As one of the few journalists who visited the horrific scene in Jonestown, Guyana, I remain dumbfounded about why the myths about the tragedy, which happened 40 years ago, live on.
I arrived in Guyana with a team of editors, photographers, and reporters from The Washington Post, the owner of Newsweek, where I worked as a reporter.
We had little idea of what had happened except that U.S. Rep. Leon Ryan, D-California, had been shot by members of The Peoples Temple, an American group that lived in Guyana, and a Post reporter, Charles Krause, was missing. Krause had traveled with Ryan to investigate charges against Jim Jones, the leader of the group.
Within hours of our arrival in Georgetown, Guyana, we learned that Ryan had died along with members of his entourage. Fortunately, Krause had escaped.
I arranged for a small aircraft to visit The Peoples’ Temple isolated enclave in the jungle near the border between Guyana, which was governed by a socialist dictator at the time, and Venezuela. The plane was still splattered from the blood of some of the victims from a gun battle that left Ryan and others dead.
The scene from the air looked like a multi-colored quilt, which turned out to be the hundreds of bodies outside a central pavilion in the agricultural community.
What hit me immediately was the stench. I devised a bandana drenched in water and breathe through my nose during my walk through this valley of death.
Here are just some of the myths that continue to surround the deaths at Jonestown.
Myth No. 1: Most Jonestown residents committed suicide.
As I reported back then, there were many signs that some people had not gone willingly to their deaths. Some had been shot with arrows. I learned that the pavilion, where poisoned vats of a sweetened drink mixed with cyanide had been forced down the throats of more than 200 children, had been surrounded by archers and gunmen. Only a handful of people were able to escape.
A few weeks after the deaths in Jonestown, I received an anonymous letter with an audiotape inside. The 44-minute recording was the last night of Jonestown. It is chilling, but it is easy to hear the arguments that occurred as Jones tries to convince his followers to commit suicide.
Listen to the audio at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5e/Peoples_Temple_Cult_Death_Tape_Q042.ogg
Myth No. 2: The residents drank Kool-Aid.
They drank Flavor Aid, which is made in Britain, which at one time ruled Guyana. Moreover, many were forcibly injected with syringes. I don’t understand why this false meme continues. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” has become a figure of speech that commonly refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument or philosophy without critical examination.
Myth No. 3: The Peoples Temple was a cult.
Although I once held this position, I think it makes it too easy to write off Jones and his followers. Political and religious leaders enabled Jones by appointing him to important government positions as head of The Human Relations Commission in Indianapolis and head of The Housing Authority in San Francisco.
He was feted by politicians and religious leaders alike for more than 20 years, including San Francisco mayors Joseph Alioto and George Moscone and members of the Carter Administration, such as First Lady Rosalyn Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale.
Jones’ message of racial harmony and socialism rang true for many people in the 1960s and 1970s. It was only in the last two years of his life that Jones’ narcissism and paranoia became known to some of his followers and ultimately lead to the events in Jonestown.
What happened is that the political elite allowed itself to be manipulated by Jones. His followers paid the ultimate price.