Coercive persuasion has immense power to shape and twist the human mind. We should all know this. Exhibit A is the Jonestown massacre of 40 years ago. It was the largest mass murder of American civilians until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yet it’s doubtful we really understand the dangers of the cult mindset or how vulnerable all people are to cult tactics.
If someone commanded you to give your child a lethal dose of poison, you’d probably protect your child and report that homicidal maniac to the authorities. But what would you do if you were trapped in an isolated place for years with hundreds of fellow cultists who complied with the order coming from your venerated leader? And after years of being isolated under that singular influence, you also saw that anybody who hesitated was badgered by him and strong-armed by his armed guards? Then, after the kids were all lying on the ground dead, all of your adult comrades were obeying the final command to commit “revolutionary suicide”?
On November 18, 1978, all of the above happened. Self-styled preacher-prophet Jim Jones gathered members of his cult of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown to give those orders. At a pavilion in that settlement in a Guyanese jungle, they drank from a vat of cyanide-laced punch. (The expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” comes from such actions of blind obedience.)
There’s evidence many were forcibly injected with poison. A third of those killed were children and infants. Jones died of a gunshot wound, presumably self-inflicted. Eleven survived by escaping into the jungle that day and trekking 30 miles before finding a way out. (Twenty-two others survived by other means.)
The massacre has often been called a mass suicide. But coerced suicide isn’t suicide––it’s simply murder with especially ghoulish overtones. Jones, a longtime supporter of socialism and communism, fantasized that the world would interpret his act of mass murder as a willful deed by his followers, then hold the capitalists responsible for it.
At that point, Jones knew his game was about up. His cruelties and abuses were being exposed. Several members wanted to leave. His compound had just been investigated by a member of Congress. Jones personally couldn’t bear the thought of losing control of his fiefdom and influence, so he made sure he took everybody with him into death.
But that was his Plan B all along. In Jonestown, he periodically ran rehearsals, called “white nights.” These were loyalty tests in which recruits were told they had just drunk poison to lay down their lives for the cause, only to be told an hour or so later that it was just a test to see how they’d react. The evening of November 18, 1978 was very different from those dry runs. Real death was in air.
The Making of a Cult Leader
Early on, Jones was known for his charisma and social activism, with a very strong emphasis on race issues and Marxism. As with all cult leaders, Jones targeted for easy recruitment people who felt alienated and marginalized in society. He made a point of recruiting a large membership of African-Americans. Blacks later made up 70 percent of the Jonestown population.
Being heartily welcomed into a big extended family, with Jones as a father figure, gave many members a new sense of fitting in, especially if they never felt they had a family to turn to. His utopian preaching of a humane world in which all lived happily in harmony resonated with the typical recruit, who tended to be idealistic and lonely.
A hallmark of cults is that they strive to give people a brand new sense of belonging, acceptance, and love. In fact, vigorous efforts to woo cult recruits is often referred to as “love bombing,” and the Peoples Temple appeared to excel in that. Early on, it also built up members’ loyalty by providing help in their daily struggles, particularly with housing and poverty.
The Peoples Temple was first founded in 1955 in Indianapolis, Indiana, and moved to Northern California ten years later. By the 1970s, it was headquartered in San Francisco, where Jones played a very active role in the city’s Democratic Party machinery. San Francisco Mayor George Moscone even credited Jones for his narrow 1975 victory, then appointed him chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority. Jones also enjoyed the esteem of other prominent political figures, including Vice President Walter Mondale, first lady Rosalynn Carter, and California Gov. Jerry Brown.
But by September 1972, the San Francisco Examiner started to run a front-page, seven-part investigative series by religion reporter Lester Kinsolving critical of the Peoples Temple. This unwelcome publicity put Jones into more of a panic mode. Jones’ political influence in the city likely helped him get the Examiner to cancel publication after part four. But as more disillusioned cult members defected, Jones became fixated on surveillance against potential traitors he felt should be punished.
