Jim Before Jonestown

How does a beloved community member turn out to be a deranged cult leader? Or is it vice versa?

By Nancy Wong — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Most of us are least somewhat familiar with the cult at Jonestown, or at the very least, we’ve heard the phrase, ‘drinking the Kool-Aid,’ a reference to the cyanide-laced drink members of the church-turned-cult, Peoples Temple drank on their last day on earth.

It’s been called a mass suicide, but the facts lend themselves to it really being mass murder. Over 900 men, women, and children died in the Guyanese jungle on November 18, 1978, and they did so without a choice at the behest of ‘church’ leader, Jim Jones.

Also, it was Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid.

But here’s what most people don’t know…

Before Jonestown, Jim Jones was a powerful force for good in his community

In the 1960s, Jones “helped integrate churches, hospitals, restaurants, and movie theaters,” and had his own ‘rainbow family’ of adopted and biological kids. He helped his parishioners with tangible things like getting health care or getting their power turned back on.

“Peoples Temple ran homes to care for the elderly, half a dozen foster homes for children and a ranch licensed to care for the mentally disabled. Temple social workers helped navigate the bureaucracies of the welfare system or the juvenile justice system for members. Day camps were established so that urban kids could learn to ride a horse or swim in a pond.” (PBS)

If that doesn’t sound like ‘good,’ I don’t know what does.

It’s clear from interviews with survivors and others who were involved with the church that they were optimistically attempting together “to overcome social, economic, and racial boundaries.” Those goals, which seemed to come from Jim, were a big reason so many joined Peoples Temple.

“Tim Stoen: ‘When I saw Jim kiss old black ladies on the cheek and their eyes would light up, I would cry, I was so touched.’ Deborah Layton and others strove to be more like their non-white friends, wearing their hair in Afros and generally denouncing their privileged status as whites.” (PBS)

Reverend Fiers, leader of the denomination through which Jim Jones was ordained, said of him, “…[H]e could draw the races together. A lot of people believed in what he was doing.”

Wait, what?

It’s confusing, isn’t it? This is the same guy who isolated 900 of his followers, put them through abusive cult conditioning, and eventually killed them.

And yet much of what Jim Jones did in his days in Indiana and later in California were good things.

So was he perhaps a good person who lost his way somewhere between California and Guyana? Or was he always bad?

How do we reconcile and explain these apparently contradictory sets of actions?

We start at the beginning.


Jim Jones was born James Warren Jones in 1931 in Indiana, in a very small town of which five of the town’s thirteen businesses were coffin makers. His family was poor, and his house was described as “little more than a shack.”

Young Jim’s emotionally absent father was a disabled veteran of the First World War, who was cheated on “brazenly” by Jim’s mother Lynetta, who was seventeen years younger than her husband and worked as a waitress and in factories.

Lunnet, Lunette, Lynette, or Lynetta — she changed her name many times over the years — was described as domineering, frequently “[deriding] her husband’s inability to make a living,” and telling Jim daily that he had to make something of himself.

“Despite her low station in Lynn, Indiana, Lynetta put on airs and looked down on her fellow townspeople. She overshared progressive political opinions in a conservative community. She harbored enormous ambition, even as she achieved little.” (Flynn)

In addition to her narcissistic traits, Guinn says that the main lessons Jones took from his mother were: “there was always some Them out to get you, and reality was whatever you believed.”

Jim Jones later said of his relationship with his parents: “I didn’t have any love given to me — I didn’t know what the hell love was.”

Of course, we have to take the words of the long-dead cult leader with a grain of salt, but Lynetta, who wouldn’t let her son come home until after she did, wasn’t known to be a caring mother.

She was, however, in certain ways, permissive. As Jones continued to steal candy bars, Lynetta continued to pay his running tab.

In contrast with the leader he would become, Jim was an outsider as a child. His peers thought he was weird, which sounds about right for a kid who once locked a group of them in the barn in order to keep them as an audience.

“When a playmate decided to go home for dinner, Jim took a shot at him with a rifle. This scenario would repeat itself, demonstrating both the boy’s abandonment complex and the propensity of good people to project goodness on others by way of second chances.” (Flynn)

He also displayed at least one common early indicator of anti-social personality disorder: he tortured animals, performing ‘experiments’ on them, killing them, and then conducting funerals for them.

According to one of Jim’s young friends, “[h]e was obsessed with religion; he was obsessed with death.” Over the course of his youth, he visited every church in town, where he no doubt learned aspects of the role he’d later play.

According to a high school love interest, Phyllis Wilmore, at a pre-game pep rally, “Jimmy decided to stage an elaborate funeral for the other school. He got up and started preaching and did an incredible job. He had control and inflection. It was like the real thing, but was all intended to be a joke.”

Young Jones apparently also took an interest in Adolph Hitler, who was perhaps not-so-coincidentally known as a persuasive speaker himself. In childhood war games, Jones had always happily played the role of Hitler.

More hauntingly, it’s been said that Jones was impressed when in 1945, Hitler committed suicide, “thwarting enemies who sought to capture and humiliate him.”

