D.Nesci. - "The Lessons of Jonestown. An Ethnopsychoanalytic Study of Suicidal Communities"


Tom Wilmot

Dr Domenico Nesci, an Italian psychiatrist, criminologist, and psychoanalyst, visited Australia during our summer holidays 2007. I first met Domenico as a candidate at the Rome IPA conference. I got to know something about the background to the writing of this book during his summer visit and then had the opportunity to read it and distribute some copies to our colleagues. I still have a few copies to distribute for free. The book is published, not for profit, by an international psychoanalytic institution established by Domenico (IIPRTHP) that also manages a school of psychoanalytic psychotherapy (SIPSI), in Rome.

The book is 236 pages of well translated text. It is called “The lessons of Jonestown. An Ethnopsychoanalytic Study of Suicidal Communities”, with a Foreword by Warren Procci, Treasurer of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and a Preface by Robert Pasnau, Past President of the American Psychiatric Association. Since 1986 Dr. Nesci lectured at The University of California Los Angeles (Distinguished Visiting Professor 1999-2001), almost every summer, during his holidays, and was elected Honorary Member of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Society in recognition of his research in 1996.

The book takes its focus from the mass suicide of about 900 people that occurred on November 18th 1978 in the jungle of Guyana. Why should we in 2007 be interested in a “mad event” that occurred 30 years ago? Why read about it now?

We are in today world still concerned with mass suicide. Too often we see it in the form of “the suicide bomber”. We need to understand the nature of man and the way in which ideas become more important than life itself. Dr Nesci became involved in the research of this event that came to be known as “the White Night” when he was in analytic training. As part of his research he was able to listen to the final 50min tape recording of this death ritual. He, with others, attempted to understand what was happening in the mind of this group. The experience of listening to this recording was a traumatic event for Dr Nesci and it took him many years to be able to “work through” this experience and to transform it into this meaningful study.

An exploration of this kind of collective suicide throughout the ages and throughout societies leads Dr Nesci and the reader into extraordinary links and connections that make the reading of this book very interesting. In addition to zooming in and out from Jonestown, Domenico zooms in and out from individual psychology to group psychology, ethnopsychoanalysis, and psychohistory. Domenico applies his considerable understanding of Psychoanalysis to this process and is able to link phenomena from widely different points of view.

While reading the book and discussing the life of Jim Jones (the founder of Peoples Temple, the Christian church that extinguished itself in Guyana) I was able to relate the concepts written about in the book to our contemporary political issues relating to “Radical Islam” e.g. I could consider the Twin Towers catastrophe not just from the perspective of an act of war or terrorism but also as the acting out of an unconscious fantasy of the leader of the fifty or so people who destroyed the Towers while committing their own collective suicide. From this psychoanalytic point of view we can remind that Bin Laden was raised in a harem with fifty or so siblings, and that he might have acted out an unconscious fantasy of glorifying himself and eliminating, at the same time, the ambivalent love-object of his family (by the way, the father of bin Laden himself had died in an airplane accident… ).

Also the discussion of collective disavowal as a defense unconscious mechanism is very interesting if we remind that all common popular religious belief systems disavow the very existence of death. What we must not forget about Jonestown is that if we don’t remember our history and work it through, we are bound to repeat it. We must recognize the self destructive patterns of repetition within ourselves and our patients. Extremes are important lessons for us to learn from.

There were two special concepts that come from Dr Nesci’s work that make a great deal of sense to me. One is the metaphor of the Syncytium.

In Biology this word represents the group of cells that have lost their own membranes and are now just one group structure whose large membrane contains all the nuclei of the former individual cells. This syncytial cell organization is precious to life since it is at the external surface of the primordial sphere (the blastocyst) that is able to implant into the womb. Syncytial cells, in fact, can infiltrate biological tissues.

As in the beginning of biological life the human being needs a syncytial cell organization to implant itself and survive into a difficult environment (the maternal womb) so in primordial times the human groups needed a syncytial structure (no individuality but group-individuals, instead) to survive. The problem of syncytial groups is that they have difficulties in the elaboration of inner evil: if some evil is inside the structure, it cannot be isolated inside one member. All the members are doomed. In other words, the syncytial group is exposed to the risk of collective suicide rituals.

