By K. Harary, published on March 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 20, 2012
THE OLD PEOPLES TEMPLE BUILDING COLLAPSED in the last big San Francisco earthquake, leaving behind nothing but an empty plot of land to mark its passing. I'd avoided the place for nearly 10 years -- it always struck me as a dark reminder of the raw vulnerability of the human mind and the superficial nature of civilized behavior. In ways that I never expected when I first decided to investigate the Jonestown holocaust, the crimes that took place within that building and within the cult itself have become a part of my personal memory. If Jim Jones has finally become a metaphor, a symbol of power-hungry insanity—if not a term for insanity itself—for me he will always remain much too human.
SUICIDE IS USUALLY an act of lonely desperation, carried out in isolation or near isolation by those who see death as an acceptable alternative to the burdens of continued existence. It can also be an act of self-preservation among those who prefer a dignified death to the ravages of illness or some perceived humiliation. It is even, occasionally, a political statement. But it is rarely, if ever, a social event. The reported collective self-extermination of 912 individuals (913 when Jim Jones was counted among their number) therefore demanded more than an ordinary explanation.
The only information I had about Jim Jones was what I could gather from news accounts of the closing scene at the Jonestown compound. The details were sketchy but deeply disturbing: The decomposing corpses were discovered in the jungle in the stinking aftermath of a suicidal frenzy set around a vat of cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid. Littered among the dead like broken dolls were the bodies of 276 children. A United States congressman and three members of the press entourage traveling with him were ambushed and murdered on an airstrip not far from the scene. It had all been done in the name of a formerly lesser-known cult called the Peoples Temple.
The group was started years before with the avowed vision of abolishing racism. Although it was headquartered in San Francisco, its members sought to found their own Utopia in a nondescript plot of South American jungle near Georgetown, Guyana. The commune they created was named in honor of the cult's founder and religious leader, a charismatic figure in dark glasses named the Reverend Jim Jones.
While the news media treated the Jonestown holocaust like a fluke of nature, it seemed to me a unique opportunity to learn something crucial about the fundamental weakness of the human mind. In addition to my formal education in psychology, I had recently spent four years as a suicide-prevention counselor and had helped train dozens of other counselors working in the field. But even with that experience, the slaughter that took place in Jonestown seemed incomprehensible.
No casual observer could adequately explain what was happening in the minds of the Peoples Temple members when they allowed Jones to assume ultimate power over their lives. The question of how one person—nonetheless an entire group—could be motivated to give away such power was, however, the most critical one to ask. Not only was it essential to answer that question in order to explain what became of the Peoples Temple; it was equally crucial to answer it in order to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again in the future. Had the massacre succeeded in killing all the witnesses to what occurred inside the confines of Jonestown, it would have been impossible to get a believable answer. But there were a number of survivors: An old woman sleeping in a hut slipped the minds of her fellow members who were preoccupied with dying at the time; a nine-year-old girl survived having her throat cut by a member who then committed suicide; a young man worked his way to the edge of the compound and fled into the jungle. The only other eyewitness escaped when he was sent to get a stethoscope so the bodies could be checked to make certain they were dead.
Other survivors included a man wounded by gunfire at the airstrip who managed to escape by scrambling into the bush; the official Peoples Temple basketball team (including Jones's son), which was visiting Georgetown during the holocaust; a number of members stationed at the San Francisco headquarters; and a small group of defectors and relatives of those who had remained in the cult. The last was gathered at a place called the Human Freedom Center in Berkeley—a halfway house for cult defectors founded by Jeannie and Al Mills, two Peoples Temple expatriates.
Since most of the survivors lived in and around San Francisco, it was clear that in order to get to know any of them, I would have to be willing to go where the moment took me. I resigned from my position in the psychiatry department of a New York medical center, shipped most of what I owned to a storage facility, and moved to California. Shortly after arriving, I learned that the center was looking for a director of counseling. It was exactly the position I wanted.
