“Overturning the Vat” by Bonnie Yates
There isn’t much time left. Father has said that we all must die, that they are coming for us, but I’m not so sure. What Christine said made sense to me, that if we give in and lay down our lives, then we’ve been beaten. The children are gone: their cries have hit me in the very core of my being. The seniors are mostly gone as well. Both groups were given the poison forcefully: the children had it squirted into their mouths, the seniors were handed cups of the poison liquid to drink. How did it ever come to this? Only last night, we were so alive as we performed for the congressman, but now… now we are dying. We are dying.
We’re lining up to take the potion from the vat. Father has said that all of the adults must begin, and we obey. If Father says it is best for us, it must be, right? But what if it’s not? Father says that we are committing “Revolutionary Suicide,” that we just “got tired.”
But I’m not tired. I can see the vat now and I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I don’t want to die! I don’t want to watch any more of my friends and family die! I want all of this death to end!
My turn has come. I pick up a cup… But something deep inside of me stirs. Rushing forward with all of my strength, I shove at the vat, turning it over. The purple, poison-laced drink inside sloshes out, spilling onto the grass and dirt, useless. No one else will be able to drink this poison.
Someone yells “Stop her!”… I think it is Father. It sounds like Father… I hear a loud noise: a shot. I feel something burning in my stomach, and I fall to the ground. I have been shot by one of the guards. I’m dying, I’m dying…
But no one else will drink the poison. They will have to find another way to death, Father included. I have committed my own “Revolutionary Suicide” in the name of life for those of us who are left.
Father and some of the others are talking, anguished cries. As I begin to lose consciousness, I hear Father lamenting, “What now? What now?”
* * * **
First, let me say that I don’t blame those who died that day for not rushing the vat. As they were dying, there was a great deal of confusion and emotional turmoil. I can’t say that I would have had enough wherewithal to have done anything myself.
But this article doesn’t ask what I would have done, it asks what if someone who was there – someone who’d followed Jim Jones from California to Guyana, someone who’d lived in Jonestown and seen the toll it had taken on the strength and spirit of everyone there, someone who could see this was no loyalty test, someone who was standing in line and had time to reflect – had overturned the vat?
The act of overturning the vat wouldn’t have taken much physically. Psychologically, it would have taken a great deal.
To begin with, those who lived in Jonestown were used to “crisis” situations occurring. Jim Jones held many “White Nights,” so that the people hearing him on that final day may not have realized how critical their situation really was until the children and the seniors started dying. Asking the parents to kill their children was a master stroke by Jones in regards to getting compliance from his members. How many times before had he told the parents that they had a responsibility to take care of their children first? Whether it was planned or simply going by rote that Jones decided to start the deaths in that way is forever unknown, but there is no doubt that the move insured that many would be willing to die. After all, once the children were gone, what reason was there for the parents, the extended families – the majority of the adults – to want to live, or to offer any resistance to their approaching death? One has to question who, if anyone, could continue after Jonestown’s children, Jonestown’s hope for the future, were cut down?
A second consideration for any would-be dissident was the weaponry that was housed in Jonestown. Federal investigators documented the existence of about 35 weapons – a paltry amount compared to the total number of residents – but that doesn’t include the crossbows and the machetes at the guards’ disposal. It is almost certain that the presence of any array of weaponry would have scared many into believing that they had no way out but to drink the poison mixture. Anyone who might have had ideas of rushing the vat would have to knew that there was a great risk – almost a certainty – of being killed in the process.
But the most basic question that we cannot answer – and the question which has the most relevance to this entire exercise – is just how much poison was there in Jonestown? Was there enough to make another batch if the vat were overturned? If there wasn’t – or even if there was, but it had not yet been made up into the second batch – this would mean that whoever were to overturn the vat would leave the rest of those individuals without, at the very least, an immediate means to die.
Using the guns and crossbows to finish the deaths would have been problematic at best. Jones had already met with a measure of dissent. The voice of Christine Miller and the cries of others who do not want to die come through on the final tape. Despite months of preparation and rehearsal, Jones was barely in control of the situation, imploring his people to “die with a degree of dignity.” There was nothing to death, Jones said as he appealed for calm over the cries of dying children, it was just “stepping over to another plane.” As we also know from the death tape and from eyewitness accounts, counselors and members of the Jonestown leadership group spread through the crowd talking about reincarnation and going to a better place.
With that amount of cajoling going on, it’s only fair to suggest that some number of the people didn’t want to die that day. All of the measures of dissent taken together, be they a fierce plea like that of Christine Miller or the equally heartfelt distress of a mother crying and fighting to keep hold of her baby, tell us that once the poison was gone – by whatever means – the chances of Jones continuing with the deaths would have been difficult and far more problematic for him to control.
Then what would have happened? It is only conjecture, but it is possible that Jim Jones would have been left with some very difficult questions to answer both for himself and his followers. If there was only enough poison for the one spilled batch, would he have ordered that his people be fired upon? If he had enough for a second batch, would he have been able to keep people in check long enough to bring it forward? Or would the shock of a desperate, courageous act of someone overturning the vat have ended the deaths? Would Jones’ power have ebbed away, as the pools of purple liquid soaked into the ground?
And what would he have done afterwards? Would he have spared his people and killed himself and his inner circle in order to avoid prosecution for the death of the congressman?
These are questions that beg consideration and thought.
(Bonnie Yates is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. A second article in this edition is John Victor Stoen: Son of Jonestown. Previous articles appear here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)