Making Sense of the Nonsensical: An Analysis of Jonestown
by Neal Osherow

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Updated June24th. 2000

Those who do not remember the past arecondemned to repeat it.
-quotation on placard over Jim Jones' rostrum at Jonestown

Close to one thousand people died at Jonestown. The members of thePeoples Temple settlement in Guyana, under the direction of theReverend Jim Jones, fed a poison-laced drink to their children,administered the potion to their infants, and drank it themselves.Their bodies were found lying together, arm in arm; over 900perished.

How could such a tragedy occur? The images of an entire communitydestroying itself, of parents killing their own children, appearsincredible. The media stories about the event and full-color picturesof the scene documented some of its horror but did little toilluminate the causes or to explain the processes that led to thedeaths. Even a year afterwards, a CBS Evening News broadcast assertedthat it was widely assumed that time would offer some explanation forthe ritualistic suicide/murder of over 900 people... One year later,it does not appear that any lessons have been uncovered (CBS News,1979).

The story of the Peoples Temple is not enshrouded in mystery,however. Jim Jones had founded his church over twenty years before,in Indiana. His preaching stressed the need for racial brotherhoodand integration, and his group helped feed the poor and find themjobs. As his congregation grew, Jim Jones gradually increased thediscipline and dedication that he required from the members. In 1965,he moved to northern California; about 100 of his faithful relocatedwith him. The membership began to multiply, new congregations wereformed, and the headquarters was established in San Francisco.

Behind his public image as a beloved leader espousing interracialharmony, "Father," as Jones was called, assumed a messiah-likepresence in the Peoples Temple. Increasingly, he became the personalobject of the members devotion, and he used their numbers andobedience to gain political influence and power. Within the Temple,Jones demanded absolute loyalty, enforced a taxing regimen, anddelivered sermons forecasting nuclear holocaust and an apocalypticdestruction of the world, promising his followers that they alonewould emerge as survivors. Many of his harangues attacked racism andcapitalism, but his most vehement anger focused on the "enemies" ofthe Peoples Temple - its detractors and especially its defectors. Inmid-1977, publication of unfavorable magazine articles, coupled withthe impending custody battle over a six-year-old Jones claimed as a"son," prompted emigration of the bulk of Temple membership to ajungle outpost in Guyana.

In November, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan responded to charges thatthe Peoples Temple was holding people against their will atJonestown. He organized a trip to the South American settlement; asmall party of journalists and "Concerned Relatives" of PeoplesTemple members accompanied him on his investigation. They were inJonestown for one evening and part of the following day. They heardmost residents praise the settlement, expressing their joy at beingthere and indicating their desire to stay. Two families, however,slipped messages to Ryan that they wanted to leave with him. Afterthe visit, as Ryan's party and these defectors tried to board planesto depart, the group was ambushed and fired upon by Temple gunmen -five people, including Ryan, were murdered.

As the shootings were taking place at the jungle airstrip, JimJones gathered the community at Jonestown. He informed them that theCongressman's party would be killed and then initiated the finalritual; the "revolutionary suicide" that the membership rehearsed onprior occasions. The poison was brought out. It was taken.

Jonestown s remoteness caused reports of the event to reach thepublic in stages. First came bulletins announcing the assassinationof Congressman Ryan along with Several members of his party. Thencame rumors of mass-deaths at Jonestown, then confirmations. Theinitial estimates put the number of dead near 400, bringing the hopethat substantial numbers of people had escaped into the jungle. Butas the bodies were counted, many smaller victims were discoveredunder the corpses of larger ones - virtually none of the inhabitantsof Jonestown survived. The public was shocked, then incredulous.

Amid the early stories about the tragedy, along with the luriddescriptions and sensational photographs, came some attempts atanalysis, Most discussed the charisma of Jim Jones and the power of"cults." Jones was described as "a character Joseph Conrad might havedreamt up" (Krause, 1978), a "self-appointed messiah" whose "lust fordominion" led hundreds of "fanatic" followers to their demise(Special Report: The Cult of Death, Newsweek, 1978a).

While a description in terms of the personality of the perpetratorand the vulnerability of the victims provides some explanation, itrelegates the events to the category of being an aberration, aproduct of unique forces and dispositions. Assuming such aperspective distances us from the phenomenon. This might becomforting, but I believe that it limits our understanding and ispotentially dangerous. My aim in this analysis is not to blunt theemotional impact of a tragedy of this magnitude by subjecting it toacademic examination. At the same time, applying social psychologicaltheory and research makes it more conceivable and comprehensible,thus bringing it closer (in kind rather than in degree) to processeseach of us encounters. Social psychological concepts can facilitateour understanding: viewed in terms of obedience and compliance. Theprocesses that induced people to join and to believe in the PeoplesTemple made use of strategies involved in propaganda and persuasion.In grappling with the most perplexing questions - Why didn't morepeople leave the Temple? How could they actually kill their childrenand themselves? - the psychology of self-justification provides someinsight.


