(Whit Denton wrote this paper for a class on Sin & Evil in Modern America.)
“Don’t drink the Kool Aid,” goes the common saying. The phrase is used to jokingly impugn those who are a little too trusting, a little too gung ho to go along with a particular group or person. It implies a lack of critical self-awareness. He who “drinks the Kool Aid” is about as good as a zombie, or a cult member, which is to say: he is about as good as dead. The passage of time has rendered the phrase trite and dull, used by public figures as disparate as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and the writers at Us Weekly. It has become a cliche on par with “sold down the river.” Yet, like that old American expression so thoughtlessly tossed off in conversation after conversation, the truly horrific, pernicious beginnings of “don’t drink the Kool Aid” have been forgotten almost entirely. It is derived from the 1978 murder-suicides in Guyana, in which 918 people, some more willing than others, ingested cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid at the behest of their pastor, the Reverend Jim Jones.
They were a little too trusting. They were a little too gung ho to go along with Jones and his Peoples Temple. They lacked the critical self-awareness not to join a cult, and as a result, paid the ultimate price of their lives, or so the popular reading of the tragedy seems to suggest. As Rebecca Moore, a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, puts it: “I think about the Oklahoma City bombing [and] the attack on the Twin Towers. Those are events where there was a great loss of life, and the public response was sympathy to the victims. But with Jonestown, the public response was distancing or outrage, even blame. It was anything but sympathetic.” Indeed, the prevailing view of the Jonestown tragedy is tinged with disgust and a certain level of scorn. The Reverend Billy Graham captured such a view when, in a 1978 New York Times editorial, he likened Jones to Satan, dubbing him a “false messiah.” Prominent anti-cult psychologist Margaret Singer took a similar tack when she said, “I’ve watched hours of Jim Jones on film. And he knew what he was doing. Jim Jones was just one more huckster. He had been tricking people even as a little kid. Even as a young boy, Jones was what we call a character-disordered boy, meaning: a psychopath, a guy who has no conscience about tricking people out of their money and property, and no conscience about lying.” For Singer and so many others, Jim Jones was nothing but a murderous pied piper, and a huckster from Hell; his followers were unwitting, tragic victims who followed him right into the sea.
Yet, the damning, judgmental view of Singer that dominates public discourse about the event is not the only point of view on Jones and Peoples Temple out there. There is a small contingent of writers and commentators, made up of both former Temple members and outside observers who empathize or at least sympathize with the plight of the Temple. Many of them believe that – although Jones had indeed gone insane in his final days, and although the deaths of November 18, 1978 were wholly appalling and unnecessary – there was something truly admirable in the work the Temple attempted to do. For many of these thinkers, like Moore, Jones was not a satanic huckster, but rather “a complicated man” who “started out with good intentions, was corrupted by his sense of self and power, and then succumbed to drug addiction.” University of Chicago religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith was not quite as sympathetic to Peoples Temple as Moore (who has, after all, penned a book entitled In Defense of Peoples Temple, and once wrote that “[w]e need the fury of a Jim Jones”). However, he did believe that the Jonestown phenomenon is not such a unique one, and wants to give it a more thorough, analytical “Enlightenment” reading, a reading that goes beyond the “pornography” – referring to the grisly, lurid images of the rotting corpses at Guyana, as well as the more cartoonish depictions of Jones and his congregation – that the mainstream media has cleaved onto so intensely.
The opinions of Moore and Smith, however, exist comfortably in the minority. The image of Jones as the villainous pied piper, and his congregation as his hypnotized victims, was the prominent one in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy (as Billy Graham’s op-ed, published less than a month after the event, points out) and is still the prominent view today. For proof of this, one only has to look as far as the New York Times, which, in a 2011 review of Julia Scheeres’ book on Jonestown, referred to the Peoples Temple pastor as “the demonic almighty,” or the most recent season of the popular television show, American Horror Story: Cult, which, in an episode entitled “Drink the Kool Aid,” features a nefarious character modeled on Jones.
