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"We didn't commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."
November 17, 2009 10:42 PM   Subscribe

31 years ago today, 918 people died in the Jonestown Mass Murder-Suicide. One week later, CBC Radio aired this comprehensive examination[MP3] of the events leading up the tragedy, including cult leader Jim Jones' rise to power, the founding of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, and the ill-fated investigative delegation headed by Congressman Leo Ryan which precipitated the tragic event.
posted by Alvy Ampersand (51 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Many of the images used in the first link (Transcripts of the tape are available here) are taken from the stunning 2006 PBS documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which is well worth seeking out - unfortunately, only this trailer is officially available online. That said, the radio piece, presented as an episode of the CBC's Rewind programme, is impressive in its depth and immediacy.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:42 PM on November 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


I listened to that recording a few years ago and the sick feeling still lingers somewhere in my stomach whenever I'm reminded of it.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:46 PM on November 17, 2009


Lately I been hearing the phrase "drinking the kool-aid" a lot.

It always reminds me of Jonestown.
posted by bwg at 10:51 PM on November 17, 2009


Lately I been hearing the phrase "drinking the kool-aid" a lot.

And the cruel irony of that is that Jones was too cheap to by Kool-Aid and used the generic Flavor Aid instead
posted by Burhanistan at 10:55 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lately I been hearing the phrase "drinking the kool-aid" a lot.
It always reminds me of Jonestown.


Well, I would hope so, since that's the origin of the phrase.

Except that it was fucking FLAVOR AID. I AM SICK AND GOD DAMNED TIRED OF YOU INTERNETS PEOPLE CASUALLY IMPUGNING THE GOOD NAME OF OUR NATION'S FINEST ARTIFICIALLY-FLAVORED INSTANT DRINK MIX!
posted by dersins at 10:56 PM on November 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


People who use the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" do so without recognizing that the people at Jonestown were manipulated into drinking Flavor Aid.
posted by autoclavicle at 11:09 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Looking for "flavor aid" Products?
Other customers suggested these items:
Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones DVD

posted by Burhanistan at 11:14 PM on November 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


Somewhere an employee of Kool-aid sitting in front of a battery of monitors and keyboards controlling an army of sock puppets is smiling.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:26 PM on November 17, 2009 [10 favorites]


Seconding Jonestown as an amazing film. What's interesting is that in many ways the Jonestown tragedy was borne out of the radical movements of the 60s and 70s. I'm not maligning the people and movements of that time period, but Jim Jones was a welcome figure in many left wing churches and groups.

It's important to understand that for a very long time the Jim Jones cult was thought legitimate in many circles, he even had political and financial support from some local and state politicians, which isn't too hard to grasp because his church did provide much needed social services.

Unfortunately whenever you have an organization led by an egomaniac, that organization's principles (however noble) are going to end up subservient to the blinding aura of a charismatic personality.

And if I can jump on the Kool Aid derail, check out Alan Moore's short comic: The Hasty Smear of My Smile
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 11:49 PM on November 17, 2009 [14 favorites]


some NPR (and lots of CBC) listeners may be interested to learn that Stuart McLean won an "ACTRA award for best radio documentary for coverage of the Jonestown massacre, 1979." Is that award for this piece, Alvy?
posted by mwhybark at 11:54 PM on November 17, 2009


PostIronyIsNotaMyth: "check out Alan Moore's short comic: The Hasty Smear of My Smile"


I THANK YOU
posted by mwhybark at 12:02 AM on November 18, 2009


CONSIDER THIS ONE MORE SUBTLE HINT THAT THAT CBC DOC IS A MUST LISTEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I just heard it last week and holy shit, what a masterful work of reportage!
posted by philip-random at 12:02 AM on November 18, 2009


All speculation as to states of mind aside, and speaking from the position of (mostly, probably) non-brainwashed, I can sort of understand the survival instinct not kicking in re: cyanide. It isn't instant death, and so it's a little more abstract for the human body to react to. But this is fucking insane:

