It was Flavor Aid.
This may seem like a minor point, but our inability to get even this basic fact right illustrates the frustrations of those of us who have dedicated considerable time to trying to understand the dead of Jonestown. It has been nearly thirty years, and still the general public and members of mass media routinely refer to the “Kool-Aid drinkers.” In pop culture, the term has become shorthand for anyone thought to be a mindless fanatic. And it is all based on error, like so many of the other ideas floating around about Jonestown and the Peoples Temple .
As I study the literature about Peoples Temple, I see one dichotomous argument after another:
The government persecuted Peoples Temple – Jones concocted the whole thing to gain/retain the loyalty of his followers.
John Victor Stoen was the biological child of Jim Jones – The child was Tim’s and the paternity statement declaring Jones the father was coerced.
Peoples Temple was a cult – Peoples Temple was an agricultural experiment – It was a church – It was a socialist community.
Jones was paranoid – Jones was evil – Jones was harassed and misunderstood.
Jones was a saint – He was a con man – He was benevolent – He was a pervert.
I do not discount the reality of manipulation and serious abuse by Jim Jones and members of his leadership. On the other hand, I don’t discount the attacks against Jones and his followers by the FCC, IRS and Social Security Administration. The underlying reality is that the people of Jonestown were casualties of a war between Jim Jones and outsiders. Some – if not most of the adult dead – believed in that war right or wrong.
When I think of our inability to accept Temple members’ desire to live in a far-off jungle, forsaking our American, capitalistic materialism, I think of how we judge them harshly for that which we do not understand. They had to be crazy, right? It reminds me of our attitudes about Islam, and how prominent politicians proclaimed that we would free the women of Afghanistan from their burquas. What they were not prepared for was the fact that many of those women embraced their manner of dress as an expression of their faith. Five years after their “liberation,” the women of Afghanistan still wear burquas. They wanted our help with education and healthcare, not with their sense of fashion. It was the Americans who made the association between dress and liberation. It was the Americans who said that they just needed to be enlightened. Enlightened by whom? Us?
What I have come to believe is that our ethnocentrism about Jonestown is no different than it is with Islam. If we want to understand, then the issue is not whether or not we believe Jones was persecuted, the issue is what his followers believed, and what they wanted.
Regardless of which version of the above dichotomous arguments is true, the end result is the same. People died. Some died because of their belief in revolutionary suicide, even if the term had a variety of definitions in Jonestown. Others died because they were simply worn out. Still others appear to have died against their will.
My point is that even if we agree that the dead of Jonestown were manipulated, isolated and blatantly lied to by their leader, we also have to see that they were not glazed-eyed cult followers. None of the informed, educated arguments regarding the causes of the destruction of Jonestown allows us to conclude that these people were crazy. They left no notes behind proclaiming that they were beaming up to the mother ship on the tail of a comet. No, we must conclude that the majority of these people died out of conviction, fear or fatigue.
So the dead of Jonestown may have been persecuted or they may have been deceived. And they may have been misguided, in either case. But they were also passionate and idealistic.
And it wasn’t Kool-Aid.
(Phyllis Gardner is a Professor of Psychology at Texarkana College, currently pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology from Texas Woman’s University. Her complete collection of articles for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at Phyllis.Gardner@texarkanacollege.edu.)