Between utopia and fanaticism – The case of Jim Jones

Between utopia and fanaticism – The case of Jim Jones

Jim Jones conceived the idea of ​​creating a socialist utopia, where brotherhood and tolerance would prevail over materialism and racism which he detested; thus he founds a city with his followers that takes the name of Jonestown.


One of the most famous cases that responds to the definition of delusion is ‘the Jonestown case’, which is not an individual delusion, but a collective delusion that spread due to the mass effect.

The objective of this article is to carry out a discussion on one of the most controversial post-war minds, that of Jim Jones; to achieve this goal we will analyze the relevant phases of his life in order to hypothesize a diagnosis.

James Warren Jones was born in rural Indiana in 1931 and from a young age he was described by acquaintances as a ‘strange boy’ because of his occupations: studying religion, torturing animals and talking about death.

His parents are not religious, but Jones begins to show fanaticism since he was very young: on Sunday morning he passes from one Protestant church to another, passionate about improvising sermons with friends and wandering those who make noise during the psalm. It tells of a call from the Lord, although for many it seemed only a desperate need for attention. Jones studied pedagogy at the University of Indiana, and at 21 he began to be a pastor. Integration is at the heart of his sermons, but his first concrete gestures have little success, as several families leave the church when the first blacks enter the door. This does not discourage him, indeed it is an incentive for the creation of his church called the ‘Tempio del Popolo’.

It is interesting for our purpose to know that his father was a disabled veteran of the First World War, registered in the Ku Klux Klan, a name used by several secret organizations existing in the United States of America, with racist and political content and terrorist purposes. supporters of the superiority of the white Caucasian ethnicity.

Of course, a question arises: are we dealing with a ‘genetic fanaticism’ or does its extremism stem from a form of rebellion against the father’s ideology?

The ‘Tempio Del Popolo’ was born as a lay voluntary movement, with political-socialist connotations united with principles of the Protestant church (Wessinger, 2000).

Jones conceived the idea of ​​creating a socialist utopia, where brotherhood and tolerance would prevail over materialism and racism which he detested (Zimbardo, 2008).

Initially he spreads his message by encouraging his disciples to donate food and work to the poor, for whom he starts a canteen and a hospice. Impressed by his pious work, many joined his church, but later, reporting on the vision of an imminent nuclear attack against the American Midwest, he convinced a hundred people to follow him to California, where he continued his activity offering support also to alcoholics and drug addicts.

In addition to its multi-ethnic community there is its close family unit which includes four children, three of whom are adopted by different ethnic backgrounds.

What is initially a small project to create a multi-ethnic family, extends more and more to include a thousand people. Preaching freedom and equality, in the era in which the cold war is raging, earns easy acclaim, especially among the weakest and most disadvantaged ethnic minorities, of which its followers are part. For many, Jones represents salvation and hope for a better life.

Following allegations of sexual promiscuity and secret political activity, the sect moved to the jungle of Guyana, on the border with Venezuela, founding the new city of Jonestown here, but before moving, the faithful must sell or leave the church to everyone. their earthly goods. Jones chooses this place because he considers it the ideal place to pray and save himself from a nuclear war (incipit indicative of his paranoid and delusional traits).

The idea is, therefore, to transform this community into a paradise on Earth: the members are indoctrinated with millennial language and brainwashing techniques. Those who abandon the commune are called deserters and there is an informal police force to hinder, if not make impossible, escape. Desertions are however very few since people live a completely community life, in which it is difficult to develop the desire to leave, but slowly its imbalances become more and more evident.

His charisma is strongly perceived, as well as his need to keep everything under control: it is no coincidence that he creates an internal control system whose initial objective is to make sure that everyone is well, but which subsequently turns into a real job of espionage, in which even sexual intercourse is prohibited without its concession.

‘For an unexplained set of reasons, I happen to have been chosen to be God,’ preaches Jones. In his doctrine, which he calls divine socialism, the role of Jim Jones as the author of miracles and the savior of humanity is expanding to the point of overshadowing that of Jesus Christ.

The organization becomes more and more severe, the work harder and with longer and longer hours. Having no money, people seem to have no choice and continue to live in the conviction of a just cause, in which sacrifice would have led to the creation of the ideal world so dreamed of.

A study investigating the leadership style suggested that omnipotence, paranoia and monument building are the main characteristics of the megalomania leadership style (Seifries, 2018).

From unpublished research, Zimbardo has discovered that Jones has most likely acquired his ability to convince by a famous social thinker: George Orwell (Dittman, 2003).

During 25 years of research and interviews with Jonestown survivors, Zimbardo has found analogies between the mind control techniques used by Jones in Jonestown – that is, sophisticated types of acquiescence, compliance and obedience – and those described in the science fiction book of Orwell 1984. Some of the mind control techniques are:

We can hypothesize in Jones a narcissistic personological organization. Furthermore, the importance of his sermons was born from the conviction that soon they would be invaded, that the enemies were hidden in the jungle and soon they would attack them. We can therefore hypothesize that it is a Delusional Disorder, but the latter could also have arisen in the context of a pre-existing Paranoid Personality Disorder. In these subjects, in early adulthood there is a pervasive distrust and suspicion towards others and their intentions, which continue throughout their lives.

Delusion of persecution, religion or greatness?

Delusion is an acute condition of detachment and distorted perception of reality, which is constant and pervasive in the person’s life and is not as bizarre as in schizophrenia; according to DSM-5 it is characterized by an alteration of consciousness and cognitive changes that develop in a short period of time. Delusional Disorder is therefore a disorder characterized by delusional beliefs, in the absence of the other typical symptoms of schizophrenia and generally evolves from the degeneration of character traits such as fanaticism, distrust, inclination to grudge and so on. The birth of the disorder may not have relevant symptoms from the point of view of the individual’s ability to live a relatively normal social life, but its degeneration can modify this situation, as in the case described.

The content of Jones’s ideas indicates that it is a delusion of grandeur, rather than religious or persecution, given that the leader had the conviction of being extremely important, of having a role of great importance and particular qualities, such as that of perform miracles (which actually staged). The delusion of omnipotence leads the subject involved to want to have control over what his property represents for him, and we can deduce that in the case of Jones it is a question of owning multiple people (the municipality), as well as an idea: the pseudo -religion he created. In man, this excessive possessiveness tends to manifest itself with an increase in aggression towards who or what can threaten his or her real or imaginary properties. Anger, agitation, anger and impulsivity are the main features of this form of psychosis and are all found in Jones. Every single gesture can trigger psychosis, but usually this does not result in a violent act, but develops in concentric circles, such as threats and deception.

Following the demands of the families of some members, who believe their relatives held against their will, a delegation led by Congressman Leo Ryan decides to go to the temple.

Fifteen people seeking freedom, confess that they were forcibly held in the municipality by Jim Jones, so the movement’s security service, annoyed by the betrayal, begins to shoot leaving few survivors. Upon hearing what had happened, Jones convened a general assembly in which he made a request to members to carry out a mass suicide for the glory of socialism, offering them a cocktail based on cyanide and valium and reassuring words:

‘If they don’t let us live in peace, then we will die in peace. Without me life has no meaning. Follow me friends, it’s easy. ‘

The story has a tragic end on 18 November 1978 with the collective suicide of 913 followers, including 219 children. There are testimonies from the few survivors who report that people who opposed Jones’s decision were shot dead and that extreme fanaticism led mothers to spontaneously poison their children.
The survivors describe Jonestown as a combination of prison, bucolic island of happiness and successful multi-ethnic integration.