Jonestown, White Night, and What Scientology Could Have Taught the People’s Temple

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If anything, Tim Reiterman was even closer to the events recounted in Raven than Bugliosi was in Helter Skelter. Whereas Bugliosi only arrived on the scene after the fact in Helter Skelter and can only directly attest to what went down in the trial, Tim Reiterman was part of the team of journalists accompanying Congressman Leo Ryan’s doomed visit to Jonestown, and was wounded in the People’s Temple attack on the party (and the group of Temple defectors they were trying to get to safety) at the Port Kaituma airstrip.

Horrifying as it was, that attack was a mere foretaste of the carnage that Jim Jones was simultaneously planning in Jonestown, as he led his people in a carefully rehearsed process of murder and mass suicide that was, at least as Jones explained it, intended to act as the ultimate protest against a capitalist world that wouldn’t leave them be. There is room for debate in terms of how serious he was about this motive – his claims that “mercenaries”, the Guyanese army and other hired guns of capitalism were out to invade and destroy Jonestown were backed up by faked assassination attempts, just as earlier in his career his claims of healing powers were backed up by faked faith healings, so there is every chance that he didn’t really believe his own rhetoric captured on the infamous “Jonestown death tape” about how soldiers were going to swoop in and torture and kill all the town’s inhabitants.

What is not in doubt is Jones’ commitment to mass suicide as an exit strategy: as well as the famous “White Night” drills that prepared the inhabitants of Jonestown for self-destruction, Raven documents how Jones was running hoaxed suicide drills even when he was headquartered in the United States, years before Jones’s spiralling paranoia, increasing legal and journalistic scrutiny, and a string of defections from the People’s Temple prompted his retreat to his Guyana hideaway. Given the Temple’s vehemently (and often counter-productively) aggressive responses to even a hint of journalistic curiosity or law enforcement interest, an arguable case could be made that what Jones was really doing on that final White Night was fleeing the consequences of his actions, his pride rendering him unable to face either the criminal charges that would have inevitably followed the attack on the Ryan party or the exposure of his secrets that would follow.

In that sense, Raven represents the worst fears of Jim Jones come to life. Reiterman was already tagged as an enemy of the People’s Temple before the Guyana visit, having written a string of articles for the San Francisco Examiner that aired the grievances of Temple defectors and raised misgivings about the political prominence Jones had managed to achieve in San Francisco at the time. There’s few comforting conclusions to take away from the book, particularly in the face of 913 dead in Jonestown, but the fact that Jones would have hated the idea that the most comprehensive biography of him would be written by Tim Reiterman is a little taste of poetic justice.

Another silver lining on offer is that, as bad as the mass suicides were, the Temple’s exit from the world could have easily been messier. It is revealed here that Jones had intended for those Temple members outside Jonestown to not only take their own lives, but to also to mount a spate of revenge killings to make sure Jones could avenge himself on the Temple’s enemies (actual and perceived). Partly because a lot of these killings were supposed to be committed by the young men on the Temple basketball team – whose leader, Jones’ son Stephan, had had just about enough of his dad’s shit at this point and had no intention of carrying out the kill orders – the murders never took place, though a few suicides did. Most notably, the Temple’s Georgetown-based PR boss, Sharon Amos, arranged a murder-suicide for herself and her three children after a heavy police presence around the “Concerned Relatives” group of, uh, concerned relatives of Temple members dissuaded her from carrying out a Jones-ordered hit on Tim Stoen, former Temple attorney and the top name on Jones’ enemies list. In San Francisco itself more or less no violence was even attempted.

This pattern cuts to the heart of one of the book’s most interesting topics – how Jones’ power was very much tied to his personal presence, and how he was unable to put in place a structure that could keep things together when his back was turned. He was able to inspire such loyalty in his followers in Jonestown that they would follow him to mass death in their hundreds – but in the wider world his empire was visibly crumbling the longer he remained in self-imposed exile. To examine this, the book goes beyond being a mere biography of Jones, and offers up a range of case studies of other Temple members and their interactions with Jones interwoven into the narrative.