The character of a church . . . can be seen in its attitudetoward its detractors.
--Hugh Prather, "Notes to Myself"

At one level, the deaths at Jonestown can be viewed as the productof obedience, of people complying with the orders of a leader andreacting to the threat of force. In the Peoples Temple, whatever JimJones commanded, the members did. When he gathered the community atthe pavilion and the poison was brought out, the populace wassurrounded by armed guards who were trusted lieutenants of Jones.There are reports that some people did not drink voluntarily but hadthe poison forced down their throats or injected (Winfrey, 1979).While there were isolated acts of resistance and suggestions ofopposition to the suicides, excerpts from a tape, recorded as thefinal ritual was being enacted, reveal that such dissent was quicklydismissed or shouted down:

Jones: I've tried my best to give you a good life. In spite of allI've tried, a handful of people, with their lies, have made our lifeimpossible. If we cant live in peace then lets die in peace.(Applause) . . . We have been so terribly betrayed . . .
What's going to happen here in the matter of a few minutes is thatone of the people on that plane is going to shoot the pilot - I knowthat. I didn't plan it , but I know its going to happen.. . . .So myopinion is that you used to in ancient Greece , and step over quietly, because we are not committing suicide-its a revolutionary act . . ..
We cant go back . . . .

First Woman : I feel like that as there's life, there's hope.

Jones:Well, someday everybody dies .

Crowd : That's right , that's right!

Jones: What those people gone and done, and what they get throughwill make our lives worse than hell... But to me, death is not afearful thing. Its living that's cursed... Not worth living likethis.

First Woman: But I'm afraid to die.

Jones: I don't think you are. I don't think you are.

First Woman: I think there were too few who left for 1,200 peopleto give them their lives for those people who left... I look at allthe babies and I think they deserve to live.

Jones: But don't they deserve much more they deserve peace. Thebest testimony we can give is to leave this goddam world.(Applause)

First Man: Its over, sister... We've made a beautiful day.(Applause)

Second Man: If you tell us we have to give our lives now, wereready. (Applause) [Baltimore Sun, 1979.]

Above the cries of babies wailing, the tape continues, with Jonesinsisting upon the need for suicide and urging the people to completethe act:

Jones: Please get some medication. Simple. Its simple There's noconvulsions with it... Don't be afraid to die. You'll see people landout here. They'll torture our people...

Second Woman: There's nothing to worry about. Everybody keep calmand try to keep your children calm... They're not crying from pain;its just a little bitter tasting...

Third Woman: This is nothing to cry about. This is something wecould all rejoice about. (Applause)

Jones: Please, for Gods sake, lets get on with it... This is arevolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide.(Voices praise, "Dad." Applause)

Third Man: Dad has brought us this far. My vote is to go withDad...

Jones: We must die with dignity. Hurry, hurry, hurry. We musthurry... Stop this hysterics. Death is a million times morepreferable to spending more days in this life... If you knew what wasahead, you'd be glad to be stepping over tonight...

Fourth Woman: Its been a pleasure walking with all of you in thisrevolutionary struggle... No other way I would rather go than to givemy life for socialism. Communism, and I thank Dad very much.

Jones: Take our life from us... We didn't commit suicide. Wecommitted an act of revolutionary suicide protesting against theconditions of an inhuman world. [Newsweek, 1978b,1979].

If you hold a gun at someone's head, you can get that person to dojust about anything. As many accounts have attested, by the early1970s the members of the Peoples Temple lived in constant fear ofsevere punishment and brutal beatings coupled with public humiliationfor committing trivial or even inadvertent offenses. But the power ofan authority need not be so explicitly threatening in order to inducecompliance with its demands, as demonstrated by social psychologicalresearch. In Milgram's experiments (1963), a surprisingly highproportion of subjects obeyed the instructions of an experimenter toadminister what they thought were very strong electric shocks toanother person. Nor does the consensus of a group need be soblatantly coercive to induce agreement with its opinion, as Asch'sexperiments (1955) on conformity to the incorrect judgments of amajority indicate.

Jim Jones utilized the threat of severe punishment to impose thestrict discipline and absolute devotion that he demanded, and he alsotook measures to eliminate those factors that might encourageresistance or rebellion among his followers. Research showed that thepresence of a "disobedient" partner greatly reduced the extent owhich most subjects in the Milgram situation (1965) obeyed theinstructions to shock the person designated the "learner." Similarly,by including just one confederate who expressed an opinion differentfrom the majority's, Asch (1955) showed that the subject would alsoagree far less, even when the "other dissenters" judgment was alsoincorrect and differed from the subjects. In the Peoples Temple,Jones tolerated no dissent, made sure that members had no allegiancemore powerful than to himself, and tried to make the alternative ofleaving the Temple an unthinkable option.

