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Jonestown: The heavy price of personality cults

Written By | Aug 9, 2014

WASHINGTON, August, 9, 2014 — A chilling story recently flashed across the Associated Press news wire. Cremated remains of nine victims of the November 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, were found in the former Minus Funeral Home in Dover, Delaware. They were among more than 900 followers ordered to commit “revolutionary suicide” by their leader (called “father”), the Rev. Jim Jones.

276 victims were children.

“For some strange reason, man must always thus plant his fruit trees in a graveyard. Man can only find life among the dead. Man is a misshapen monster, with his feet set forward and his face turned back.” — G. K. Chesterton

The Rev. Jones was a devout Marxist. “If you’re born in capitalist America,” roared Jones in a sermon, “racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.”

READ ALSO: Unclaimed remains of nine Jonestown massacre victims found in funeral home

Jones controlled his San Francisco flock by demanding they sign confessions to crimes they did not commit, as proof of their devotion to him and the socialist movement. And Jones bilked cash from them as well, generally from his poor, African-American parishioners who willingly contributed their Social Security checks.

And then there was John Victor Stoen. Born in 1972, infant John was given over to the Jones’ cult for communal raising by his brainwashed parents Tim and Grace Stoen.

“Science has proven how resilient children can be despite great obstacles. And that’s where other adults may step in, to help nurture children and to provide positive role models,” wrote Hillary Clinton in her book, It Takes a Village.

In 1976, Grace Stoen, having regained her sense of self, fled the Bay Area communal village called the Peoples Temple, but left her son behind.

“I wanted to take John, but I didn’t have him physically and I felt like I didn’t have him psychologically,” she later told the Los Angeles Times. “All the time John was alive, people were telling me I wasn’t good enough for him, that he was more intelligent than I, that I wasn’t a good mother.”

When news organizations began recounting the horror stories of former cult members, Jones decided to move his operation from the prying eyes of the media and the strong arm of American law. The South American nation Guyana had a friendly socialist government, which granted the cult leader more than 824 acres of land and, after a few bribes to local customs officials, gave Jones permission to import firearms and drugs. Jones also whisked young John Stoen to his South American jungle utopia, the Peoples Temple agricultural mission.

READ ALSO: Magical thinking Americans

It was Tim and Grace Stoen’s legal battle to regain custody of their son John that got the attention of California Congressman Leo Ryan, who eventually led a fact-finding delegation to investigate the goings-on at Jonestown.

Though a few Jonestown residents decided to join Rep. Ryan in his return to the U.S., the vast majority remained. But Jones must have felt the few departing congregants posed a threat to his totalitarian jungle experiment, and sent his “Red Brigade” assassins to murder the departing delegation and defectors at a nearby airfield. Five died, including Congressman Ryan.

Back at the jungle compound, Jones ordered his flock to drink poison, others were ordered to murder those that rejected their savior’s bitter cup. According to one survivor, six-year-old John Victor Stoen’s last words were, “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.”

Jones, like Hitler, pressed the muzzle of a pistol against his temple and pulled the trigger.

When authorities entered the death camp the next day, “Overhead swung the sign paraphrasing the philosopher George Santayana: ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’” said the Associated Press.

The megalomaniac Jim Jones is the least fascinating aspect of the Jonestown story. That so many people were willing to place their lives, fortunes and children in the hands of a maniac are the saga’s most striking element.

“People who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worthwhile purpose in self-advancement,” wrote Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer. “They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil; something unclean and unlucky. Anything undertaken under the auspices of the self seems to them foredoomed. Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be noble and good. Their innermost craving is for a new life — a rebirth — or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.”

Tim Stoen, father of dead John Stoen, had doubts about remaining a member of the Peoples Temple one year after joining the cult. And so, Jones had him write an essay to help expunge his qualms. “Socialism sees the individual as existing on behalf of the community,” wrote Stoen, “he is not an elitist.”

It took a certain kind of person to join the Peoples Temple. Those who lost their individuality and sought meaning in a group. Jim Jones, the ultimate community organizer — that is to say, the ultimate egoist — determined every aspect of their lives and, in the end, determined the exact moment of their death.

“A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding,” wrote Eric Hoffer. “When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

The ashes of nine cultists, the objects of Jone’s “minding,” sit unclaimed in a shuttered Delaware funeral home, forgotten — a second death that followed the tragic, suicidal annihilation of their individuality.

Steven M. Lopez

Steven M. Lopez

Originally from Los Angeles, Steven M. Lopez has been in the news business for more than thirty years. He made his way around the country: Arizona, the Bay Area and now resides in South Florida.