This week marks the 36th anniversary of the deadly event we now simply call Jonestown. The horrifying tragedy was a national one, but it's one that belonged to the Bay Area, where the majority of the victims had only recently lived before following the charismatic preacher turned paranoid cult leader Jim Jones to Guyana in 1976 and 1977. Over 900 people died together in what has popularly been remembered as a mass suicide, but survivors and others have for years tried to revise the narrative, and a Bay Area native and Episcopal priest just penned an editorial in the Washington Post to mark this anniversary suggesting that everyone stop using the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" as a stand-in for cult-joining, because it's offensive and inaccurate.
The Jonestown story is part of a dark season in San Francisco history. The tragedy occurred on November 18, 1978 only nine days before the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in their City Hall offices by former Supervisor Dan White. Just this year the cremated remains of nine Jonestown victims were found in deep storage in a funeral home in Delaware, near where the bodies returned back to the U.S. via military transport.
But as the Reverend James D. Richardson writes, the mass-suicide story is a result of a cruel misunderstanding.
The first murdered at Jonestown were senior citizens, children and babies; the poison was squirted into their mouths. Others thought they were participating in a drill. ... Harangued by Jones, the residents at Jonestown had rehearsed a mass-suicide for weeks, and now Jones ordered his followers to carry it out. Some ran into the jungle, others hid under beds, but most were intimidated into drinking the poison. Allegedly, the drink was grape Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, though some reports say both drinks were present.
In addition to those who died on site at the People's Temple compound, five others including Congressman Leo Ryan were massacred on a nearby airfield the same day, and four other Temple members took their lives in the city of Georgetown, Guyana.
While it's easy to dismiss all Jonestown residents as brainwashed cult members, this is also inaccurate. Many of those who had joined Jones' People's Temple in San Francisco were poor African Americans, as well as idealists disheartened by the end of the 1960s and inspired by Jones' message of love, interracial unity, and faith. The People's Temple promised a utopian, socialist, integrated society that appealed to a broad swath of Bay Area residents in the early 1970s, and it was only near the end that Jones began taking drugs and becoming increasingly, disastrously paranoid that the American government was trying to destroy what he had built.
Parents of young children, forced to watch their children die in their arms that day in 1978, may have willingly (and at gun-point), drank the cyanide-laced drink out of devastation, and this was part of Jones' horrible plan. But as one of the survivors, Congresswoman Jackie Speier says,
There was nothing about it that was a suicide They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.
It's probably impossible to scrub away an idiom that's so ingrained in American culture, as Richardson suggests. But nevertheless people should revise their thinking about what truly happened at Jonestown, and how one man's drug-induced delusions and megalomania ended the lives of 909 people.
The 2006 documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple, which you can watch below when you get a minute, tells the complicated story well, through the stories of the handful who were there and lived to tell it.