This widely-accepted conception may seem to be merely a concomitant to the wanton death that occurred in Guyana: of course, there isn’t much sympathy for Jones and Peoples Temple; anything that leads to that much death seems to deserve revulsion, not sympathy. This is part of the explanation to the common reactions to Jonestown, but it is not a comprehensive answer. The fact is that the tragedy in Guyana tapped into the cultural assumptions shaped in the 1960s, an epoch that was partly defined by a renewed utopian hope in the communal ideal, and ended with those ideals publicly defiled. Jonestown came after Charles Manson and his coterie of murderers showed America “the dark edge of hippie life,” after the student protest movement failed to end the war in Vietnam, after the ebullient groupthink of the Beats gave way to the nihilistic chaos of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Peoples Temple was a cooperative movement that arrived on a cultural scene where cooperative movements had long since lost their former luster, where the New Deal ethos of helping one’s fellow man had begun to mutate into a harsh, libertarian individualism.
In this historical context, one can more fully understand why the loudest commentators on Jonestown are so full of venom and vitriol, so unwilling to engage in the practice of empathy. Moore and Smith can empathize because, among other reasons, they are academics who still believe in the dream that Jonestown represented – social equality, a cohesive community, an alternative to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps style of American capitalism. They see the good in Jonestown, and even more, the good the Jonestown ideal could have potentially done for America. For most others, America is a place where the communal effort has become outdated. The 1960s have ended, and cynical individualism is the prevailing American Weltanschauung.
An understanding of the general milieu of the 1960s and its aftermath – the aftermath that illuminates the Jonestown tragedy – begins with the New Deal. In the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government, led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, enacted a slew of programs and projects aimed at ameliorating the deplorable conditions that came about as a result of the wide scale economic collapse known as The Great Depression. These efforts caused “real wages to grow, productivity to grow,” and employment levels to rise drastically. As the U.S. entered World War II, the workforce was chugging along at full capacity. The famous J. Howard Miller poster for the War Production Coordinating Committee shows a woman intently flexing her right arm, the rousing call to action “We can do it!” written in a speech bubble above her head.
Here, the “We” is essential. This is a poster that captures a sense of group effort, of community, of shining idealism, that suffused the zeitgeist of WWII America. With the New Deal, the government had come together and helped the needy. With the war effort, there was a prevailing feeling that American people – this “we” – had come together and accomplished something. America was not a utopia – there was still vast inequality – but there was work being done on a grand scale to help the tired, poor, and huddled masses in a way there simply had not been before, and really would not be again. Faith in the communal effort would soon decay.
At least at first, however, the efforts of the FDR administration appeared not to be in vain. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech at the University of Michigan where he spoke of fashioning a “Great Society” that would rest “on abundance and liberty for all.” This Society would bring about “an end to poverty and racial injustice” and bring the American people “toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.” Johnson sounds undeniably utopian here. One might venture to argue that there are some slight Marxist undertones to his speech, with its rhetoric of life’s meaning being matched up with the “products of our labor.” Johnson’s dramatic, utopian vision at times even sounds like a more measured Jim Jones oration. In one 1973 sermon, Jones boldly lays out a plan of action for Peoples Temple: “We’re going to integrate, unify, harmonize, and lift our people into the highest level of prosperity.” Such a proclamation could be ripped directly from Johnson’s Great Society speech. Many of the ideas Jim Jones was preaching about were not unique to him and his Temple, nor were they even marginal. His belief in integration and a kind of socialist unity was shared, at least in part, by a former head of state.
Yet, the optimism and implementation of the Great Society ideals were relatively short lived. In an essay on Jefferson Cowie’s book, The Great Exception, Eric Alterman writes that “[f]ollowing the decades of historically low inequality that began with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal … corporate profits are the highest ever measured, and workers’ wages are the smallest as a percentage of GDP.” The Great Society, with its earnest strides to eliminate inequality, gave way to Reaganomics, with its callous, libertarian assurance that the wealth and good will would “trickle down” to the needy. What rift in the American political terrain consigned this faith in the communal spirit, so integral to the New Deal and the Great Society measures, to fringe groups like Peoples Temple? Cowie’s argument is that “the government’s focus on the well-being of everyday Americans was the result of ‘short-lived, historical circumstances … generated by the trauma of the Depression and World War II.’” After these historical circumstances begun to fade from view, American society experienced “a return to normalcy and an invitation to the divide-and-conquer strategy that worked so well for plutocracy in the past.” George Packer, writing for The Guardian, agrees with this view, calling the U.S. in the post-New Deal years “a relatively egalitarian, secure, middle-class democracy, with structures in place that supported the aspirations of ordinary people.” However, he writes, “around 1978, America’s character changed.” Packer juxtaposes closing steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio with the passing of Proposition 13 in California, which “began the erosion of public funding for what had been the country’s best school system.” Packer’s claim about the depressive drift of “America’s character” might be a bit sweeping to be entirely cogent, but his essential point remains significant: sometime after the Johnson presidency, the people were no longer the priority they once were.
