NOTE: This article was written as the final project for a college Psychology 110 class. It addresses the topic of narcissism honestly. It is, however, blunt and, in places, somewhat graphic. It is designed for a mature college audience.
November 18, 1979. Jonestown, Guyana. Nine hundred fourteen people lay dead, victims of mass suicide. Their leader, Jim Jones, lay nearby, dead from a gunshot to the head. Nine hundred fourteen souls were snuffed out of existence due to extreme religious beliefs encouraged by Rev. Jim Jones. What kind of a madman would encourage his followers to kill themselves? Why was Jim Jones so certain that they had to die for his failed attempt at utopia? What was the root cause of his abuses of power within The People’s Temple?
Many of the answers to these questions lie in a personality disorder known as narcissism. In the first part of this article, we explored the causes and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). In the part of the article we will then zoom in and explore how each element played out in the life of Jim Jones and the tragic results thereof.
Part Two - NPD in the Life of Jim Jones
Now that the history of NPD, its definition, its diagnostic characteristics, and its development have been established, the role that NPD played in the life of Jim Jones can, at last, be explored.
The Childhood of Jones
James “Jimmy” Warren Jones was born on May 13th, 1931 to James Thurman and Lynetta Jones in the tiny town of Crete, Indiana. Lynetta had had her heart set on bearing a son resembling her beloved husband. Jimmy fell sadly short of her expectations, feeling he resembled an ugly baby Eskimo. When the Depression hit, Lynetta had to work in order to make ends meet, leaving the majority of the raising of her young son to neighbors and friends. This early separation from his mother may have caused Jim to seek the affirmation of his peers rather than that of his parents, an indication of narcissism as discussed above.
In grade school, Jim was a loner, preferring the company of books to that of his handful of friends. Childhood friend Chuck Wilmore reminisced, “From the time I was five years old, I thought Jimmy was a really weird kid, there was something not quite right. He was obsessed with religion; he was obsessed with death.”
Jim resented his family upbringing. Tim Reiterman, commenting upon his upbringing, said this:
Jim had inherited a set of family circumstances that reminded him that life had cheated him. He felt deprived by birthright of a loving, close-knit family – something he would crave for the rest of his life.…The pain of being alone, of being the outcast, of being ‘different’ from the other children, ripped at him whether he was visiting his friends or was it school or church.
Unable to find belonging within his family unit, Jim sought a church in which to belong. He found and joined a Pentecostal church. The woman preacher took a liking to Jim and began training him to become a preacher. It is possible that it was during this time that Jim began to develop the grandiose sense of self-importance common to narcissists. He would have begun to see the ability of preachers to sway the hearts and minds of their congregation and, perhaps, began to crave this power for himself.
Jim began to hold mock church services in his family’s loft, keeping crowds of young boys entertained. In order to attract more audience members, Jim would make lemonade or punch, a dark foreshadowing of events to come. Jim’s interest in death took a turn for the morbid. Whenever a member of his large menagerie died, he held a funeral. Jim began to experiment on his animals, drawing blood for observation under a microscope or grafting extra limbs onto his fowls. He was also suspected of killing animals and holding funerals for them. These early barnyard displays of power may have been early indications of the exploitation of others and lack of empathy characteristic of NPD.
When World War II rolled around, Jim idolized Adolf Hitler, imitating his appearance and changing the password to enter his loft to “Heil Hitler.” Jim began to claim to have supernatural powers to control his pets and would display them for neighborhood children. These two events indicate early signs of a grandiose sense of self-importance and fantasies of ideal power.
The Adolescence of Jim Jones
As with most suffering from a personality disorder, Jim Jones’ Narcissistic Personality Disorder began to fully blossom at adolescence. The first manifestation of the characteristic of interpersonal exploitation came in the form of locking a group of friends in his barn. Jim began to assert his superiority over others in a variety of manners, including excelling in the masculine contest of determining who could propel their urine the highest. His actions became progressively more isolating and violent. He once shot his best friend, Don, in the forehead with a BB-gun to see if he could stand it and, later on, shot Don through the toe of his shoe with a rifle.
In high school, Jim was ranked one of the best public speakers in his school and had an IQ between 115 and 118. He frequently dominated class discussions and demanded that he be recognized as an intellectual. Quite often, his intelligence surpassed that of the other students and some of the instructors. This is in line with narcissistic trait of a grandiose sense of uniqueness, requiring excessive admiration, and arrogant or haughty attitudes.