Jeanne Mills, who spent six years as high-ranking member beforebecoming one of the few who left the Peoples Temple, writes: "Therewas an unwritten but perfectly understood law in the church that wasvery important: No one is to criticize Father, wife, or his children" (Mills, 1979). Deborah Blakey, another long-time member who managedto defect, testified:

Any disagreement with [Jim Jones's] dictates came to beregarded as "treason." ....Although I felt terrible about what washappening, I was afraid to say anything because I knew that anyonewith a differing opinion gained the wrath of Jones and other members.[Blakey, June 15, 1978.]

Conditions in the Peoples Temple became so oppressive, thediscrepancy between Jim Jones's stated aims and his practices sopronounced, that it is almost inconceivable that members failed toentertain questions about the church. But these doubts wereunreinforced. There were no allies to support ones disobedience ofthe leaders commands and no fellow dissenters to encourage theexpression of disagreement with the majority. Public disobedience ordissent was quickly punished. Questioning Jones's word, even in thecompany of family or friends, was dangerous informers and"counselors" were quick to report indiscretions, even byrelatives.

The use of informers went further than to stifle dissent; it alsodiminished the solidarity and loyalty that individuals felt towardtheir families and friends. While Jones preached that a spirit ofbrotherhood should pervade his church, he made it clear that eachmembers personal dedication should be directed to "Father." Familieswere split: First, children were seated away from parents duringservices; then, many were assigned to another member's care as theygrew up; and ultimately, parents were forced to sign documentssurrendering custody rights. "Families are part of the enemy system,"Jones stated, because they hurt ones total dedication to the "Cause"(Mills, 1979). Thus, a person called before the membership to bepunished could expect his or her family to be among the first andmost forceful critics (Cahill, 1979).

Besides splitting parent and child, Jones sought to loosen thebonds between wife and husband. He forced spouses into extramaritalsexual relations, which were often of a homosexual or humiliatingnature, or with Jones himself. Sexual partnerships and activities notunder his direction and control were discouraged and publiclyridiculed.

Thus, expressing any doubts or criticism of Jones even to afriend, child, or partner -- became risky for the individual. As aconsequence, such thoughts were kept to oneself, and with theresulting impression that nobody else shared them. In addition tolimiting ones access to information, this "fallacy of uniqueness"precluded the sharing of support. It is interesting that among thefew who successfully defected from the Peoples Temple were couplessuch as Jeanne and Al Mills, who kept together, shared their doubts,and gave each other support.

Why didn't more people leave? Once inside the Peoples Temple,getting out was discouraged; defectors were hated. Nothing upset JimJones so much; people who left became the targets of his mostvitriolic attacks and were blamed for any problems that occurred. Onemember recalled that after several teen-age members left the Temple,"We hated those eight with such a passion because we knew any daythey were going to try bombing us. I mean Jim Jones had us totallyconvinced of this." (Winfrey, 1979)

Defectors were threatened: Immediately after she left, Grace Stoenheaded for the beach at Lake Tahoe, where she found herself lookingover her shoulder, checking to make sure that she hadn't been trackeddown (Kilduff and Tracy, 1977). Jeanne Mills reports that she and herfamily were followed by men in cars, their home was burglarized, andthey were threatened with the use of confessions they had signedwhile still members. When a friend from the Temple paid a visit, shequickly examined Mills ears -- Jim Jones had vowed to have one ofthem cut off (Mills, 1979). He had made ominous predictionsconcerning other defectors as well: Indeed, several ex-memberssuffered puzzling deaths or committed very questionable "suicides"shortly after leaving the Peoples Temple (Reiterman, 1977; Tracy,1978).

Defecting became quite a risky enterprise, and, for most members,the potential benefits were very uncertain. They had little to hopefor outside of the Peoples Temple; what they had, they had committedto the church. Jim Jones had vilified previous defectors as "theenemy" and had instilled the fear that, once outside of the PeoplesTemple, members stories would not be believed by the "racist,fascist" society, and they would be subjected to torture,concentration camps, and execution. Finally, in Guyana, Jonestown wassurrounded by dense jungle, the few trails patrolled by armedsecurity guards (Cahill, 1979). Escape was not a viable option.Resistance was too costly. With no other alternatives apparent,compliance became the most reasonable course of action.

The power that Jim Jones wielded kept the membership of thePeoples Temple in line, and the difficulty of defecting helped tokeep them in. But what attracted them to join Jones's church in thefirst place?


Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannot make itacceptable.

Jim Jones was a charismatic figure, adept at oratory. He soughtpeople for his church who would be receptive to his messages and bevulnerable to promises, and he carefully honed his presentation toappeal to each specific audience.

The bulk of the Peoples Temple membership was comprised of asociety's needy and neglecting: the urban poor the black, the elderlyand a sprinkling of ex-addicts and ex-convicts (Winfrey, 1979). Toattract new members , Jones held public services in various cities.Leaflets would be distributed:

Pastor Jim Jones. . . Incredible !. . . Miraculous! . . .Amazing!. . . . The Most Unique Prophetic Healing Service You've EverWitnessed! Behold the Word Made Incarnate In Your Midst!
God Works as tumorous masses are passed in every service... Beforeyour eyes, the crippled walk, the blind see! [Kilduff and Javers,1978.]