This shift was not confined to just the grander political sphere. Nowhere is the fading out of communal idealism focused on the people in favor of a more narrow-minded individualism felt more deeply than in the cultural vicissitudes of the 1960s. The early years of the decade were a period in which the idealistic belief in the communal effort was still a deeply fertile one. In 1962, student activists at the University of Michigan came together and drafted a political manifesto known as the Port Huron statement. The quixotically hopeful, almost anthemic text of the manifesto truly speaks to the faith in the group effort that defines much of this period. “Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty,” the statement reads. “Human brotherhood must be willed … as a condition of future survival and as the most appropriate form of social relations. Personal links between man and man are needed.” Connection between people is clearly essential to the success of the ideas the authors are writing about. The language of the document is deeply rooted in community and fellowship, the writers using terms like “fraternity” and “brotherhood,” openly dismissing what they call “egotistic individualism” in favor of this brotherhood of man. One can almost hear echoes of Timothy Leary, the famous psychedelic therapist of the 1960s, with his ideas of “transcendence” “beyond self.”
This anti-individualistic language of community was quite common during the mid-1960s. A 1967 Los Angeles Times article, entitled “Hippies Voice Philosophy, Love,” sympathetically sketches a hippie community in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon. Kip, one hippie interviewed in the article, speaks almost exclusively in terms of “we,” conflating himself with everyone in his vagabond community. When asked who a certain hammock belongs to, Kip responds, saying “It doesn’t belong to anybody … It belongs to everybody, man.” In 1967, that spirit of “we” was made manifest when over 20,000 convened in San Francisco for a “Human Be-In.” Led by Beat luminary Allen Ginsberg, the enormous tsunami of hippie folk chanted the Krishna mantra, danced to the languid, drifting tunes of the Grateful Dead, and dropped astronomical amounts of LSD – all under the pretext of protesting the Vietnam War and expanding group consciousness. A few years later, the famous three-day concert at Woodstock, NY achieved a similar feat of communal hippie grandiosity. Joni Mitchell called the Woodstock concert “a spark of beauty,” where half-a-million kids “saw that they were part of a greater organism.”
There is something cultic about events like Woodstock or the Human Be-In, people writhing together to music, a single, cohesive mass, living proof of Emile Durkheim’s theory of collective effervescence (the inclusion of the Hare Krishna chant at the ‘67 Human Be-In is certainly no coincidence). Yet, despite their cultic nature, the cynicism directed toward these events was fairly light. Tom Zito of The Washington Post called Woodstock “a mythical incarnation of the aspirations of many of the young people in the United States today. People got together … and made love, not war.” The cover of LIFE magazine described the concert as the “PHENOMENAL WOODSTOCK HAPPENING.”
Such optimism is jarring compared to later writing on the communal movements of the 1960s. This about-face in cultural attitudes is illustrated quite clearly in a 1979 Rolling Stone article about Jonestown, in which journalist Tim Cahill writes of being approached by a proselytizing member of Hare Krishna in the Miami airport. The woman explains the charitable efforts of the Hare Krishna, like feeding the hungry, to which Cahill quickly retorts: “Doesn’t this Jonestown stuff make you wonder about yourself?” The woman does not understand. Cahill continues. “Selfless commitment … They [the residents of Jonestown] were people who couldn’t look into themselves … People who fed the hungry. Who helped others. And now they’re lying out there in that goddamn jungle.”
