December 07, 2008

Why Drink The Kool-Aid? Jonestown Thirty Years Later

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I spent my earliest days in Guyana, a small county with the distinction of being the only English speaking country in South America. Thirty years ago Guyana gained a new and dubious distinction as the site of the murder/suicide at Jonestown, the tragedy that may have generated the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”.

Shortly before the tragedy, my family and I went to a performance at the Guyana National Cultural Centre. Performing in the variety show were members of The People’s Temple, the name of the organization formed by Rev. Jim Jones! The name of the show is long gone from memory, as is much of the content of the program that night. But I do remember being very impressed by the American children and youth who performed. Until then, I had never seen children who were such professional performers, or who seemed so self-assured. Recently, as I watched CNN presents: Escape from Jonestown I saw a clip of a musical extravaganza put on by members of The People’s Temple that reminded me of that night many years ago.

Almost thirty years to the day, I still remember my mother picking me from school, looking rather forlorn. She looked pained as she explained to me that there had been a mass suicide, and that the children we had seen perform were probably among those who died at Jonestown! Those animated American kids? With their large, self-assured personalities! I was shocked. Everywhere in Guyana, all anyone seemed to talk about was Jonestown. More than 900 People’s Temple members had drunk a cyanide-laced beverage and ended their lives on that November 18th in 1978; this number includes 303 children who were killed when cyanide was given to them by syringe. The cover of Time magazine is etched in my mind, with the images of so many bodies that they seemed to litter the landscape, face down, arms strewn around each other, many clad in jeans and brightly colored t-shirts.


Where was Jonestown? Mum explained that it was in the jungle. Why would Americans go all the way to a South American country they had probably never heard of with Rev. Jim Jones? It is widely reported that Jones’ behavior had become more and more erratic before leaving California. There were reports of violence against those who were “disobedient” to Jones and threats against those who wanted to leave the temple, so why would hundreds of people choose to move to a new continent with him?

For most Americans, visiting the capital city in a developing county is probably quite shocking and not remotely like anything they’ve experienced, so living in the jungle of Guyana must have caused the Jonestown members great culture shock. Although I grew up in a city in Guyana, I was very taken aback to see and use my first latrine and was horrified by number and size of mosquitoes awaiting me when I had my first trip to the countryside at about age ten. I imagine that Jones’ followers must have been surprised at--and none to happy with—the conditions in the “paradise” Jones promised. And given that many of those who moved to South America with Jones were poor, it’s likely that this was their first international trip—and possibly the first time many had even been on a plane.

In November 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Guyana to investigate Jonestown. On his first night there, Ryan said, “I can tell you right now that clip_image003from the few conversations that I've had with some of the folks here already this evening that whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe that this is the best thing that ever happened in their own life.” Cheers to this statement lasted for more than a minute according to reporter Soledad O’Brien. Only fourteen of nearly a thousand chose to “defect” back to the U.S. with Ryan; why, when help arrived, did Jones’ followers not seize the opportunity to be saved? (Congressman Ryan was gunned down by Jones security guards and remains the only U.S. congressman to be assassinated while in office.)

The People’s Temple/Jonestown was a cult. Who was drawn to it? Many were people who were dissatisfied with life. Jones was charismatic and charming. His passionate preaching, which included speaking in tongues, probably appealed to his largely African American congregation; in 1970s California he appealed to liberal whites as well. Jones and his followers rejected racism and capitalism and espoused socialism and racial harmony. Increasingly, they saw themselves as different from the rest of American society and the economic and racial equality within the group must have been intoxicating to members. By 1978, they were isolated in the jungles of Guyana with an increasingly paranoid leader, who routinely held suicide drills; followers came to believe that their deaths were revolutionary.

At some point, all religions were new and seemed strange. Jesus was a charismatic leader with teachings that were unusual in his time and he was crucified. What are some differences between a cult and an established religion?


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I would suggest that cults generally require "revolutionary" action in order to get a base going, so to speak. The "big three", not to mention other very old religions, have been around for quite some time and don't need to kidnap or force members to stay in order to guarantee their continued survival. If they were just getting started today, how different would they be from Scientology or other organizations generally deemed cults?

It's interesting article for me.
I think the difference between a cult and an established religion is scale. Nowadays we have certain religions, but they also started from small group. In those days they must be called cult. By the time, they were getting bigger and becoming religion. So the religion comes from cult. That's my opinion.

This was very interesting. I had no idea that any of that happened. I feel like religion is more of guidelines as to what to believe or base your beliefs on and how you should live your life. A cult to me is strict rules that say you have to be this way or else. Also, you can change religions, it's very hard to get out of a cult. How big was this cult, if over 900 of the members died that day?

I think that a cult governs more of the way one should think than the way one should act. A religion is suposed to guide the way a person acts in their every day life. A cult will try to change the way you think and create faulse projections of things that may happen to a person in their everyday life. It is this difference that will create a alternate reality to a cult member and allow them to justify doing things that seem incomprihensible to others.

A cult and an established religion seem to have similar qualities. First, they both have a charismatic leader that appeals to the masses or the group. Second, in the case of the Rev. Jim Jones cult, both believe in racial and economic equality. Third, by promoting these equalities and removing inferiority and differences he created the illusion of a "social paradise." Karl Marx, author of Das Capital, claims that "religion is the opium of the people" and that it takes our focus away from real problems in life. This may explain why Rev. Jones took the members of The People's Temple from the U.S. to an isolated jungle in Guyana.

excellent. very grateful

I really don't think there is much difference if you really break it down and take the blinders off. One (cults) have just become more extreme becaus of the legal issue forcing them to the fringe of the movement channel.

interesting article..
there is indeed a diff between religion and a cult and i see your point, its true..
great post!!

Very interesting. I do not know that much about cults but it seems like cults focus more on rules and a leader. I always hear the saying "Don't drink the Cool-Aid!" It's sad that people would be scared to leave the cult and it's extremely sad that all of those people killed themselves. For 900 people to kill themselves, they must have truly been brainwashed. I knew that it happened on an island but I did not know that it happened in Guyana. I enjoyed reading this article, thanks.

This article was interesting to me. I also believe religion is more of a guideline of what to believe and how one should live their life. I believe a cult is a strict brain-washing set of rules that people believe to be a religion but is not.

When I first learned about this it stayed with me for a while the way a scary movey will. I watched some sort of documentary on it where some of the survivers where speaking and talking about how most of them did not want to commit this suicide and tryed to run into the woods but men with guns would go after most of them. And before this piont many tried to leave as well. It was so sad one mans account of having watched children one by one start forming at the mouth and die. including his wife and children. its interesting that jim jones did not take the cyanide, but rather shot himself.

It was not mass suicide. 300 Children did not commit suicide. It was murder.

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