Early adulthood

Jim Jones had intended to be a doctor. He met his wife-to-be while working at a hospital as an orderly, and they married in 1949 before he started at Indiana University in 1950.

Jones’s then-roommate later remembered him as “troubled” and “maladjusted,” with a wife whom he seemed to regard as a sort of “mother figure.

In the early 1950s, Jim Jones filled in as an interim pastor for the congregation he’d joined, and there, spoke about the plight of Black and poor Americans. Eventually, he turned away from plans of being a doctor and started his own church, Peoples Temple in Indiana, in 1956.

In his preaching, Jones became heavily influenced in the late 1950s by Father Divine, the charismatic leader of a multiracial congregation who claimed he was God and “whose meetings were theatrical and physical.”

“A number of Peoples Temple members noticed a change in Jones’ preaching style after he visited Father Divine. Jones became more flamboyant, and his mix of Pentecostalism and Methodism appealed to the African American community.” (PBS)

At his Indiana church, Jim Jones practiced faith healing. While some followers insisted that he’d cured them, aides said that his ‘healings’ were faked, “using cooperative church members to claim that he had miraculously cured them, or using the intestines of animals as evidence to show that he had exorcised cancer from congregants.”

The church was later moved to California where it thrived and where Jones became an important political figure, in part, due to the size of his congregation, which “could blanket a neighborhood with fliers, stuff a mass mailing, or enthusiastically cheer a campaign rally at a moment’s notice.”

“At its peak in the early 1970’s, the church claimed a membership of almost 20,000, all in California.” (Lindsey)

It is perhaps worth noting here that his wife, in a 1977 interview, said of Jones that he became a church leader, not because he had any religious faith, “but because it served his goal of achieving social change through Marxism.”

“Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion,” she said, adding that he had once slammed a Bible on a table and said, “I’ve got to destroy this paper idol!” (Lindsey)

Manipulation until the end

It’s clear that Jones’s intentions were, at best, muddy.

It seems that on some level, he really did want progressive social change, most likely due to his youth in which he felt like a poor outcast and as a mirroring of his mother’s beliefs.

Whether Jones took up the cause of integration and Black uplift because he believed in it, or whether he did so because it allowed him to grow a large congregation, is hard to say.

Still, his later autocratic control of his followers reveals that he had no problem forcing others to submit to him. He “needed people to need him,” just as he always had.

In order to be needed, seen as important, and in order to get his agenda across, Jones did a lot of lying and a lot of manipulating.

One former follower said of Jones, “The first time I met him, I was convinced he could read minds, cast spells, do all kinds of powerful things, both good and evil. I was afraid of him and stayed afraid of him for seven years.”

Jim Jones claimed that he was of Cherokee heritage, but his family has said since that this was untrue. He made a point of his interracial background, began calling himself a person of color, and eventually, referring to himself as a Black man.

Manipulation of his church moved from falsified empathy to mental and emotional abuse, and eventually, to physical and sexual abuse.

These things started in the U.S. and only grew worse in Guyana, where followers were not just verbally intimidated from leaving but then physically kept from doing so.

Jones’s personality disorder was only made worse by his use of and increased reliance on drugs, which made him increasingly paranoid.

And experts say he was, near the end of his life, almost certainly insane. (Lindsey)

In some ways, Jones wasn’t entirely wrong to be paranoid. Certain people within the U.S. were indeed catching on, and Jones may have known that Jonestown, which was nothing like the utopia he had promised, couldn’t last forever.

And in his final act of narcissism, sadism, and control, he didn’t allow his followers to leave him. He forced them to kill themselves or had them killed: first babies, then children, and then parents.

“People argued with Jim, but anyone who didn’t want to commit suicide was held down and shot with needles filled with potassium cyanide. Unless you were one of the lucky ones who happened to sneak off into the jungle, you were dead. They went around with stethoscopes, and if you still had a heartbeat, you’d be shot.” (Gritz)

However, Jim Jones isn’t one of the bodies you will see in photos, laying out on the ground of the jungle. Instead, he was found inside, lying on a pillow, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

The conclusion?

Jim Jones showed signs of sadism and narcissism from an early age. The narcissism and sadism didn’t diminish but rather expressed themselves differently over time, more subtly in his young adulthood and much more overtly by the 1970s.

It’s arguably too simplistic to ever label someone as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because we are all some mix of both of these things. However, the records we have on Jones and his behavior throughout the years indicate that he was much more bad than good.

Did he do good things? Yes. But much of the time, this apparent goodness achieved him tangible gain.

It’s important to remember that good acts are not necessarily indicative of good intent. This isn’t exclusive to Jones. It can be seen in many places where there is something to be gained.

Yes, Jim Jones did some really good things. Or perhaps more accurately, he did a lot of good deeds possible, and his congregation seems to have truly loved each other. It’s a shame they trusted the wrong person.

Jim Jones was a bad man with a powerful personality disorder.

Writer and Writing Mentor. Screenwriter. Honest. Human. She/Her. @elancassandra on Instagram, @ElanCDuensing on Twitter. https://linktr.ee/elancassandra

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