The PBS documentary Jonestown: the life and death of Peoples Temple
James Warren Jones was born in Indiana in 1931. It was here, during the 1950s, he started his own church, which was to become the ‘Peoples Temple’. In 1965, reportedly to protect its members against nuclear war, Jones moved the Peoples Temple to Northern California. This move eventually brought increased media scrutiny, and in 1977, with mounting accusations that Jones was illegally diverting the income of cult members for his own use, Jones and hundreds of his followers emigrated to Guyana and set up an agricultural commune, the narcissistic ‘Jonestown’.
The authors of Schizophrenia: a short introduction think that Jones was suffering from Schizophrenia:
Even more rarely a strong personality with psychotic delusions is able to impose them on a whole community. This seems to have been the case with the tragic ‘Jonestown massacre’
Jim Jones was the charismatic leader of a religious cult. He was almost certainly psychotic. He suffered from mysterious fainting spells, heeded advice from extraterrestrials, practised faith healing and experience visions of a nuclear holocaust. He lead his followers to a remote part of the jungle where they she up a community isolated from the rest of society. The community lived in fear of an unnamed enemy and destroyer who would descent upon them and kill them mercilessly.**
Rather than being devout, Jones was a communist and his interest in worship was to achieve social and political goals. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Jonestown was more reminiscent of a Stalinist state than a religious community, and Jones more megalomaniac Marxist than deranged religious leader. Preaching social equality, Jones had recruited mostly lower income African-Americans into his church, inviting them to become part of creating a utopia. They found a regime directly by North Korea of eight hours of work followed by a further eight of study. Witnesses report that they were instilled with a pervasive sense of being under attack. Just like during the worse days of the Cultural revolution members would turn each other in as potentially enemies to the common cause. No one was allowed to leave the settlement and beatings were administered to dissenters at group meetings.
Jones himself was reportedly obsessed with his personal safety, and recruited two Temple members to place themselves between himself and an assassin’s bullet, should the need arise. He is described as becoming increasingly paranoid through the 1970s aided, no doubt by abuse of LSD and marijuana as well as other drugs. At his post mortem, enough Phenobarbital was found in his body to kill someone who had not developed considerable tolerance. Jones was often noticed by his follower as having slurred speech which he put down to his nurse giving him the incorrect medication.
Jones would rehearse mass suicide in order to test his subjects’ loyalty. This presumably came in useful following the chain of events that started on November 14, 1978. On this day US Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana with a group of newsmen and relatives of Jonestown residents to conduct an unofficial investigation of alleged abuses of Temple members. Four days later, as Ryan’s party and 14 defectors prepared to leave from a nearby airstrip, Jones ordered the group assassinated. Ryan and four others were killed but when Jones learnt that others had escaped and would likely bring in Guyanese authorities, he commanded his followers to drink cyanide adulterated punch; Jones himself died of a gunshot wound in the head. Guyanese troops reached Jonestown the next day, and the Jonestown death toll was eventually placed at 913 (including 276 children).
Jones was clearly disturbed, but for my money rather than schizophrenia, I favour Jones suffering a schizotypal personality disorder, which is classed under F20-29 Schizophrenia, schizotypal and other delusional disorders in ICD-10. It seems unlikely to me that Jones would have been able to achieve the foundation of a church and ultimately that of a substantial settlement if he had been severely affected by schizophrenia, whereas People with schizotypal disorder whilst not have a full blown schizophrenia type picture can display odd beliefs, unusual perceptual experiences, suspiciousness and paranoid ideation. Under stress this can deteriorate into psychosis, which, with the tragic end of Jonestown would fit the picture.
Another interesting question is why nearly a thousand of Jones’s followers apparently allowed themselves to become part of a massive suicide pact. The Jonestown film suggests that there was a great deal of coercion involved in this, but by settling in Jonestown its inhabitants were self selected to be susceptible to Jones’s will and people whose utopia has just collapsed might be a desperate bunch. Jonestown’s inhabitants had been living in an atmosphere of paranoia the veracity of which appeared to be aptly illustrated by the visit of Congressman Ryan. Their worries, channelled through a disturbed but charismatic man, were ultimately fateful.
A rather disturbing tape recording made as the Jonestown inhabitants debated whether to commit suicide
Rt Rev. Tom Butler said something sensible about this on Radio 4 thought for the day 18 November 2008
*The day I started to write this post.
** These are the own two paragraphs on the subject, which leads to the suspicion that they didn’t give the matter in depth consideration.