It’s the massacre that inspired the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”: In 1978, Jim Jones masterminded the largest mass suicide in modern history.
Jones, a charismatic preacher who taught racial equality and worked for civil rights, started his Christian congregation in Indianapolis in the 1950s. The church, known as Peoples Temple, later moved its headquarters to California, and in the mid-1970s Jones established a compound in Guyana, in South America. Each year the group grew more cultlike and Jones became more paranoid – and in November 1978, when a U.S. congressman came to investigate the Guyana settlement, Jones committed what he considered a “revolutionary act”: He directed his followers to swallow a grape drink laced with cyanide, an act that kill more than 900 people, one-third of them children.
This article was published in the Houston Chronicle on April 30, 2017.
Q: A national reviewer recently described you as a true-crime journalist. Would you describe yourself that way?
A: I wouldn’t. I write about eras in US history, and in a couple of instances the iconic individuals I’ve chosen are people who precipitated criminal activity or tragic events. I’m not looking for those people; I’m writing about people who embody some aspect of American society of a particular era. And I write about the good and the bad of those eras. Jim Jones, for example, was a demagogue, but I was shocked to learn about the great things he accomplished. If he had died at the end of his tenure in Indianapolis, we’d remember him as one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement.
Q: You’ve been critical of Jones, but you’ve also said he “appealed to the best in humanity.” Could you clarify that?
A: Well, as I say, Jones was a demagogue, but unlike other demagogues, he didn’t pit people against others. He tried to bring people together; he wanted to create a society in which people were treated equally. People joined for altruistic reasons and that sets the Peoples Temple apart.
Q: Even in Indianapolis, though, he was appealing to people by claiming to cure cancer with his hands and to resurrect the dead. That’s manipulation; that’s appealing to people’s ignorance and gullibility.
A: Jones had different types of followers. He didn’t appeal to just one type of person. There’s a segment of our society, even now, that believes in faith healings and the like. Jones did what he needed to appeal to those people, and most of the long-term members of Peoples Temple realized that. It was a recruitment technique.
Q: Is it fair to say he used many methods of totalitarian dictators: incrementally exerting control over people financially, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, until that control was complete?
A: The key word is “incrementally.” One of the people I interviewed used the analogy of the frog in the water that is incrementally getting hotter. The frog stays in, never noticing the change in temperature, until the water’s heat kills it. It’s tempting to think of Jones as a lunatic from the beginning. But that’s not the case. He worked bit by bit over the course of time, and his followers ended up isolated, exhausted and poorly nourished, and they succumbed to his
call for suicide in the end.
Q: You have engaged in participatory journalism in the past, and for this book you visited many of the places Jones lived, including Jonestown. How does this enhance your research?
A: Had I not gone into that jungle—one of the densest in the world—I wouldn’t have appreciated the full achievement of Jonestown. Jones went into that mess and carved out a farm community that was almost self-sustaining, and it demonstrates his ability to inspire people and to accomplish things.
Q: You also read extensive files and listened to hundreds of hours of tapes for this book.
A: I read 66,000 pages of documents—just from the FBI alone. I think I was reason the local Quick Copy Owner was able to retire early. As for the tapes, I probably spent the equivalent of every day for a couple of months just listening and taking notes. At first blush, his speeches are all over the place, but then I realized he purposefully covered diverse topics to provide something to everyone in his diverse audience. Somewhere in that mess was a message that spoke to each of his congregants.
Q: In the course of your research, you forged a connection with some of the former members of the Peoples Temple. Can you describe that?
A: The people who were once part of Peoples Temple now call themselves survivors. Some were members in the US and left the Temple, but some survived the final day in Jonestown. Tim Carter, for example, was pulled away to make a delivery but was there long enough to see his wife and child die. Many of the survivors gather annually on November 18—the anniversary of the Jonestown suicides—in Oakland, California. They have a bond that is incomprehensible to outsiders. They are a family. They argue like family members, but they are also there for each other. I got to know them, and I was astonished by their intelligence and their social commitment.
Q: What challenges do they still face?
A: When you’ve been part of such a tragedy, you can’t completely come to terms with it. They argue amongst themselves whether Jones was always evil. They wonder how they let themselves be fooled, how they could have gone along, and they replay endlessly the things that have happened to them, trying to pinpoint moments when they could have done something. And we can’t understand that fully. The things they’ve gone through, the way they continue to function, their motivation to try to contribute in a positive way—it staggers me. These are brave people.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.