The Myths of Jonestown

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The Myths of Jonestown

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.

Here’s what hap­pened on Nov. 18, 1978.

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​.wiki​me​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​p​e​d​i​a​/​c​o​m​m​o​n​s​/​5​/​5​e​/​P​e​o​p​l​e​s​_​T​e​m​p​l​e​_​C​u​l​t​_​D​e​a​t​h​_​T​a​p​e​_​Q​042.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.

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.

Here’s what happened on Nov. 18, 1978.

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.