Recently in another thread, DannyBear mentioned Jim Jones and the mass suicides at Jonestown. About two years ago when the issue of cults in France was a hot topic in ex-JW discussions, I became curious about Jim Jones and his followers. I had seen the news reports and horrific footage, but I wanted to understand how a man could convince 638 of his adult followers to kill themselves and 276 children.
For me, Jim Jones's story is also close to home. He grew up in Lynn, Indiana, worked for awhile in Richmond, Indiana, and attended Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He began his People's Temple ministry in Indianapolis. When I was a JW, the rumor was that the large church building renovated into our assembly hall in Indianapolis had once belonged to the People's Temple. I have not been able to confirm that rumor.
The first book I read was Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple by Deborah Layton.
Deborah Layton describes what happened the first time a friend brought her to a meeting at the Peoples Temple. Bolded text is Jim Jones speaking; the comments are Deborah Layton's:
Come forward. Be a part of a fellowship that will work to rid our society of hatred, racism, and poverty. I am inviting you to join in a new beginning, a life you can feel challenged by. Through my ministry you can help make history. As a group, we can wipe out racism and immorality throughout America.Deborah Layton joined the Peoples Temple, but didn't like everything she saw and experienced. She confided her doubts to a more experienced follower, her sister-in-law, Carolyn Layton. "The light gets brighter and brighter" was also a staple explanation at the People's Temple:
. . . It is not an accident that you came today. You are here because there is something greater in store for you in this world. You are meant to be a part of this cause. You came here today because there is a greater power and he wants your help . . .
Could he be talking to me? I wasn't special.
Oh yes, you are important. I need you. Stay here with me and you will become everything you can be. I want souls with fighting spirits, people who have been underestimated, underpriviledged, misunderstood, and have not been given the chance to realize their potential. You are the one.
. . . I took it all in, mesmerized by the energy in the room. I watched in wonder as this family of all races, ages, colors, sizes, and shapes strolled from group to group, hugging one another, gabbing, laughing, and sharing stories. I felt insignificant and wished I, too, could join their great temple of humanity.
Debbie, you have wandered upon this earth looking, wanting, and needing answers. I can give you them. For every unknown in your mind, I can give you enlightenment. For your fear, I can give you strength. For your sorrow, I can give you hope and a dream we will attain together.
"We all come into the fold ignorant. The longer you stay near Jim's energy and power, the more you will learn and understand. Right now you are like a small child, but as you stay and grow you will advance and become enlightened."--Carolyn LaytonDeborah Layton pushes aside her doubts and reasons:
I had a known destination and direction. I would be a member of a respectable group, an established organization that was helping the needy, the poor, and the underprivileged. I would move to Ukiah and begin a new life.Deborah Layton stayed in the People's Temple for seven years and became one of Jim Jones's most trusted helpers. She traveled around the world to deposit Temple money in foreign banks. She became angry at the mistreatment she observed, an example of which is that the Temple received $65,000 per month in Social Security checks that had been signed over to them by elderly followers, but used only a fraction to care for those elderly followers.
Joining was so easy, and I wanted to believe. I was searching for something meaningful and all-consuming. People had jobs that they were wed to, church duties they performed, children to care for, relationships that gave them strength. Perhaps I, too, would be able to feel that my existence was not in vain, that I had a purpose when I rose each day.
. . . It was easy to be part of Jim's world; it was already created, furnished, had friendly inhabitants, instant friends, established rules, and boundaries.
In April, 1978, Deborah Layton was reassigned to Georgetown and secretly contacted her sister, who wired her a plane ticket. With the assistance of the United States Embassy, she was able to leave Guyana.
She filed an affidavit with the State Department on June 15, 1978, describing what she had observed. On November 18, 1978, the Reverend Jim Jones ordered the more than 900 members of his flock to kill themselves by drinking a cyanide potion, and they did.
Years later, Deborah Layton tried to explain what had happened to her daughter:
"Why didn't you just leave when Jim got mean?"Another book, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, by Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, comments on cult mentality:
I'm not sure. What took me so long to comprehend and finally heed the danger signs? Was it my naivete? Perhaps it was my childlike belief in my own papa's goodness that kept me from grasping the truth. Being a good obedient daughter seemed incompatible with having questions and doubts.
"Couldn't the children have refused to drink their juice, Mama? I would have closed my lips tight and not allowed them to do it."
How can I make her understand what people are liable to do under extreme pressure or in a desperate need to please? It does not help to explain that all of us were taught to spy and report on each other--our families, our loved ones, our friends.
Like the Temple, most cults set out unattainable goals such as heaven on earth, because attainment would leave the organization without a justification for its own existence. The cult really strives to preserve a state of mind with defendable borders. As in the Temple, most significant violations of the cult borders are defections by "traitors" and investigations by the outside "enemy." And this alarmist view is promoted by the charismatic leader who constantly asks his followers to push a juggernaut of paranoia. There are no checks on him, for he defines reality and makes all rules. His power is so institutionalized that organizational contradictions go unchallenged . . . Charismatic personalities such as Jones start viewing themselves as divine or as representatives of the divine, with the power to punish, instruct, command, reveal. Some seize power over life and death.. . . This was the crux of it. Jones had so twisted people with guilt that to think at all was to be elitist. To perceive that not all was right in Jonestown was to be anarchistic. Even without Jones's constant reminders of Jonestown's beauty, these people had conditioned themselves to shut out the bad. They had given up so much to come to Jonestown that to even contemplate trouble in paradise would be incapacitating. It was far easier to blame themselves for failing to be contented amid impossible surroundings.
Here is Deborah Layton's epilogue to her book, one I find very powerful:
Looking back, there are a few things I have come to learn. People do not knowingly join "cults" that will ultimately destroy and kill them. People join self-help groups, churches, political movements, college campus dinner socials, and the like, in an effort to be part of something larger than themselves. It is mostly the innocent and naive who find themselves entrapped. In their openhearted endeavor to find meaning in their lives, they walk blindly into the promise of ultimate answers and a higher purpose. It is usually only gradually that a group turns into or reveals itself as a cult, becomes malignant, but by then it is often too late.. . . There are essential warning signs early on. Our alarm signals ought to go off as soon as someone tells us their way is the only right way.When our own thoughts are forbidden, when our questions are not allowed and our doubts are punished, when contacts and friendships outside of the organization are censored, we are being abused for an end that never justifies its means. When our heart aches knowing we have made friendships and secret attachments that will be forever forbidden if we leave, we are in danger. When we consider staying in a group because we cannot bear the loss, disappointment, and sorrow our leaving will cause for ourselves and those we have come to love, we are in a cult.If there is any lesson to be learned it is that an ideal can never be brought about by fear, abuse, and the threat of retribution. When family and friends are used as a weapon in order to force us to stay in an organization, something has gone terribly wrong. If I, as a young woman, had had someone explain to me what cults are and how indoctrination works, my story might not have been the same.