It is impossible to look back on my first encounter with Jeannie and Al without coloring the memory with the knowledge that both of them were murdered almost exactly one year later. We met in the same room where they had once helped Congressman Leo Ryan plan his ill-fated expedition to Jonestown, which was mounted to give him and the press a close-up look at the cult and to offer any constituents who wanted safe passage an opportunity to return to San Francisco. They had hoped the visit would precipitate the demise of the Peoples Temple, but instead of allowing his game to be raided, Jones had Ryan killed and passed out the poison. The Millses never imagined the scenic route to hell they were paving with their good intentions: Had they not convinced the congressman to go to Guyana, the massacre would most likely never have happened.
In the years that have passed since the Millses' assassination, I have never again been able to take a death threat lightly.
The pair had been members of the Planning Commission—the elite inner circle of the Peoples Temple. They had been with Jim Jones since the early days of the cult and had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his cause. But Jeannie wanted a bigger role in running the group than Jones was prepared to give her. His refusal to allow her to manage the affairs of the temple created a bitter falling-out between them. She and Al quit after spending six years in the cult, fearing for their lives because Jones always threatened that anyone who left would be murdered by his "angels"—a euphemism for his personal squad of thugs.
Jones had forced them to prove their loyalty by signing blank pieces of paper, blank power-of-attorney forms, and false confessions that they had molested their children, conspired to overthrow the U. S. government, and committed other crimes while members of the cult. (It was the sort of thing Jones did to control people, like the time he tricked a member into putting her fingerprints on a gun and told her he would have someone killed with it and frame her for the murder if she ever left the group.)
There was a deliberate malevolence about the way Jones treated the members of his cult that went beyond mere perversion. It was all about forcing members to experience themselves as vulgar and despicable people who could never return to a normal life outside of the group. It was about destroying any personal relationships that might come ahead of the relationship each individual member had with him. It was about terrorizing children and turning them against their parents. It was about seeing Jim Jones as an omnipotent figure who could snuff out members' lives on a whim as easily as he had already snuffed out their self-respect. In short, it was about mind control. And, after all that, it was not incidentally about Jones's own sick fantasies and sexual perversions.
Both men and women were routinely beaten, coerced into having sex with Jones in private and with other people in public. Husbands and wives were forbidden to have sex with each other, but were forced to join other members in watching their spouses being sexually humiliated and abused. In order to prove that he wasn't a racist, a white man was coerced into having oral sex in front of a gathering of members with a black woman who was having her period. Another man was made to remove all his clothes, bend over and spread his legs before the congregation while being examined for signs of venereal disease. A woman had to strip in front of the group so that Jones could poke fun at her overweight body before telling her to submerge herself in a pool of ice-cold water. Another woman was made to squat in front of 100 members and defecate into a fruit can. Children were tortured with electric shocks, viciously beaten, punished by being kept in the bottom of a jungle well, forced to have hot peppers stuffed up their rectums, and made to eat their own vomit.
Dozens of suicide drills—or "white nights" as Jim Jones called them—were rehearsed in San Francisco and in the jungle in a prelude to the final curtain he said might fall at any moment. Members were given wine to drink, then told it had been poisoned to test their loyalty and get them used to the idea that they might all be asked to take their lives as a sign of their faith. Their deaths, Jones tried to convince them, would be honored by the world as a symbolic protest against the evils of mankind -- a collective self-immolation. (This would also serve to eliminate anyone who might reveal the dirty secrets of life with the Peoples Temple.) The faithful would be "transformed," Jones claimed, and live with him forever on another planet.
The abuses had been going on for years, which made it seem all the more unbelievable. Those who underestimated the fragility of the human mind could not comprehend how anyone in California could remain a member, let alone follow Jim Jones into the jungle. Yet those who believed in him could not consider any alternatives that were not among the choices he provided. Even those who might have been capable of imagining themselves getting free of the cult knew about the stated Policy of murdering defectors. And since any loved ones who were left behind would suffer retribution, few dared escape while family members remained in Jonestown. The practical effect of that double bind was a twilight-zone reality in which people pretended to be enjoying a Utopian existence while living in constant fear for their lives.
