Jonestown Final Paper

Jonestown, an American religious settlement located in the jungles of Guyana, tells the story of the dangers of psychological manipulation. People with no power living in suppressed fear were trapped as a result of the result of one man, Jim Jones. Jim Jones psychologically and physically tortured the residents of Jonestown into fearful compliance, lest they be assaulted or worse. A combination of the actions of the cultist leader and the complete isolation of the environment resulted in the events that took place on November 18, 1978.

Jones was known to be a charismatic from the founding of the Peoples’ Temple in 1955. The Peoples’ Temple began in Indianapolis and was founded upon a Christian socialism ideology due to Jones’ affiliation and love for communism. “The early years, I’d approached Christendom from a communalist standpoint. However, in later years, there wasn’t a person that attended any of my meetings that did not hear me say, at some time, that I was a communist.” The combination of Christian teachings along with a harboring environment for those supporting Marxist views created a haven for like-minded individuals to Jones. The Peoples’ Temple remained in Indianapolis until 1967 when Jones and his near 100 followers traveled to Southern California. Nearly half of the members of the Peoples’ Temple at this point in time were African-American, and these numbers would grow as time progressed. Although originally wanting to establish his church in the Redwood Valley, Jones felt it would be more effective to have locations closer to urban areas due to the increased population counts. Two permanent churches were constructed in Los Angeles, just outside of Compton which allowed for an increased population of African-American followers, and another church in San Francisco. These locations are responsible for much of the Peoples’ Temple growth prior to their departure to Guyana, South America. Jim Jones, being the charismatic leader he was, convinced his followers to accompany him to Guyana in which they would create a utopian socialist society.

The Peoples’ Temple, being a group built upon Marxist ideals, fled from the United States and settled in Guyana in order to escape the hands and punishment of the United States government. Upon arriving in Guyana and setting up their homestead, Jonestown, conditions within the cult began to deteriorate. Jonestown was focused largely on agricultural and manual labor as people were taking care only of themselves and others in the community. Labor was extremely harsh for those involved in these professions and Jones demanded work be done in excruciating frequency. This constant cycle of labor would work to break down the workers, both physically and mentally. The workers were in a constant state of exhaustion, left with no energy to protest to the conditions they were subjected to. This form of manipulation by Jones created compliance due to lack of options. While the workers of Jonestown were practicing their own subsistence, imports and exports not essential to their survival, leaving the residents of Jonestown with little contact to the outside world. Letters both coming into Jonestown, and leaving Jonestown were heavily censored by Jones and other authoritarian members of the cult, further isolating members from the rest of society. The harsh conditions Jones’ followers were subjected to successfully alienated them from the rest of society and laid them completely in Jones’ hands. The only ‘truth’ in the world came from the mouth of their leader, creating a completely distorted world. 

The words of Jones were full of hypocrisy and manipulation. Jones’ followers were met with threats of violence or death, coming from the slurred words of their concubine-adorned leader. Routinely, the members of Jonestown would be ordered to commit suicide by ingesting cyanide-laced water. Upon realizing the water was indeed not laced with cyanide, Jones would exclaim the exercise was a test of loyalty, and to see if his followers would commit to serving their leader’s wishes. Jones served as these people’s leader in order to benefit himself, and eventually members of Jonestown sought an end to his tyranny. After a few gunshots, Jones says, “for the third time running, someone has tried to poison my food. What kind of beast do we have in our midst?” Following this statement, Jones states, “if I catch you the court won’t have any opportunity to deal with you, ‘cause I’m going to hang you on the highest tree I can find.” This speech was delivered to a crowd of people and Jones’ willingness to openly threaten a person shows the hold he has in this society. This despot had more power than their established court system and his first reaction to conflict was violence. This violence instills fear into the residents of Jonestown, thus ensuring no changes to the status quo and the furthering of silent pain and fear. A combination of the isolated environment and the severity of the difference in power, coupled with willingness to inflict pain, resulted in a group of people that would be unwilling to challenge their oppressor. 

The factors of oppression created an environment in which the members of Jonestown would be inflicted with groupthink. Groupthink is a psychological term in which “one modifies their opinions to fit what is believed to be the group consensus.” Many people within Jonestown were pressured into silence under threat of violence and this led to a decrease in diverse opinions among the group. People are less likely to share their own opinions if they do not match what they believe to be the group consensus. The more important factors that contribute to the development of groupthink are: “insulation of the group from outside sources of information”, “directive leadership”, and “a high stress situation with little hope of finding a better solution other than the one advocated by the leader.” The Jonestown settlers were restricted from information of the outside world resulting in total isolation. While the settlers may have believed they were being mistreated, there was no one to tell them just how mistreated they were. Jim Jones more than fulfilled the role as the leader of the Jonestown people. He was the only person with power in this society and what he said was the law. The people only had one person to look to when searching for guidance and the lack of other influence greatly contributes to groupthink. The Jonestown people lived stress-filled lives as a result of their work schedules and harassment from Jones and such Jones was the only person to offer solutions to the problems in society. Jones was the sole person that controlled the frequency of one’s work schedule and also contributed to nearly all of the stress felt by the residents. The only solution put forth by Jones was to continue living lives the way they were because they were living in a self-proclaimed utopia. Any attempt at seeking a better future for themselves or their peers was futile due to the effects of groupthink and Jones’ oppression. 

