Yes, it’s hard to see, but don’t look away. Horrible things happen when no one is watching.
Let’s talk about Jonestown.
If we are going to talk about cults, and their deadly exploitation of the human need for meaning and hope, we have to talk about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. In many ways, their story is our cultural emblem of what a cult is. The phrase “drink the kool-aid” emerged from this sad case, although it is not accurate. First of all, it was “Flavor-aid” in that vat, and a large percentage of the victims didn’t drink it. Some were injected, in the back, with cyanide. Some were forced at gunpoint to take the poison. There were around 300 children and babies that had no choice. They were fed the poison by their parents (who had some reason to hope it was all a drill or loyalty test, and not really poison) or by Jones’ enforcers. Those babies died screaming in pain.
I now realize, that is the first thing I want to do here: honor the victims of the Jonestown Massacre, by dispelling the trite myth that they all shuffled to their doom like programmed zombies. Or the comforting idea that they were simply so gullible and stupid or needy that they just swallowed everything they were given — crazy cult beliefs, Flavor-aid, abuse, whatever. This is so far from the truth, and demeaning to the dead, it makes me angry. It is important to know the whole story about Jonestown. It illuminates something about how we as a society can intervene effectively to prevent such tragedies in the future, just by paying attention.
Jim Jones had the same bizarre charisma that all cult leaders have. The stories you hear about him are the same as all the others: Charlie Manson, L Ron Hubbard, Shoko Asahara, David Koresh, Adi Da, JohnRoger, etc. Every one of these monsters was/is a “shape-shifter”, in a sense. They could pour their enormous charisma into the form most pleasing to their target audience, leaving an overwhelmingly positive impression. They could also be overwhelming in their contempt, or in their rage, when confronted with criticism. So much so that they could stop any real self-scrutiny within the group before it even began.
It is of the utmost importance to understand the power of such charisma. If you have ever met a real “star”, or someone with what we call “starpower” — that is a similar experience. If you have never interacted with someone that has great charisma, it can be hard to understand the kind of “pull” such a person can have on others. It is subtle and non-verbal; perhaps involving what is commonly referred to as chemistry, or energetics. Non-verbal elements of human behavior are outside the domain of rationality, so long as they are not recognised or understood. This means that we in our rational culture are generally unprepared to deal with them, until we learn enough about them.
Most people never learn that much about it, so when they encounter a person with that bizarre charisma, they take the experience at face value. Instead of recognizing the “master” as powerfully charismatic, and thus someone to be wary of, they are simply amazed at the impact such a person has on them and others. Meeting someone with true charisma is intoxicating, for anyone. In that intoxicated state, people are easily influenced and programmed. Jim Jones was extremely skilled at this. He was an absolute master at the cult long-con, until he went crazy with paranoia from his addiction to speed.
Jones started out with the usual minister scam of faith healing, but he was more thorough than most con-men. He used common tricks like sleight-of-hand and planted cases, but he also drugged people to mislead them or control them. He had loyal followers dig through trash and call relatives of new members under a false pretext, to get information that would make his “healing” more believable. (Sound familiar, scientology watchers?). He was a convincing performer — to this day, there are former members who believe he actually removed cancer from people and whatnot. Now that is persuasion!
Jones cultivated the usual facade of charity and hospitality to lure in new members and gain support from the community. But behind that facade, he was frighteningly effective at reading the politics of his time and playing them to his benefit. Racial disenfranchisement and segregation were matters of great concern. Jones made a cozy niche for himself by exploiting the pain and suffering around those issues. Those who were struggling for equality were shown an ideal community where people of all colors would be respected as peers. Black people saw the promise of relief from the pressure of discrimination. White people saw the promise of relief from the guilt and unease of living in a society that is unjust in their favor.
He also played into the trauma of the disenfranchised, filling them with fear that they would be targeted for challenging “the system” so effectively. As Jones’ addiction and paranoia increased, he did everything possible to sell his congregation on the idea that they were under seige. Even going so far as to fake being shot, so he could miraculously recover, and reap the benefits of being a “risen martyr”. He scared the shit out of his followers, a great way to bond a group together and foster blind loyalty.
These canny ploys reaped numerous benefits for Jim Jones. He had the fierce loyalty of many people who were “helped” by the temple and saw it as a safe harbor. More importantly, he had the deference of local officials whose campaigns benefitted from Jones’ support, who were reluctant to be seen as obstructing someone perceived to be doing so much to help poor blacks and elderly folks. So when reports of abuse and sexual shenanigans and harassment of ex-members surfaced in San Francisco, folks who had used Jones to get ahead in local politics, like Harvey Milk, just refused to pursue them.
When ex-members and concerned relatives spoke about the paranoia and violence and rehearsals of mass suicide, and Jones calling himself God while trampling on the bible — before the Jonestown massacre — no one wanted to take them seriously. This is why Jonestown happened, not because people in the cult were too weak to say no — but because no one was listening. When people did listen, they vastly underestimated the real danger. By the time authorities were willing to take a hard look at the abuse, it was too late. The willful ignorance of the community and larger society is all the shelter any crazy cult leader needs to bring about horrible tragedy. That is why being a watcher is important.
“The price of freedom is vigilance.” That idea is often quoted to justify war-mongering and reactionary foreign policy. I have always seen a different meaning there. There are many kinds of freedom, and cults take away freedom of a kind that can’t be reclaimed by force. For instance, in discussions about freeing prisoners from scientology’s Hole on their Int. Base in Hemet, people sometimes suggest sending in the police. Then the point is made that this would do no good, because the prisoners would deny they are being held against their will. These people lack a freedom of the mind, one they can reclaim only through a willingness to look, and see things for what they are.
There are many kinds of vigilance, but they all involve watching out for potential danger or harm by looking carefully. Very simply: our freedoms are taken from us when we refuse to look at what is really happening. We must be willing to watch, willing to see what is wrong or corrupt, and willing to name it to ourselves and each other. That is the best tactic to avoid being exploited or trapped in a bad situation. Or for someone who is in such a situation to get out, and stay out. Watchers, keep watching!
Some interesting sources:
•Read — A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres. An excellent book with a strong emphasis on the humanity of this story.
•Watch — The Final Report: Jonestown. A good short (45 min) docu from Nat Geo, summarizes evidence released in bits and pieces over the years.
•Blog — Jonestown Apologists Alert. Written by the son of one of the reporters who exposed Jim Jones, and who was targeted by his followers; this blog ain’t hearing no apologist bullshit!
•Listen — the actual recording of what Jim Jones said to his followers leading up to their deaths. [Warning, this is disturbing. But I feel it is important to hear the scare tactics and lies he used to coerce them. As well as people arguing for survival.]