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Jim Jones: The Dark Side of Indiana

Yes, we know: Guiding 913 well-meaning followers—including hundreds of children—to their deaths is absolutely indefensible. So this is not an apology for Jim Jones, the cult leader who established the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in 1955.

It is, rather, an attempt to point out that perhaps a small ray of light emerged from the dark day in 1978, at Jonestown, Guyana, when Jones orchestrated the largest known mass suicide in modern history.

At enormous cost, the tragedy has proven an invaluable case study for psychologists exploring the dynamics of manipulation in groups. According to a report in Monitor, a publication of the American Psychological Association, “Social psychologists continue to examine how Jones came to command such enormous influence over his followers’ thoughts and actions. Jonestown, they say, offers important lessons for psychology, such as the power of situational and social influences and the consequences of a leader using such influences to destructively manipulate others’ behavior.”

Maybe now, through the prism of time, we can view Jonestown as a painfully instructive worst-case scenario—God willing.

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Since first joining Indianapolis Monthly in 2000, West has written about a wide range of subjects including crime, history, arts and entertainment, pop culture, politics, and food. His feature stories have twice been noted in the Best American Sports Writing anthology and have received top honors from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The Collapse,” West’s account of the 2011 Indiana State Fair tragedy, was a 2013 National City and Regional Magazine Awards finalist in the category of Best Reporting. He lives on the near-east side.