Eventually the effects of groupthink would prove fatal in the events that conspired on November 18, 1978. Congressman Leo Ryan chose to visit Jonestown with a group of four others and they arrived at the Port Kaituma airstrip in Guyana. In anticipation of this visit Jones was conflicted as how to receive their guest. With the death of Congressman Ryan premeditated, Jones chose to send men to pursue Ryan and his crew after they had left the settlement. The members of Jonestown were to act as though Jonestown really was the utopia it was made out to be. This attitude was forcefully portrayed in outgoing letters through censorship or in photographs through strained smiles lest they be punished for revealing the truth. Members of Jonestown signed multiple petitions not to allow Congressman Ryan to enter. This hesitation to meet the Congressman, a person who possessed the power to save the people from their oppressor, was due to misinformation spread by Jones that made Ryan out to be a racist. The predominately African-American population of Jonestown hung onto the knowledge that Ryan “represented all anti-black feeling.” Jones was able to manipulate the attitudes of his followers by exploiting their racial identities coupled with their lack of information regarding the actual policy decisions of Congressman Ryan. Upon Ryan’s arrival at Jonestown, an investigation began responding to claims that people were being held against their will. Ryan concluded his investigation and him and his team set back out to the airstrip they had arrived at, and this is where Jones’ plan began. Jones was paranoid that Ryan had found evidence of the misdeeds that had occurred and would work to ensure Jonestown’s disestablishment. Jones sent a man, Larry Layton, out to assassinate the congressman and kill the rest of his party in order to ensure word would not escape the settlement. Upon Ryan’s arrival at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Ryan and his party were shot and most were killed, leaving few survivors to escape on the plane. Knowledge of Congressman Ryan’s death was quickly spread to the United States government which responded by enlisting the Guyana Army to march to Jonestown. 

After the confirmed death of Congressman Ryan, Jones became fearful of the consequences and feared Jonestown would be invaded by the United States government and his socialist utopia would be ruined. The event that Jones had been preparing his followers for, the cyanide-induced mass suicide. Members of Jonestown were passed around Kool-Aid laced with cyanide as a way to commit suicide, and this claimed a majority of the lives on November 18, 1978. If the Kool-Aid was refused, they would be threatened. If the threatening proved to no avail, the cyanide was forcefully injected or you would be killed in more gruesome means. In total, 907 people died as a result of cyanide poisoning and violence, a third of these deaths children led to their deaths by their brainwashed parents. Within Jonestown, only two people died to separate means, Jim Jones himself and Annie Moore. Both people died to self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but Annie Moore left behind a suicide note that delves into the mental torment she was subjected to. “I am at a point right now so embittered against the world that I don’t know why I am writing this,” Annie Moore wrote. 

What would compel people partake in this mass suicide as so many willingly did? To what degree of psychological torment were these people subjected to where suicide was such an easy option? The peoples of Jonestown may not have been supportive of the Jones’ implemented ritualistic suicide, but they were left with no options. Of the 1020 members of the Jonestown settlement, only eighty-seven survived the events of November 18, 1978. Only thirty-seven people within Jonestown on that day survived, as the rest were out gathering supplies for the future of the settlement. The option of a mass suicide in order to save themselves from the consequences of their actions was the solution advocated by Jones. There was no hope of finding a better solution than mass suicide as nobody had the power to change what so many were already so convinced of. The collective mental state of over a thousand people to routinely practice their own suicides many times over could not be described as sane. The people of Jonestown were deprived of their sanity and connection to the world solely because of Jim Jones’ actions. On November 18, 1978 when the people were ordered to ‘commit’ suicide yet another time, did they know this would be the final time or did they believe this was yet another drill? The people put their trust in Jim Jones and his words because they had not died yet in any of these attempts, yet they were betrayed and led to their deaths because of the drug and alcohol induced delusions of a megalomaniac. 

For those that survived the events of the Jonestown Massacre, the trauma they endured and the psychological damage was inescapable. A former Peoples’ Temple member’s wife wrote about the trauma her husband had endured and how he was never able to recover from what he witnessed. A child’s panicked screams saying, “No, Mommy, no,” as those screams were shortly silenced. The woman’s husband traveled towards the screams to see that a mother had murdered her own two children before killing herself just after. The deranged activities of this mother in which she would murder her own children as they were pleading to her speaks to her own psychological torment and insanity. No sane person would be able to commit those actions, but it is not her fault these actions even took place. Without the influence and manipulation of their leader, this woman may have never reached such a dark mental state. The effects of Jim Jones’ actions did not end on the day of the Jonestown Massacre, his actions were still felt through the rest of people’s lives.

Jonestown, the site of the largest American death toll at that time, told a story about the dangerous effects of despotism and the power of the psyche. People were influenced into committing actions they otherwise never would have undergone as a result of Jim Jones’ actions. A once noble and well-regarded religious group, the Peoples’ Temple, was tainted and destroyed in the events of November 18, 1978. The utter isolation of the Jonestown residents and the near constant harassment and threat of violence from Jim Jones culminated in a population of brainwashed and deranged people. 

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