On the 40th Anniversary of Jonestown, Survivors Remember the Horror of the Massacre and the Alienation of the Fallout

Illustration for article titled On the 40th Anniversary of Jonestown, Survivors Remember the Horror of the Massacre and the Alienation of the Fallout
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Jim Jones said all the right things to people looking to escape the racial and class divides of mid-century America. He called himself an “apostolic socialist,” and preached universal healthcare, racial integration, and other social services. He and his wife were the first white couple to adopt a black child in Indiana.


But as is all too often the case of privileged people espousing wokeness, the act was a lie meant to mask a horrific truth.

Jones was no weirdo outsider like Charles Manson or David Koresh. While he operated his church, the Peoples Temple, in the U.S., he was strictly above board and even appointed chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority by the mayor, according to USA Today. His church attracted a diverse group of people from all ethnicities and backgrounds, which is rare in many regions of the country today, unheard of back then. Most members were looking to escape a mainstream America they believed had failed them, including Laura Johnson, a former Peoples Temple member. BBC News reports:

By 1970, when she joined the Peoples Temple in California aged 22, she had already been tear-gassed protesting against the Vietnam war, worked with the Black Panthers and attended the famous 1969 Woodstock festival.

“My life was in turmoil, I had a failed marriage and I was looking for a place to be political in a safer environment after a series of bad decisions,” [Johnson] recalls.

When Jones founded Jonestown in Guyana, South America, he told followers it was to escape America’s poverty, racism, drugs, and the “impending nuclear apocalypse,” he warned followers about. Instead, he and 1,000 others would form a utopia in the jungle, free of what plagued them back home.

But upon arriving, members had their passports confiscated and were separated from their children. If they didn’t like it, they were told they could “swim home,” according to the L.A. Times.

Jones also shed his progressive act and showed his true motivations in Guyana. Like many who attract followers by preaching utopia, what he actually wanted was to be a god:

But the most chilling aspect for immigrating Temple members was the change in their leader. After sequestering his followers in the jungle, Jones dropped the façade of caring pastor and became a vulgar, drug-addled tyrant who banned any criticism of his town. Even mentioning the heat was considered “counter-revolutionary.” He forbade residents from leaving the isolated settlement, telling them the wilderness that surrounded them was infested with poisonous snakes, big cats and shadowy mercenaries who wanted to destroy their community. He censored incoming and outgoing mail to make the world believe Jonestown was a happy success.


Those who had followed him to the jungle were frequently lined up and made to drink punch they were told was laced with cyanide. After, Jones would call it a loyalty test. They passed.

The end came on Nov. 18, 1978, when Congressman Leo Ryan went to Guyana in order to investigate reports that People’s Temple members were being held against their will. A handful of followers made to leave with Ryan. Gunman opened fire on the escapees, killing 12, including Ryan.


After those murders, Jones knew it was a matter of time. Armed guards surrounded the remaining People’s Temple members as the punch was handed around. It wasn’t a test this time. Jones recorded what happened next, and it’s hard to tell if his final words were delusion, lie, or just the ramblings of a man who couldn’t tell the difference:

“We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”


Those who survived were ridiculed and shunned, according to Rebecca Moore, professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University:

What differentiates Jonestown survivors from those who have prevailed over other tragedies—such as families of those who died in the World Trade Center in 2001, or the relatives of airplane crash victims—is that theirs is a grief denied. Society shunned them and called them “baby-killers”; it called the dead “cultists” and “fanatics” and worse. The reaction they received was condemnation, not condolence; sarcasm, not sympathy. As their narratives show, being part of Peoples Temple meant being silenced as a survivor.


With nowhere else to go in a country that still saw them as dangerous, many, including Johnson, simply returned to the People’s Temple and tried to heal together:

Laura returned to the US at the end of November 1978 and moved back into the People’s Temple community in California - a decision that she says she had no qualms about.

“They were my family. I had lived with them for eight years, I knew them so intimately,” she says. “I never had any fears. Jim Jones was the only one who was invested in the deaths.”

“We had gone through this collective trauma together. And it made sense to go through the healing together.


As the horror faded, the 918 bodies of men, women, and children, were left in the sun as local authorities and the U.S. fought over whose responsibility they were.

Back home, the dead, alongside the handful that survived, became a pop culture reference, a joke. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” we taunt each other as a warning against groupthink. But even that phrase is a kind of groupthink: a smug self-assurance that we could never be talked into doing something horrible by a man who made the promises we most wanted to hear.


But in the survivors, who she still considers family, Johnson still doesn’t see followers. She still sees revolutionaries:

“All of us survivors show we can do it without Jim Jones, and he is not missed. I saw an absolutely fantastic community of all races, all backgrounds, all socio-economic levels and we did a masterful job creating this community for 1,000 people,” she says. “That kind of community can exist: it did not depend on Jim Jones, it depended on really committed people.”


However, in her account of what happened at Guyana, Jackie Speier, former congressional aide to Leo Ryan finds it hard to match a lesson of hope to what happened that day:

This was not a mass suicide. It was a mass murder. I’ve shared my Guyana story countless times, but it’s still a challenge to go back and relive those days. To go back to the gunshots. To the tarmac. To the stretchers. To the volatile flight home.



It's such a tragedy. Something many people forget is that cults operate like an abusive partner - it all seems fine at the start, but slowly they gain control over your finances, isolate you from anyone else, and begin playing mind games with you, etc. And like survivors of domestic abuse, the victims are blamed, and the perpetrator often gets away with it.