The Truth About Jonestown and What All Cults Have in Common

From Charles Manson to Jim Jones to NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, cults begin—and usually end—with the unmitigated hubris of a charismatic leader.

By Natalie Finn Aug 22, 2021 2:00 PMTags

The word "cult" gets thrown around a lot.

Not only is it literally built into the culture, everything from a multi-use skillet to face serum to Soul Cycle has developed a "cult-like" following. There's talk of the "cult of wellness," devotees of meditation and yoga, kale and quinoa, body sculpting and cryotherapy fueling what's become a multi-billion-dollar industry. In politics, platforms of ideas have been known to give way to a "cult of personality," in which the leader is the point.

Almost anything that takes on the air of a ritual is fodder for a cult comparison—and in some cases, enthusiasm and commitment have been known to slide down that slippery slope toward a devotion akin to religious fervor. Or just, simply, religious fervor.

But brand loyalty doesn't usually result in a person becoming increasingly isolated from those who don't believe in the Instant Pot or the Always Pan. And though overdoing it is a very real peril when it comes to almost anything that fiddles with our brain chemistry, one of the key differences separating any of the above from a cult in its most sinister form is choice. 

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An actual cult, under the guise of expanding your horizons and giving you all the freedom in the world, seeks to take away your ability and your desire to choose for yourself. Rather, your choices must benefit the group—or, in actuality, the person in charge of the group. The leader. Which is usually one unassuming-looking but eerily charismatic man, though often he has women by his side, because they serve to make other women feel more at ease when they're trying something new. (And where there are women, usually some men will follow.)

In the meantime, the leader—whose initial idea may have even harbored a glimmer of rationality once before devolving into malignant nonsense—becomes increasingly intoxicated by his own hold over his disciples, and that's basically the reason why we know of so many cults. They implode under the weight of the leader's ego, but usually not before they've wreaked havoc and ruined (or, in the most notorious cases, cost) lives.

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In a twist on the age-old dynamic, Liane Moriarty's 2018 novel Nine Perfect Strangers, now a series streaming on Hulu, primarily takes place at a remote high-end wellness retreat in Australia founded by a mysterious woman. She insists she knows what's best for every single person who walks through the door, all in the name of healing, and takes increasingly extreme measures to execute her vision. Her right-hand man is a former paramedic who's happily under her spell, until finally she goes too far for his moral compass (and it turns out she doesn't have much patience for dissent within the ranks).

But at least the guests were allowed to leave after their 10-day stay and post negative TripAdvisor reviews if they so chose.

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Actress Allison Mack was recently sentenced to three years in prison for her role aiding and abetting Keith Raniere, the founder of a so-called executive success program christened NXIVM that was harboring a secret society made up of women who were groomed to see to the leader's pleasures and whims—and were branded with a symbol incorporating his initials. Mack, who started taking courses in 2006 and became a full-time practitioner after Smallville ended in 2011, rose through the ranks of Raniere's organization and ended up becoming one of his most devoted followers, as well as a recruiter for more women to pad the ranks of what she sold to potential acolytes as a group of badass feminists.

She and other female leaders in the group served as "masters," but Raniere was the "grandmaster."

NXIVM initially denied the characterization of what went on there as a cult, pointing to all the perfectly fine customers who'd cycled through their for-profit courses, but the writing was on the wall—and the sear was on the flesh. Raniere was sentenced last October to 120 years in prison after being convicted of charges including sex trafficking and racketeering.

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He was selling "an old bag of tricks, repackaged," cult expert Diane Benscoter, who worked with former NXIVM members, told Rolling Stone of Raniere in 2019.

Charles Manson, hardly an imposing figure at 5-foot-6, was a quick study of the likes of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (which he devoured while locked up early in life for pettier crimes than mass murder), and he used what he learned to draw impressionable girls into his fold. Being played by Taylor Kitsch in the 2018 miniseries Waco certainly made Branch Davidian leader David Koresh look more appealing than he was in real life, though that didn't stop him from amassing followers—including dozens of men, women and children who were killed along with Koresh in a heinously botched standoff with federal authorities in 1993.