Later, after police arrived at the Temple headquarters, Sharon Amos escorted her children, Liane (21), Christa (11) and Martin (10), into a bathroom. Wielding a kitchen knife, Sharon first killed Christa and then Martin. Then Liane assisted Sharon to kill herself with the knife, followed by Liane killing herself with the knife.
posted by doublehappy at 12:05 AM on November 18, 2009


A3 + Jim Jones =
posted by philip-random at 12:06 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Clip from "Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones"

... and now, I'll go have a nightmare or two.
posted by philip-random at 12:09 AM on November 18, 2009


for a very long time the Jim Jones cult was thought legitimate in many circles, he even had political and financial support from some local and state politicians

Yeah, the part of the Wikipedia page on Jonestown where it detailed Harvey Milk's support for Jones made me wince.

Guess Milk doesn't mix well with Flavor Aid.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:22 AM on November 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


I lived in Guyana in 1994, not too far away from the remains of Jonestown, and was show around by some locals - they're fascinated by it. I can't begin to tell you how creepy it was if you know the history of it. I declined their offer for us to stay the night there.
posted by dowcrag at 12:27 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you sincerely believe that you will be going to a place like the Christian heaven as soon as you finish killing yourself, and you have no urgent need not to, killing yourself is a rational choice, and the question of why you would not kill yourself is the more perplexing question.

Getting someone to believe in something strongly enough that they would die for it is not as hard as you may think.
posted by idiopath at 1:05 AM on November 18, 2009


You know, for years I thought the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" was a reference to Tom Wolfe's book, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Trip.

Thus, I thought the phrase alluded to either tricking strait-laced people into doing something wild or unconventional, hidden in conventionality; or people uncritically consuming something that they would normally reject and possibly wasn't very good for them.

I suspect I made some pretty unusual metaphors for a time, there.
posted by smoke at 2:19 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


CBC is so excellent, thanks for this link.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:46 AM on November 18, 2009


Somewhat related, is anyone familiar with a music project (different from the one linked above) that showed close-ups of Jones' face talking (possibly tinted) with music behind it?
posted by Red Loop at 3:54 AM on November 18, 2009


People who use the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" do so without recognizing that the people at Jonestown were manipulated into drinking Flavor Aid.

Speak for yourself. "Drinking the Flavor Aid" sounds stupid. The phrase, for better or worse, is "drinking the Kool-Aid".

Last year being the 30th anniversary of the tragedy at Jonestown, I saw several documentaries - their quality varied. MSNBC reairs theirs occasionally, as does History. It'd be great if anyone could find those online, I don't know if either network puts much lengthy video on the web.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:04 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, mainstream life must be pretty bad if 918 people would rather kill themselves than go back to it after a few year stint with a crazy guy!
posted by rainy at 4:10 AM on November 18, 2009


I haven't listened to the documentary, and I don't think it's the same, but the Jonestown death tape that is floating around is totally chilling. I think a lot of it get's reproduced in the movie. As hard as it is to listen to, I actually really recommend it as it gives the flavor of the place so completely.
posted by OmieWise at 4:51 AM on November 18, 2009


The way we view the large, historic events in our lives is through our own small, personal kaleidoscopes.

32 years ago I was trying to write a novel about the power struggles within a religious cult. I had the background for it; when I was 15 I was caught up in an off-shoot of Calvary chapel called Shekinah, which revolved around the strong personality of one man, Brent. Brent was a beautiful, slightly fey, ex-model and former drug abuser who had a theatrical stage accent which made him sound like Katherine Hepburn with overly-drawn out vowels: Gaaaaaawwd. His charisma was beyond anything I ever experienced before or after. Most of his congregation consisted of young people, aged 16 to 20, who had been pulled in by the weekly Maranatha concerts performed in downtown Long Beach.

