In their struggle with “the wicked” the virtuous are often wicked too.
– Nikolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man
Keeping Up with Jim Jones
My four favorite history subjects of the 20th century are the Nazi era, the scourge of Communism, the Manson Family and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, probably because their foolish and diabolical characteristics overlap and mirror each other. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Manson and Jim Jones brewed deadly demagoguery, collectivism, utopianism, radical reformation and paranoia in proverbial vats, and, in Jim Jones’s case, such deadliness came from literal vats.
However, according to author Jeff Guinn, author of The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (as well as a brilliant biography of Manson) the grouping in my introduction is somewhat misleading as far as the nature of the leaders’ inspirations go:
In years to come, Jim Jones would frequently be compared to murderous demagogues such as Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. These comparisons completely misinterpret, and historically misrepresent, the initial appeal of Jim Jones to members of Peoples Temple. Jones attracted followers by appealing to their better instincts.
While I appreciate Guinn’s insight, I must reject the “completely misinterpret” phrase, since “better instincts” were appealed to by both the Nazis and Communists. Manson, of course, is a slightly different creature – a sort of a distorted Dorian Gray painting of what outwardly conscientious and charitable Jim Jones, social-justice warrior par excellence, really was on the inside. Really, there was little duplicity in Manson, the disgruntled failed musician. Sharon Tate and her friends died because of envy and overt hatred of beauty.
But, as for the other three, though they had messianism in common with the high priest of Helter Skelter, idealism, perfectionism, social justice and moral obstinateness were essential to their movements, and most their deceptions, crimes and atrocities were byproducts, necessary exhaust from the lofty, righteous enthusiasm they produced. Eventually, those byproducts and that exhaust became the main purpose, the very air everyone breathed.
Nazis sought a purified, glorious German empire freed from the “Capitalist Jew” and Christian morality (what Martin Bormann called “a poison” and what Alfred Rosenberg considered essentially incompatible with the Reich’s goals), complete with a welfare state (propped by slave labor and looting) and a restoration of familial honor and lineage; Lenin’s Bolsheviks, like the unwise French Revolutionaries before them, sought to transcend human nature itself and became inhumane; Jim Jones and his flock desired an end to poverty, exploitation, capitalist greed and racism – and the flock died in a rationed commune, oblivious to hoarded cash and exploited to the core (particularly the black members). Noble ideals, paradisiac hopes and promises, and anger at real/perceived injustices made up the glittering foundations of these infamous experiments, and the affront of reality and of falling short of impossible goals are the foundations of subsequent terror.
As Anthony Burgess wrote in 1985: “History is full of the wretchedness, the tyranny, oppression, the pain occasioned by the imposition of an inner vision on the generality.” The book’s Mr. Pettigrew character identifies the fundamental folly of mass movements: “You chose an impossible liberty, seeking it in the outer world, and you found nothing but a prison.” Keeping with Burgess’s view of the source of dystopias, the disappointment of idealists and liberals, the crush of failure, the falling short of the glory of Man, sparks dictatorship, purges and mass force. (As I always say, all utopias are dystopias.)
I dare say that the phenomenon of Jim Jones is perhaps the most fascinating of its kind, and it has inspired many excellent books and films (Leigh Fondakowski’s Stories from Jonestown and Julia Scheeres’s A Thousand Lives, as well as Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple and the script for Christian Hartsock’s in-production Peoples Temple, to name some favorites). I dare further when I say that, for me, Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown is now at the top of the pile, thanks to its narrative flow, mastery of tone and juxtaposition, comprehensiveness and perceptivity.
No God but Jim
The actual complete misinterpretation or historical misrepresentation is the popular belief that Jim Jones was a Christian fanatic who thumped the Bible to keep his duped disciples enthralled. He certainly threw and stomped on the Bible with ever-increasing repudiation and mockery of it – but he cited it favorably only when citation suited his designs. Despite his espousal of reincarnation, Jim exhibited nihilistic behavior, especially by the Jonestown phase. But his actual religion was socialism, a preference for Heaven on Earth over Heaven hereafter. As Guinn puts it, Jim “remained contemptuous of Methodists, and of Christianity in general, all the nonsense about paradise after death, and meanwhile not doing a damned thing to help the needy.” Gradually “his sermons bypassed biblical references almost entirely. Instead, he talked socialism, though he was careful not to specifically identify his subject as such.”
