My lessons from almost drinking the Kool-Aid

(Andy Silver is a former member of Peoples Temple, and is now a divorce and federal mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina. This article is adapted from its original publication in The Charlotte Observer on October 19, 2013. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at

As a divorce and federal mediator, I notice what is not being said and make sure it’s discussed. But I learned this lesson the hard way when, as a college senior, I made a regrettable decision. In 1971 I joined the Peoples Temple Christian Church, led by Jim Jones.

I wanted to conscientiously object to the Vietnam War. I was impressed with Jim Jones’ commitment to civil rights, and written testimony about his character from the District Attorney and U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey. By 1974, Jones had been named the Housing Commissioner by San Francisco’s Mayor and in 1976, he had had lunch with Rosalynn Carter, the wife of then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter.

I’d read Stanley Milgram’s study on group obedience to authority, which revealed people’s inability to say “No” under pressure. I was tested by this theory when the church I joined grew into a cult. Peoples Temple ended on November 18, 1978 when cult leader Jones forced 918 members in the jungle of Guyana, South America to die by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. For two weeks in Washington, Congress failed its own test, showing an inability to withstand groupthink and resolve the debt crisis.

Not drinking the Kool-Aid means to avoid the trap of peer pressure. In an era of schemes like Bernie Madoff, Enron President Kenneth Lay, and Jim Jones, it pays to know your personal blind spots and where you are seduce-able.

Regret as a teacher: Key lessons

Lesson one: Pay attention when first meeting someone. Much can be revealed non-verbally about a person’s hidden agenda. I liked the church’s message, but there was something unfathomable about Jones that I was too naïve to decipher: a feeling of dread.

Lesson two: A con artist offers hope while your gut responds with “Caution.” We tend not to listen to ourselves. Rarely do we have a friend on speed dial to challenge our thinking.

Lesson three: Avoid a big decision when you are vulnerable. The year I joined the church, my father’s heart problems worsened and he died the following year. I considered myself unemployable due to a liberal arts degree in a bad economy.

Lesson four: My finger hovered over the “Yes, Join” button when I should have been pounding the “Pause or Evacuate the Building” button. Jones seemed familiar in the way that charismatic people can be welcoming and familiar. My caution now associates charismatic people with a rip tide at the beach.

Lesson five: When in doubt, don’t. A split decision of 51 percent Yes vs. 49 percent No means “No.” The adage is true: If it sounds too good to be true, it is neither good nor true.

Lesson six: A balance of power among Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court is essential to our democracy. Cult leader Jim Jones and Enron President Kenneth Lay refused for anyone to question their actions. We need leaders not beholden to financial interests who will collaborate and take care of the nation’s business. Instead we witness both sides circling the wagons.

A more effective Congress

Congress suffers today from its members’ lack of electoral competition. Most seats in the House of Representatives are “safe” seats that have been drawn to make them nearly impossible for any member to lose. This gives representatives little incentive to compromise or to see beyond their ideological tunnel vision. States should create districts with genuine inter-party competition in order to bring back the real discussions and compromises that are the backbone of governance.

Campaign finance reform is badly needed, too, as huge monied interests dominate U.S. politics more than at any time since the late 19th century. Public financing of elections has been adopted across Europe and South America.

Members of the public need to tell their representatives what changes they want and insist Congress put a moratorium on political posturing and a rehashing of old, tired ideas. Our nation was founded on the courage of one word: “No.” If Congress isn’t doing what you want, tell them “No.”

Let’s have leaders with courage who will lead.