On November 18, 1978 in Jonestown, more than 900 members of the People’s Temple, a cult led by the Rev. Jim Jones, committed mass suicide to avoid an alleged attack. At the time, it was claimed that that they had died from cyanide poisoning. Soon after, Congress Rep. Leo J. Ryan who had sneaked into Jonestown, Guyana to investigate allegations of gross abuse of the sect’s members was murdered, together with a number of journalists and defectors Port Kaituma as they boarded their plane. Later investigations, however, indicated that the victims had been murdered, thereby raising suspicions on the official claim of mass suicide. An emerging concern, consequently, is whether the incident was a government project (an accusing finger has been pointed at the CIA) to experiment on suspect interrogation using mind-control drugs. Nonetheless, it is still puzzling how Jim Jones managed to organize a cult of over a thousand obedient cult-members, bundle them into a camp where they were brainwashed into believing his utopian ideology, and finally having them commit suicide. The paper examines the character and influence of Rev. Jim Jones that enabled him to carry out the cult’s activities with such success, the involvement of Rep Ryan, the media’s handling of the incident and finally, its impact on the victims’ families.
A significant clue to the mystery surrounding the incident is the association of between Rev. Jones Dan Mitrione, a friendiship dating back to their childhood days. Mitrione was a police chief in the early years of Jim Jones’ ministry in Indianapolis, which already exhibited cultish elements. He later joined the International Police Academy, allegedly a CIA decoy established for the purpose of training in counter insurgency and torturing techniques. Later on, Jones left the US to live in Brazil, where his old friend Mitrione was already stationed- at the Belo Horizonte CIA headquarters in Brazil. While in Brazil, Jones is said to have told neighbors that “he was employed by the US Office of Naval Intelligence who supplied him with transport, living expenses and a large home in which he lived like a rich man” (Steel, 2010). When he returned to America with only $ 10 000, he was able to start the communal facilities run by the Peoples Temple, and despite lacking a trained medical personnel, was able to operate a nursing home. But then, nonetheless, what raises eyebrows more than anything else is the allegation that “The Temple had a strong association with the World Vision organization that many conspiracy theorists believe to be another CIA front, and had as a consultant, a mercenary from the rebel army UNITA, supposedly backed by the CIA” (Steel, 2010).
Born in 1931, James Warren Jim Jones was a pastor ordained by the Christian Church of Christ’s Disciples, and who promoted a utopian agenda. In the 19700s, it is said that “Jones had been abusing prescription drugs and appears to have become increasingly paranoid” (Moore, 2008). Indeed, when he began the sect in San Francisco, he had promised “to create a utopia, where people of different races, education and skills could work together for the common good” (Osherow, 2000). Not surprisingly, his Peoples Temple project attended to orphans, the homeless, elderly people and the sick. He claimed to have the powers to heal diseases like arthritis, cancer and heart infections. As a result, he was able to appeal to a multitude of the marginalized groups of society, whom he confined in a camp for cultish indoctrination. In addition, his project became popular among his subjects due to the ideologies he espoused. It was with good calculation, therefore, that he preached
“a ‘social gospel’ of human freedom, equality, and love, which required helping the least and the lowliest of society’s members. Later on, however, this gospel became explicitly socialistic, or communistic in Jones’ own view, and the hypocrisy of white Christianity was ridiculed while ‘apostolic socialism’ was preached” (Moore, 2008).
Besides, Jim Jones is famed as a charismatic speaker with flowing eloquence and fine oratory skills. Consequently, he was able to lure his subjects into his project by the appeal of his sensual, passionate verbal appeal. It is said that “He sought people for his church who would be receptive to his messages and bevulnerable to promises, and he carefully honed his presentation to appeal to each specific audience” (Osherow, 2000).