And, like all sincere socialists, he desired tangible results, quantifiable goodness, effective programs and proven transformation of both social and economic relations among humanity. This, of course, bred an allegiance to a productive leader rather than a nebulous one who seemed to have failed in providing the world with deserved comfort, respect and peace. Contrasting himself to God, Jim proclaimed in a sermon, “I’m a liberator; he’s a fucker-upper.” The utopian cannot tolerate mediocrity, let alone apparent failure. Jim Jones “didn’t just talk about doing things, he did them,” and “he’d ask the people if any of them had problems, and the more of these he helped solve, the more often he was asked to solve other problems.” A beholden flock is a loyal flock; the hand that feeds is the hand the fed never leave.
Gradual distrust of God’s providence and the thrill of actual accomplishment, walking the walk after talking the talk, dug a wider gulf between the believers and the original subject of their belief. Spiritual loyalty shifted in Jim’s direction. The frog-boiling craftiness of his manipulation of the Temple flock succeeded due to productive ministries. “Jim Jones was undeniably a man of great gifts,” writes Guinn, “and one who, for much of his life and ministry, achieved admirable results in behalf of the downtrodden.” What better way to seduce idealists who pity the downtrodden – and the downtrodden themselves? As the gulf between Jim and God widened, the bridge from Jim as man to Jim as God shortened, making otherwise obvious absurdities palatable for the congregation. “The real Christ or God, Jones preached, existed as a mind or spirit that could choose a host body, becoming an Earth God capable of bestowing immediate blessings on the living.”
Guinn doesn’t dance around the central truth of Jim Jones’s untruth: his basic disbelief in God. It’s the same conclusion Alyosha comes to about the Inquisitor who imprisons the returned Christ in “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Your inquisitor does not believe in God, that’s his secret!” The chapter also is pertinent in its anti-socialist message, which identifies the key to choosing the Man-God over the God-Man. The Inquisitor scolds Christ for his lack of worldly productivity:
“Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand…[W]hat is that freedom worth, if obedience is bought with bread? Thou didst reply that man lives not by bread alone.”
Bonnie Malmin, daughter of evangelist Ed Malmin, who stood in as pastor for Jim at the Temple at one point, noticed an absence of Bibles in the Jones household, as well as no prayer at mealtimes. Much later, when Representative Leo Ryan visited Lamaha Gardens in Georgetown, before heading over to Jonestown, observed that “there was not a religious picture on the walls, there was no one saying prayers. I [didn’t hear] anyone mention God.” This prompted him to wonder about the Temple’s tax-exempt status. Of course, Jim Jones shared the masked atheism of Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor. He was, like Hitler, what Dostoyevsky would call Antichrist. Socialism was his champion, not Christ. But the masquerade became more and more frustrating for Jim:
Yet even as his reputation grew, Jones was frustrated. He drew audiences in the thousands, but still couldn’t preach the socialist themes that formed the basis of his real philosophy: “I could get the crowds together, but I couldn’t get them politicized.”
As Guinn stresses, Jim may not have liked having to incorporate Christianity into his socialist crusade just to keep believers at ease, but he knew that overt attack on their beliefs would be counterproductive to the cause. Of course, belief in God and Christ’s legacy on Earth didn’t spare the Temple folk from shifting their spiritual – and, in some cases, sexual – dedication to Jim. Even Jim’s wife Marceline, who knew her husband intimately and had to have realized not only his corporeality and flaws but certainly his non-divinity, described his oratory’s effect: “My reaction was one of amazement…it was as if I walked on air and I could not feel my feet on the ground and it was difficult for me to even speak.”
After a staged murder attempt against disciple Garry Lambrev, in which Jim appeared to drive away a would-be assassin by his mere presence, Garry’s thralldom solidified: “This was God here, the human embodiment of the Divinity.” And Terri Buford, before her Temple membership, remembered the testimony of a friend who’d experienced Jim’s preaching: “I found God. We raise our hands in the air to feel his energy.” Sometimes through inexplicable coincidence, but mostly through careful deception, such as sham cancer cures, Jim dazzled the crowd with miracles and apparent clairvoyance.
It’s no wonder that Jim admired and emulated a black cult leader named Father Divine. Guinn again excels in his mapping of the Jim’s road to Jonestown by focusing on this conniving, hypnotic Jim Jones prototype and how instrumental his legacy was in fortifying the mastery of the Peoples Temple’s savior. As far back as 1912, when Father Divine was known as The Messenger, he promised his Peace Mission followers, mostly fellow blacks, Heaven on Earth. His congregation called him and his wife Father and Mother, just as the Temple faithful would refer to Jim and Marceline as Dad and Mom, and The Messenger eventually renamed himself Reverence Major Jealous Divine, just as Jim would assume divinity.