While we hung on his every word, there was very little chance of any of us actually talking to him personally. He had a core cadre of about 6 men, deacons, whose job was to intervene between the hoi polloi and the leader. The only way to interact with Brent was to come on stage at the end of the Saturday night and be "healed." You could be healed for any number of reasons: physical pain, sadness, confusion. He touched your forehead with the tips of his fingers and you fell back in a swoon into the arms of a waiting deacon. This healing was supposed to be enough to set you completely right with God and expel all doubt. The healing was a substitution for counseling or mediation.

While I was mesmerized by him, I could not turn off my brain entirely. I could not shake off the feeling that there was no such thing as God and all this activity was posturing nonsense. Two or three times I attempted to leave, only to be drawn back in because all of my friends were in Shekinah and I had become used to filling my time with evening services and daily Bible studies. Gradually, however, I stopped attending so many Bible classes so that I could start going to school activities and my friendship circle widened to non-church members. By the time I broke off completely, most of the 17 and 18 year olds were getting married, including my former boyfriend, and dropping out of school so that they could start their families. I think, if Brent had wanted to move to Guyana, he would have been able to convince a large majority of his 400 or so followers.

A few years later, I was sitting in the library at my college, trying to resolve my feelings about this, trying to write a scathing book about how religious leaders can so easily succumb to the lure of power and assume a stranglehold over the lives of their followers, when I heard about Jonestown. I tossed my manuscript in the trash. Real life proved to be so much more powerful, so much more devastating than anything I could have written.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:50 AM on November 18, 2009 [25 favorites]


BrotherCaine: Somewhere an employee of Kool-aid sitting in front of a battery of monitors and keyboards controlling an army of sock puppets is smiling. screaming "OH YEAH!"

FTFY.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:09 AM on November 18, 2009 [7 favorites]


Mass suicide is easier to promote as a solution when everyone's had some opportunity to practice it first.

Deborah Layton's book is fascinating reading. So is Tim Reiterman's Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. The latter covers the entire history of the Peoples Temple, which began in the 50s in Indiana. While Jones was never above a fake healing or paranoia, he was loudly pro racial integration in a time and place where such views were quite unpopular. The fact that one has to question his motives is very compelling food for thought.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:16 AM on November 18, 2009


I had a copy of the Jonestown death CD for a while; it seems to have disappeared from my collection, which is probably for the best. Aside from the utter horror of it, I was most struck by Jim Jones' voice, which I had never heard before. It was high, irritated, adenoidal, slurring, and lisping. But I had heard him speak before, and he hadn't sounded like that. It's like, at the last moment, he turned into Truman Capote. Coupled with the screams of children, it's unendurably strange and unendurably sad. For some reason, somebody has posted it to YouTube.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:25 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


In 1973, the Jim Jones People's Temple Choir recorded a gospel LP called "He's Able". In 1999 Grey Matter Records re-released this album on CD, adding some Jim Jones audio from Guyana as a bonus track.
WFMU has the mp3s available free of charge.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 6:49 AM on November 18, 2009


rainy: "Wow, mainstream life must be pretty bad if 918 people would rather kill themselves than go back to it after a few year stint with a crazy guy!"

There were lots of poor black folks in the People's Temple.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:00 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]



I was about in the 6th or 7th grade (late 1990s) when I first learned about Jonestown. I was at the library browsing books. I don't remember the context of the book, but it had a few pages, laying out the basic story of Jim Jones, Jonestown, and the mass suicide. I never heard about it before then.

It was then that I realised the power of religious cults and how Christianity could be twisted to produce horrific results in contemporary society (all I knew about before was that my dad wasn't big on me playing with the eccentric kid of the Jehovah-Witness neighbors across the street).

/too young to remember Waco, TX
posted by fizzix at 8:14 AM on November 18, 2009


CBC is so excellent, thanks for this link.

Slight derail: CBC was so excellent. The recent tinkering across the board in Radio and TV is ... troubling.
posted by mazola at 8:36 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know, for years I thought the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" was a reference to Tom Wolfe's book, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Trip.