Jim continued to admire and research Adolf Hitler and added Stalin as another hero. These men would, no doubt, have fueled his fantasies of ideal power. One evening, Jim had his friend Don over for dinner. Though the two had drifted apart, Don was interested in the opportunity to repair their friendship. They two had an enjoyable meal and conversation. Several times, Don said that he needed to go home but, each time, Jim requested that he stay. Finally, it grew so late that Don had to return to his home. He got up to leave and began to walk out. Several times, Jim ordered his friend to stay to no avail. As he was walking down Jim’s front walk, he heard Jim call, “I really don’t want you do go.” Don turned around to see Jim Jones aiming his father’s pistol at him. “Just stop or I’ll shoot ya,” Jones said. “Jim, I’m going home,” Don asserted. He began to walk away. As he was walking down the street, he heard the pistol crack and bark exploded on a tree mere inches away. Don dove for some shrubs. He looked back to see Jim Jones at the porch calmly holding the pistol. This startling tale is a vivid indication of Jones’ sense of entitlement and the fact that he expected his orders to be followed without question like one of the dictators he admired.
The Adulthood and Death of Jim Jones
The adulthood of Jim Jones is a tapestry of charisma used for exploitation and deception. While a full biography of Jim Jones would be fascinating to explore, for brevity’s sake, this paper will focus only on those events that highlight the appearance of various elements of NPD within his adulthood.
In 1956 Jim Jones began “The People’s Temple” in Indianapolis, Indiana. According to Tim Reiterman, Jones saw religion as a means to progress his own social agenda although he, himself, was an agnostic or atheist. Crowds teemed to Jones’ healing events. Jones preyed on their faith, often pushing them to the ground at the conclusion of praying for them, a method to build up his own image as a man of God through exploiting others. Jones continued to gain popularity and attracted a mixed congregation of African Americans and whites, a rare unsegregated mix for the time.
Jones’ family embodied this integration. Commenting upon his adoption Jim Jones’ son, Jim Jr., said this, “I was the first Negro child adopted by a Caucasian family in the state of Indiana. Jim and Marceline actually went to adopt a Caucasian child. The story goes that I was crying real loud and it drew attention for Marceline to come over, and once she picked me up, I stopped crying. My family was a template of a rainbow family. We had an African American, we had two American Asian and we had his natural son, homemade.” The Indianapolis community looked upon this mixed congregation poorly. By 1961, increased pressure from the community and Jones’ own paranoia spawned by a series of “visions” prompted the church to begin seeking a new location. This paranoia concerning destruction (often due to the perceived jealousy of others) seems common in some cases of NPD.
In 1965, 150 core members of The People’s Temple packed up shop and moved to beautiful Ukiah, California. Here, Jones labored to create the ideal society, one where all earthly goods were held in common. Membership of the church grew as a massive cross-country Greyhound bus tour began. Jones began to swindle his members money and goods, “As older people joined, it took a year or so and he’d convince the people that he was doing so much in the community and so why not rather than just tithe your twenty percent,” former Temple member Deborah Layton reminisced, “why not sell your home, give the money to the church? And that is what people began to do.” Once again, Jim Jones was using his power to control his people.
Jones’ feelings of grandiosity and fantasies of power began to gradually escalate. One Sunday, they reached a fearful peak. “‘A lot of you people, you Christian people coming in, you’re so hung-up on this Bible.’ He said, ‘This black book has held down black people for the last two-hundred years.’ He said, ‘But I’m going to show you this has no power.’” Former People’s Temple member Hue Fortson Jr. recollected, “So he leaned way back like a football player and he flung it. And when he flung it and let it go, the place got dead quiet like. And he waited until it hit the floor — POW! When it hit the floor, he stood and he looked back and forth. He said, ‘Now, did you see any lightning come from the sky and strike me dead?’… “And he said, ‘What you need to believe in is what you can see.’ He said, ‘If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father.’ He said, ‘If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior.’ He said, even so, ‘If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God’”
Jones’ grandiose self-perception had reached the point where he had put himself in the place of friend, father, savior, and God for his congregation. This account clearly demonstrates many of the attributes of NPD including the aforementioned grandiose self-perception, fantasies of ideal power, the belief that he or she is special, a sense of entitlement, and arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes.