His charity projects that served the poor and elderly earned him much admiration from many quarters. He had a network of high connections with a number of influencial political leaders, which saw him win an appointment to the San Francisco Housing Authority. Behind the mask of a loving leader who espoused interracial harmony and coexistence, he exaggerated a messianic image in the Peoples Temple, which was significant in commanding unquestionable obeisance. He increasingly became the members’ object of adoration and devotion, and he in turn exploited their loyal obedience and numbers to gain influence within political circles. He introduced enforced taxation among members and preached sermons that centered on a nuclear crisis that would spell catastrophic destruction of the world, while assuring his subjects that they will be the sole survivors. It was a clever maneuver to control the members imaginations and condition them into absolute devotion.
Nonetheless, the shift from its original aim of administering to the underprivileged and integrating people of diverse racial and cultural background suggest a radical departure from community service to cultish activities. The first hint of a cult movement was when he claimed that a nuclear war was on the offing, thus preparing his subjects minds for their dooms day. Thus, it could be argued that Jim James was a schemer from the very beginning, who knew what he was after, where and how to achieve it. By starting a community serving project he was able to blind keen observers who could have raised suspicion. By running a non-profit organization he was able to get support, especially from the government. It is telling that the organization leased over 4000 acres of land from the government in Guyana, and started the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project” where they grew crops and raised animals for consumption and sale.
It is here, in the secluded jungle of Guyana, that Jones “developed a belief called Translation in which he and his followers would all die together, and would move to another planet for a life of bliss. Mass suicides were practiced in which his followers pretended to drink poison and fell to the ground” (Moore 2008). His temple attorney and right hand man, Tim Stoen, left the organization and formed another outfit called the community of “Concerned Relatives”, which was also more cultish than anything civil. By then, claims were surfacing that Jonestown was being ruled like a concentration camp, with allegations of gross abuse of human rights and confining people against their own volition.
THE IMPACT ON VICTIMS AND FAMILIES
The organization’s brutality is characterized by its philosophy, which condemned familial ties and co-existence. Initially, children were cut off from their parents gradually by seating them away during church services, and then eventually assigned different foster parents as they grew up. Finally, parents were coerced to surrender their children by signing documents that denied them custody rights. He preached that “Families are part of the enemy system,” because they hurt ones total dedication to the “Cause” (Mills, 1979).
Besides blatant attempts to split parents from their children, the cult’s leader endeavored to loosen wife-husband bonds as well. Not only were spouses coerced into engaging in extramarital sex, but also made them to engage in homosexuality or any other humiliating sexual activities. Moreover, it is said that he had intercourse with them himself. All other sexual activities that he did not permit were discouraged as abominable to sect members, and as such-for good measure that is, they were publicly banned and ridiculed. These acts affected family relations, as well as eroded the societal norms that govern social relations such as marriage. The practice of isolation of children from their parents had profound negative psychological effects on the victims. In general, the overall impact was the systematic brainwashing of the organization’s members to discard their socially acceptable behaviors, and learn new values that undermined their human dignity, demoralized their beliefs and tortured their consciences.
Fear was another element of control perpetuated by Jones upon his followers. He utilized “the threat of severe punishment to impose the strict discipline and absolute devotion that he demanded, and he also took measures to eliminate those factors that might encourage resistance or rebellion among his followers” (Neal Osherow). By instilling a sense of fear, he was able to discourage dissence and open rebellion to his teachings. to express doubts or criticize his views, or express divergent opinions to relatives became risky. Such sentiments were suppressed and kept to oneself, which ensured that no conspiracy for revolt was ever thought of. Thus, by limiting “ones access to information, this “fallacy of uniqueness” precluded the sharing of support, and among the few who successfully defected from the Peoples Temple were couples such as Jeanne and Al Mills, who kept together, shared their doubts, and gave each other support” (Osherow, 2000). Further, he used informers to stifle dissent views and diminish the spirit of solidarity and loyalty in individuals towards one another and their families. Whilst preaching that a sense of brotherly love and commitment to one another was necessary among members, he also ensured that personal dedication should be directed to the Father alone (Jones himself). In this regard, it could be argued that Jim Jones succeeded in intimidating members into scared subjects that he could rule by the whims of his will. It was a systematic conditioning of men and children into subservient subjects that can be domesticated like caged animals.
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