DON’T DRINK THE KOOL AID – THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

“He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.” — Old English proverb, dating to the 14th century.

Mass suicide at Jonestown – Nov 18, 1978

There has been an upsurge of interest in Jonestown over the past few years. This post went by with little notice when I wrote it — about 4 years ago. Since then, it has developed a life of its own. Not surprising given the current state of disunion in this country and elsewhere. Jim Jones and Donald Trump share many traits. More importantly, so do their followers.

This is a cautionary tale, an urgent warning. Talk is not harmless. Lies matter. Corruption kills. To those of you who blindly follow, I hope you’re keeping the long spoon handy. I have a gut feeling you will eventually need it.

Tomorrow is the 39th anniversary of the massacre. A good time to remember.


From Nothing, Something Terrible Comes – Remembering Jonestown

If you are my age or near it, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. Even if you are younger, if in 1978 you were old enough to watch TV or read a newspaper, you could hardly forget it. With fundamentalism enjoying a rebirth among our politicians and so-called religious leaders it’s a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing has led in the past and where it could easily lead in the future.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened; time has not made it less so.

The Road to Jonestown

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow.” It usually carries a negative connotation. The “Kool Aid” references go all the way back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else — darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional Methodist minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” known in short as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to be a reference to “the people of the world.” While Jones called it a church, it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune. Initially, it combined a hodgepodge of Christian references that Jones used in his diatribes … supposedly sermons.

It was never a real church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult. It required a level of commitment and financial support from members plus a degree of obedience that’s the defining quality of a cult.

Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac. But he had positive attributes. Jones and his wife Marceline were in favor of racial integration. They adopted a bunch of kids from varying backgrounds and were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own.

The “Rainbow Family”

Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana. Before you get all dewy-eyed about this, note this story ultimately climaxes in the murder of all the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to increasingly focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California and before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be a Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give his own opinions legitimacy. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

jonestown massacre anniversary
Jim Jones – Leader and death’s-head of Jonestown

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much too small and seriously overcrowded. Temple members had to work long hours just to keep from starving.

Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.

All Hell Breaks Loose

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” — after the Congressional party. These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — cyanide and other drugs — for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.

Don’t Drink It!

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid, a beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never really interested in escape. There was only one answer that he would accept. Death and lots of it. He repeatedly pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is just as creepy as you’d expect.

Then it was time for the detailed instructions which — still baffling to me at least — the followers did as they were told. I will never understand why. Probably that’s a positive sign indicating I’m not insane.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped — primarily those who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred the gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and preferred something quicker.

What’s With the Kool-Aid?

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind. Therefore, although Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.

17 thoughts on “DON’T DRINK THE KOOL AID – THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

  1. judyt54 November 17, 2017 / 7:20 am

    I remember this vividly. It was so freaking surreal at the time, and then they started showing these pictures…in a strange way, it has more impact now than it did then. Perhaps because I’m 39 years older.

    I often wonder how the survivors must have felt, to come back to camp and find all the dead or all the dying.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marilyn Armstrong November 17, 2017 / 10:59 am

      There is some commentary from the few survivors. There are also some relatively recent TV documentaries. This was not one of those disasters that made it into the entertainment business. I think it was too ugly, even for Hollywood. I remember it well and I can still remember wondering how all those people could follow into the grave like that — and poison their children first.

      Blind obedience is a very dangerous weapon.

      Liked by 1 person

      • swo8 November 17, 2017 / 12:52 pm

        Marilyn this is a cautionary tale that must be told repeatedly. It is unbelievable that so many people could have been taken in by the guy. It could all happen again.
        Leslie

        Like

        • Marilyn Armstrong November 17, 2017 / 12:55 pm

          Yes, it could. There is real danger is becoming part of any cult. I run this every year around this time. It has more than 10,000 views over the years, so a few people have seen it. But it’s ugly and no one wants to read it. Who can blame them?

          Liked by 1 person

          • swo8 November 17, 2017 / 12:57 pm

            It’s an ugly story that must be told. That’s the only way we can fight against it happening again.

            Like

  2. Rose November 17, 2017 / 8:08 am

    I haven’t visited for a bit, but wanted to comment that I really like your current theme and colors and structuring. The orange subtitles are very nice and make everything flow nicely. Well done!

    Like

    • Rose November 17, 2017 / 8:09 am

      Subheaders, perhaps, not subtitles. It’s early! 🙂

      Like

  3. Emilio Pasquale November 17, 2017 / 1:08 pm

    I remember Jonestown and can definitely see the similarities between Jones’ followers and Trump’s. I can’t believe it was that long ago.

    Like

    • Marilyn Armstrong November 17, 2017 / 4:59 pm

      I know. Amazing, isn’t it? It’s the kind of event — with all the tragedies and mass murders that have occurred since then — that just sticks in your head. Even now, no matter how many times I have written about it and read about it, HOW could those people be led to pouring poison in their childrens’ mouths? How could anyone do that? It makes me cold inside and I look at those Trump followers and wonder — how far WOULD they go?

      Like

      • Emilio Pasquale November 20, 2017 / 6:27 pm

        Just heard today that Charles Manson died. How many younger people remember him?

        Like

        • Marilyn Armstrong November 20, 2017 / 6:37 pm

          Well, surely our entire generation remembers. And most of the X gen remembers too. It was a pretty horrendous thing and even if you were only 10 years old, it was not something you were likely to forget. I publish this ever year because anyone who doesn’t know the story, should.

          Cultism and a willingness to use facts, knowledge, and science in your world can be lethal. This is not the only time it has proved lethal, merely the largest number of people in this generation. It has happened before and probably will happen again. If you follow blindly, you are likely to die blindly.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Rick November 17, 2017 / 4:32 pm

    This week, I talked about Jonestown in class. Even if I am not at that point in history, I always take a day near the anniversary to go over it. The students have never heard of it, but it should not be forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marilyn Armstrong November 17, 2017 / 4:37 pm

      Everyone needs to understand that blindly following anyone can have lethal results. It certainly keeps reminding me. Not something I will every forget.

      Like

  5. judyt54 November 17, 2017 / 6:33 pm

    At the time (and I may have my info wrong, feel free to correct me) I believe there was a Time spread on this, and it was discovered that most of the followers were poorly educated, nearly illiterate, and/or had severe emotional problems–depression, low self esteem, all of that. People who were, for the most part, ripe for this kind of cult and someone to tell them what to do.

    Cults tend to attract less educated people, the poor, the disenfranchised. It becomes a haven for them. In a way they’re like prisoners in a jail who, if you open the doors, will retreat back into their cells.

    Like

    • Marilyn Armstrong November 17, 2017 / 6:54 pm

      That’s may be true, but there were so many of them. I’m pretty sure you could say the same thing about Trump’s followers — and there are huge number of them. Are they ALL ignorant and mentally unbalanced? I tend to doubt it. Surely some may be, but ALL of them? Yet they follow. Blindly.

      Why? I have never followed anything or anyone blindly or even with my eyes wide open.

      This is one of the many things I don’t understand. Many people have a need to follow. It’s part of their DNA. They see their bellwether and they follow as mindlessly as sheep. They don’t even know why they are doing it. Neither do I.

      Like

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