Jones began to test his power over his congregation. On two occasions, he had them drink punch and informed them that it was poisoned in order to measure their reaction and loyalty before informing them that it was, in reality, not poisoned. Though Jones said it was a test of his people’s loyalty, some People’s Temple members questioned this explanation. “Well it wasn’t about our loyalty, because we were demonstrating loyalty all the time. Coming there, being there in the meetings, sitting, listening — you know, supporting, working,” said People’s temple member Janet Shular, “And I thought it had a lot more to do with Jim’s sense of rehearsal. Did he feel like he was potent and — and omnipotent enough to really get people to kill themselves when he said so? And that frightened the hell out of me.”
Though Jones may have thought himself omnipotent, he was not God. Due to a decline in People’s Temple vibrancy, Jones decided to move the operation from Ukiah to San Francisco in 1974. Shortly after the move, Jones became increasingly paranoid about assassination attempts. (As mentioned before, paranoia concerning the jealousy of others is an attribute of NPD.) The People’s Temple headquarters was burnt to the ground, seemingly confirming Jones’ worst fears.
In 1975, Jones and a group from the People’s Temple flew to Guyana, a tiny country in South Africa. This seemed the ideal place for a People’s Temple utopia, a town away from the hubbub and threats of California, a town that would later be dubbed Jonestown. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, the mysterious People’s Temple had caught the eye of journalist Marshall Kilduff. As he began researching the church, he found it remarkable difficult to get anyone to talk with him. Finally, a few former members of the People’s Temple began to open up about the operation of the temple and Kilduff had one of the biggest scoops of his career. Before the publication of the article, Jones convinced the publisher to read it to him. The content confirmed his worst paranoid fears. Six hours before the article’s publication, Jones packed up his church and flew them to the recently completed Jonestown just before the article hit newsstands on August 1st, 1977.
Jonestown was far from the utopia the congregation of the People’s Temple was promised. Twenty four hours a day, a loud speaker blared Jones’ sermons throughout the settlement. Leaving the town was virtually impossible and anyone caught planning to do so was publically beat. Family members and friends reported on one another and a feeling of collective isolation permeated the town. This must, no doubt, have stroked Jones’ feeling of superiority through interpersonal exploitation. Finally, he could be their god without challenge.
Back in the United States, concern over Jones’ actions increased. Congressman Leo Ryan decided to personally visit Jonestown and evaluate the situation. The citizens of Jonestown opened Congressman Ryan with seemingly open arms. For the first few hours, all was well. However, the atmosphere quickly turned when several followers of the People’s Temple secretly approached members of Ryan’s team to ask for help getting out of Jonestown. Ecstasy turned to chaos as dozens of people began coming forward begging the assistance of Ryan. One of Jones’ followers stabbed Ryan, wounding him but not fatally. The congressional team and those who wished to leave left the settlement for the airstrip.
Soon afterwards, a truck drove up next to Ryan’s plane. Men jumped out with rifles and began gunning down those near the plane. Ryan and most of the Jonestown refugees were killed. Back at Jonestown, Jim Jones called a meeting at the pavilion. He explained the situation, “The congressman was nearly killed here. But you can’t steal people’s children. You can’t take off with people’s children without expecting a violent reaction.… The world– the kingdom suffereth violence and the violent shall take it by force. If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace.” Jones then produced vats of poisoned Kool-Aid. As armed guards looked on, the members of The People’s Temple quietly drank from the vats and died. A few protested but, in the end, only five escaped into the jungle. Jim Jones died from a bullet to the head. Nine hundred and nine people died in Jonestown. Five people died on the airstrip. About eighty members of The People’s Temple were away from Jonestown that day and escaped the fate of their comrades.
Jim Jones’ eerie last recorded words were “We used to think this world was — this world was not our home — well, it sure isn’t …We said — one thousand people who said, we don’t like the way the world is.…We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” The people of Jonestown died not as a testament to the cruelty of the world, but as a stark reminder of the persuasive power of a narcissist, a man who was so convinced of his own grand perfection that he was willing to, without empathy or concern, kill over nine hundred souls to prove it.
As this was a college psychology essay, it was originally formatted in APA. If you wish to view the works cited, please click HERE.
As this was a college psychology essay, it was originally formatted in APA. If you wish to view the works cited, please click HERE.