The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The phrase ‘drank the Kool-Aid’ is completely offensive. We should stop saying it immediately.

Satori Gregory of Boston looks over photographs of the more than 900 victims of the Jonetown massacre in Oakland, California. (Eric Risberg/AP)

You’ve probably heard the expression, “He drank the Kool-Aid.”

Arianna Huffington once used it to describe supporters of George W. Bush’s economic policies. Bill O’Reilly said it of his critics (“the Kool-Aid people,” he told listeners, “are going nuts“). In 2012, Forbes called it a top annoying cliché used by business leaders.

There’s a problem with this flip word play though: That expression was born of a nightmare.

Thirty-seven years ago today, 918 people died in Jonestown, a Guyana jungle settlement, and at a nearby airstrip. Some of us knew the victims. I grew up with one of them, Maria Katsaris.

The first news reports made it sound like those who died in Jonestown did so by mass suicide, drinking cyanide-laced drinks (hence the offensive expression). It’s not true. The first murdered at Jonestown were senior citizens, children and babies; the poison was squirted into their mouths. Others thought they were participating in a drill.

* * *

Jonestown was the demented brainchild of huckster Jim Jones, a self-appointed charismatic pastor who founded the Peoples Temple in San Francisco. The Peoples Temple attracted poor city-dwellers (particularly African Americans), and young white kids from the suburbs, like my childhood friend Maria.

By the 1960s, the Temple had become a political force in San Francisco, turning out busloads of volunteers to walk precincts for favored politicians. Jones was so powerful that Vice President Walter Mondale and first lady Roslyn Carter met with him. Gov. Jerry Brown and Willie Brown, who would become the Assembly Speaker and a mayor of San Francisco, appeared at an honorary dinner.

But Jones’s world was about to crash. Reporters began investigating the Peoples Temple over allegations of abuse and intimidation. Increasingly paranoid, Jones fled with hundreds of his followers to Guyana.

Relatives of those at Jonestown contacted U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) with reports that their loved ones were being held against their will. Ryan went to Guyana, taking with him a small party of aides and journalists, including Washington Post reporter Charles Krause. Also in the party were relatives, including two brothers of my friend Maria.

That fact-finding mission quickly turned catastrophic.

As the Ryan party toured Jonestown, residents secretly slipped them notes begging for help. One of Jones’s henchmen tried to stab Ryan, and then Jones ordered the deaths of his followers – and Ryan’s party. Harangued by Jones, the residents at Jonestown had rehearsed a mass-suicide for weeks, and now Jones ordered his followers to carry it out. Some ran into the jungle, others hid under beds, but most were intimidated into drinking the poison. Allegedly, the drink was grape Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, though some reports say both drinks were present.

Meanwhile, as the Ryan party attempted to leave, they were ambushed by Jones’s henchmen at an airstrip. Ryan was shot to death (he’s the only member of Congress ever assassinated in the line of duty). Three journalists were also murdered, including NBC correspondent Don Harris, cameraman Bob Brown, and San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson.

Ryan’s 28-year-old aide, Jackie Speier, was shot five times. She curled up behind the wheel of an airplane and lay bleeding on an anthill for 24 hours before rescuers found her. She barely survived. Speier now holds Ryan’s seat in Congress; her body is permanently scarred.

As a reporter for The Sacramento Bee, I got to know Speier when she served in the California Legislature in the 1980s and ‘90s. Soon after her election, I interviewed her about Jonestown. It’s not a topic she likes to talk about. But when asked, she talks about it.

On her Web site, Speier posted the transcript of a recent interview she gave at a fair in her San Francisco Bay Area district:

There was nothing about it that was a suicide … They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.”

Many of us have not forgotten the nightmare of Jonestown. The rest of you need to clean up your language.