The Jonestown Cult Drank the Flavor-Aid

Josh Clark

Jim Jones and his family in 1976
Jim Jones and his family in 1976
Getty Images

It is not all that often that women from Indiana I've never met change my mind about things, so I thought this warranted writing down. Such was the case with Patricia Barbera-Brown, a South Bend woman I at first took to be of the dour, humorless type, possibly with too many cats and too many cat sweaters. I came across her as part of a CBS News article from February about how she browbeat a local Indiana Mexican restaurant chain into retracting their ad campaign, one that featured a billboard with, "We're like a cult with better Kool-Aid," above a margarita.

Barbera-Brown took offense to this reference to the Jonestown mass suicides in Guyana in 1978. After looking over the article, I could find no reference to any personal loss Barbera-Brown suffered from the suicides; she just appeared to be aware they had happened and that was enough to prompt her to petition the restaurant chain, Hacienda, to take down their signage, saying it was "not at all funny." I decided I didn't like Patricia Barbera-Brown.

I looked at Hacienda's website and they have a pair of novelty chattering teeth as their contact icon. The company is not the strong, provocative type, and caved quickly after its sole boycotter contacted them. Still, I don't think it's possible that anything is not at all funny, so I looked into Jonestown to find how Barbera-Brown was wrong.

I, too, was aware that in 1978 about 900 members of the People's Temple living at Jonestown in Guyana took their own lives with a concoction of grape Flavor-Aid, Valium, Phenergan and cyanide. I knew that the Peoples Temple was led by Jim Jones, a former reverend, and I knew that he was the charismatic leader and the Peoples Temple a destructive cult. I felt I needed to know more.

So in some research I learned more; some vague details were filled out, others I hadn't known at all. Like that Jim Jones was from Indianapolis and that when he moved his People's Temple to California in 1965, he took 165 of his followers from Indiana with him. So maybe Barbera-Brown was personally affected and the CBS reporter hadn't mentioned it. Maybe she dated Jim Jones or her brother moved out to California with him. I didn't know for sure.

Out in California, Jim Jones became a respected figure. His church was dedicated to treating drug addicts, educating children, maintaining its own welfare system. Jones gained political clout as well, mainly for his ability to show up to any liberal political event in San Francisco during the Harvey Milk era with a few thousand of his followers, which could generate the perception of public support pretty quickly. He held a seat on the San Francisco Housing Authority board, a position given to him by Mayor George Moscone.

Still, a destructive cult is a destructive cult. By the early 70s, Jim Jones had developed an addiction to pharmaceutical speed and was buying into his own hype. He allowed the title of Prophet to be bestowed upon him by his followers, who zealously trumpeted Jones' miraculous powers. A lawyer for the church corresponded with a newspaper reporter in 1972, telling the reporter that in the year before Jones had brought no less than 41 people back from the dead, with merely a whisper of, "I love you," or, "I need you," to their corpse:

"more than 40 persons.....people stiff as a board, tongues hanging out, eyes set, skin graying, and all vital signs absent."

This kind of talk gets out, especially when it's told to the papers, and it freaked out the People's Temple's neighbors in Ukiah. The cult received threatening phone calls regularly. Despite an ad taken out in the local paper by 200 Ukiah residents telling the Prophet Jim Jones and his followers that they were wanted and welcomed, the cult picked up and moved to Guyana to found Jonestown.

Already, things had turned sour, if they ever hadn't been. Jones was increasingly paranoid and his followers were increasingly violent. When one member was mysteriously hit by a train the day after he'd announced he was leaving the People's Temple, the attention of Leo Ryan, a congressman from Northern California, was caught. Over the course of a year, Ryan investigated Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple and grew convinced they were engaged in human rights violations -- like, members were kept at Jonestown against their will. In November 1978, he traveled down to Jonestown to find out for himself.

Over the course of a couple of days he managed to interview a number of members and found that most wanted to be there. Several, however, approached Ryan and asked to be taken home back to the U.S. When he was attacked by a member wielding a knife, Ryan decided that he'd better wrap things up and leave. He, his delegation and those people who'd chosen to leave Jonestown made it as far as the airport and even boarded two planes, when one of the defectors revealed himself as an impostor, drew a gun and opened fire on the rest of the People's Temple members on the plane, killing one member. People's Temple members who'd followed Ryan's delegation to the airport opened fire on the other plane, killing Ryan and three members of the media who were covering the trip.

Within three hours, more than 900 People's Temple members would be scattered as corpses in piles around the grounds of Jonestown. It's about here that I finally came to see why Patricia Barbera-Brown had been so repulsed by the Hacienda Mexican restaurant chain of South Bend, Ind., making offhand mention of that day in 1978. It was about here that the idea of 900 people taking their lives at once really hit me. It was here that the idea that Jonestown included murder hit me; that about 300 of the 900 people who had died after ingesting grape drink filled with cyanide were little kids who had accepted their cups from adults they loved and trusted.

Indeed, in the final sermon, Jim Jones tells his followers to, "Assure these children of the relaxation of stepping over to the next plane."

I find that I'm glad Patricia Barbera-Brown raised her voice over her offense at what she thought was a tasteless ad campaign. In looking into Jonestown I found that this relic of pop culture that happened when I was two years old became real for me. I didn't learn that some things are not at all funny, like Patricia thinks. Thinking such a thing is possible makes life seem far too sad to me. Instead I imagine that if I can't find the humor in some particular horror, there is surely someone out there who sees it. No one, not even the collective, may have a lock on how others may interpret an event.

What I realized is not that some things are not at all funny, but that some things are holy and that these things deserve reverence and thoughtfulness even in their exploitation. The people at Hacienda Mexican Restaurants just didn't have the chops to exploit Jonestown.