoples Temple and Jonestown nearly 40 years later has provided ample time for information to have been analyzed and for survivors to speak up and reflect on their experience. Although much is known about Jones and his deceptive nature, most of the members were unaware at the time. Tim Carter, a survivor of the massacre, stated, “the more I hear about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, the more I am aware of just how much I didn’t know” (Stephenson, 2005, 155). Jones created an organization that would not survive his imprisonment or death. He had the members of Peoples Temple genuinely convinced that they could not live without him. Jones made his followers believe that only through death could they achieve new life. Survivors, such as Laura Johnston Kohl, still believe “we – all of us – were doing the right things but in the wrong place with the wrong leader” (Chiu, 2017, 2).
Jones was able to recognize at a young age, as many social psychologists understand, that the power of situational and social influences can easily manipulate people’s behavior (Dittmann, 2003). Contrary to popular opinion, Jones was not “a good man gone bad” (Reiterman, 1982, x). Like every other human being, there were many aspects of his personality. Although some saw Jones as sweet and compassionate, he learned at an early age how to manipulate people’s perception of him. His inherent dominant social behaviors combined with his love of reading and learning made for a dangerous personality that enabled him to exploit the fundamental weaknesses of the human mind. Even if the events on November 18, 1978 did not occur, Jones would have found a way to ensure that his followers did not outlive him. If no one had survived that day, perhaps it would have been considered a mass suicide. However, it is known without question that the massacre of Peoples Temple was executed by one of the most controlling and dangerous cult leaders in history.
Chiu, D. (2017). Jonestown: 13 Things You Should Know About Cult Massacre. Retrieved from: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/jonestown-13-things-you-should-know-about-cult-massacre-121974/
Dittmann, M. (2003). Lessons From Jonestown. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/jonestown.aspx
Galanter, M. (1999). Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion (2nded.). Oxford, NY; Oxford University Press.
Harary, K. (2016). The Truth About Jonestown. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199203/the-truth-about-jonestown
Jones, J. (September 1977). Audio Recording(s). An Untitled Collection of Reminiscences by Jim Jones. Retrieved from: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27339
Layton, D. (1998). Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in Peoples Temple. New York; Anchor Books.
Maynard, G. (2013). Jim Jones and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Retrieved from: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29416
Moore, A. (1978). Annie Moore’s Last Letter. Retrieved from:https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=13939
Nelson, S. (Director & Producer). (October 20, 2006). Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. [PBS Home video]. United States: Firelight Media.
Peterson, J. B. (2017). Jim Jones. Retrieved from: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=b6h&AN=17864434&site=brc-live
Pick-Jones, A. (2007). Jim Jones and the History of Peoples Temple. Retrieved from: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=33190
Reiterman, T. (1982). Raven. New York, NY; The Penguin Group.
Rittenmeyer, N. (Director). Moran, T. & Smith, R (Producers). (February, 2018). Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre. [A&E TV Movie]. United States: Every Hill Films.
Scheeres, J. (2011). The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival At Jonestown: A Thousand Lives. New York, NY. Free Press.
Stephenson, D. (2005). Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. San Franciso, CA; California Historical Society Press.