Potential members first confronted an almost idyllic scene ofblacks and whites living, working, and worshiping together. Guestswere greeted and treated most warmly and were invited to share in thegroups meal. As advertised, Jim Jones also gave them miracles. anumber of members would recount how Jones had cured them of cancer orother dread diseases; during the service Jones or one of his nurseswould reach into the members throat and emerge with a vile mass oftissue -- the "cancer" that had been passed as the person gagged.Sometimes Jim Jones would make predictions that would occur withuncanny frequency. He also received revelations about members orvisitors that nobody but those individuals could know what they hadeaten for dinner the night before, for instance, or news about afar-off relative. Occasionally, he performed miracles similar to morewell-established religious figures:

There were more people than usual at the Sunday service, and forsome reason the church members hadn't brought enough food to feedeveryone. It became apparent that the last fifty people in lineweren't going to get any meat. Jim announced, "Even though thereisn't enough food to feed this multitude, I am blessing the food thatwe have and multiplying it just as Jesus did in biblical times."

Sure enough, a few minutes after he made this startlingannouncement, Eva Pugh came out of the kitchen beaming, carrying twoplatters filled with fried chicken. A big cheer came from the peopleassembled in the room, especially from the people who were at the endof the line.

The "blessed chicken" was extraordinarily delicious, and severalof the people mentioned that Jim had produced the best-tastingchicken they had ever eaten. [Mills, 1979.]

Those demonstrations were dramatic and impressive; most memberswere convinced of their authenticity and believed in Jones's"powers." They didn't know that the "cancers" were actually rancidchicken gizzards, that the occurrences Jones "forecast" were staged,or that sending people to sift through a persons garbage could revealpackages of certain foods or letters of out-of-town relatives toserve as grist for Jones "revelations" (Kilduff and Tracy, 1977;Mills, 1979). Members were motivated to believe in Jones; theyappreciated the racial harmony, sense of purpose, and relief fromfeelings of worthlessness that the Peoples Temple provided them(Winfrey, 1979; Lifton, 1979). Even when suspecting that somethingwas wrong, they learned that is was unwise to voice their doubts:

One of the men, Chuck Beikman... jokingly mentioned to a fewpeople standing near him that he had seen Eva drive up a few momentsearlier with buckets from the Kentucky Fried Chicken stand. He smiledas he said, "The person that blessed this chicken was ColonelSanders."

During the evening meeting Jim mentioned the fact that Chuck hadmade fun of his gift. "He lied to some of the members here, tellingthem that the chicken had come from a local shop," Jim stormed. "Butthe Spirit of Justice has prevailed. Because of his lie Chuck is inthe men's room right now, wishing that he was dead. He is vomitingand has diarrhea so bad he cant talk!"

An hour later a pale and shaken Chuck Beikman walked out of themen's room and up to the front, being supported by one of the guards.Jim asked him, "Do you have anything you'd like to say?"

Chuck looked up weakly and answered, "Jim, I apologize for what Isaid. Please forgive me."

As we looked at Chuck, we vowed in our hearts that we would neverquestion any of Jim's "miracles"at least not out loud. Years later,we learned that Jim had put a mild poison in a piece of cake andgiven it to Chuck. [Mills, 1979.]

Jim Jones skillfully manipulated the impression that his churchwould convey to newcomers. He carefully managed its public image. Heused the letter-writing and political clout of hundreds of members topraise and impress the politicians and press that supported thePeoples Temple, as well as to criticize and intimidate its opponents(Kasindorf, 1978). Most importantly, Jones severely restricted theinformation that was available to the members. In addition toindoctrinating members into his own belief system through extensivesermons and lectures, he inculcated a distrust of any contradictorymessages, labeling them the product of enemies. By destroying thecredibility of their sources, he inoculated the membership againstbeing persuaded by outside criticism. Similarly, any contradictorythoughts that might arise within each member were to be discredited.Instead of seeing them as having any basis in reality, membersinterpreted them as indications of their own shortcomings or lack offaith. Members learned to attribute the apparent discrepanciesbetween Jones's lofty pronouncements and the rigors of life in thePeoples Temple to their personal inadequacies rather than blamingthem on any fault of Jones. As ex-member Neva Sly was quoted: "Wealways blamed ourselves for things that didn't seem right" (Winfrey,1979). A unique and distorting language developed within the church,in which "The Cause" became anything that Jim Jones said (Mills,1979). It was spoken at Jonestown, where a guard tower was called the"playground." (Cahill, 1979). Ultimately, through the clever use oforatory, deception, and language, Jones could speak of death as"stepping over," thereby camouflaging a hopeless act ofself-destruction as a noble and brave act of "revolutionary suicide,"and the members accepted his words.

