30 Years After Jonestown, Reasons for the Tragedy Are Still Elusive

Thirty years after Rep. Leo J. Ryan was killed in 1978 by followers of the Rev. Jim Jones as he attempted to investigate abuses at Jonestown, Guyana, the congressman is memorialized in San Mateo, Calif.
By Charles A. Krause
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Jackie Speier now represents California's 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. The last time I saw her, 30 years ago, her bloody, bullet-riddled body lay in tall grass at the side of a jungle airstrip in Port Kaituma, Guyana.

She had been gunned down by four assassins sent by the Rev. Jim Jones to kill congressman Leo J. Ryan -- and the rest of us who had accompanied him to investigate reports of violence, torture and sexual abuse in a place called Jonestown.

For 15 hours, Speier and the others who miraculously survived the airport massacre waited to be rescued, bleeding and fearful the gunmen would return. Meanwhile, five miles away, Jones was ordering more than 900 of his followers to commit "revolutionary suicide" by drinking fruit-flavored punch laced with poison.

Jones's exhortation to his followers, to "die with dignity," and a survivor's account of Jonestown's final hour -- "they started with the babies" -- became headlines sent around the world. Overnight, Jonestown would become more than a name or geographic location; it became shorthand for troubling questions about cults, the social and sexual revolution then underway in the United States, and the mixture of politics and religion that Jim Jones used so effectively to lure thousands of followers into his church and to hoodwink much of San Francisco's political establishment.

On Tuesday, 30 years to the day after the horrific events that resulted in Ryan's assassination, the deaths of three journalists and the mass suicide-murder, some 200 Jonestown survivors, relatives of those who died, television crews and journalists gathered at a mass grave in Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery, where 406 unidentified bodies from Jonestown, mostly children, are buried.

The Rev. Jynona Norwood, a black evangelical preacher from Los Angeles who lost her mother and 26 other members of her immediate family in Jonestown, asked the mourners to "reflect on the lives of our loved ones who trusted in a man who was the most evil man who walked the face of the Earth."

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.

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