The ostensibly admirable acts of the Hare Krishna mean little to Cahill because they’re couched in the language and philosophy of 1960s utopian idealism. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness was formed in 1966, when that decade’s wave of communal idealism had not yet reached its crest. By ‘78, it had long since washed out to sea, and the popular view was identical to that of Tim Cahill’s: a distrust of communalism and idealism, with a cynical individualism taking its place as the prevailing American philosophy. In 1979, a religion like Hare Krishna was already marginal and vestigial, a cultic fringe that was nothing but a Jonestown waiting to happen.
In a 1970 Washington Post article on Hare Krishna, journalist William Hoffer writes that the Krishna doctrine of adhering strictly to the whim of a “Spiritual Master” “sounds awfully close to the philosophy that guided members of the Manson gang. And this may not be a coincidental similarity.” Hoffer was not the only one to make the comparison. Neil Young called Charles Manson “the ugly side of the Maharishi.” A New Republic article from 1975 makes the bold supposition that“[i]t is hard to escape the conclusion that the counterculture of the 1960s – which offered us beautiful music, new ways to live our lives, and the will to end the war – gave birth as well to Charlie Manson.” Joan Didion, who critically documented the decaying of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” wrote that “[m]any people I know in Los Angeles believe that the 1960s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969 … when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.” Manson, a California hippie who once worked with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, seemed a horrible perversion of the counterculture lifestyle that was so attractive to so many.
In the bloody wake of the Manson Family murders, the great experiment of the 1960s – that confluence of free love, leftism, protest, and spiritual hunger – seemed to have failed. Manson was not the only indicator of illness in the American spirit of group love and communalism. Wading through old newspaper articles from the early 1970s, one is confronted by a glut of pieces that lament a “dying counterculture.” Tom Wolfe summed up the mournful spirit of the age in his landmark work of counterculture journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, writing that “[t]he action … was all over in Haight-Ashbury … The whole old-style hip life – jazz, coffee houses, civil rights, invite a spade for dinner, Vietnam – it was all suddenly dying, I found out, even among the students at Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, which had been the heart of the ‘student-rebellion’ and so forth … all over, finished, incredibly.” Johnson, the Great Society president, had yielded his seat to Richard Nixon, a conservative law-and-order leader who would speak, not for the cacophonous counterculture, but for the Silent Majority. The major civil rights luminaries of the period – MLK, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and RFK – had all been gunned down. The 1969 Altamont Free Concert, a Woodstock-esque event featuring countercultural icons the Grateful Dead, ended in several deaths, one of which was directly due to a bad trip on LSD. For many, the concert seemed a death knell for the ’60s dream of peace and community. The great wave of the 1960s had, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “finally broke and rolled back.”
This deflation of idealism, this progressive distrust in community that slowly crept into American life in the mid-1970s, illuminates the popular reactions to the Jonestown tragedy. Moore writes that “the deaths in Jonestown run headlong against the cult of the individual which sprouted in the late 1970s and blossomed fully in the decade of the 1980s.” She even goes as far as to claim that “if the Jonestown suicides had occurred in 1968 rather than 1978, the public would have reacted differently. People might have recognized commitment, loyalty, and dedication … But by the late 1970s popular acceptance of personal commitment and political involvement had passed away.” That postulation seems a tad far-fetched – 918 people still died in Guyana, and there would surely be outrage and horror at the tragedy no matter when it occurred – but her basic point that the historical and cultural context of the post-Manson, post-Altamont era informed the commentary on Jonestown is entirely legitimate. Jeff Guinn, a historian of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, said that he “chose Jones’ life to chronicle next not because I’m obsessed with horrific tragedy, but because I wanted to follow the cultural segue from the 1960s into the 1970s.” The distinctly uncharitable popular portrayals and descriptions of Jones and Jonestown illustrate this segue from a faith in the communal effort to a cynicism toward groupthink and all things “cult.”