Self- Justification

Both salvation and punishment for man lie in the fact that ifhe lives wrongly he can befog himself so as not to see the misery ofhis position.
---Tolstoy, "The Kreutzer Sonata"

Analyzing Jonestown in terms of obedience and the power of thesituation can help to explain why the people acted as theydid. Once the Peoples Temple had moved to Jonestown, there was littlethe members could do other than follow Jim Jones's dictates. Theywere comforted by an authority of absolute power. They were left withfew options, being surrounded by armed guards and by the jungle,having given their passports and various documents and confessions toJones, and believing that conditions in the outside world were evenmore threatening. The members poor diet, heavy workload, lack ofsleep, and constant exposure to Jones's diatribes exacerbated thecoerciveness of their predicament; tremendous pressures encouragedthem to obey.

By the time of the final ritual, opposition or escape had becomealmost impossible for most of the members. Yet even then, it isdoubtful that many wanted to resist or leave. Most had come tobelieve in Jones -- one woman's body was found with a messagescribbled on her arm during the final hours: "Jim Jones is the onlyone" (Cahill, 1979). They seemed to have accepted the necessity, andeven the beauty, of dying -- just before the ritual began, a guardapproached Charles Garry, one of the Temples hired attorneys, andexclaimed, "Its a great moment... we all die" (Lifton, 1979). Asurvivor of Jonestown, who happened to be away at the dentist, wasinterviewed a year following the deaths:

If I had been there, I would have been the first one to stand inthat line and take that poison and I would have been proud to takeit. The thing I'm sad about is this: that I missed the ending.[Gallagher, 1979.]

It is the aspect of Jonestown that is perhaps the most troubling.To the end, and even beyond, the vast majority of the Peoples Templemembers believed in Jim Jones. External forces, in the form of poweror persuasion, can exact compliance. But one must examine a differentset of processes to account for the members internalizing thosebeliefs.

Although Jones's statements were often inconsistent and hismethods cruel, most members maintained their faith in his leadership.Once they were isolated at Jonestown, there was little opportunity ormotivation to think otherwise -- resistance or escape was out of thequestion. In such a situation, the individual is motivated torationalize his or her predicament; a person confronted with theinevitable tends to regard it more positively. For example, socialpsychological research has shown that when children believe that theywill be served more of a vegetable they dislike, they will convincethemselves that it is not so noxious (Brehm, 1959), and when a personthinks that she will be interacting with someone, she tends to judgea description of that individual more favorably (Darley andBerscheid, 1967).

A members involvement in the Temple did not begin at Jonestown --it started much earlier, closer to home, and less dramatically. Atfirst, the potential member would attend meetings voluntarily andmight put in a few hours each week working for the church. Though theestablished members would urge the recruit to join, he or she feltfree to choose whether to stay or leave. Upon deciding to join, amember expended more effort and became more committed to the PeoplesTemple. In small increments, Jones increased the demands made on themember, and only after a long sequence did he escalate theoppressiveness of his rule and the desperation of his message. Littleby little, the individuals alternatives became more limited. Step bystep, the person was motivated to rationalize his or her commitmentand to justify his or her behavior.

Jeanne Mills, who managed to defect two years before the Templerelocated in Guyana, begins her account, Six Years with God(1979), by writing: "Every time I tell someone about the six years wespent as members of the Peoples Temple, I am faced with anunanswerable question: If the church was so bad, why did you and yourfamily stay in for so long?" Several classic studies from socialpsychological research investigating processes of self-justificationand the theory of cognitive dissonance (see Aronson, 1980, chapter 4;Aronson, 1969) can point to explanations for such seeminglyirrational behavior.

According to dissonance theory, when a person commits an act orholds a cognition that is psychologically inconsistent with his orher self-concept, the inconsistency arouses an unpleasant state oftension. The individual tries to reduce this "dissonance," usually byaltering his or her attitudes to bring them more into line with thepreviously discrepant action or belief. A number of occurrences inthe Peoples Temple can be illuminated by viewing them in light ofthis process. The horrifying events of Jonestown were not due merelyto the threat of force, nor did they erupt instantaneously. That is,it was not the case that something "snapped" in peoples minds,suddenly causing them to behave in bizarre ways. Rather, as thetheory of cognitive dissonance spells out, people seek to justifytheir choices and commitments.

Just as a towering waterfall can begin as a trickle, so too canthe impetus for doing extreme or calamitous actions be provided bythe consequences of agreeing to do seemingly trivial ones. In thePeoples Temple, the process started with the effects of undergoing asevere initiation to join the church, was reinforced by the tendencyto justify ones commitments, and was strengthened by the need torationalize ones behavior.

