Drinking the Kool-Aid

As surviving former member of People Temple, when I first heard someone speaking about “drinking the Kool-Aid,” I was deeply offended. I thought, “How can these people trivialize such a horrific event such as the mass suicide/murder of over 900 people?” I thought it, but I didn’t say it. Over the past 25 years, I have learned it is much easier to keep quiet.

The lessons of life come to all of us, though there are not many who have learned the lessons that those of us in Peoples Temple did. People came to the Temple from different walks of life, but were united in what seemed to be a common cause of racial and economic equality. I was a teenager when I joined Peoples Temple and only 20 years old on November 18th, 1978.

I am not a philosopher, but I believe that a person’s reaction to my association with Jonestown tells me a lot about what that person’s values are. One thing I quickly learned was not to just blurt out at a party or at work that I had lived in Jonestown and survived. People treated me differently after they found out, and usually – okay, always – relationships were affected, colored, tainted by my Jonestown connection. So I adapted and became more selective when sharing my background.

With time I learned. I would let people get to know me for a while, then I would find an appropriate time to let them know that I was in Peoples Temple. They were always amazed, since I was like them. And then, nearly always, even though they knew me, people would distance themselves from me. The knowledge of my background was equivalent to the plague in most cases. Only a few people recognized that if a person like myself – like themselves – was involved in Peoples Temple, then there must be more to the story than what they had heard.

The realization came to me that if I really wanted to represent what People Temple was all about, I had to live my life in a way that reflected the values of Peoples Temple, so if I ever was in a situation where I needed to tell someone that I was in Jonestown, I would properly represent my family that died 25 years ago.

Still, it would enrage me when I heard jokes or comments about the “cultists.” Arguing and attempting to correct everyone just wouldn’t do. What I found truly amazing was the term that I’ve heard lately in business – “drinking the Kool-Aid” – as a description of someone who has completely bought into a particular idea or belief.

While I was offended the first time I heard the expression, I’ve thought more deeply about it since. Many of those who died – though certainly not all – did feel they died for what they believed in. If dying for an honorable cause is considered an act of heroism, these people would have been held on pedestals for their bravery and courage… if the circumstances of their deaths had been different. Unfortunately, they have been ridiculed and made fun of.

I have had the good fortune to meet a number of wonderful people during my lifetime, but I have never encountered such a concentration of outstanding human beings as I did in Peoples Temple. When I hear “drinking the Kool-Aid,” I will continue to remember the dedication for what they believed in. It is easy for people to believe that we were mindless and spineless, but nothing could be further from the truth. I hope some day there will be a few more people who will understand what depths are attached to such a trivial statement.

But trivial or not, I can only imagine how the phrase affects other people who survived Peoples Temple, whether they were in Jonestown or not. I can only speak for myself. I guess I’m still finding ways to survive, to handle the challenges of life that come my way. In the end, that doesn’t make me, or any of the other survivors, much different than anyone else.