In his book, Imagining Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith puzzles over the lack of “serious study” on Jonestown. Smith points out that the press focused mainly on the lurid details of the tragedy, and that it was the language of fraud and insanity that dominated the accounts.” He cites one Newsweek article that referred to Jones as a “self-proclaimed messiah, … a man who played god, … full of hokum … and carnival stuff, … a wrathful, lustful giant, … [and] nightmarish,” among other things. The popular press covered what Smith calls “the pornography” of Jonestown, the grisly images, the anecdotes like horror movie subplots, the stuff that sells. Interpretation and understanding was not sought by most. The Jonestown dead were often spitefully described as thoughtless zombies under the thrall of the demonic Jones. Two separate letters to the editor in an issue of the Washington Post, written in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, make similar points in this vein, writing that “the massive suicides demonstrate that people can be conditioned for anything,” and that “modern, civilized man can quickly revert to the mindless brute, destroying everything he once cherished.” In the same edition, another letter criticized that groupthink mindset that allowed Jonestown to occur, remarking that “each individual is born with one prime responsibility: to develop his own unique religious point of view” and that religion should be a tool to find one’s “deepest self.”
Note the language of individualism present. This is a far cry from the talk of brotherhood in the Port Huron statement, or Timothy Leary’s writing on ego loss. These letters all illuminate a deep discomfort with the loss of individual identity, and liken the decision to join Peoples Temple to a destruction of one’s individual identity. One final letter in that edition of the Post writes resentfully of tax dollars being used to transport the bodies of the Jonestown dead. “The disciples of Jim Jones made their choice to leave this country and settle in Jonestown … It is too late to help them at this point.”  There is no empathy in the writer’s words. Jonestown, like the Manson murders before it, was an indictment of the communistic, evil power of the group. Those who made the choice to join such a group were damned. They had drunk the Kool-Aid, and thus they had to pay the price for their actions.
These descriptions were similarly reflected in pop culture. The schlock film, Guyana: Crime of the Century, churned out barely before the bodies were buried, has B-movie actor Stuart Whitman hamming it up as a villainous Jones-type named “Reverend James Johnson.” The film is bloody and profoundly exploitative, adding sensational details like a snake pit where Reverend Johnson puts misbehaving congregants. An episode of The A-Team, entitled “Children of Jamestown,” takes a similar tack in creating a sensational, fictional Jonestown stand-in. In the episode, the eponymous group of crime fighters take down an evil cult. The A-Team is a consummate representation of its era, perfectly representing the cultural shift that informs these unsympathetic, damning reactions to Jonestown: it is a group of vigilantes, using violent force to take care of problems the government is too weak to deal with. In this post-Great Society America, an America where the government cannot even be trusted to fix the situation in Vietnam, the culture felt it necessary to look to this kind of libertarian individualism as a kind of salvation. This is what Moore meant when she said the reaction to Jonestown would have been different in the 1960s. By the mid-1970’s, “despair replaced both the anger and optimism of the 1960s.” The reactions to Jonestown are inextricably linked to the specter of individualism and skepticism of the group that hung over the time period in which it occurred.
Reading the apologists and less judgmental writers on Jonestown, one gets a more comprehensive view of Jonestown, one that is less colored by the intoxicating haze of past events. In an interview immediately following the calamitous circumstances his father would become most known for, Stephan Jones said of his infamous progenitor, “I can almost say that I– I– I hate this man because he destroyed everything I lived for.” Stephan is wide-eyed with disbelief, stumbling over his words, still processing the news that the project he had literally devoted his entire life to, the set of ideals that Jonestown stood for, was now moot as a result of his father. On first glance, watching him fumble for words to describe the indescribable catastrophe that’s befallen his church, one can almost see echoes of the closed-off judgments and damnatory polemics that would come to overwhelm popular literature on Jonestown. Yet, when one reporter asks Stephan what he thinks his father’s historical legacy will be, any haziness around his position dissipates. “I don’t care,” Stephan says. “I hope that it doesn’t discredit what I’ve lived for, and what most of the people, at one time all of the people, have lived for.” Speaking about defectors like Deborah Blakey, Stephan empathizes with their decision to leave Jonestown, but also questions whether they accomplished anything by leaving. “I wanted to do the same thing she did,” he says of Blakey. But he didn’t, because defecting, as he sees it, would not have accomplished anything. “I didn’t want to see socialism discredited.”
Years later, Stephan Jones gave an interview in which he talks about his father with greater pity and perspicacity:
I had a very … loving father … My Dad was a raging addict. And I don’t just mean chemicals. I mean, he was an addict personality. He was into power, sex, food, drugs, whatever he needed to fill that hole, he was using. But most of all he was addicted to adulation.” He goes on: “My father was a pretty sick man … But he also had a real beauty about him, for lack of a better way of putting it … even when he was pulling the wool over on people, he was tapping into something real.