I used to think this, too. Since I learned otherwise (not that very long ago, actually), I have stopped using the phrase altogether. Relating it to the experiences of those aboard Furthur, that's a fine analogy to me. Relating it to Jonestown has (pardon the pun) poisoned the phrase for me forever, and it is no longer part of my lexicon.
posted by hippybear at 8:39 AM on November 18, 2009


Stuart McLean won an "ACTRA award for best radio documentary for coverage of the Jonestown massacre, 1979." Is that award for this piece, Alvy?

It would appear so: "Stuart McLean shared an ACTRA Award in 1979 for best radio documentary, for a program the Sunday Morning team produced about the Jonestown massacre."

No mention of McLean in Enright's introduction or closing, though - too bad, it definitely adds another level of oddness/interestingness for those who primarily identify McLean as the folksy Vinyl Cafe guy, doesn't it?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:46 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


OOPS! pushed Post too soon. The whole darned thing:

Vancouver, November 1978. I was in second year University taking a rather heady conceptual art course with a young prof named Jeff Wall. We had an evening studio session the night that the Jonestown Massacre news broke. Mr. Wall was positively wired by it. He shut down all normal studio stuff and convened a discussion. As I remember it, other than just talking about the details, his focus was "Just As The Manson Murders Put An Exclamation Point On The Cultural Currents 1960s, So The Jonestown Massacre Shall Come To Do The Same For the 1970s".

For me, nineteen, and still pretty much STRAIGHT middle-suburban, this kind of stuff was akin to the Punk Rock that was currently rising fast and nasty (ie: hard to ignore, hard to get a functional handle on). But the seed was planted. Jonestown was imposed upon my consciousness as something that carried more significance than just the statistics (918 dead) and the horrific details of how it all went down.

As Mr. Wall put it, these big murders fascinate us so because at heart, they're all about family. So the Jonestown has always resonated with me as the ultimate "distraught dad" horror story (kills wife and kids, then finally self). And as such, that strange family on the corner has always creeped me out. You know the one. They never mix with the rest of the neighbors; the kids always play behind a big fence.

The dog is kind of vicious.
posted by philip-random at 9:10 AM on November 18, 2009


Speaking of the CBC and Jonestown, here's an interview George Stroumboulopoulos did with Jim Jones's son Stephan Jones. Warning: contains graphic footage from Jonestown.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:23 AM on November 18, 2009


This article in LA Times about a cache of letters to and from Jonestown left behind by parents whose daughter, son-in-law and two grandkids died there didn't get much attention when it was posted previously. It's a heartbreaking read.
posted by vespabelle at 9:57 AM on November 18, 2009


I was 14, and my family was in New York City for the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. It was freezing cold. Every time we went outside the newspapers headlines had a higher count of victims.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:43 AM on November 18, 2009


I'm sure it's referenced in many of the links posted, but for those who may only be reading the thread, it's important to understand that the people at Jonestown were pretty much terrified of the world at large, and were fairly certain that, had they not killed themselves at Jones' instruction, a much worse fate awaited them and their families.

At the risk of making a bad comparison, it's a bit like people jumping to their deaths from the WTC. We don't normally ask why those people jumped because it's considered obvious. What the pictures of corpses piled up don't show you is the raging fire those people imagined was about to engulf them.
posted by stinkycheese at 1:00 PM on November 18, 2009


piled up at Jonestown
posted by stinkycheese at 1:01 PM on November 18, 2009


I'm sure it's referenced in many of the links posted, but for those who may only be reading the thread, it's important to understand that the people at Jonestown were pretty much terrified of the world at large, and were fairly certain that, had they not killed themselves at Jones' instruction, a much worse fate awaited them and their families.

I don't think it was that simple. A decent number of people escaped before the mass suicides, and those that did needed to get by armed guards (who had just killed a Congressman and several members of his entourage). Many of the people who drank the poison may have done so because they felt they had literally no other options, rather than because they thought leaving was a valid option and decided against it.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:51 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Come along
You belong
Feel the fizz of Koo Koo Cola
It's the cola for makin' you proud
Take another sip and be one of the crowd
You belong with Koo Koo Cola

posted by cristinacristinacristina at 1:56 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Guyana Punch - The Judy's

Great flashback to the '80s.

