The People’s Temple
through two people’s eyes
I have been reading Ayn Rand for years. I responded differently to every reading. One of the major philosophical ideas in her books was a challenge to the ethics of altruism. Was it possible that we are not ethically required to care for the needs of others? Is “selfishness” really a virtue as she said? There was something very refreshing and liberating about this idea, especially for a psychopath. At first reading of Atlas Shrugged, I adopted her philosophy and the politics of Libertarianism that went with it.
As I said, each reading led to a different response (a sign of a good book). Over years, I found more and more flaws in the politics of Libertarianism which I exposed in my latest critique Social Darwinism. Reading about The People’s Temple, however, made me think twice about discarding all of Rand’s ethical thinking. The ethics experienced in this organization informed me of the importance of individual self-love and demonstrated the way altruism can be toxic.
In reading Jeannie Mills‘ book, Six Years With God, about her experiences in Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, I am torn with feelings that alternate between pity and disgust. How do people get to the point of letting a crazy person dictate their every move? How do they bring themselves to ignore the very dictates of their own conscience in order to follow a course which they, themselves, recognize as folly? It struck me all at once: These are people who have lost their self-esteem. They magnified Jim Jones into a god who could “protect them” from the bomb, cure them of cancer and give their lives meaning. And they saw themselves as tiny and insignificant beings who depended on Jones for everything.
One of Jones’ tools was an ethic of self-sacrifice. People who accept that ethic as their highest value don’t permit themselves to demand any rights for themselves. If anyone dared to make any demands for his/her personal happiness, Jones described the plight of people who were poorer. How dare they ask for something for their own child when other children were without? Once someone has given up his/her right to anything for his/herself, anything can be taken from him/her. Jones made everyone work around the clock for his “cause,” they had to tithe 25% of their income, wear thrift store clothing and not buy Christmas presents for their kids. (They donated $16 per child to a committee which choose presents for everyone according to their age and gender and Jim Jones gave all the presents, himself.) Parents weren’t allowed to make important decisions concerning their own kids. Young people were pressured into living in communes where conditions were substandard so that they could donate more money to the Church.
Quality of life wasn’t all that they sacrificed. Their very sense of reality was forfeited when Jones used the temple to act out his own sexual fantasies. he forced everyone to “admit” to being gay or lesbian. He was the only straight man in the Church and he would have sex with church women under the guise of therapy.
Life, sanity and even ethics were sacrificed. Jeannie often did things she knew were wrong such as turning a family out of her house after Jones had brought them to California from Philadelphia. On Jones’ orders, she refused to even give the family money to make a phone call. The harsh edict was given because this family had the balls to disagree with Jones. Although they were very polite and respectful in their disagreement, Jones called them “ingrates.” Obviously, he didn’t think anyone who had accepted any help from him at all had a right to his/her own mind. But the family members hadn’t given up their self-esteem.
Jeannie Mills was a very warmhearted, giving person who would open her home to people at the drop of a hat. The Church gave her many opportunities to share with many families and children. Her generosity came our of genuine love for people rather than a grim belief in self-sacrifice. But she accepted the ethical imperative of self-sacrifice with the implication that not only her needs but also her conscience just didn’t count.
Another of Jones’ victims who accepted self-sacrifice as a noble value was Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison, 1998, Anchor. Unlike Jeannie Mills, she actually went to Jonestown in Guyana and experienced first hand the severe hardships that existed there. Struggling to accept the unacceptable, she reasoned with herself, “I thought of Mao’s cultural revolution. It was hard on the people at first, but over time they grew accustomed to their lives of selflessness. I had learned that this was the only way to grow altruistic. Monks in Tibet, priests in monasteries, nuns in convents, the citizens of Uncle Fidel’s Cuba, they all gave up comforts and became selfless. It was a comfort to think that pain was necessary for the greater good of mankind.”
Upon her arrival at Jonestown, a greeting committee divested everyone of all their personal possessions and gave them each a standard package of necessities.
Nevertheless, Deborah retained a certain innocence throughout her ordeal. She was very young and naive when she joined the Church. Her naivety allowed her to go on believing many of Jones’ lies long after many others recognized the folly of their continued loyalty to the Church. For example, when Jones, who preached celibacy for all Church members put the moves on her, she actually believed he was doing it for her own good, as he claimed, and apologized sincerely for making him do it. Still, with her innocence, she also acquired a certain cynicism. She helped the Church deceive the public in many areas and justified it on the grounds that the ends justified the means. She also snitched on a friend to save herself. But in spite of it, her book conveys a greater feeling of purity than did Jeannie’s. Jeannie was far more aware of how rotten and corrupt the Church was. She continued to play Jones’ games anyway until she finally was able to say “enough.”
Jeannie Mills and her family were spared the Hell that was Jonestown. Debbie Layton went to Jonestown expecting a paradise on earth. Her account of life there makes fascinating reading. It compares with accounts I have read of concentration camps. Shocked nonacceptance is followed by a change in consciousness in which the camp becomes reality as the new inmate learns to adjust and survive. Debbie’s first glance at the faces of the people already there told her what a mistake it had been to come. The faces all had expressions of hopelessness. Everywhere, people were apathetic and guarded. They worked under the watch of armed guards. And yet, unlike most of the people there, Debbie was able to escape and tell her tale.
The story of Deborah’s escape is a hair-raising tale of suspense that is an epic in itself. Once safe in the US, she had to go through a period of adjustment learning how to live in a less toxic environment than the one she had come out of. Jeannie Mills was mysteriously killed but her book remains as testimony to how warped life can become.