The actual mechanics of Jones’ control methods tended to follow the playbook of many abusive cults – drawing people in with a somewhat more conventional exterior before bringing in more divergent and idiosyncratic doctrines, disrupting pre-existing family and social relationships to make members dependent on the leader and other cult members, cultivating an us-vs.-them siege mentality, amassing dirt to use as leverage against members if they turn against the group, and so on. It appears, based on the information presented here, that the major limiting factor on the group’s growth was Jones himself: both when he went on his final retreat to Jonestown and earlier in his career when he went on a long soul-searching journey to Brazil, the absence of Jones seems to have put a crimp on the Temple’s rate of recruitment and fundraising – not least due to his tendency to sabotage and undermine the authority of anyone who seemed to pose any risk of taking over in his absence. This reliance on Jones’ personal touch meant that the Temple would only ever be a local movement to Indiana (where it was founded and spent its early years) or California (where it reached the apex of its power).

One thing Jones never appears to have been able to handle is the matter of defectors. Defections from the Temple would upset him greatly, and he would constantly fret and fuss over what they might be saying and doing in the outside world. (In retrospect, the exploits of the Eight Revolutionaries – a group of defectors so concerned about Temple harassment that they actually slipped back into the Temple’s North California enclave and held Jones at gunpoint to extract a promise that they would be left alone – probably did a lot to convince Jones that his paranoia over defectors was justified.)

It is illustrative to compare the examples of Jones and L. Ron Hubbard here. Although Jones was an admirer of Hubbard in some respects, his organisational design was much less effective – particularly in terms of exerting authority at a distance. Compare, for instance, the way that Jones’ murder-suicide orders were followed to the letter in Jonestown but more or less entirely ignored in the United States, whereas on the other hand in Hubbard’s later life his presence loomed large in every Scientology org even though almost nobody in the Church knew where he was and only a select few could communicate with him at all. Hubbard persuaded his followers to carefully train themselves to become obedient little puppets, effectively delegating down the task of indoctrinating them to individual students, but Jones had to work on people personally and rely on his individual magnetism. This must have been enormously psychologically exhausting for him as well as his victims.

Scientology has a well-developed and clear policy on handling dissenters and defectors – it’s called the “PTS/SP” tech. By labelling those whose loyalties are in question Potential Trouble Sources, Scientology prompts them to either double down and show their commitment to the cause or leave outright and stop rocking the boat. Likewise, when Scientology declares someone a Suppressive Person, this is a signal to all loyal Scientologists: the SP, they are taught, represents a direct danger to their spiritual health and well-being, and thus for their own good they should disconnect from the SP at all costs. Thus, Hubbard’s policy ensures that all loyal Scientologists do their best to forget about defectors and go out of their way to avoid communication with them. Not only does this limit the extent to which dissenters’ complaints can infiltrate the Scientology bubble (a bubble well-trained to avoid “entheta” information – in other words, information critical of Scientology), but it also handily makes communicating with known defectors a disciplinary offence in itself, a helpful precedent if you want to do a mass purge. Most importantly, Scientology’s internal disciplinary system is not afraid to throw people out on their ear if they are considered a nuisance to the organisation.

Conversely, Jones seems to have been unwilling to excommunicate anyone; I don’t think Raven provides a single example of him doing so. Potential Temple members were vetted for how receptive they would be for Jim’s weird brew of Pentecostal miracle-working, pantheism (God to the Temple consisted of the good emanating from someone’s actions – and of course since he had done the most good for them Jim was more Godlike than any other member) and quasi-hard left rhetoric (“I come as God Socialist!”), and once people were accepted Jones used a host of techniques – sex, peer pressure, bullying, threats, and physical violence – to keep people within the Temple, but whenever people left it was because they had had enough of the Temple or Jones, rather than because the Temple or Jones had had enough of them. Hubbard saw the removal of unco-operative members as being ultimately good for group cohesion; Jones saw it as a disaster and a threat, and in hindsight it is no surprise that the Jonesdown apocalypse coincided with an attempt by some to leave Guyana with the Congressional fact-finding mission.