THE HUMAN freedom Center was a beaten-up, two-story wood-and-stucco building that had once been used as a private rest home. Its long rows of odd-size rooms filled with broken-down furniture could have served as a backdrop for a 1950s horror movie set in a sanitarium. Although most of the Peoples Temple survivors who might have taken refuge there were suddenly dead, the events in Jonestown instantly made many other organizations seem potentially as dangerous. Jeannie and Al decided to open the center to defectors from all sorts of cult groups, from the Unification Church to the Hare Krishnas. I had already decided that— whatever the pay—if they offered me the director of counseling position, I was going to take it.
Al Mills gripped my hand like an old war buddy the first time we met. His square chin and warm smile all but obliterated the other features on his face. He had marched with Martin Luther King and once believed that the Peoples Temple would fulfill his dream of integration and racial equality. (That belief was trampled when he realized that Jones rarely allowed blacks to assume positions of authority within the temple.)
My first discussion with Jeannie was less like a job interview than a confrontation. She looked straight at me and said that a Peoples Temple hit squad might burst in and kill us at any moment. Jim Jones, she said, had sworn in the midst of the holocaust that she and Al and everyone associated with them would eventually pay with their lives for betraying the cult and sending Ryan to Guyana. The possibility lent a certain sense of immediacy to our interaction.
My exact response seemed less important than the fact that I didn't make an excuse to leave the building immediately and that I had already demonstrated my commitment to understanding the cult mentality by dropping everything and moving to California. By the end of the meeting, Jeannie offered me a token salary for a job that would often require more than 12 hours a day and frequently seven days a week.
Most of the center's clients were people seeking help in extricating family members from various cults, or ex-cult members who were starting to put their own lives back together. Additionally, a couple of former Peoples Temple members lived on the premises, and others came in periodically to talk about their present feelings and past experiences.
The first thing that struck me when I met the clients and got to know them was that, although the specific details of their belief systems and activities varied considerably, those who became involved in cults had a frightening underlying commonality. They described their experiences as finding an unexpected sense of purpose, as though they were becoming a part of something extraordinarily significant that seemed to carry them beyond their feelings of isolation and toward an expanded sense of reality and the meaning of life. Nobody asked if they would be willing to commit suicide the first time they attended a meeting. Nor did anyone mention that the feeling of expansiveness they were enjoying would later be used to turn them against each other.
Instead they were told about the remarkable Reverend Jones, a self-professed social visionary and prophet who apparently could heal the sick and predict the future. Jim Jones did everything within his power to perpetuate that myth: fraudulent psychic-healing demonstrations using rotting animal organs as phony tumors; searching through members' garbage for information to reveal in fake psychic readings; drugging his followers to make it appear as though he were actually raising the dead. Even Jeannie Mills, who later told me she knowingly assisted Jones in his faked demonstrations said she did so because she believed she was helping him conserve his real supernatural powers for more important matters.
Critical levels of sleep deprivation can masquerade as noble dedication. A total lack of adequate nutrition can seem acceptable when presented as a reasonable sacrifice for a worthy cause. Combining the two for a prolonged length of time will inevitably break down the ability to make rational judgments and weaken the psychological resistance of anyone. So can the not-infrequent practice of putting drugs in the members' food. The old self, the one that previously felt lonely and lacking in a sense of purpose, is gradually overcome by a new sense of self inextricably linked with the feeling of expansiveness associated with originally joining the cult and becoming intrigued with its leader.
Belonging to the group gradually becomes more important than anything else. When applied in various combinations, fear of being rejected, of doing or saying something wrong that will blow the whole illusion wide open; being punished and degraded, subjected to physical threats, unprovoked violence, and sexual abuse; fear of never amounting to anything; and the fear of returning to an old self associated almost exclusively with feelings of loneliness and a lack of meaning will confuse almost anyone. Patricia Hearst knows all about it. So did all the members of the Peoples Temple.