Stephan’s humanization of his father is no consequence of nostalgia or age. As he says later in the interview, “I have no desire to paint a good picture of my dad … but I’ve been outside Peoples Temple now as long as I was inside, and I’m looking for a rounded view, an honest view, a balanced view, a broad enough view of who my father was and how he showed up for people.” He just wants to illustrate why people joined Peoples Temple in the first place, to show that his father was not always the devil figure so many have made him out to be.
As in the 1978 interview, Stephan still wants to try and help salvage the ideas that were the very foundation of the work the Temple did. Jim Jones may have ended his life as a murderer, and his message may have been fully corrupted by the time he brought out the vats of Flavor-Aid, but that doesn’t mean he did not have good ideas and intentions when he began his ministry. People joined Peoples Temple in the first place because “they wanted to do something good for the world, to be part of something greater than themselves,” writes Moore. Teri Buford, a survivor and one-time close confidante of Jones’, looks back at the Temple, as it existed in its final months in Guyana as a miserable place where the leader grew increasingly paranoid and frightening with each passing day. Yet, her view of the man and his church – not dissimilar to Moore’s view of Jones as a “complicated man” with “good intentions” – is far from unequivocal. Jones, Buford posits,“was a very complex, confusing character. In some ways he was a good guy. He was passionate about interracial integration. The People’s Temple built schools, built housing, built a health clinic, built a kitchen, cleared fields, harvested crops. His goal was to set up this utopian community where everything would be fair and equal.”
The testimonies of Stephan Jones, Rebecca Moore, Teri Buford, and other Peoples Temple apologists are quite compelling; however, they come with a qualification that would give any thorough historian pause: each of these people has a close, personal tie to Jonestown. Stephan Jones is Jim Jones’ only biological son. Buford was a former member of Peoples Temple. Moore’s two sisters, Carolyn and Annie, were not only members, but high ranking officials in the Temple organization who tended to Jones in his waning days of life and mental clarity, and are suspected to have had large roles in orchestrating the final tragedy. While Moore is often cited in documentaries and histories of Jonestown, her work has been criticized before. A writer for the City Journal has written that since she is so emotionally connected to the tragedy, her book, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, is “the equivalent, then, of a concentration camp warden’s kin putting the best face on his work.” Everyone discussed thus far has something to gain by rehabilitating Jim Jones and Jonestown in the public eye, whether it be self-exoneration from blame for the 918 deaths or self-explanation as to how one’s loved ones could be involved in something so mind-bogglingly cataclysmic. Yet, their pleas for understanding, their attestations of apologism, are not borne purely out of grief, shame, and selfishness. They actually do have a factual, and even academic, basis.
Jim Jones and his Temple did do good. As Leigh Fondakowski notes in her book, “Jim and Marceline were the first white couple in the state of Indiana to adopt an African American child. Jones was also instrumental in integrating the Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.” Perhaps one could cynically view Jones’ adopted kids (who he called his “Rainbow Family”) as his attempt to eliminate the white guilt he surely felt in the face of his predominantly black congregation. It could even be seen as a purely political move Jones designed to make himself appear a tolerant multiculturalist, and thus gain both credibility and more congregants. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to look askance at Jones’ efforts of integration. During his life, Jones was frequently lauded by respected figures for his charitable efforts. In 1961, he was appointed to the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. He was a vigorous campaigner for San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who later appointed Jones to a position on the city’s Housing Authority by Moscone. Jones used that position to fight for impoverished members of the International Hotel who were facing eviction. Gay rights luminary Harvey Milk was positively effusive on the subject of Jones. When Timothy Stoen defected from Peoples Temple and began to launch attacks against Jones in order to win custody over his son, Milk wrote to President Jimmy Carter, saying that Jones was “a man of the highest character, who has undertaken constructive remedies for social problems which have been amazing in their scope and effectiveness.” Milk went on, citing “a Certificate of Honor, unanimously passed by all members, praising the church for its many projects ‘which have been so beneficial to all the citizens of the Bay Area.’” Both Walter Mondale and Rosalynn Carter are on the record praising Jones. In 1975, he was listed as one of the one hundred outstanding American clergyman by Religion in Life. In 1977, he was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. The views of people like Rebecca Moore are not entirely unfounded.