Another respect in which Hubbard turned out to be a bit cannier than Jones is that when he went on the lam he has the good sense to do so quietly and stay out of sight. In the wake of the disaster of Operation Snow White, which saw his wife serving jail time and a range of Scientology conspiracies to infiltrate the US government, manipulate official records, and harass and intimidate journalists coming to light, Hubbard went “off the lines” – much like Jones at the time of his retreat to Jonestown, Hubbard urgently needed to evade both journalistic scrutiny and the legal consequences of his actions. However, Hubbard spent his years on the lam being driven around the Pacific Northwest in a luxury RV by trusted Sea Org veterans Pat and Anne Broeker, with future Church dictator David Miscavige acting as his link to the outside world.

The point of this arrangement was to create the illusory impression that Hubbard was no longer in charge of Scientology, when in fact his policies and instructions were still very much followed to the letter. Not only was this supposed to put enough distance between Hubbard and Scientology’s crimes that some sort of arrangement could be negotiated in future to allow him to stop living as a fugitive once the lawyers negotiated all the legal problems away, but it also had the side effect of encouraging demoralised and unhappy Church members to believe that the abuses and difficulties they were suffering were down to the Church’s organisation, not the responsibility of Hubbard himself. Whether or not this effect was intended, it was certainly extremely useful both to Hubbard personally and the Church; it tended to mean that people tried to stay within the Church structure as long as possible in the hope that Hubbard would come back and set everything right again, and it meant that many defectors of a certain vintage – from that era right to the present day – have tended to go through a phase where even though they denounced the Church entirely, they still spoke of Hubbard’s ideas as being valid and his Dianetics and Scientology concepts as offering genuine superpowers. (Sometimes this phase lasted their entire life and saw them trying to set up “Free Zone” Scientology organisations practising Hubbard’s techniques – all very well, but if they tried to apply Hubbard’s “ethics” ideas then they’d end up just as fascistic as the official Church.)

Jim Jones, conversely, was too much of a micromanager to create that level of distance; as well as bombarding his teams in Georgetown and San Francisco with orders broadcast via shortwave radio, but he also spent much of his waking hours lecturing and berating everyone in Jonestown via the PA system. There was simply no possible scope under such circumstances to pretend that anyone other than Jim Jones was in ultimate command of the Temple.

Another consequence of Hubbard’s seclusion in his final years, and perhaps one which has in the long run has been even more beneficial to Scientology than the pretense that he wasn’t in charge, was the fact that his time “off the lines” gave him the peace and quiet he needed to get as erratic and weird as he liked in peace. As anyone who’s read Bare-Faced Messiah will know, the more details we have on a particular period of Hubbard’s life, the more likely it is we catch him up to some sort of bizarre shenanigans. The more information we discover about him, the less he resembles the beatific “benign Renaissance man” image the Church promotes appears and the more he appears to be a huckster of legendary proportions, his demeanour varying between charming rascal and abusive bully. The years he spent in this seclusion are amongst the least well-documented in his life, and that’s probably to the Church’s advantage; whilst reports on his state of mind at this time are few and far between, this is the time when he wrote Battlefield Earth and the ten-volume Mission: Earth series of brick-sized sci-fi rants, compelling evidence in and of themselves that the old rogue was getting really weird in his seclusion – and “really weird” by the standards of Hubbard is surely really, really, really weird. It was perhaps an opportune time for him to be offstage.

Again, even when he was trying to hide out and be left alone, rather than limiting the people who had access to him Jim Jones surrounded himself with 900 of his followers – and at least a few of them couldn’t help noticing that his health was in flux, his drug use was off the scale, and his preaching was getting decidedly odd. By simultaneously isolating himself from the wider world and letting his various personal issues run riot, Jones both ensured that the trickle of defections would continue and put the recruitment and fundraising efforts of the Church on ice. Whilst volumes have been written on the horror that would result, few books go so far as Raven in tracing how things got to that point in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Jonestown, White Night, and What Scientology Could Have Taught the People’s Temple

  1. Pingback: Not Secret, Just Ignored; Not Suppressed, Just Obnoxious – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Vallée of Mystery – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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