Once thrown off balance (in the exclusive company of other people who already believe it) and being shown evidence that supports the conclusion, it is not difficult to become convinced that you have actually met the Living God. In the glazed and pallid stupor associated with achieving that confused and dangerous state of mind, almost any conceivable act of self-sacrifice, self-degradation, and cruelty can become possible.
The truth of that realization was brought home to me by one survivor who, finding himself surrounded by rifles, was told he could take the poison quietly or they would stick it in his veins or blow his brains out. He didn't resist. Instead, he raised his cup and toasted those dying around him without drinking. "We'll see each other in the transformation," he said. Then he walked around the compound shaking hands until he'd worked his way to the edge of the jungle, where he ran and hid until he felt certain it had to be over.
"Why did you follow Jim Jones?" I asked him.
"Because I believed he was God," he answered. "We all believed he was God."
A number of Peoples Temple survivors told me they viewed Jones in the same way—not as God metaphorically, but as God literally. They would have done anything he asked of them, they said. Or almost anything.
The fact that some members held guns on the others and handled the syringes meant that what occurred in Jonestown was not only a mass suicide but also a mass murder. According to the witnesses, more than one member was physically restrained while being poisoned. A little girl kept spitting out the poison until they held her mouth closed and forced her to swallow it -- 276 children do not calmly kill themselves just because someone who claims to be God tells them to. A woman was found with nearly every joint in her body yanked apart from trying to pull away from the people who were holding her down and poisoning her. All 912 Peoples Temple members did not die easily.
Yet even if all the victims did not take their own lives willingly, enough of them probably did so that we cannot deny the force of their Conviction. Only a small contingent of Peoples Temple members asked to return with Leo Ryan to San Francisco. The rest chose to stay behind. Jim Jones may have had less to fear from Jeannie and Al Mills than he believed.
It should also be remembered that Jones never took the poison he gave to his followers but was shot by someone else during the final death scene in Jonestown. He created a false reality around himself in which the denial of his own mortality must have made his own demise seem inconceivable. The fact that he had millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts and had often alluded to starting over elsewhere led Jeannie to speculate that he planned to escape the holocaust but was murdered by one of his guards or mistresses.
It is difficult to imagine what incomprehensible sense of insecurity must have led Jim Jones to feel that he had to convince himself and other people that he was God incarnate. It was not a delusion that he ever suffered well. Some of those who knew him personally described him to me at various times as a mere voyeur, a master con artist, a sociopath, and a demon. Al Mills once said that any private interaction between Jones and another person always felt like a "conspiracy of two." For my own part, I resist any description of the man that might make any of us feel too secure in the notion that he was one of a kind and the likes of him will never come again.
After Jeannie and Al were murdered, I went back alone for a final look inside the Peoples Temple building where Jeannie once gave me a private tour. All that remained of that particular nightmare setting was a dusty maze of dimly lit corridors, hollow rooms, and twisting stairways. The daylight seemed reluctant to come in through the windows, as though it entered more out of a sense of obligation than any real desire to be there. It was impossible to walk through the place without feeling as though somebody were coming up behind me—nearly everything about it seemed haunted.
"This may not be the best idea in the world," I remembered Jeannie saying when she took me there. "There may be some people hanging around here who want to kill me." It may have been guilt that led her to say that, or paranoia, or the realistic conclusion that the relatives and friends of many of the victims must have held her at least partly responsible for what happened. The Jonestown holocaust might have been inevitable or it might have been avoided; but by turning up the pressure on Jones in the way that they did, Jeannie and Al inextricably became accessories to the disaster.
Under the circumstances, I suggested that getting the hell out of there might be the best approach. "Life is short, Keith," Jeannie told me. She showed me where Jones's personal armed guards had once been posted, before taking me to lunch at a hamburger stand where she used to hang out in the heyday of the temple.
In many ways, Jeannie was a social relic of the best and worst aspects of a way of life that died in the jungle with Jim Jones. She said and did things designed for their disarming effect, to crawl around under your skin and keep you off guard. She was an expert at making you feel that you were a part of something important, dangerous, and utterly surrealistic—and she may have been right. It did not surprise me to learn that she was monitoring my personal telephone conversations at the Human Freedom Center from a line she had installed at her home up the street. It was exactly the way things were done in the Peoples Temple.