The other concept is the placenta as a metaphor for primordial group leadership. The placental leader is experienced by the group as a mediator, a filter of exchanges, a placenta through which all goodness can go from the homeland (womb-of-the-mother) into the people (prenatal child) and all evil (waste) from the people/child into the homeland (body-of-the-mother) who is able to discard it through its kidneys and lungs. Eventually the placenta must be expelled when the baby reaches maturity. The placental remains can become a sacred object or a discarded worthless object.

Dr Nesci reviews various ways in which cultures relate to the placenta, which he considers the first sacred object of mankind. So all primordial leaders (sacred kings) had two functions: to let the people/child grow safely into the homeland/womb (making the rain the animals and the crops come at the right times) and to eliminate periodically the inner evil of the group (believed to be the cause for abortions, death, famine, etc.). The placental leader (sacred king) was experienced as the grower and the pharmakon (scapegoat) of all syncytial groups.

Collective suicide rituals were born at this stage of civilization, gradually replaced by the active elimination of a subgroup (the sacred king and his inner circle) followed by the invention of genocide and war (the projection outside the group of its inner destructiveness).

A specific word used by Freud is Heimlich and Unheimlich (uncanny). There is a double motif . A surface meaning and an underneath meaning. Freud states Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light (Freud 1919). The ideas of Dr. Nesci are very uncanny, from the theory of a placentofagic instinct in human beings to the theory of genocide and war as developments of a primordial stage of collective suicide…

The placental leader provides nourishment and provides for elimination of waste and unwanted stuff. Without the leader, life is seen as worthless. Where the leader’s death is also disavowed, the movement toward death with the leader is simply a transition to a better world. The difficulties of this world are removed like bodily waste product. These belief systems are more valuable to the believer than life itself. Examples are given of the Pharaohs in Egypt being sent to the afterlife with their valuables and servants.

There are numbers of references to the culture of the Maori of New Zealand (and their belief that the infraction of a taboo implied death = mortal sin) and the Australian Aboriginal. Dr Nesci refers to the work of Spencer and Gillen 1904 (Gillen is Bob Gillen’s grandfather). In one example (pp. 97-103) a detailed reference is given about the Warramunga death ritual and its meaning. The following is a quote from Dr Nesci’s book.

When a member of the group is dying “the deepest anxiety of the Warramunga was that the architect of the witchcraft may be one of them rather than a member of another tribe. In their uncertainty about the origin of the illness, whether it was internal (sin) or external (a sorcerer’s magic), they used to perform therapeutic rites. If these failed, the horrible mass of living human bodies piled on top of the dying person, sealing his destiny. In this ritual, the group works through individual death and restores the covenant which had been broken: the dying member was a traitor, he wanted to separate himself from his own group and life. By killing him, that is, by making his individual betrayal disappear underneath the human syncytium and be recovered by the flowing blood of their self inflicted wounds, the group-individuals bring him back into the placental scenario and renew their symbiotic covenant. All this is not enough. In the mourning ritual of the Warramunga, the village was destroyed and abandoned after the death of every single member of the community. They felt that their whole world, their territory as well as their community, had died along with the group-individual who betrayed them. A ritual exodus took place: the human group looked elsewhere for safe settlement, where death could no longer reach them. The emotional atmosphere of the flight from the destroyed village was drenched in persecutory anxieties. The survivors feared they would not succeed in covering their tracks from the angry spirit of the dead who was after them. They feared being struck down by ill-omened magic… they feared an overwhelming hostile presence… The emotional climate during the exoduses of the Peoples Temple was not dissimilar. Whether the destination was California (and the flight motivated by the “vision” of a nuclear holocaust) or Guyana (with the idea of avoiding a defamatory campaign that would annihilate the group) the exodus always had the same meaning. They had to escape from a world that was no longer inhabitable.”

As the title of the book suggests this is not just about Jonestown. It is about group process. We are advised to know our history so that we have an opportunity not to repeat it.

This detailed study of a specific collective suicide reveals an important clue about the structure of the human mind and about the relationship between groups and their leadership. Like understanding an individual case history can reveal much about the human condition, so too a study of the “white night” leads to an in depth understanding of what it means to be human in any cultural context. The examples used span stone age culture to our own cultural history eg. the Old Believers in the Russia of the Czars (Europe), Bekeranta (America), O-Dae-Yang (Asia).

Dr Nesci spent years struggling with these concepts and was through the constant attention to his own countertransference to the object of his research that he was able to make some sense of the tragedy of Peoples Temple and the unconscious dynamics of collective suicide. I recommend this book to those who are interested in the widest application of psychoanalytic thinking.