(Sorry for the Real crappy format)
posted by Seamus at 2:06 PM on November 18, 2009


A lot of blacks in the Fillmore district had been displaced by urban renewal efforts. The Fillmore district was one of the few places in San Francisco, where blacks could own property. The city tore down a huge number of homes, lovely Victorians, using eminent domain. The City promised them that they could return and in the meantime built crappy, modern boxes. A lot of the displaced became members of the People's Temple. They got screwed by him too.
posted by shoesietart at 2:31 PM on November 18, 2009


I just started reading this thread, when this show came on the radio. I had no idea there was any hint of conspiracy around it at all.
posted by a_green_man at 3:13 PM on November 18, 2009


http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/: Tapes: over a thousand audiotape transcriptions and summeries relating to Jonestown. Holy crap.

philip-random: 'As I remember it, other than just talking about the details, his focus was "Just As The Manson Murders Put An Exclamation Point On The Cultural Currents 1960s, So The Jonestown Massacre Shall Come To Do The Same For the 1970s'."

Interesting.

I grew up in Bloomington, IN, so the Indianapolis connection to Jones was well-covered locally, something I found interesting at the time. The Symbionese Liberation Army leaders, the Harrises, had attended school at IU in the early seventies and I always wondered if there was a connection between the SLA and the People's Temple. I think I looked into it at some post-internet-era date and concluded it was possible but unlikely because Jones had moved West before the Harrises came to IU, but I can't recall.
posted by mwhybark at 5:30 PM on November 18, 2009


This documentary was fantastic and creepy, thanks for posting. Couple of questions for anyone who can answer:

1. Conspiracy? What's that about? The podcast did have a bunch of audio from Mark Lane, who happened to be on the scene and had previously written a Kennedy assassination book, which is kind of an odd coincidence. Was he the source of some tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory of Jonestown?

2. I poked around CBC's radio web pages a bit but there's a ton of stuff there . . does anyone know of other documentaries they've done that are similar to this one in quality and fascination factor?
posted by chaff at 5:47 PM on November 18, 2009


2. I poked around CBC's radio web pages a bit but there's a ton of stuff there . . does anyone know of other documentaries they've done that are similar to this one in quality and fascination factor?

Sorry, don't have a quick answer for you. A point worth making about the CBC Jonestown doc is that it was broadcast only a week after the news broke. Again: if journalism's an art, that doc's a masterpiece.
posted by philip-random at 6:54 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


burnmp3s: I'm not saying anything about Jonestown was 'simple', I'm just pointing out that parents weren't killing their children because they were evil or insane. They did have a reason. This was part and parcel of the 'white nights' alluded to earlier -

We were informed that our situation had become hopeless and that the only course of action open to us was a mass-suicide for the glory of socialism. We were told that we would be tortured by mercenaries – were we taken alive. Everyone, including the children was told to line up. As we passed through the lines, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. We all did as we were told. (Ulman & Abse 1983, 653).

So, in a lot of people's minds there, it was likely poison your children or watch them be tortured to death by crazy mercenaries. Not a great choice.
posted by stinkycheese at 7:13 AM on November 19, 2009


So, in a lot of people's minds there, it was likely poison your children or watch them be tortured to death by crazy mercenaries. Not a great choice.

The darker truth in all of this seems to be that these people were dead long before they drank the purple koolaid; that is, had given over their reason to a man who, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, was well and truly lost in the darkest part of his heart.

It's been touched on through this thread (and in the links, of course) but the more I am confronted with this story, the more it speaks to me as the final nail in the coffin of the hippie dream of the 1960s. That is, let's all join hands, reject The MAN, go find ourselves some paradise in the wilderness and build human society anew.

The horror.
posted by philip-random at 10:29 AM on November 19, 2009


Jonestown conspiracy theory:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonestown_conspiracy_theory

http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/AboutJonestown/Articles/conspiracy.htm
posted by mwhybark at 2:26 PM on November 19, 2009


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