Al Mills was found on the bedroom floor of the cottage that he and Jeannie shared, with a single bullet in the head. He may have been going for the gun he once told me that he kept there. Jeannie was found behind the kicked-in door of the adjoining bathroom, also shot once in the head. It looked as though she had tried to escape from her murderer by running into a room that had no exit. Their daughter, Daphene -- who may or may not have just happened to be there—was found lying on the bed above Al, with a bullet in her head and three or four other bullets in the mattress surrounding her. A neighbor had reportedly heard two male voices outside, and one of them saying, "You're not gonna pin it on me," before the three bodies were found. The victims were reportedly shot with .22-caliber bullets, coincidentally the alleged preferred choice of professional assassins. Jeannie and Al's young son, Eddie, was found listening to a stereo with headphones in the other room of the tiny cottage when the bodies were discovered. He told the police that he didn't hear anything at all while both his parents and his sister were being killed. He had grown up in the Peoples Temple. The case is still open.
For my own part, I believe that Jeannie and Al were victims of their fatalistic vision of reality and that whoever pulled the trigger completed a course of events that was set into motion years before. In their inability to otherwise put to rest their experiences in the cult, they had never really left the Peoples Temple.
FOR THOSE OF US WHOSE LIVES were directly touched by the massacre, the images of Jonestown have never entered the realm of dispassionate historical memory. They remain a part of the hidden present, providing a point of reference in defining the conditions under which people can be led across the boundary between rational and extremely irrational behavior.
Had more of the children of Jonestown survived, they might have tried to warn us that we have more to fear than the fact that whoever murdered Jeannie and Al is still on the loose and may kill again. A lone fanatic is much less dangerous than the potential that exists within all of us for committing evil ourselves or allowing it to be committed in the name of some supposed good. There is no doubt that there are—right now—other cult groups that hold the same potential for deadly violence as did the Peoples Temple.
Jim Jones did not create the human weaknesses that led so many people to follow him; he merely exploited them. Ultimate power is seductive not only to those who achieve it themselves but also to those who give up their own power in order to help others achieve it. It is the ability to answer the unanswerable questions about the meaning of life and death. And it does not matter if those answers make no sense—the belief in them and in the individual who bears them makes any sacrifice in the service of some more eternal purpose seem acceptable.
Most of us don't think of ourselves as the kind of person who could ever possibly become embroiled in a cult like the Peoples Temple. We are not at all correct in that assumption. Given an unfortunate turn of fate that leads to a moment of weakness, or a momentary lapse in judgment that expands into a shift in our perception, nearly any of us could find ourselves taking the cyanide in Jonestown—if not passing out the poison to other people.
People end up joining cults when events lead them to search for a deeper sense of belonging and for something more meaningful in their lives. They do so because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and are ripe for exploitation. They do so because they find themselves getting caught in the claws of a parasite before they realize what is happening to them.
Those who join cults don't do so with the intention of demeaning themselves or torturing children. They join in the hope of creating a better world, and because they believe in a lie, or a series of lies, in the same way that the rest of us sometimes find ourselves falling in love with the wrong person or allowing ourselves to be manipulated. The only real difference between them and us is the extent to which they are led to carry those same sorts of feelings to extremes.
The spectre of Jonestown has entered the social unconscious, leading to a kind of macabre fascination with Jim Jones and his victims. A Boston company recently sold out its first printing of "Death Cult" cards commemorating the massacre; they depict such images as "Spiking the Kool-Aid." At least for those not directly involved, the unthinkably horrific has become entertaining. We dissociate ourselves as human beings from any sense of connectedness to Jonestown by turning the event into a kind of theater. But it was that same sense of theater upon which Jim Jones depended, as has every cult leader who has ever exploited human weakness. If you have ever slowed down and stared at the results of a highway accident, you are not immune.