Revisiting Jonestown: An Interdisciplinary Study of Cults – A Review

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Reading Religion, a publication of the American Academy of Religion, on September 27, 2018.

Domenico Nesci does indeed adopt an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, as the subtitle to Revisiting Jonestown suggests. Utilizing insights from anthropology, mythology, biology, art, and literature—but primarily psychiatry—the Italian psychoanalyst argues that the mass deaths in Jonestown, Guyana indicate a regression to a primordial stage of human consciousness. More broadly, he claims that all new religions—or cults, in his terminology—have this regressive potential.

Nesci introduces two hypotheses in support of this contention. First is his concept of “placental leadership.” The placental leader is the intermediary, or filter, between the homeland (the mother) and the people (the fetus). This leader has two functions: letting nutrients into the fetus/group and expelling inner evils.

The second, and related, concept is that of the syncytial group, a literal and metaphorical body in which the individual is undifferentiated from the group. Nesci finds examples of syncytial groups in prehistoric human communities that would enact poison ordeals to identify the sorcerers and witches who were causing illness and death in the tribe. To avoid the self-annihilation such ordeals sometimes caused, syncytial subgroups of a placental leader and his (or her, I would add) inner circle might commit collective suicide and spare the larger body. The ritual entombment of Sumerian and Egyptian leaders with their attendants is given as one among several examples of this phenomenon.

We can see where this is going in terms of Peoples Temple. Jim Jones is the placental leader, offering protection to his people through miracles and, when necessary, escape—from Indiana to California; from California to Guyana; and from life to eternal life. At the same time, he is the pharmakos, the healer/poisoner who destroys the group in order to save it from a greater evil.

Nesci begins by providing a psychobiography of Jim Jones and his mother Lynetta Jones. He has accomplished the amazing feat of making me feel a bit sorry for Jim Jones, a boy neglected by his father and loved-hated by his mother. The psychoanalyst then locates Peoples Temple and Jones within the contexts of placental leadership and syncytial membership. His analysis of miracles and “exoduses” examines Jones’s (bogus) thaumaturgical powers in comparison to the (authentic) rituals practiced by primal peoples, such as the Maori or the Warramunga. (Some of the miracles enacted in the Temple, though not all, were staged, and thus lacked the authenticity of pre-technological ceremonies.)

Chapter 6 assesses the psychological underpinnings of “the death ritual of Jonestown” (the chapter title). Nesci contends that this rite had its roots in the “metaphysics of the moon,” that is, “the original soil of the unconscious mind” (106), and looks at other examples in which the moon apparently inspired self-genocide. Like those in other syncytial groups, residents of Jonestown considered separation from the organization/body to be the original sin. “Abandonment of the Peoples Temple, betrayal and death of the group, became one and the same thing” (111). In Nesci’s view, members worshipped both the leader and the group. Thus, when both were threatened by the defection of a few unhappy residents, members chose destruction in order to save their illusion of unity.

While there is much to commend in Nesci’s book, there are also a number of problems. The author’s starting point is that the deaths in Jonestown were “collective suicide,” rather than mass murder-suicide, or even murder. This presupposition ignores current debates over the exact nature of the deaths on the last day. We certainly cannot call the deaths of the children suicide. Moreover, Nesci considers the deaths of the Branch Davidians a form of collective suicide as well, an assertion widely challenged by most scholars today.

By adopting a psychoanalytical approach, Nesci tends to ignore historical, sociological, and even religious factors that shaped the Peoples Temple movement. His account travels apart from space and time, so the social movements and political dynamics of the 1960s and 1970s are not only irrelevant, but completely missing. A related problem is Nesci’s belief that “cults are the regressive return to a universal primordial collective organization” (xvi). In other words, postmodern capitalist social institutions are the norm by which deviancy (membership in cults) is determined. Finally, the book suggests that the hunger for social justice is only a desire to return to the womb. Really?

Revisiting Jonestown is a repackaging, rather than a revision, of Dr. Nesci’s first monograph on the subject, The Lessons of Jonestown: An Ethnopsychoanalytic Study of Suicidal Communities (Società Editrice Universo, 1999)—which, oddly, does not appear in the reference section for the 2017 book. Entire chapters are virtually identical in the two volumes, although they have (somewhat) different titles. This new iteration does eliminate some convoluted discussions from the first version and streamlines the organization with zippier subheads. But it is essentially the same book, with one major exception.

Nesci retained a focus on Peoples Temple in The Lessons of Jonestown. Although he brought in a wealth of anthropological parallels, he did not attempt to generalize from the Temple movement to other tribes or communities. In fact, he tried to show how Peoples Temple was similar to other syncytial groups.

In Revisiting Jonestown, however, Nesci turns this comparison on its head by declaring that Peoples Temple was the cult par excellence, “through which the dynamics of all cults could find an interdisciplinary frame of reference” (xiii). He states that a central lesson of Jonestown is “the close relationship between religious cults and collective death rituals” (xv). These broad claims, set forth in the opening pages, are not developed further.

Calling Peoples Temple “the prototype of a religious cult” (xvi) implies that all new religious movements have the potential for mass murder and suicide. Should we use the extraordinary example of Jonestown to judge the ordinary religion around the corner? Dr. Nesci argues that we must.

About the Author: 

Domenico A. Nesci, MD, is professor of community psychology at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, president of the International Institute for Psychoanalytic Research and Training of Health Professionals (IIPRTHP), vice president of DREAMS onlus, and co-director of the Scuola Internazionale di Psicoterapia nel Setting Istituzionale (SIPSI).