Thursday, April 26, 2007

A different world

A lot is being written, recently, about the deaths at VA Tech. It is a painful tragedy which has some people thinking again about the nature of evil and searching for reasons why this all happened. My own personal and professional opinion is that there is no answer beyond that the shooter was psychotic. We will never be able to untangle what was going on in his tangled mind.

About 2 weeks ago, I saw a documentary about the People's Temple & Jonestown on PBS. It was an interesting documentary which gave me a little insight into what drew people to Jim Jones, and gave me the impression that he had become psychotic at the end, leading to his calling for mass suicide. But there were still questions in my mind, so I sought out a book...one that I have now finished reading.



Yes, yes, that image is borrowed off Amazon.com. Seductive Poison by Deborah Layton, describes her life through her childhood into her introduction into the People's Temple as a teen and through her induction into the inner circle of Jim Jones and her subsequent flight from Jonestown, several months before it tragically ended.

I found this book to be sickly fascinating. As a trained mental health professional, it was clear to me from the beginning that Jones was a narcissist. He felt no compunction about lying to people or manipulating them to his own ends. From all accounts he could be a charismatic preacher and the message he preached was one of a socialist utopia that appealed to many during the '70s.

I kept having to remind myself that the author was a young, sheltered woman who did not grow up knowing, as I did because of her experiences, that cults could be deadly or toxic. Still, I wondered why it was that so many people bought into Jones' BS. And they did. Not just flocking to his services, but selling their property and giving their income directly to him.

It is fair to note that none of the people who followed him to Guyana could have known that they were basically moving to a workcamp and not the paradise that he touted. And once there, they were kept exhausted, malnourished, suspicious of one another, and paranoied about any outsiders.

I had to fight to continue reading this book, until it came time for the author to write about her flight from Jonestown. Then I was riveted. It was high drama, and unfortunately it was true.

But escape she did. It's amazing that most of her testimony, once she escaped, was so dismissed. It wasn't until a US senator had died and 900+ people had been forced into "revolutionary suicide" that most people took her seriously. No one believed it could happen. People could not understand why so many would do such a thing of their own free will. But that's the thing, by that point, no one had free will. They had turned their souls over to the safekeeping of Jim Jones, a dangerous man who cared for nothing but his own power over these people.

It's a good book, but hard to read.

5 comments:

hammer said...

i wonder at what point a "commune" becomes a "work camp." It seems like a lot of those commune-type atmospheres were later revealed to be more like prisoner-work-camps (not least of all under stalin).

P'tit-Loup said...

Umm. Hammer, not sure I follow you there. I know of several comunes, not of which were anything close the this. Folks built houses together, farmed together, and started business together, but I don't see how that is a "work camp" in the sense of the dehumanization that led to a mass suicide.
Spin, I think that I would like to read this book and connect with that woman and what gave her the strength to resist what was going on around her. Despite the terror in my heart about cults and how they disempower folks.

hammer said...

I meant that very often the word "commune" was applied to multiple scenarios, some positive (as you explained) and some much closer to forced labor camps

Aravis said...

This book sounds interesting; I'll have to get a copy of it.

Cult mentality is strange, isn't it? There's something about a mob that becomes unthinking, whether we're talking about rioting, or a cult. Jonestown, Koresh in Waco, the one in California on that ranch who were waiting to be taken into space. Most of these people are disaffected in some way, aren't they? They're lost, and then a cult follower finds them and reels them in...

Interesting, puzzling, and sad.

spinsterwitch said...

I think that what turned that "commune" into a workcamp was Jim Jones. By all accounts, before he was there, it was difficult but people were committed and community was fostered. In this case, Jones, when he got there, fostered an atmosphere in which no one was safe. He had people believing that he could read their minds. He would tell the community that he had instructed certain members to pretend that they wanted to defect and if you didn't report on this then they would report on you (thus you couldn't talk to anyone if you did have these thoughts, or if someone confessed and you didn't tell, then you had to live in fear that they would tell on you).

He really psychologically tortured these people to remain with him.

As for what motivated these folks, I think that at the time, people were really looking for something new and revolutionary. In many ways, Jones' message to the masses was very cool (ending racism, providing for everyone, seeking equity and true justics), but when he had more control or closeness to someone he really just messed with them.