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But the conflagration in Waco resulted in only a fraction of the devastation to be found at Jonestown, the makeshift commune in Guyana where Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones led his flock in 1977 and presided over the deaths of 918 people—which until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks counted as the biggest instance of American civilian deaths not caused by a natural disaster.

Instead, it was a purely man-made disaster.

And while he had his loyal disciples who aided his cause, it was Jones himself who somehow persuaded countless people to drink a cyanide-laced punch—hence the term "drinking the Kool-Aid," though the still-popular beverage mix was not actually used that day. Rather, it was grape Flavor Aid, photos showing the boxes.

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Born into poverty in Indiana and by multiple accounts a troubled kid who craved an audience, Jones was an up-by-the-bootstraps success story who polished his magnetic ways as a street preacher before forming the Peoples Temple—a house of worship for one and all—in the 1960s. Touting the advancement of civil rights and social justice, he didn't just attract wayward souls with a promise of salvation or a fresh start; rather, educated, hard-working, diverse people were drawn to the group as well, appreciating his modern-seeming mélange of New Age teachings and Christianity, as well as his enlightened take on racial equality.

He and his wife, Marceline, practiced what they preached, building what he referred to as his "rainbow family" with their biological son Stephan Gandhi Jones and eight adopted children. In 1961 they reportedly became the first white couple in Indiana to legally adopt a Black son, James Warren Jones Jr. (known as Jim Jones Jr.). One of the kids, Stephanie, died in a car accident when she was 5 in 1959.

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But by the time the Peoples Temple started operating out of San Francisco in the 1970s, Jones had become more of a self-designated messiah than moral leader, telling people that he was the reincarnation of Christ. Or Buddha. Or whoever else he needed to be in the moment.

His diverse congregation of roughly 8,000 members emerged as a political force at the time, getting out the vote for their preferred progressive candidate George Moscone, who was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1976. (He and city Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by former colleague Dan White in 1978.)

"We loaded up all 13 of our buses with maybe 70 people on each bus, and we had those buses rolling nonstop up and down the coast into San Francisco the day before the election," Jim Jones Jr. recalled in David Talbot's 2012 book Season of the Witch. "We had people going from precinct to precinct to vote. So could we have been the force that tipped the election to Moscone? Absolutely! Slam dunk. He only won by 4,000 votes. I'm sorry, but I've got to give my father credit for that. I think he did the right thing. George Moscone was a good person; he wanted what was best for San Francisco."

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The Peoples Temple donated generously to the ACLU, the NAACP and various local causes, and Moscone appointed Jones head of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. At a banquet Jones hosted at the temple on Geary Boulevard, per Talbot, Gov. Jerry Brown wryly called him "a combination of Martin [Luther] King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein...and Chairman Mao." Jones was mainly affiliated with liberal Democrats, but he also corresponded with conservatives, including the office of future president and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Not that people didn't suspect that there was something off about the church.

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"Everyone knew Jim Jones was creepy, everyone knew he was a megalomaniac," remembered activist Cleve Jones, who attended a few services with Harvey Milk, per Talbot. "But everybody also saw this church full of Black and white people—Black people from the Fillmore who had been subjected to apartheid-like policies and seemed to finally be getting some respect."

Requirements of church membership included turning your own money and personal property over to the Peoples Temple and, naturally, cutting ties with outsiders, including friends and family, so long as they were non-believers. Some members were asked to sign declarations, however false, claiming that they'd molested their children, which they gave to Jones to hold as collateral lest they ever dare turn against the church. (Authorities said that Keith Raniere and his "masters" had women provide compromising photos or videos that could similarly be used against them for blackmail.)

Jones forbid extramarital sex in the church, but he himself indulged in affairs with numerous female members of his flock, encouraging them to disparage their own husbands' sexual prowess. Occasionally he had sex with men as well, according to Jeff Guinn's The Road to Jonestown. Jones insisted he was against homosexual activity but had relations with male followers, he said, to enhance their connections to him.

