Cult Observer Archives

The Cult Observer

September/October 1988

Jonestown: Symbol for Our Time

Because of its scale and exotic circumstances, many think that the murder-suicides of some 900 men, women, and children at Jonestown a decade ago has nothing to teach us about cults and cultism today. After all, how many other cults have destroyed themselves so finally and lent their names to the 20th century roll of infamy? But it is precisely because Jonestown and the career of the People’s Temple is so mythic in proportions that it serves as the very best model we could have to identify and measure the cults and cultic processes that still abound on this tenth anniversary of the disaster. Indeed, the enormity of the event, which at first induces a kind of denial, soon demands recognition, and we can begin to see, for the first time or in a new light, the kinds of systematic and unethical manipulation of social and psychological influence that gave Jim Jones’s creation the name of "cult."

The Jonestown horror tells us first of all that death is a possible result of cultism. Witness the beating deaths of children at the hands of preachers and gurus blinded by righteousness and emboldened by absolute power, events that we read about in the press from time to time but perhaps cannot easily place in a cultic context. Mark also the suicides of members of psychotherapy cults and personal transformation groups, victims who have been manipulated to the edge of breakdown and then left to fend for themselves; or just as harmful, counseled to heal themselves in destructive ways. And do not forget those fatigued cult members, worked round the clock by cynical leaders, who simply doze and drive off the road into a stone wall. Death – not to mention debilitating and enduring physical and psychological harm – is al all-too-frequent result of the cultic behavior that Jonestown highlights for us.

But the road to Guyana and life in Jonestown also exemplify with mythic lucidity a host of "garden variety" cult-related harms suffered even now, every day, by people throughout our nation. These mundane outrages – which the People’s Temple institutionalized – include violation of the confidentiality of the priest-penitent relationship in order to control; the corruption of virtuous wives and innocent children for sexual pleasure; the setting of spouse against spouse and the purposeful destruction of families in the service of a "new" kind of society freed of "antiquated" values; the defrauding of followers and leaving them destitute; the conning of elderly persons out of pensions and bequests with the promise of insights and salvation; the avoiding of obligations to the state -- such as reporting births and deaths and paying taxes or workers’ benefits; and the sheltering from criticism by hiding behind charitable facades.

Do not think, then, that Jonestown and the People’s Temple are without meaning for us today; in fact, they illuminate much better than others of their kind the nature and effects of harmful cutlitc behavior all around us.

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