Consider the prospective members initial visit to the PeoplesTemple, for example. When a person undergoes a severe initiation inorder to gain entrance into a group, he or she is apt to judge thatgroup as being more attractive, in order to justify expending theeffort or enduring the pain. Aronson and Mills (1959) demonstratedthat students who suffered a greater embarrassment as a prerequisitefor being allowed to participate in a discussion group rated itsconversation (which actually was quite boring) to be significantlymore interesting than did those students who experienced little or noembarrassment in order to be admitted. Not only is there a tendencyto justify undergoing the experience by raising ones estimation ofthe goal -- in some circumstances. Choosing to experience a hardshipcan go so far as to affect a persons perception of the discomfort orpain he or she felt. Zimbardo (1969) and his colleagues showed thatwhen subjects volunteered for a procedure that involved their beinggiven electric shocks, those thinking that they had more choice inthe matter reported feeling less pain from the shocks. Morespecifically, those who experienced greater dissonance, having littleexternal justification to account for their choosing to endure thepain, described it as being less intense. This extended beyond theirimpressions and verbal reports; their performance on a task washindered less, and they even recorded somewhat lower readings on aphysiological instrument measuring galvanic skin responses. Thus thedissonance-reducing process can be double-edged: Under properguidance, a person who voluntarily experiences a severe initiationnot only comes to regard its ends more positively, but may also beginto see the means as less aversive: "We begin to appreciate the longmeetings, because we were told that spiritual growth comes fromself-sacrifice." (Mills, 1979)

Once involved, a member found ever-increasing portions of his orher time and energy devoted to the Peoples Temple. The services andmeetings occupied weekends and several evenings each week. Working onTemple projects and writing the required letters to politicians andthe press took much of ones "spare" time. Expected monetarycontributions changed from "voluntary" donations (thought they wererecorded) to the required contribution of a quarter of ones income.Eventually, a member was supposed to sign over all personal property,savings, social security checks, and the like to the Peoples Temple.Before entering the meeting room for each service, a member stoppedat a table and wrote self-incriminating letters or signed blankdocuments that were turned over to the church. If anyone objected,the refusal was interpreted as denoting a "lack of faith" in Jones.Finally, members were asked to live at Temple facilities to savemoney and to be able to work more efficiently, and many of theirchildren were raised under the care of other families. Acceding toeach new demand had two repercussions: In practical terms, itenmeshed the person further into the Peoples Temple web and madeleaving more difficult; on an attitudinal level, it set theaforementioned processes of self-justification into motion. As Mills(1979) describes:

We had to face painful reality. Our life savings were gone. Jimhad demanded that we sell the life insurance policy and turn theequity over to the church, so that was gone. Our property had allbeen taken from us. Our dream of going to an overseas mission wasgone. We thought that we had alienated our parents when we told themwe were leaving the country. Even the children whom we had left inthe care of Carol and Bill were openly hostile toward us. Jim hadaccomplished all this in such a short time! All we had left now wasJim and the Cause, so we decided to buckle under and give ourenergies to these two.

Ultimately, Jim Jones and the Cause would require the members togive their lives.

What could cause people to kill their children and themselves?From a detached perspective, the image seems unbelievable. In fact,at first glance, so does the idea of so many individuals committingso much of their time, giving all of their money, and evensacrificing the control of their children to the Peoples Temple.Jones took advantage of rationalization processes that allow peopleto justify their commitments by raising their estimations of the goaland minimizing its costs. Much as he gradually increased his demands,Jones carefully orchestrated the members exposure to the concept of a"final ritual." He utilized the leverage provided by their previouscommitments to push them closer to its enactment. Gaining a "foot inthe door" by getting a person to agree to a moderate request makes itmore probable that he or she will agree to do a much larger deedlater, as social psychologists -- and salespeople -- have found(Freedman and Fraser, 1966). Doing the initial task causes somethingthat might have seemed unreasonable at first appear less extreme incomparison, and it also motivates a person to make his or herbehavior appear more consistent by consenting to the larger requestsas well.

After indoctrinating the members with the workings of the PeoplesTemple itself, Jones began to focus on broader and more basicattitudes. He started by undermining the members belief that deathwas to be fought and feared and set the stage by introducing thepossibility of a cataclysmic ending for the church. As severalaccounts corroborate (see Mills, 1979; Lifton, 1979; Cahill, 1979),Jones directed several "fake" suicide drills, first with the elitePlanning Commission of the Peoples Temple and later with the generalmembership. He would give them wine and announce that it had beenpoisoned and that they would soon die. These became tests of faith,of the members willingness to follow Jones even to death. Jones wouldask people if they were ready to die and on occasion would have themembership "decide" its own fate by voting whether to carry out hiswishes. An ex-member recounted that one time, after a while

Jones smiled and said, "Well, it was a good lesson. I see you'renot dead." He made it sound like we needed the 30 minutes to do verystrong, introspective type of thinking. We all felt stronglydedicated, proud of ourselves... [Jones] taught that it was aprivilege to die for what you believe in, which is exactly what Iwould have been doing. [Winfrey, 1979]

After the Temple moved to Jonestown, the "White Nights," as thesuicide drills were called, occurred repeatedly. An exercise thatappears crazy to the observer was a regular, justifiable occurrencefor the Peoples Temple participant. The reader might ask whether thiscaused the members to think that the actual suicides were merelyanother practice, but there were many indications that they knew thatthe poison was truly deadly on that final occasion. The Ryan visithad been climatic, there were several new defectors, the cooks -- whohad been excused from the prior drills in order to prepare theupcoming meal -- were included, Jones had been growing increasinglyangry, desperate, and unpredictable, and, finally, everyone could seethe first babies die. The membership was manipulated, but they werenot unaware that this time the ritual was for real.