On a more general note, one would be remiss not to note that sympathy with cults, or “new religious movements,” is not confined to survivors like Teri Buford or grieving siblings of cult members like Rebecca Moore. In the exhaustive encyclopedia, The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, scholar Dick Anthony pinpointed “various positive consequences associated with joining alternative religious movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Prosocial, functional, and adaptive consequences included the rehabilitation of drug users, rewarding interpersonal relationships, renewed vocational commitment, suicide prevention, relief from depression and anxiety, psychological integration, etc.”
Anthony is quick to add that the positives do “sometimes incur various and significant costs,” which is certainly undeniable; however, one rarely hears the positives of cults mentioned in popular culture. One is far more likely to hear of brainwashed lemmings blindly walking to their deaths. Such an idea is a cartoon borne out of fear and misunderstanding. Brainwashing, recent scholarship has discovered, is practically a myth. Noted new religious movements scholar, J. Gordon Melton of Baylor University, has published extensively on the idea of brainwashing in cults. He postulates that the idea first rose to prominence essentially because of a misunderstanding, promulgated by an undercover CIA agent posing as a journalist, of the ostensible indoctrination of American POWs in the Korean War. The “indoctrination process” actually turned few, if any, Americans to the Communist cause. Yet, the damage had already been done, and the brainwashing hypothesis, Melton writes, “came as a godsend to parents who had been objecting to their offspring’s joining one of the new movements, as it offered what appeared to be a scientific rationale for their son or daughter’s actions.”
Therefore, one should avoid readings of Jonestown as the story of a singular madman leading his brainwashed flock to slaughter. Such a simplistic view is based on shoddy science, and denies the Jonestown dead their humanity. Moore, unsurprisingly, agrees: “Pretty early on, at least within a few years [of the event], I really rejected the brainwashing explanation … There’s some pretty clear evidence that my sisters were involved in planning some sort of mass death … People had agency, and I would say they had free will.” The members of the Temple followed Jones, not because they were hypnotized, but because, as acclaimed Jones historian Jeff Guinn writes,“Jones was often intellectually and usually instinctively brilliant; his appeal was far broader, and he had something to offer the gifted and the sincere as well as the desperate.” In his book, Imagining Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith stresses the “recognition of the ordinary humanness of the participants in Jonestown’s White Night [the mass suicide]” as an ideal “starting point for interpretation.” From there, he discusses how Jonestown is “an instance of something known, of something we have seen before,” citing the first-century mass suicide at Masada, a cargo cult in New Hebrides, and the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War. Later in the book, he uses Euripides’ Bacchae as a reference point to explain the internal logic of Jonestown, as well as the common view of the event: those reporting on it existed always as spies, as interlopers, figures excised from the utopia; they could not exist organically in the spaces which Peoples Temple members inhabited. Along with the other scholars mentioned, Smith illustrates that every facet of the Jonestown tragedy, from the man who gives the event its name to the people who followed him into the dense jungles of South America, is more complex than the prevailing view would lead one to think. They are not daffy, brainwashed saps “drinking the Kool Aid.” They are rigorous, intelligent thinkers who see some genuine good in Jonestown, and in cults in general, or at the very least understand and empathize with the people who join.
Of course, this was never the dominant view, and likely never will be. The reactions to the tragedy focused on the “pornography,” as opposed to empathizing like Smith and Moore did. The tragedy at Jonestown exists always in its time period, one that did not value idealism, one that distrusted the communal effort. The widespread use of the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” is perhaps the very best evidence. Jonestown is a snapshot of a changing culture, a changing age, and the volumes upon volumes that have been written, and will be written on the subject, reflect this fact.
“Charles Manson, LIFE magazine, 1969,” last modified August 8, 2012, http://time.com/12_19_1969/.
Fondakowski, Leigh. Stories From Jonestown. Minneapolis: the University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Game, Loris. “News Conference With Stephan Jones After The Jonestown Massacre.” Filmed November 1978, posted December 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXhb0YYOWds&t=209s
Jones, Jim. “Q233 Transcript,” speech, 1973. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=27386.
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