On November 18, 1978 my uncle Bob Davis and his son Brian died at Jonestown. I didn’t know either of them well, hardly at all in fact. I have a dim recollection of playing with my cousins when we were all still young. I have fond memories of both of them, but there just aren’t very many.
Not long ago I was looking at photos of Bob and Brian, and I saw the notation that they’d been both part of the “Security Team” at Jonestown. I had no idea what that meant but it sounded ominous. I knew little of what happened, how many people died, or even how they died. It’s been impossible, though, over these past decades to forget about it entirely because of the continual references to “drinking the Kool-aid.” I had also heard the speculation that many people hadn’t died by drinking the Kool-aid, but that they had been shot by the armed guards among them. Wondering whether any insight had been gained over the years, I googled and found my way to this website where there are far more questions than answers. My research on the site has convinced me that my uncle and my cousin didn’t kill anybody. They weren’t among the men who fired upon the congressional party at the Port Kaituma airstrip, and – since only two people died of bullet wounds – they hadn’t shot anyone in Jonestown either. Like everyone else, Bob and Brian died of cyanide poisoning. They died from drinking the Kool-aid.
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Now and then over the years one conversation or another would prompt me to reveal that relatives of mine had died at Jonestown. In the dozen or so times this occurred, the dialogue always went something like this:
Them: “No way. That’s so messed up. Why do you even admit to it?”
Me: “Admit to what?”
Them: “To being related to such freaks, such animals.”
Me: “I don’t see it that way.”
Them: “But how can you not see it that way? What kind of a person joins a cult?”
I don’t see the path I’ve taken in my life as different at all from many of those in Peoples Temple. I was an idealist before it was a dirty word. By age thirteen I was a card-carrying member of the Jesus Rock movement. By sixteen I was tagging along with folks who’d moved up from California to begin organizing for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign. At seventeen I was being mentored by revolutionaries much older than me who taught me, among other things, ideas such as consensus and non-hierarchal leadership; they introduced me to various principles like sustainability, enfranchisement, passive resistance, and of course, Dr. Bronner’s soap! They gave me books by Eldridge Cleaver, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Ultimately I became an activist for social justice, focusing on literacy. Besides being an artist, as far as careers go, it’s the only one I’ve had.
Whatever kind of a man Jim Jones was – and my curiosity about that is nil – he was able to convince an awful lot of activists, intellectuals, environmentalists, musicians, and freedom fighters that by joining Peoples Temple, their collective voices could be stronger. Jones’ descent into madness isn’t particularly noteworthy; history is full of such examples. But since up to that point no one had ever taken nearly a thousand people down with him in the largest mass suicide of the time, he became the poster child for cult leaders. Consequently, his followers were stigmatized.
Jim Jones wasn’t the first leader to be outed as a liar, a hypocrite, and a maniac. We are, in fact, surrounded by them today. But rarely do we demand their removal from power. Only occasionally do some of us question their authority. A mere cursory look at our country since its inception shows a history of authoritarian leadership propped up not only by the blind, but by the reverent faith of the people. In America, Father knows best. Despite our amazing contributions to the enrichment of our world, Americans continue their commitment to such cults as the Cult of War, the Cult of Consumerism, the Cult of Political Parties, the Cult of Individualism, The Cult of Exceptionalism. And it’s exactly that devotion to authoritarianism – and not the idealism – that led to the deaths at Jonestown.
I have no idea how I’d behave thousands of miles away from home, isolated in a jungle, my life constantly threatened by the voice of a psychopath over the loudspeakers, guarded by men with guns, with no way to contact anyone who might help me to safety. Nor, dear reader, do you. To claim otherwise is naive at best. Because as history has proven, with a few extraordinary exceptions, we would behave exactly like everyone else did. We would drink the Kool-aid.
That November I was preoccupied. I was twenty and my son’s first birthday was days away. I was a full-time student. My part-time job was a thirty mile commute. My life was fast paced and enormously stressful. I recall hearing of the deaths, but don’t remember the reactions. In the chaos that was my existence, the news made barely a dent. But on that day in November, everyone in my immediate family suffered a loss, each in our own ways. If such a thing can be measured, my grandparents suffered the most. Not only did they lose both a son and a grandson, the deaths were crassly sensationalized. When my brother cleaned out my grandparents’ house after they had passed, he found stacks of magazines about Jonestown. My grandparents died knowing only the accounts published by the tabloids. So while I offer this in their memory, I’m also adding my voice to all the amazing people who’ve shared their stories with such candor and sincerity in attempts to understand the truth.
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One final note: While digging around I find a YouTube site with the songs from He’s Able, the LP recorded by the Peoples Temple choir. Track One features the children singing “Welcome.” It’s the best Jesus Rock I’ve heard in a very long time.
(Laura Davis is an artist who lives in Virginia. Her website with her work is at storytellingproductions.com [Editor’s note: This URL was found to be defunct in December 2022]. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(A lengthier remembrance of Brian Davis appears here.)