He intimidated other members with stories of defectors as people who were out to harm them all. By 1974, Jones began building a settlement in a 4,000-acre tract of jungle in Guyana so he could relocate his followers there.
Isolation and Separation From Other Sources of Influence
Cult leaders are experts at isolating their recruits from any other source of influence. Jones strongly discouraged friendships or loyalties to anyone but him and the cause of socialism or communism. That’s a less difficult task when people are isolated, controlled, and prevented from ever hearing another point of view.
Once isolated under Jones’ exclusive influence in Guyana, cult members were subject to all the tools of cultic mind control. They had a daunting work schedule in the daytime heat from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., followed by evening hours of communist indoctrination. The rigorous schedule zapped strength and their time. A restricted diet took its toll on the ability to think clearly.
Physical and emotional punishments for minor infractions destabilized members’ sense of self-identity as well as self-worth. This was especially harsh on the children, who were sometimes kept in a plywood box for hours on end, and worse. Family members showed their loyalty by denouncing their own for breaking rules or for being bad socialists.
Meanwhile, Jones was becoming increasingly deranged. He psychologically manipulated and propagandized his recruits nonstop. He was known to be sexually exploitative as well. His rants included more and more threats against potential traitors and more paranoid talk about capitalist enemies out there who wanted to torture and kill them all.
But Jones still enjoyed esteem from political circles. Just months before the tragedy, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter, which strongly defended Jones’ character against two cult survivors who were seeking to regain custody of their five-year-old son who was in Jonestown. In the letter, Milk condemned both of the parents as liars and manipulators.
Family members outside Jonestown and former cult members got organized and appealed to authorities with their concerns that loved ones were being held against their will in Jonestown. By November 1978, California Rep. Leo Ryan decided to visit the compound to investigate it, despite Jones’s heated protests.
Jones put on a good show for Ryan. In the pavilion the night before, there was a concert with singing and dancing. You can see Ryan smiling and talking to the members at 39:48 of this NBC footage:
Ryan told the group that despite what some people might have said, he had a lot of conversations that evening in which people told him “this is the best thing that ever happened in their whole life!” The members broke out in massively overdone and over-sustained applause and cheers. Something was obviously not quite right, but Ryan seemed to take it at face value.
Even after some Jonestown residents furtively handed a member of the delegation a note asking for help to get out of there, Ryan at that point seemed positive about Jonestown, especially since Jones appeared amenable to allowing members to leave of their own free will. (Although there was an incident in the interim, in which one cult member tried to attack Ryan with a knife.) Fourteen defectors left the compound with Ryan.
No one knew then that Jones had ordered a hit on Ryan. After their arrival at the Port Kaituma Airstrip seven miles from Jonestown, an armed contingent of cult members––dubbed by Jones the “red brigade”—opened fire. They killed five, including Ryan, and wounded nine, including Ryan’s aide Jackie Speier, who is currently a member of Congress.
Jones knew this act sealed his fate. So he called everyone together at the pavilion for a final speech in which he would tell them to commit “revolutionary suicide.”
The Death Tape: ‘Stop the Hysterics!’
Jones actually produced an audio tape of the last moments at Jonestown. It’s 44 minutes long, and has since been called “the death tape.” It is sickening.
In the recording you first hear Jones rationalizing to the crowd that good communists need to retain their dignity by laying down their life for the cause. He rants about how “terribly betrayed” they’ve been. “If we can’t live in peace, we must die in peace.” The people then cheer and applaud on cue, but they don’t yet seem fully aware of what’s about to happen.
But Jones paints a scenario of angry enemies, in which the traitors who left the Peoples Temple come back to torture and kill them all. He claims that in order to escape that fate they better hurry up and commit revolutionary suicide.
One of the cult members, Christine Miller, is a solitary voice of dissent. First, she asks: “Is it too late for Russia?” She presses Jones to consider an airlift to the communist paradise of the Soviet Union as a better alternative. Jones shoots down that suggestion. She then commits cult heresy by saying: “I feel things as an individual. We have a right to our own destinies as individuals…As long as there’s life, there’s hope.”