Like the Peoples Temple, the Peace Mission championed racial integration and thrived via fraudulence. Unsurprisingly, Father Divine proclaimed himself God, endorsed communal living and engaged in habitual sexual impropriety. As if all that isn’t familiar enough, his theology ended up as a fantasy of reincarnation. Though Jim Jones’s obsessive mission had already been in motion, his collaboration and merger with Father Divine served as a kind of demagogic refinement, a cultist booster shot, a collision-course refresher course. And it fit in nicely with his basic exploitation of blacks. Guinn points out that “black people were integral to Jim Jones’s ambitions. Without black followers and black causes to encourage and support, Jones might have ended up…largely frustrated and entirely unknown.” The majority of white members were driven to action by white guilt, which Jim encouraged, but, though amelioration of poverty was a large part of the Temple program, Jim knew that his own people couldn’t be allowed to rise too much. As he said to Teri Buford, “Keep them poor and keep them tired, and they’ll never leave.”
Never leave. Here’s the key to the deadliness of Jim Jones’s kind. Despite the sincerest parernalism, the one thing that can’t be tolerated is defection, so the logical extreme of such possessiveness often ends in terror-backed clampdown and murder. When his wife Marceline revealed that she’d fallen in love with a psychologist and wanted to take the children with her in divorce, Jim replied, “You will be met by the avengers of death.” Marceline stayed, sealing her future doom.
Perhaps the most effective tactic in preventing defection is instilling and maintaining a siege mentality. “[Jim] learned well from Father Divine that having enemies, real or imagined, was invaluable in recruiting and retaining followers,” writes Guinn. Inevitably, the most effective elimination of potential defectors is revealed in something Jim said in a sermon, a line that could be the most chilling quotation recorded in this book: “I love socialism and I’d die to bring it about. But if I did, I’d take a thousand with me.”
The needy, religious and obscure weren’t the only dupes of Jim Jones. A long list of prominent and famous figures also admired and endorsed him and his ministries: Rosalyn Carter, Walter Mondale, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, to name several. Like serial-killer John Wayne Gacy, Jim was considered a model citizen and public servant for quite some time, and he rose steadily on a wave of attractive pretense, but his foundational history is lowly, miserable and disturbingly foretelling.
Thanks to Guinn’s revelatory details of Jim’s early life, my belief that Jonestown was conceived in his childhood is reinforced. Jim’s parents, Jim and Lynetta, struggled on a farm in Crete, Indiana, and most of the labor ended up on Lynetta’s shoulders once her husband’s respiratory illness overcame him. In a sense, Lynetta was a precursor of the typical deprived, exploited Jonestowner her son was destined to create. “She would have been glad to escape what she thought of as ‘a type of slavery,’” writes Guinn, “but had nowhere to go.” I believe the controlling state of constant toil, minimalist living and geographical isolation was implanted in young Jim and would materialize in his failed utopia decades later.
An idealistic socialist/communist by 1952 and eager to rise from obscurity in the religious world, Jim went from involvement in a Methodist church to attempted affiliation with the Quakers’ Community Unity – in hopes of achieving tax-exempt status as a larger denomination. He became Indianapolis’ Human Relations Commission director in 1961, and he oversaw ambitious charity services, nursing-home assistance, job placement and anti-segregation actions with his growing number of servants.
Amidst such impressive and steady accumulation of clout and productive outreach, Jim’s extremism also grew: he claimed to be the reincarnation of Buddha and Vladimir Lenin, he sold photos of himself as talismans for $5 apiece (raking in $2000 to $3000 at a time), his drug abuse intensified, and his insatiable sexuality was fed by heterosexual and homosexual adulterous arrangements – with spouses’ and Marcelines’ servile consent – organized by an official “fuck schedule.” When Grace Stoen, wife of one of Jim’s closest confidantes and strategic aides, Tim Stoen, became pregnant by Jim, both Tim and Marceline signed a custodial document, which featured this unbelievable introduction: “…I entreated my beloved pastor, James W. Jones, to sire a child by my wife, Grace Lucy (Grech) Stoen…”
The pitiable level to which Marceline sunk is best illustrated in her Valentine’s Day note to Jim one year: “I enjoyed our intimate times together and face the rest of my life, happily, just remembering those moments I loved you before you were ‘God’ and will always be sentimental about those years when I thought us lovers.”
