Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on Jim Jones (Reverend James Warren “Jim” Jones), the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, which is known for the November 1978 mass suicide of 909 Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana. Here are my answers to their questions, published on 30th August 2012.
All his life, Jim claimed to be of Cherokee descent. He even adopted a little girl with Native American ancestry. He knew his background was Welsh. So why would he want to create a false image of himself and his family?
Jones was clearly against racial prejudice and by claiming to be of Cherokee descent he was taking this one step further. People have even said he spoke like a ‘black man.’ In his actions and his words, Jones’ mission was to prove that, unlike his father, he accepted all colours and creeds. Hence, his so-called ‘rainbow family,’ which was made up of adopted children from different nationalities.
What would make a little boy shun the company of other children in favour of the church?
It is likely that Jones did not have the social skills to interact with children of his own age. Furthermore, from an early age he appeared to place himself above others, identifying more with the all-powerful God than with the average person on the street. As an adult, Jones’ even claimed to be ‘God’ to those who wanted him to be.
Jim had an unhealthy obsession with death, without death having occurred much in his family. Why would a child have an interest like this? He even held funerals for small animals he found dead.
An interest in death and mortality is a key characteristic seen in children with depression. Along with other possible signals of depression, such as lack of interest in being around other children, evidence does suggest that the young Jim Jones had clinical depression. Indeed, it is likely in this day and age that Jim would have been diagnosed as such.
He is rumoured to have stabbed a cat to death. Why would a child do this?
Many psychopaths and serial killers start their campaign of evil on animals. It in many ways becomes a ‘practice run’ for the atrocities to come. Serial killers often start with animals because they have power over them; it is an ‘easy’ place to start and to gain a sense of control.
Why would a child be as interested as Jim in the lives of Hitler and Stalin? And what effect would the reading he did about these men affect him?
Something obviously drew Jim to Hitler and Stalin, and an examination of his own behaviour would suggest it was the authority these men had over the masses. Like Hitler and Stalin, Jones possessed the charisma and manipulative abilities to make people follow him. They were natural leaders, as was Jones. These leadership qualities, when abused, can have devastating consequences.
What can we make of Jim’s condemnation of homosexuality when he himself was so keen to indulge in homosexual acts?
Jones displayed a number of narcissistic traits, putting himself above others. For someone with narcissism, the rules they set for others aren’t necessarily the rules they have to follow themselves. They see themselves as superior and beyond any rules; they can do no wrong.
And I suppose this is a question about his followers more than about Jim himself, but how can some people inspire others in the way he did? What made him so powerful? Why did people go along with him?
Jones targeted vulnerable people in need of a sense of belonging – ethnic minorities, drug abusers, alcoholics – people who would be drawn to his messages of justice and equality. Many of those who were taken in by Jones’ charm were mesmerised by his mission to unite people and create a community of love and acceptance. As with many abusive characters, it wasn’t until people had invested themselves into Jones’ cause that he started to change. By this time, many followers had too much to lose by walking away; they had sold their houses, isolated themselves, and developed a sense of identity with others at the Peoples Temple.
Fear also played a huge role in why people followed Jones. Just as Hitler used fear to gain his followers, so did Jones. By isolating his followers from the outside world, all they had were his words to go by and these words were often ones of threats in the outside world. He even told them that the government wanted to destroy the Peoples Temple. His followers became too scared to leave the ‘sanctuary’ of the Peoples Temple, even if this sanctuary had become a threat in and of itself.
The members of his congregation killed themselves by poison. Jim chose a gun. What does this say about him?
The fact that Jones killed himself with a gun rather than poison gives us some insight into his personality. Firstly, even in death Jones placed himself as superior to his followers and thus refused to die the same way they did. Secondly, Jones chose a much quicker death, suggesting that underneath his brave exterior he was really a coward. Indeed, this mass suicide was merely Jones’ attempt to run from the consequences of his actions rather than face his followers turning against him.