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In his 1982 book about Jonestown, Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy, Shiva Naipaul wrote that what presented itself in its shiniest form as a raceless, classless utopia unburdened by societal strictures was actually "obsessed with sin and images of apocalyptic destruction, authoritarian in its innermost impulses, instinctively thinking in terms of the saved and the damned."

Jones offered "neither racial justice nor socialism but a messianic parody of both," the author observed.

Jim Jr. told Talbot, "When people talk about my father manipulating Black people, that's true. It was politically advantageous for him to give me his name."

After hearing that New West magazine was working on an expose about the church, members started bombarding its office with letters and calls in an attempt to ward them off. Instead, the San Francisco Examiner wrote about the campaign against the publication, and that prompted some former followers to share their stories with New West.

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"Based on what these people told us, life inside Peoples Temple was a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation," wrote Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy in an Aug. 1, 1977 New West article.

Husband and wife Elmer and Deanna Mertle described being publicly spanked by Jones, which at the time they rationalized away as corporal punishment delivered by a father's loving hand. They were also hit with a belt three times, they said, and later Jones replaced the belt with a paddle he'd use to hit men, women and children. After their daughter was beaten so bad "her butt looked like hamburger" as punishment for hugging a friend who may have been a lesbian, Elmer and Deanna still stayed in the church for more than a year. "We had nothing on the outside to get started in," Elmer explained to New West. "We had given [the church] all our money. We had given all our property. We had given up our jobs."

Former member Birdie Mable told the magazine she never thought Jones was God, but did believe him to be a prophet for a time. Laura Cornelious, who was in the church for five years and served as a private in the Peoples Temple's so-called army, admitted that the constant requests for money and other possessions—"He said we didn't need homes, give him the homes, furs, all the best things you own"—always bothered her. The last straw for her was when Jones brought a live snake to a service and held it up to a woman in her 80s, who was obviously terrified, and he insisted on holding it close to her chest.

They were all told that the money was to "build up this other place," Cornelious said, a place for them all to escape to when the fascists in the U.S. came for them. Vague, but terrifying enough to some.

"This other place" was in Guyana, a tiny country nestled along the northern coast of South America.

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And in 1977, sensing that the tide of public opinion was turning against him as word started to get out that dealings at the Peoples Temple were decidedly not kosher, Jones moved his entire operation down to Guyana, where some of his followers had already started building on the 3,800 acres of land in the middle of a remote jungle that Jones had leased from the Guyanese government in 1974.

They named it Jonestown.

It wasn't long before family members back in the U.S. started to worry, filing for custody of children that had been brought to Guyana and demanding help from local, state and federal officials as communication with their loved ones got increasingly disturbing—or stopped entirely.

Armed guards surrounded the compound, preventing people from coming in or going out. The increasingly paranoid Jones started conducting what they called "white night" drills—a rehearsal of a mass suicide.

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On Nov. 17, 1978, a fact-finding delegation of journalists and public officials, including California congressman Leo J. Ryan and his aide Jackie Speier, who's now a member of the House of Representatives herself, touched down in Guyana.

They met with Jones at the compound the next day, but made a hasty retreat after one of his people reportedly tried to stab Ryan. A dozen church members who wanted to go home went with them. As they were boarding their plane at the Port Kaituma airstrip, escorts that Jones sent with them opened fire, killing five people, including Ryan and two photographers, and wounding numerous others. Speier was shot five times.

She managed to hide behind a wheel of the plane and "I pretended to be dead," Speier, who required 10 surgeries and still had two bullets and shrapnel inside her to that day, told ABC 7 in 2003. "Every time I go back to that moment, I thank God that I'm still alive, because there's no reason why I am alive.

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Back at the compound, Jones explained that Ryan was dead so it was only a matter of time before the outside world descended on them. "Revolutionary suicide" was the only option.

Bowls of poisoned punch were mixed and folks lined up, with syringes containing animal tranquilizers and cyanide also at the ready for those not willing to go quietly.

Close to 300 children were among the 907 who were fatally poisoned. Several others were shot by Jones' guards as they tried to flee into the jungle. Audio recordings later recovered by the FBI contained sounds of crying and other signs of anguish.

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"I always get my hackles up when people say it was suicide," Speier said in 2003. "Those people were murdered."