Though Jim’s deviation from Christian principles became more and more obvious, many disciples thought his goodness outweighed his bad points. As Guinn puts it, “even the most dubious wouldn’t deny another fact: the money pouring in from these questionable practices made possible exceptional outreach to those in need.” “Catharsis Meetings” involved punishments, beatings and punitive boxing matches, and Jim staged fake resurrection spectacles and appeared to heal himself a half hour after a staged shooting. Parallel to these outrageous developments was increasing alarm over impending nuclear disaster in the U.S., as well as the prospect of emigrating to Soviet Russia, which by now, according to Jim, had become an enviable utopia. But first came the relocation to Guyana, South America: “the Promised Land,” Jonestown.
The premeditation of mass murder originated in a Temple Planning Commission meeting. After Commission members drank some wine they had been served, Jim claimed that it contained poison and they had an hour or less to live. The suggestion’s power was so great, some swore they felt the poison’s effects. Guinn points out the telling fact that when the nature of the test was revealed “no one criticized Jones for tricking them.” Knowing that at least his higher-ranking disciples were primed and ready for righteous death, Jim recruited quack doctor Larry Schact to establish a fatal contingency plan to be implemented should the Jonestown experiment crumble. Stocks of Flavor Aid (forever to be mistaken as Kool-Aid by posterity) were bought and stored, and later, from Jonestown, Schacht “ordered one pound of sodium cyanide, enough for 1,800 lethal doses. It cost $8.85.” Nurse Phyllis Chaikin, another medical person who followed the path that Nazi doctors had decades before, preferred death by guns, but Jim liked the idea of mass poisoning more.
On the second so-called “White Night” in Jonestown, during which all Jonestowners were called to the main pavilion to brace themselves for invasion by hostile outsiders, a suicide rehearsal was conducted, complete with liquid-filled vats from which everyone drank, believing that they were ingesting deadly poison.
What’s especially amazing about the level of Jim’s authority is how obvious his fallibility had become to almost every Jonestowner. Guinn describes this perfectly: “The man who’d led them to believe he was a powerful god dripped with sweat, swelled from gluttony…and whined about aches and pains – now the great healer apparently couldn’t heal himself or anyone else.” “In Jonestown, after a while, Jim Jones lost his divinity,” wrote Jonestown survivor Laura Kohl. “Everyone saw too much.”
The countdown to the massacre of Congressman Leo Ryan and others on the Port Kaituma airstrip needn’t be retold here, but Guinn’s retelling of the subsequent mass suicide and, for the many who hesitated or refused, murder, is nothing sort of engrossing. Syringes of cyanide were brought out, and the babies and children were the first to die. In perhaps the most poignant testimony of the survivors of that insane day, Tim Carter recalled watching his wife bring their son, Morgan, to be poisoned to death before giving up her own life for Jim Jones. He did absolutely nothing. “On that last day, it felt like walking through mental quicksand,” he claimed. “I believe all of us were a little drugged ahead of time, maybe at that last meal.”
Several Jonestowners fled and succeeded in saving their own lives, and an elderly lady, Hyacinth Thrash (what a cool name!) slept through the whole nightmare in her cabin. The lesson? Sometimes it pays to just sleep in.
In the aftermath of Jim Jones’s realization of Heaven on Earth, there were three layers of corpses, with babies and children at the bottom. 918 people dead, 409 of which were unidentifiable. Leftover Peoples Temple wealth included 635,000 U.S. dollars, $22,000 worth of Guyanese tender, $300,000 in suitcases meant for payment to Russia and $7 million stashed in foreign banks. Precious money reserved for a precious cause, yet precious lives were squandered so much more easily. “In Jones’s mind, the members of Peoples Temple became soldiers, and he was their general,” writes Guinn. “All generals accept that, in war, at least some troops are expendable.”
Again, these troops may have been acting on “better instincts,” but, thanks to reality’s harshness, they tend to cave in to bitter instincts, turning utopia into dystopia and mere men into Man-Gods. Radical grasps for a better life often end up as arms raised in praise of death. This seems to be the natural arc of communal mass movements, whether theistic or not. In other words, evoking “The Grand Inquisitor” again, promise of dead bread takes the place of thirst for, to use biblical phraseology, living water. Thwarted ideals lead to frustration, which can lead to desperate retaliation or fatal scorched-earth tantrums. The road to Jonestown was paved with better instincts.
– David Herrle