The power of persuasion: 900 deaths left an unforgettable legacy

JONESTOWN: 20 years after mass suicide, new religions inspire hope, caution, fear for followers

Ventura County Star/November 18, 1998
By Tom Kisken

Dead bloated bodies were everywhere. They looked like insects to CBS newsman David Dick in an aircraft 300 feet above Jonestown, Guyana.

“People had died like moths who had fallen to the ground after a light had been turned off,” he said, reading from his on-the-scene notes. “The bodies were almost all face down. It was staggering. Sickening. Yet they looked as if they had merely fallen asleep.”

Twenty years ago today, a religious movement ruled by a drug-addled, delusional Jim Jones turned on itself in a bloody massacre that will forever stain the public view of cults. In a mass suicide that had been rehearsed numerous times, more than 900 people drank cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

Those who resisted were murdered.

Today, cult watchers not only worry about sequels but have proof of the likelihood — in the 39 members of Heaven’s Gate who linked their fate to the Hale-Bopp comet, covered their bodies with purple shrouds and suffocated themselves in March 1997.

They say similar groups, led by megalomaniacs who believe they alone have the ear of God, likely exist but closet themselves so well they will be detected only when exploding in tragedy.

Much more visible are high-pressure ministries that recruit people at college campuses and earlier this month attracted some 15,000 people to the Rose Bowl. With names such as the International Churches of Christ, the groups have no interest in suicide. But they raise concerns about the financial contributions members make and the tendency to pull people away from family and friends.

Dick argues the dividing line that turned Jonestown from a well-meaning commune into a jungle of body bags was the mix of a hugely charismatic but delusional monarch who was known to followers as Father and a quest for absolute truth.

Throw in Jones’ drug addiction and the forced, perverse sexual activities at the commune and you toss a blowtorch into an ocean of gas.

Dick talks so persistently of the dangers of Jonestown he worries about wearing his listeners out.

“It doesn’t take 910 for it to be a tragedy,” he said. “It can be one and be a tragedy.”

Dick is an emeritus professor at the University of Kentucky and runs a small publishing house. He was a lead reporter with CBS for 19 years and was in Caracas, Venezuela, as Latin America bureau chief on Nov. 18, 1978. A telex came telling him to fly to Guyana and report on the death of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan from California’s San Mateo County.

Ryan had heard rumors of thought-control, beatings, gun-running and imprisonment in the People’s Temple. He led a team of reporters and family members to investigate.

They were greeted with beaming reports from commune leaders. But several members asked Ryan for refuge. As the congressman led his delegation away, they were ambushed at an airstrip and gunned down.

The Kool Aid suicides followed.

Dick and other journalists were guided into Jonestown by Guyana government employees. The CBS crew found Jones’ cabin, still soaked with the stench of death though the bodies were removed. The bed was upside down, the furniture strewn everywhere.

Outside, Dick found a box of letters — notes of support that Jones demanded his followers write him. Each was addressed “Dear Dad.”

Later when he was flying over Jonestown for one last view, Dick remembers writing down an urgent message to himself: “Don’t throw up. You’re the only one seeing this.”

Dick doesn’t present himself as a cult expert, just a reporter who witnessed something he’ll never shake. His only advice is to people who find themselves trapped following someone who tries to control their lives.

“I would run,” he said. “I would try to get away.”

Questions unanswered

Jonestown remains a mystery, at least in the eyes of J. Gordon Melton, who has been studying new religions since the early 1960s and is director of The Institute for the Study of American Religions in Santa Barbara.

Who gave the order to kill Rep. Ryan? How many people killed themselves and how many were murdered? Was the State Department warned of the dangers facing Ryan?

“We have a feeling the government knew a lot more about what was going on there than they let on,” said Melton, part of a scholarly delegation that will meet in Washington, D.C., today and demand the government release classified papers on Jonestown.

Melton contends the documents may show government negligence but will likely lay to rest the conspiracy theories fueled by lack of information.

Ron Enroth, a sociologist on religion at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, has studied cults and other new religions nearly as long as Melton. He’s been called anti-God by leaders of the Unification Church and was swamped with 130 interview requests the first day after the Heaven’s Gate suicides.

