MSNBC recently produced a documentary, “Witness to Jonestown,” that examines the history of the “People’s Temple” and the events that led to the murder of a Congressman and the deaths of 909 children and adults.
Last week Rachel Maddow interviewed NBC reporter Fred Frances, who talked about finding the bodies at the compound. The segment also included clips from the documentary, including footage from the ambush that resulted in Congressman Leo Ryan, witnesses and journalists being gunned-down on the tarmac as they tried to leave Guyana after visiting the compound as part of an investigation.
Approximately 400 bodies are buried in Oakland, California, and there’s a memorial service at the site each year on the anniversary of the massacre. The Washington Post reports today about the first phase of the memorial, which was dedicated at this year’s service, marking the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.
It’s ironic that after cavalierly using the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” for months, mainstream media outlets such as the Post are falling all over themselves to clarify that it’s a terrible reference to make in so cavalier a fashion, particularly in light of how many children were involved. In today’s Washington Post,
The memorial service was just one of a number of events, in the San Francisco area and nationally, commemorating Jonestown’s 30th anniversary. Renewed interest has been fanned by two new television documentaries and a play, “The People’s Temple,” now touring regional theaters. For those too young to remember Jonestown, the mass suicide-murder has become a part of pop culture. Brian Jonestown Massacre is the name of a rock group. And “drink the Kool-Aid” has entered the popular lexicon for a toxic kind of malleability, a reference to my first reports from Jonestown for The Washington Post quoting Odell Rhodes, a Jonestown survivor, saying that the potion drunk or injected into those who died was a mixture of cyanide and Kool-Aid.
Many of the Jonestown survivors and their families find the Kool-Aid references and jokes insensitive and deeply hurtful — reminders of the tragedy they suffered and, worse still, the widely held perception that the men, women and children in Jonestown were a bunch of crazies who willingly committed suicide out of blind devotion to their leader.
“The whole world looked at us as a bunch of kooks, that we were borderline people, uneducated and unstable,” Debbie Layton, whose escape from Jonestown in May 1978 set in motion the tragedy that followed, recalled Sunday. “People think that all the people just drank the Kool-Aid,” she said. “They have no idea of what that means or what happened. They just laugh about it.”
Much more is known today about the inner workings of the Peoples Temple than was known in the immediate aftermath of Jonestown. For example, many of those who died that day were highly educated. And at least some did, in fact, commit suicide. But there is clear evidence that armed guards loyal to Jones forced mothers to poison their children and gave adults a choice: Drink the deadly potion or be shot. And it later turned out that Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, was mixed with the cyanide, a minor footnote to the larger tragedy that transfixed the nation, indeed the world, in 1978.
This is a bit of an extreme digression, but…I have this bad habit of assuming people are intelligent until they prove otherwise, so the first time conservative election 08 canvassers exhorted me not to “drink the negro kool-aid” I thought they were attempting to make some sort of complex comparison. Racist as all hell, but far more complex than I gave them credit for. I doubt they were smart enough to know that 80% of those who died at Jonestown were African-American. Or even what happened at Jonestown. Or that Guyana is in South America. Or, probably, how to find Guyana on a map. Also, possibly, how to read a map. But I’m really getting away from the subject now…
A few years ago “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” screened at SilverDocs and won awards at a number of other festivals. PBS maintains a website for the film, with a teacher’s guide, timelines and additional information. The History Channel produced a piece, “Jonestown: Paradise Lost”, but it’s bit of documentary-lite, choosing to do dramatic re-enactments instead of using the incredibly compelling footage that exists of the actual events or conducting actual interviews with survivors.
That’s not to say that I didn’t seriously consider photoshopping new Kool-Aid labels and sending gift baskets to a few Right-leaning friends. Hey, nobody’s perfect….