Children in Jonestown

Mark Armstrong | Longreads | November 18, 2014 | 5 minutes (1,301 words)

Thirty-six years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a charismatic preacher from San Francisco named Jim Jones led his followers into one of the most horrific massacres in American history. More than 900 people—including 303 children—were slaughtered, in a place called Jonestown. It was a community first built as a socialist utopia for parishioners from the Peoples Temple. But Jones had other plans, planting the seeds of “revolutionary suicide” that ended with mass cyanide poisoning.

I spoke with Julia Scheeres, author of the book A Thousand Lives and our latest Longreads Exclusive, “Escape from Jonestown,” about the newly public home movies from inside and how the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a terrible reminder for its survivors.

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How did you first become interested in Jonestown, as a topic and then as a book?

I was writing a satirical novel about a charismatic preacher who takes over a small Indiana town when I remembered Jim Jones was from Indiana and Googled him for inspiration. I then learned that the FBI had recently released its files on Jonestown. These included 50,000 pieces of paper that agents had collected from Jonestown after the massacre and almost a thousand audio tapes. Once I started browsing the materials, I couldn’t tear myself away. This story seemed more urgent to tell than a religious farce.

The more I understood what actually transpired in Jonestown, the more offended I became by the notion that Jones’ victims “drank the Kool-Aid.” I felt a duty to defend them, to tell the true story of what happened in Jonestown. The central argument of A Thousand Lives is that Jim Jones murdered his congregants—it was mass murder, not mass suicide. He fantasized about killing them for years before they moved to Guyana and lured them there by making them believe they could return to California whenever they wanted. Once he had them sequestered in the middle of the South American jungle, he refused to let anyone go. “If you want to go home, you can swim,” he told disgruntled residents. “We won’t pay your fucking way home.” I found many heartbreaking notes from residents begging Jones to let them go home, offering to send down paychecks for the rest of their lives, etc. The hardest to read were from parents who, once they realized Jones was intent on killing everyone, were at a loss for ways to insulate their children from Jones’ madness. A third of the 918 people who died in the Jonestown massacre were minors. They didn’t “drink the Kool-Aid;” they had it forced down their throats.

And it wasn’t even Kool-Aid. The poison was mixed with a cheap knock-off called “Flavor-Aid.” That unfortunate phrase has worked its way into the cultural lexicon, but few young people know of its Jonestown origins or how offensive it is to Jones’ victims.

Have survivors spoken to you about experiencing that phrase in their lives now?

Julie Ann Runnels. (Photo via San Diego State University)
Julie Ann Runnels. (Photo via San Diego State University)

As you’d imagine, the phrase offends survivors. It reduces a mass tragedy to the level of banality. Jonestown residents didn’t willingly drink poison—they were forced to do so. Jones gave them a choice: drink cyanide or be shot to death by armed guards. Living was not an alternative. Many decided to drink the “potion,” as Jones called it, with their families. Those who refused to comply were forcibly injected with it. A 12-year-old girl named Julie Ann Runnels kept spitting the poison out, so two of Jones’ lieutenants forced her to swallow by it by pulling her hair and clamping their hands over her nose and mouth. She did not “Drink the Kool-Aid.” She was murdered—as were all the 303 children who died that night. We need to stop disrespecting Jones’ victims with this odious and wildly inaccurate phrase.

In the home movies you obtained, Jones gives a tour of the compound, and he also goes out of his way to emphasize the supplies they have, their success with farming, their ability to sell sauces and create a business for themselves. Was he trying to recruit more people to come at this point, or just make those back in the U.S. feel comfortable about their family being there?

From the first days of the settlement, Jim Jones ran a propaganda campaign worthy of Joseph Stalin. He showed his San Francisco congregation highly-edited films portraying Jonestown as a land of plenty. In one video, the cameraman shoots a woman eating a big piece of fried chicken. He zooms in on the chicken for several seconds, telling the woman “move your hands,” so he can get a better shot. Then he re-shoots the segment with an even bigger piece of chicken. The whole point of the home movies—which were for internal use only—was to lure as many of his congregants to Jonestown as possible.

It was only after people arrived in Jonestown—a two-day journey by boat—that they realized they’d been duped. There wasn’t enough food. Families were split up. And their pastor was suddenly promoting “revolutionary suicide” and refusing to let them go home.

It’s striking to me, when viewing the home movies, how aggressively Jones manipulates the messaging from each community member on film. In the group testimonials home movie, you can hear him in the background feeding them lines, reminding them to call him “father.” What do survivors say about his daily behavior in Guyana and his enforcement of these ideas?

I’m glad you noticed that. Residents were told what to say on film and in letters home. For example, Grandma Bates, an elderly African American woman, boasts on camera that she’d “never been so healthy or happy” as she’d been since moving to Jonestown. But when a newly-arrived friend visited her in the crowded dorm she shared with other seniors—some sleeping in triple level bunk beds—Grandma Bates confided that she’d suffered several illnesses in Jonestown.

Jones withheld hundreds of letters to and from residents. It was heartbreaking to discover them in the FBI archives—all those missives from family and friends in the States who were desperate to know whether their loved ones were okay—if the rumors that people were being held against their will were true or when they’d be returning from their “mission trip.” Toward the end, Jones insisted that all letters home be written in front of censors—he wanted the outside world to believe the lie that his Socialist utopia was a success until the bitter end.

Can you tell me a little bit about how your own upbringing informs your work when looking at stories like what happened at Jonestown?

As I state in the Introduction to A Thousand Lives, had I walked by Jim Jones’s church and heard his sermons on social justice and seen the diverse congregation, I certainly would have been drawn to the doorway.

My first book, Jesus Land (first chapter), is a memoir about growing up in a small Indiana town with an adopted African American brother. My parents were strict Calvinists—we went to Christian school, church three times a week, read the Bible after supper, etc. Race (racism) and religion (as unifier and oppressor) are dominant themes in both books. As is the quest to belong. David and I struggled to belong in a rural environment that was overtly racist. The African Americans who joined Jones’ church, The Peoples Temple, struggled to belong in an overtly racist society. Few folks know that Jim Jones was a civil rights leader in Indianapolis—integrating lunch counters and churches—and that the majority of his victims were African Americans who heeded his message of social equality. How terribly they were betrayed for believing in this dream.

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Read “Escape from Jonestown”

View more home movies from inside Jonestown