He heard of the People’s Temple before Nov. 18, 1978, but never had a reason to link the group with potential mass suicide. Same with Heaven’s Gate. He wrote two paragraphs on the movement in ’76, then lost all contact.

That’s the nature of the most dangerous cults.

“They’re not mainstream enough to even have a name,” said F. LaGard Smith, a Pepperdine University law professor who also studies new religions. “They’re so small you don’t notice them until they erupt like a cancer.”

The groups exist, Enroth said. He won’t give out names out of a fear emanating from a death threat already received. But he spoke of four groups from around the country, with memberships ranging from 50 to 200, that have the potential of becoming national tragedies.

They are led by instable, power-wielding authoritarians who believe they alone know the true answers and can change the fate of the world. If those leaders follow Jones’ path and step into emotional abyss, “certainly the potential for suicidal behavior is there,” he said.

In the years following Jonestown, family members would pull loved ones out of groups they considered cults and brainwash them back into the mainstream. Called deprogramming, it is a thing of the past, largely because of a $5 million lawsuit successfully filed against deprogrammers who held a member of the United Pentecostal Church International for five days.

Now, family members are left with the power of persuasion.

When Melton‘s daughter considered joining the Church of Scientology, he tried reasoning with her, explaining the group would try to run her life.

He also told her he would support any decision she made.

“It’s her life,” he said. She joined the group, then left after a few weeks.

Worries on campus

Scholars who study new religions avoid using the word cult, partly because it’s linked so closely to Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate. It seems a broad sword that may unfairly cut groups such as the fast-growing International Churches of Christ. [But are these scholars actually “cult apologists“?]

Still, the ICC and similarly aggressive groups cause their own concerns.

Spun off from the mainline Church of Christ in the early 1970s by Kip McKean, the ICC is a Christian group known for its aggressive recruiting on college campuses. Critics said members are convinced to disavow their old support systems and are pressured to empty their pockets into church coffers.

The church also asks new members to immediately start recruiting more members, said the Rev. Mark Knutson, campus pastor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. He leads a yearly session with dorm advisers on dealing with high-pressure religious groups.

“A group that does not allow people to question their tenets, I would say, is a group to be aware of,” he said.

ICC recruiting has also caused concerns at Pepperdine in Malibu and at USC.

The International Churches of Christ‘s goal is to have a church in every city with more than 100,000 people by the new millennium. A week ago, the group held a celebration in Pasadena, bringing more than 15,000 people to the Rose Bowl.

Spokesman Al Baird, of the Los Angeles branch of the church, scoffs at the harshest criticism — the church doesn’t allow interfaith relationships and marriage, and asks for unrealistic donations. They get 10 percent of a person’s income, as do many other mainline churches.

People call it a cult, Baird said, because they don’t understand.

Call the Church of Scientology in Santa Barbara, which also raises eyebrows with demands for financial contributions that range from $35 to more than 100 times that, and the answer is nearly the same.

It’s not a cult, it’s an answer.

“What’s generally not understood is what you’re getting,” said the Rev. Lee Holzinger, of the Church of Scientology in Santa Barbara. “If you donate $5,000 for counseling that you get that completely changes your life and it really does work, someone is going to say, ‘Hey, I’m never going to miss that $5,000’. ”

But Enroth, the new religion scholar, talks about the phone calls — hundreds of them — with a husband whose spouse threatened divorce unless he joined her religious group, and with parents who tell him of children who renounce their former religions and their loved ones.

“They’re incredibly sad stories,” he said. “They say, ‘Dr. Enroth, it’s like talking to a wall’.”

Warning signs

Concerned that some high-pressure religions pull students at UC Santa Barbara away from studies, family and friends, an interdenominational group called the University Religious Conference outlined the following warning signs:

  • The group claims to have all the answers.
  • New members are asked almost immediately to recruit new members.
  • The group encourages people to put their meetings ahead of all other commitments.
  • Past religious and social affiliations are criticized.
  • Recruits are told their parents and friends don’t have any answers.
  • Doubts and questions are seen as signs of weak faith.
  • Recruits are invited on retreats but are given only a vague idea of the agenda.

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