Jonestown Survivor Answers Students’ Questions

Jonestown Survivor Responds to final set of questions from these two students:

  1. How was  Jim Jones able to control everyone, especially such a large group to follow his words regardless of their consequences?

  2. When did you notice that Jim Jones was corrupt?

  3. Was he always like that?

  4. What’s the big takeaway now?

Jim was able to paint a picture for all of us who had come to Peoples Temple, frustrated and angry with the racism and injustice we saw around us. He talked about a better, just and nurturing kind of world. He was very persuasive. He was also an expert at having a second life that we didn’t know about. He seemed to live a life consistent with his word – simple, no limousines or diamonds – his abuse of the people around him was not public information. His message really was, “Suck it up – we are revolutionaries. Things won’t be handed to us – we have to be hardworking and vigilant to make the world better.” So, no whining, no secret conversations about discontent – those were not allowed. We had to focus and transform the world we saw about us. That message is one I understood and understand, and I sort of live it now. I am not an accumulator of THINGS – I want to feed the hungry, etc. That was his message too. That picture and message were repeated often – so flags or clues we might have taken more notice of along the way were not given enough attention. We were tired and on the run all the time. No time to ponder or doubt, or even use our critical thinking and observations.

I never noticed that he was corrupt. I either saw things and thought they would get better as we got more organized and built-up (in Jonestown) or saw things that seemed less important than the message to me – so it was not until after November 18 that the ”Emperor had no clothes.”

I think that from childhood, he was unstable and sought power. But, lots of people seek power from an early age. I don’t think that his narcissistic personality disorder was as apparent until he had really gained the power by being involved in San Francisco politics. He was increasingly dysfunctional. And, he got better at hiding it as it got to be more severe – and as he became a drug addict. His instability, mental health, and leadership all worsened over time.


The big takeaway – lots of things. When we talk about the nearly 1,000 people who died as part of Peoples Temple, that minimizes what really happened. Tens of thousands of people suffered great tragedy when their families and loved ones died. It was even more huge than the numbers show. Members of Peoples Temple were wonderful people, smart people, successful people. Yet, we followed Jim Jones. Yes, it can happen to anyone who is not watching out. Anyone. People/leaders often only show their public persona. I am an optimist – I give people the benefit of the doubt. I think many people do. We of Peoples Temple were dedicated and committed to make the world better. Jim seemed to be the kind of leader with integrity, who lived a life consistent with that effort. He seemed like an articulate and bright leader who could speak for us and move the cause forward. His public persona – the image he projected. He was superb at hiding the other part of his nature – controlling, abusive, competitive, intrusive, drug-addicted, and paranoid. And, finally so mentally ill as to kill 917 others. I guess, another take-away is don’t follow. Lead yourself. Be ever-watchful. Know that power corrupts – and we see that every day in every setting, all over the world. So, never be blinded by good works or anything else. Live with eyes and ears open – with your critical thinking button always on ON. Never forget that you have to be your own best ally. Be careful.