A dramatic example of the impact of self-justification concernsthe physical punishment that was meted out in the Peoples Temple. Asdiscussed earlier, the threat of being beaten or humiliated forcedthe member to comply with Jones's orders: A person will obey as longas he or she is being threatened and supervised. To affect a personsattitudes, however, a mild threat has been demonstrated to be moreeffective than a severe threat (Aronson and Carlsmith, 1963) and itsinfluence has been shown to be far longer lasting (Freedman, 1965).Under a mild threat, the individual has more difficulty attributinghis or her behavior to such a minor external restraint, forcing theperson to alter his or her attitudes in order to justify the action.Severe threats elicit compliance, but, imposed from the outside, theyusually fail to cause the behavior to be internalized. Quite adifferent dynamic ensues when it is not so clear that the action isbeing imposed upon the person. When an individual feels that he orshe played an active role in carrying out an action that hurtssomeone, there comes a motivation to justify ones part in the crueltyby rationalizing it as necessary or by derogating the victim bythinking that the punishment was deserved (Davis and Jones,1960).

Lets step back for a moment. The processes going on at Jonestownobviously were not as simple as those in a well-controlled laboratoryexperiment; several themes were going on simultaneously. For example,Jim Jones had the power to impose any punishments that he wished inthe Peoples Temple, and, especially towards the end, brutality andterror at Jonestown were rampant. But Jones carefully controlled howthe punishments were carried out. He often called upon the membersthemselves to agree to the imposition of beatings. They wereinstructed to testify against fellow members, bigger members told tobeat up smaller ones, wives or lovers forced to sexually humiliatetheir partners, and parents asked to consent to and assist in thebeatings of their children (Mills, 1979; Kilduff and Javers, 1978).The punishments grew more and more sadistic, the beatings so severeas to knock the victim unconscious and cause bruises that lasted forweeks. As Donald Lunde, a psychiatrist who has investigated acts ofextreme violence, explains:

Once you've done something that major, its very hard to admit evento yourself that you've made a mistake, and subconsciously you willgo to great lengths to rationalize what you did. Its very trickydefense mechanism exploited to the hilt by the charismatic leader.[Newsweek, 1978a.]

A more personal account of the impact of this process is providedby Jeanne Mills. At one meeting, she and her husband were forced toconsent to the beating of their daughter as punishment for a veryminor transgression. She relates the effect this had on her daughter,the victim, as well as on herself, one of the perpetrators:

As we drove home, everyone in the car was silent. We were allafraid that our words would be considered treasonous. The only soundscame from Linda, sobbing quietly in the back seat. When we got intoour house, Al and I sat down to talk with Linda. She was in too muchpain to sit. She stood quietly while we talked with her. "How do youfeel about what happened tonight?" Al asked her.

"Father was right to have me whipped" Linda answered. "I've beenso rebellious lately, and I've done a lot of things that werewrong... I'm sure Father knew about those things, and that's why hehad me hit so many times.

As we kissed our daughter good night, our heads were spinning. Itwas hard to think clearly when things were so confusing. Linda hadbeen the victim, and yet we were the only people angry about it. Sheshould have been hostile and angry. Instead, she said that Jim hadactually helped her. We knew Jim had done a cruel thing, and yeteveryone acted as if he were doing a loving thing in whipping ourdisobedient child. Unlike a cruel person hurting a child, Jim hadseemed calm, almost loving, as he observed the beating and countedoff the whacks. Our minds were not able to comprehend the atrocity ofthe situation because none of the feedback we were receiving wasaccurate. [Mills, 1979.]

The feedback one received from the outside was limited, and thefeedback from inside the Temple member was distorted. By justifyingthe previous actions and commitments, the groundwork for acceptingthe ultimate commitment was established.


Only months after we defected from Temple did we realize thefull extent of the cocoon in which we lived. And only then we didunderstand the fraud , sadism, and emotional blackmail of the mastermanipulator.
-Jeanne Mills, "Six Years with God"

Immediately following the Jonestown tragedy, there came aproliferation of articles about "cults" and calls for theirinvestigation and control. From Sienna to Transcendental Meditation,groups and practices were examined by the press, which had adifficult time determining what constituted a "cult" ordifferentiating between those might be safe and beneficial and thosethat could be dangerous. The Peoples Temple and the events atJonestown make such a definition all the more problematic. A fewhours before his murder, Congressman Ryan addressed the membership:"I can tell you right now that by the few conversations I've had withsome of the folks... there are some people who believe this is thebest thing that ever happened in their whole lives" (Krause, 1978).The acquiescence of so many and the letters they left behind indicatethat this feeling was widely shared -- or at least expressed -- bythe members.

