Jim Jones Was Normal
(This is part two; part one is here.)
He broke families, he taught fear, he isolated people, he shamed and demeaned people to break their spirit, he made people dependent, he ran obedience tests with deliberate sadism to see who would take it. That’s it. Those are the tools. Again, all of this comes from Tim Reiterman’s book Raven, which I encourage you to read.
When Jonestown shows up in news stories, Peoples Temple is usually described as a 1970s-era Bay Area cult that moved to Guyana. But that’s not where Jim Jones started the church — he began in Indianapolis in the 1950s. In a moment when there were mostly black churches and white churches, Jones insisted on building a racially integrated congregation. Then he warned them, with increasing urgency, that the church would be attacked by white supremacists who were outraged by their social progress; a flood of menacing phone calls and threatening letters backed up the point. One night, as members of the church visited Jones at home, he stepped into his bedroom alone — just as a brick crashed through the window. The visitors rushed into the bedroom, where Jones told them that the white supremacists had just attacked his house. (Miraculously, the brick and the broken glass had landed outside the window.)
Over the years, the threats built to a crescendo — look, another terrifying letter! — and Jones warned his congregation that the white supremacist threat was moving toward its culmination. At the same time, he began to receive visions about the other great threat hanging over the world: nuclear war. It’s coming, he told them, over and over again, sometimes even naming likely dates for the attack.
Finally, under the increasingly terrifying dual threat of death from local attack or death from Soviet missiles, either of which could happen at any moment, Jones sent an advance party across the country to find a place where his people could survive — and then, with a secure haven located, he led his congregation to safety in a remote area of Northern California. Good thing they made it out, right?
For a congregation of Midwesterners, the journey to California meant a departure from parents, siblings, and adult children; for many, it meant a departure from their birthplace and every social connection they had made outside the church. It put them in the woods a couple thousand miles from their families, in isolation together in a new place.
Then, with church members living in church-built homes on a church-owned property, Jones helped them to see that selfishness was cruel and atavistic. People who loved, who were spiritual, shared together. So what kind of self-involved monster kept a husband or a wife trapped in a limiting one-on-one relationship? Liberating the members of his church, he helped them to start having sex with other church members outside of their marriages. In some instances, particularly close couples with especially stable relationships — like the church attorney Tim Stoen and his wife, Grace — forced Jones to issue direct orders telling them who else they would be having sex with. And yes, it did liberate them from the confinement of their close marriage, quickly and decisively.
Jones also helped by having sex with everybody, teaching them how to become free. One night, Jones had a heart attack — another maneuver he used all the time — in the presence of a church member named Larry Layton; as Layton rushed to help, Jones explained that he needed to fuck Layton’s wife, and had already started, and had brought her to orgasm “no fewer than sixteen or seventeen times” during their first encounter. But no worries, because Jones also assigned another church member, Karen Tow, to have sex with Layton to assuage his pain. After the divorce, Layton and Tow got married — but Tow let Layton know that she still preferred to have sex with Jones. See how liberating this is?
When I say that Jones helped by having sex with everybody, I mean that Jones helped by having sex with everybody. Many men in Peoples Temple mistakenly thought they were heterosexuals who were attracted to their wives; Jones helped them to see themselves more clearly by, I am not making this up, fucking them in the ass. He hated to do it, and he didn’t enjoy it, but he had a duty as their spiritual leader to help them to understand their true inner being.
Remember that Reiterman was able to reconstruct the history of the church by working in the extensive Peoples Temple archives. One of the kinds of document he found there was the file of letters from men who wrote to thank Jones for helping them learn about themselves:
Remember this the next time you feel baffled by some idiot still wearing a mask to drive around alone in his car. How can people be so gullible?
Finally, destroying extended family connections and wrecking marriages, Jones turned to the destruction of the last family relationship. The church attorney Tim Stoen and his wife Grace had a son; Jones forced them to sign a false acknowledgement that their pastor was the boy’s real father, and he kept the statement in church files to be used as a weapon. Then, when the child was two years old, Jones forced the Stoens to surrender their son to be raised by the collective outside their home. Children belonged to the community, not to parents.
How do you get 900 people to drink poison, and to force their children to drink it first? That’s pretty much it, or at least the big pieces of it. Fear, isolation, social atomization, the loss of family connections, sexual degradation and lost identity. You’ll be shocked to hear that Peoples Temple also had all-night struggle sessions in which sleep-deprived people were forced to confess their most shameful secrets, and to confront other people with dark truths about how they were really perceived. But that was just the buffing and polishing; the major piece of the craftsmanship was the disconnection. He destroyed people by liberating them from their bourgeois sexual norms and their backward Leave It to Beaver family fetishization bullshit. Congratulations, you’re free.
People visiting their pastor’s bedroom to be given the gift of sexual liberation noticed the books on his bedside bookshelf: He read books about Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. He read them as self-help books, as how-to guides. The transitional phase of Peoples Temple from weird church to full-ruin cult paralleled the Cultural Revolution, in which the Red Guards tore down the Four Olds and attacked their elders in public struggle sessions. If you read Tim Reiterman’s book Raven, read it alongside Yuri Slezkine’s book The House of Government, a long group biography of the Old Bolsheviks who rose to power alongside Stalin and then died in his purge. They tell a remarkably similar story.
Now, actual news headline:
Who else has worked at systematically and aggressively isolating people and depriving them of their social connections, while haranguing them about danger and relentlessly inculcating a fear of death?
Who else works to break family connections and turn people away from their parents?
Where else do we see struggle sessions in which people are encouraged to confess the shameful realities of their true identity?
Read Robin DiAngelo’s books — she’s a cult leader, running struggle sessions.
Here’s a message I got recently from the Chronicle of Higher Education, an advertisement for a $179 guide to student mental health:
Jim Jones destroyed people by breaking their connections to other people. He delivered a message of fear, despondency, and dependency. He led people into despair by teaching it to them. That’s the cult that died at Jonestown, and that’s the broad outlines of 21st-century mainstream culture.
You defeat pathological disconnection by remaining connected. You fight death with the choice of life. And right now, you have to choose, with consciousness and deliberation, because the other path is the cultural default. Notice, and act.