Guyanese troops showed up the next day to find a handful of survivors, including some who'd successfully hid and one older woman who'd slept through the whole thing, and 918 corpses. Jones was found dead of a gunshot to the head lying on the stage of the compound's central pavilion. The coroner determined the wound was consistent with suicide, while his wife Marceline died of poisoning.

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The local government refused to allow the victims to be buried in their country, so the U.S. military was called upon to clean up the scene and transport the bodies—first via helicopter from Jonestown to the Guyanese capital of Georgetown and then back to the United States as if they were casualties of war, to be received at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

"Can't sleep," one worker on the recovery mission reported back later. "Cannot get the small children out of my mind."

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Not that many places in the U.S. wanted the remains, either, particularly for fear of becoming a pilgrimage sight for believers or a morbid tourist attraction. Hundreds of bodies were eventually interred at a cemetery in Oakland, Calif.

Jim Jr., 18, and brothers Stephan and Tim Jones, both 19, had been away that night with the Peoples Temple team playing in a basketball tournament against the national squad in  Georgetown. Tim's birth mother was a member of the church and she and the rest of his biological family, including three sisters and a brother, all died. Jim Jr.'s pregnant wife died at the scene as well.

For the 2018 ABC News special Truth and Lies: Jonestown—Paradise Lost, Stephan Jones reflected, "There were many people that were dear to me and a good number of them that I was very dear to. I often thought about what it must have been like for them for us not to be there, you know. And I ask their forgiveness."

There was nothing fake about the diverse community he was raised in, he insisted, and "I am so grateful for that because it showed me the truth of that, the beauty of that, the importance of that." But, Stephan added, "There was nothing spiritual about my father. Of course, in my view of things, he had every bit the loved and juicy soul in him that everyone else does, but he had lost complete sight of that. His entire existence was superficial." And, "like any good demagogue," he said, his father "would conjure up fear."

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"His message was incredibly violent as time went on. And it was erratic," Stephan recalled. "If we weren't having an open meeting where he was trying to bring in new members, we were having closed meetings where he was trying to control the members."

Jim Jr., who later remarried and has three sons, explained how his journey differed from Stephan's, largely because as a kid he was just so grateful to have been adopted into their family. "I was a true believer," he said. "When I say true believer, I believed in all the things that Peoples Temple could have been." 

He recalled being reluctant to teach his eldest boy basketball, because the game reminded him only of the night when so many people died but he survived. His son ended becoming a star player in high school, though, and Jim Jr. started coaching. "It was for so long I was known as Jim Jones' son," he said. "And it wasn't until Rob started playing that I started being known as Rob's dad."

Stephan lamented, "There were many times that we probably could have steered things in a different direction. We could have put a stop to what happened long before that final night, and we didn't get it done. For me it was because I was too focused on myself and not enough on my community and what was best for them. In much more simpler terms, it's just that I wasn't there when they died. I don't know what I would have done or could have done."

As part of his own healing process, he made it his mission to identify every Peoples Temple member who showed up in photographs taken at Jonestown. "If there was even one person whose name I could not recall, I set that photo aside and I continued on and I'd do whatever I had to, to remember that one person," he explained. "May seem like a small thing, you know given the devastation of Jonestown, but that's where I found my healing."

Four of Jones and Marceline's adopted children died that day: Son Lew, along with his wife and son; daughter Agnes, with her husband and four children; son John Victor Stoen; and Jim Jon Prokes (known as Kimo), along with his biological mother Carolyn Layton

Suzanne Jones had left the church long before the move to Guyana along with her husband, Mike Cartmell, prompting her father to refer to her as his "damned, no-good-for-nothing daughter."

In a 2013 essay about his late mother-in-law Marceline, Cartmell wrote, "Although I left [the church] because I was miserable, I continued to feel as if my leaving were simply a matter of my own weakness."

Such was Jones' super power.

"He had a charismatic personality that won the hearts and souls of people," Hannibal Williams, a community activist in San Francisco who observed how Jones operated, told author David Talbot. "And people followed him to hell. That's where Jim Jones went. That's where he took the people who followed him."