Many "untraditional" - to mainstream American culture - groups orpractices, such as Eastern religions or meditation techniques, haveproven valuable for the people who experience them but may be seen asvery strange and frightening to others. How can people determinewhether they are being exposed to a potentially useful alternativeway of living their lives or if they are being drawn to a dangerousone?

The distinction is a difficult one. Three questions suggested bythe previous analysis, however, can provide important clues: Arealternatives being provided or taken away? Is ones access to new anddifferent information being broadened or denied? Finally, does theindividual assume personal responsibility and control or is itusurped by the group or by its leader?

The Peoples Temple attracted many of its members because itprovided them an alternative way of viewing their lives; it gave manypeople who were downtrodden a sense of purpose, and eventranscendence. But it did so at a cost, forcing them to disown theirformer friendships and beliefs and teaching them to fear anythingoutside of the Temple as "the enemy." Following Jones became theonly alternative.

Indeed, most of the members grew increasingly unaware of thepossibility of any other course. Within the Peoples Temple, andespecially at Jonestown, Jim Jones controlled the information towhich members would be exposed. He effectively stifled any dissentthat might arise within the church and instilled a distrust in eachmember for contradictory messages from outside. After all, whatcredibility could be carried by information supplied by "the enemy"that was out to destroy the Peoples Temple with "lies?"

Seeing no alternatives and having no information, a memberscapacity for dissent or resistance was minimized. Moreover, for mostmembers, part of the Temples attraction resulted from theirwillingness to relinquish much of the responsibility and control overtheir lives. These were primarily the poor, the minorities, theelderly, and the unsuccessful -- they were happy to exchange personalautonomy (with its implicit assumption of personal responsibility fortheir plights) for security, brotherhood, the illusion of miracles,and the promise of salvation. Stanley Cath, a psychiatrist who hasstudied the conversion techniques used by cults, generalizes:"Converts have to believe only what they are told. They don't have tothink, and this relieves tremendous tensions" (Newsweek,1978a). Even Jeanne Mills, one of the better-educated Temple members,commented:

I was amazed at how little disagreement there was between themembers of this church. Before we joined the church, Al and Icouldn't even agree on whom to vote for in a presidential election.Now that we all belonged to a group, family arguments were becoming athing of the past. There was never a question of who was right,because Jim was always right. When our large household met to discussfamily problems, we didn't ask for opinions. Instead, we put thequestion to the children, "What would Jim do?" It took the difficultyout of life. There was a type of "manifest destiny" which said theCause was right and would succeed. Jim was right and those who agreedwith him were right. If you disagreed with Jim, you were wrong. Itwas as simple as that. [Mills, 1979.]

Though it is unlikely that he had any formal exposure to thesocial psychological literature, Jim Jones utilized several verypowerful and effective techniques for controlling peoples behaviorand altering their attitudes. Some analyses have compared his tacticsto those involved in "brainwashing," for both include the control ofcommunication, the manipulation of guilt, and dispensing power overpeoples existence (Lifton, 1979), as well as isolation, an exactingregimen, physical pressure, and the use of confessions (Cahill,1979). But using the term brainwashing makes the process sound tooesoteric and unusual. There were some unique and scary elements inJones's personality -- paranoia, delusions of grandeur, sadism, and apreoccupation with suicide. Whatever his personal motivation,however, having formulated his plans and fantasies, he took advantageof well-established social psychological tactics to carry them out.The decision to have a community destroy itself was crazy, but thosewho performed the deed were "normal" people who were subjected to atremendously impactful situation, the victims of powerful internalforces as well as external pressures.


Within a few weeks of the deaths at Jonestown, the bodies had beentransported back to the United States, the remnants of the PeoplesTemple membership were said to have disbanded, and the spate ofstories and books about the suicide/murders had begun to lose thepublics attention. Three months afterwards, Michael Prokes, who hadescaped from Jonestown because he was assigned to carry away a box ofPeoples Temple funds, called a press conference in a California motelroom. After claiming that Jones had been misunderstood and demandingthe release of a tape recording of the final minutes [quotedearlier], he stepped into the bathroom and shot himself in thehead. He left behind a note, saying that if his death inspiredanother book about Jonestown, it was worthwhile (Newsweek,1979).


Jeanne and Al Mills were among the most vocal of the PeoplesTemples critics following their defection, and they topped an alleged"death list" of its enemies. Even after Jonestown, the Mills's hadrepeatedly expressed fear for their lives. Well over a year after thePeoples Temple deaths, they and their daughter were murdered in theirBerkeley home. Their teen-aged son, himself an ex-Peoples Templemember, has testified that he was in another part of the large houseat the time. At this writing, no suspect has been charged. There areindications that the Mills's knew their killer -- there were no signsof forced entry, and they were shot at close range. Jeanne Mills hadbeen quoted as saying, "Its going to happen. If not today, thentomorrow." On the final tape of Jonestown, Jim Jones had blamedJeanne Mills by name, and had promised that his followers in SanFrancisco "will not take our death in vain" (Newsweek,1980).