Jones goes on to say his life doesn’t have meaning now, then projects the need to die onto everyone else. Everybody’s going to die at some point anyway, he says. He portrays himself as a great martyr who did everything he could to help them all and basically explains that their lives would be meaningless without him.
When Miller says, “I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to live,” Jones contorts the sentiment by claiming that instead they “deserve peace,” meaning death.
Miller’s insistence that she has a right to her own opinion creates some dissension in the ranks. Nobody partners with her, having been conditioned to fear the label of traitor by association. Instead they object to her stance and heap praises onto Jones for all he did for them.
In a particularly twisted piece of psychological manipulation of his mostly black following, Jones, a white man, plays the race card on them. In references to those who left the compound with Ryan, he states: “You know who walked out of here today? It was mostly white people. Mostly white people…”
Then Jones gets the news of Ryan’s murder. At that point, he becomes very insistent that everybody get his suicide show on the road. Otherwise, the children will suffer forever, he argues. So they must be the first to go: “Please get some medication!” he tells them. “Before it’s too late! Get moving! Get moving! Get moving!”
Some music is playing in the background. One of the leaders officiously instructs everyone to get in line and to keep the children calm. But you can soon hear babies and children screaming in the background. You can hear people crying. In the commotion, one of the cultists rationalizes that death is just like stepping into another plane. Jones says “It’s not to be feared, not to be feared. It’s a friend, a friend.”
Then Jones gets more agitated when he sees the confusion and heartbreak all around him. Here’s a brief compilation of his taunts:
Lay down your life with dignity! Stop the hysterics! This is not a way for people who are socialists and communists to die!…If you adults would stop some of this nonsense! Are we black, proud, and socialist? What are we? Now stop this nonsense. Don’t carry this on anymore! Hurry, hurry, my children! Hurry!…“Everybody relax! The best thing to do is relax and you’ll have no problem with this thing.
One woman starts a pep talk about how this action is something to rejoice about. Others decide to give testimonials about how much “Dad” meant to them, probably in a bid for a bit more time.
But Jones interrupts and says, “God, let’s just be done with it! It’s the revolutionary suicide, not the self-destructive suicide.” He continues ranting about the enemy. Those outside his cult are the enemy, “peddlers of hate.” He piles on: “I tell you I don’t care how many screams you hear, how many anguished cries. Death is a million times more preferable to ten more days of this life if you knew what was ahead of you.”
There are many good-byes and expressions of gratitude to Jones for giving them everything, especially for guiding them in the revolutionary struggle for socialism and communism. One female says, in a nearly office worker-esque tone: “It’s been a pleasure working with you in the revolutionary struggle.”
Five days afterwards, 38 military aircraft flew the victims’ bodies from Jonestown to Dover Air Force Base. May their souls rest in peace.
How Many More Jonestowns Will It Take?
As horrifying as the Jonestown tape is, it also offers us a stark, invaluable lesson on the weakness of the human mind when it’s put into isolation and subjected to coercive persuasion. But we can only learn that lesson if we’re willing to heed it.
Cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer begins her superb 1995 book “Cults in our Midst” by asking: “How many more Jonestowns and Wacos will have to occur before we realize how vulnerable all humans are to influence?”
That’s a great question. By now, the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy, you’d think that Americans would have learned to seriously contemplate the reality of undue influence and how easily it can destroy lives. Sadly, it seems Americans are less aware of such things than ever before.
You’d think we’d finally understand that brainwashing is an actual reality to which everyone is susceptible. Unfortunately, there seems to be an invincibility myth at work, that somehow most of us aren’t vulnerable to mind control. It almost seems we’ve been brainwashed into believing that only a conspiracy theorist would use the word “brainwashing.” That train of thought is a huge trap, making us ever more vulnerable.
In a follow-up, I will suggest ways we can become more vigilant, based on Singer’s book on cult awareness. We also should explore the ways in which we are already influenced by thought reform in today’s broader culture because our lack of awareness already seems to be taking a bitter turn.