Searching for One Thing, Finding Another

I first heard the name Jim Jones from the hushed voices of my grandparents as they sat in the kitchen of their small Bay Area home in the late 70’s. In those days kids could still be sheltered somewhat from what went on in the outside world. If you didn’t read the paper or catch Walter Cronkite on the Evening News, your life was happily buffered against some of the collective insanity that punctuated the years between 1968 and 1978.

Those of us who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area during that time will recognize a particular spirit that characterized this strange decade. It was as if a  sinister vapor had rolled in with the fog, one that had taken form and materialized in the Black House of Anton LaVey and the Haight Ashbury of Charles Manson. It showed up a little bit north in Vallejo in the Zodiac Killer and slithered downtown to San Francisco’s City Hall where it helped Dan White pull the trigger on George Moscone and Harvey Milk. My father once told me that he had a pretty good idea of what the end of the world would look like after witnessing the beasts let loose at Altamont.

It is in this context that I requested copies of some Jonestown recordings from the Jonestown Audiotape Project. I was particularly interested in the material from San Francisco in the early 70’s (Q 974, Q 1023, and Q 1035). I thought maybe I could catch an early glimpse of that mysterious vapor permeating Jones’ congregation. Perhaps I could sense some undercurrent of madness waiting for an opportunity to reveal itself?  Instead, I heard the familiar voices of an evangelical choir in full flight. The sound could have come from any neighborhood church on any Sunday anywhere in the U.S.

This is what I found most disturbing.

Jones’ theology obviously had a tremendous appeal to his San Francisco congregation. Here was a man who was astonishingly progressive in his attitudes (and practices) on race and the role of religion in effecting change. His theology is not my primary concern here (although a closer examination of his revolutionary liberation theology would make an outstanding religious studies project). For me, the interesting aspect of Jones’ story are the earnest and passionately sincere people that he attracted to his ministry, idealistic people who are committed to making a better society. Jones’ congregation believed that God had brought them together at that moment to change the world.

Sometimes I fear that Jones’ victims have been reduced to a distorted parody. I am particularly disturbed that the phrase “Kool-Aid Drinkers” has now entered the mainstream conversation as an offhand remark describing someone who mindlessly follows some (usually political) ideology. Doing so cheapens their legacy and somehow makes the whole disturbing, complicated mess a little more remote, a little more abstract.

They deserve so much more.

(Jon Perry can be reached at