This popular saying is a warning not to follow a leader or a philosophy too closely or enthusiastically. It refers back to the Jonestown Massacre where 913 Americans, followers of Jim Jones, committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid in Jonestown, Guyana. For that reason, the phrase is “completely offensive” according to Episcopalean priest, James Richardson. (Read his article here.)
In other words, let’s not be flippant about the memory of those who died; the incident is, after all, referred to as a massacre. Compelling evidence gathered by Mark Lane convinced me that this was a mass murder, not a mass suicide. See his book, The Strongest Poison: How I Survived the Jonestown, Guyana Massacre.
Around 2010, I spent six months studying the People’s Temple; found my notes the other day, and decided to write this blog. Maybe I’ll do a series on cults (I’ve spent roughly seven years studying various cults and cult leaders). As a zealous believer in Jesus Christ, people could accuse me of drinking the Kool-Aid, and yet what I believe, to me at least, is rational and logical and empirical. What I first believed in 26 years ago took so little faith that it could be described as a mustard-seed-sized-faith . . . oh wait, it has already been described that way. . . . Anyway, the point is, I enjoy reading about other belief systems, and especially bizarre cults, because it encourages me in my faith. So, let’s take a look at the infamous Jim Jones….
First, I think it is important for people to know that Jim Jones was a socialist. That his image as a religious leader was a well-crafted sham; that his so-called church, the People’s Temple, was the bait, and that socialism was the hook. In fact, the mass exodus from northern California to South America was the group’s grand finale, their ultimate achievement to build a self-sufficient communal utopian society.
In Guyana, the Father’s room was always dark. He was spending more time there, alone, separated from his followers. Jim Jones, “the Father,” had become increasingly sick, and used his followers’ confiscated prescription drugs to medicate himself into contentment. Among his collection of pill bottles were the pain-killers prescribed to Lisa Layton, who eventually died in Guyana of a long and slow battle with cancer. Like the others, all of her belongings had been confiscated upon arrival by the Greeting Committee.
Lisa’s daughter, Deborah Layton, also did not die by drinking the poisoned Kool-Aid. Instead, she masterminded a harrowing escape out of Guyana. I highly recommend reading her book, the page-turner, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple, on which most of this blog post is based.
Deborah was talked into joining the People’s Temple, by one of the highest-ranking members of Jim Jones’ inner circle, her very own big sister: Carolyn Layton. Upon her recruitment, Deborah had the following conversation with her sister . . .
“We all come into the fold ignorant. The longer you stay near Jim’s energy and power, the more you will learn and understand. Right now, you are like a small child, but as you stay and grow you will advance and become enlightened.”
Carolyn smiled, “we believe in reincarnation. Jim was Lenin in his last life, as he explained to me when I joined, and I was with him then too.”
“Wasn’t Lenin a communist?” I stuttered. I knew that Communists were bad people.
“He was a socialist and fought for the equality of all the people of Russia.”
“How come Jim came back as a religious leader if he was a revolutionary?”
“Oh, Debbie, in every one of his reincarnations he has fought for justice and the good of humanity. First as Jesus, then as the Bab, and most recently as Lenin. I was Lenin’s confidante and friend, Inessa Armand.”
“As the Bab…His name was Bab ed-Din or Ali Muhammad of Shiraz. He was a Persian religious leader wo founded Babism in the nineteenth century. Don’t you see? Jim has always been a fighter, a revolutionary. He has come back here, one last time, to bring people out of religion, into enlightenment. He is trying to teach us that socialism is God.”
“Let me slow down. Jim is trying to open the minds of the people. He can only reach them through religion. As he heals and teaches them, they will grow to understand that religion is an opiate, used to keep the masses down. Only Jim can bring people into the light. Through him we can make it into the next plane.”
(Page 45-46, Seductive Poison, by Deborah Layton.)
In the early 1970’s Jim Jones became a popular pastor of what appeared to be a charismatic Christian church. Membership in his church, the People’s Temple, was more than just a Sunday morning commitment: it consumed your existence. Members were expected to give all that they had to the church: all of their time, all of their possessions. The church, in return, provided for your needs: communal-living quarters, meals, and several school buses for when the group needed to travel. One’s free time was spent attending re-education classes in socialism, and in extensive letter-writing campaigns aimed at promoting the goals of the Democrat party. Time was also spent in recruitment of new members, and the People’s Temple eventually grew its numbers into the thousands.
Jim Jones was a highly respected Democrat who had ascended to the esteemed position of Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority. His best friends were the mayor, the lieutenant governor, the district attorney, the chief of police and President Jimmy Carter’s wife. According to Deborah, one of the reasons that Jim’s “outlandish claims” were believed was the fact that he had such high-ranking political leaders as his closest friends.
His conviction that he was the reincarnated Jesus Christ was one of his more outlandish claims. In a 1972 sermon, he said:
“The Father dwells in me, he’s doing the speaking. But when you see your Father, you see me, you’ve seen the Father, and vice versa. (Pause) If you just believe in me, I can give you the keynote to salvation. I’ve got it. I’ve got it. (Pause) You just believe in me. …You are looking at the Temple of the Holy Ghost. You are looking at the body of Jesus Christ. (Cries) Some are in the room, are sick and asleep because they don’t discern the body of Christ. They don’t understand the Godship degree. Jesus said, we all are gods, and I had to come back to remind you what I told you 2000 years ago. I’m on the scene to tell you, ye are gods.” (http://jonestown.sdsu.edu)
With his rise to power on the Housing Authority, Jim Jones’ “Cause” had begun to receive alarming attention from the press. The Examiner ran “The Story Behind the Story” about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Eyebrows across northern California began to furrow.
When the well-respected District Attorney, Tim Stoen, defected from the People’s Temple, Jim Jones became nervous; right up until the end — by the way, Jim Jones had a close associate shoot him in the head, rather than die painfully by drinking Kool-aid laced with poison — anyway, right up until the end, Jim Jones was extremely paranoid about having Tim Stoen on the ‘outside.’ Next, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle by the name of Marshall Kilduff began hanging out at Housing Authority meetings. Marshall Kilduff interviewed Jim, and it did not go well for Jim. Kilduff began to prepare an expose’. Jim Jones called an emergency meeting and assigned a couple of members to go through Kilduff’s garbage. Despite the group’s harassment, the article was ultimately published by the magazine: New West.
This was the beginning of the end of the group’s stay in the United States. Jim began to dream of freedom for his socialist group and appealed to both Cuba and the USSR. He was rejected by both countries.
Meanwhile, the FBI had raided the offices of the Church of Scientology; this caused Jim to become fearful of the same treatment. Jim believed that the government was preparing a concentration camp just for him and his members; he feared that any day now, the CIA and the FBI would attack and then incarcerate them in this prison.
Getting his group OUT of corrupt America was mandatory. Jim finally settled on a space of land in Guyana, South America, that he named Jonestown. But to his followers, their new home in Guyana was referred to as The Promised Land. Jim had truly converted his followers to his belief system, and they chose voluntarily to move to Jonestown, not because they were forced, but because they had lost all hope in America. To them, capitalism was too entrenched; there was no hope of ending racial discrimination and injustice. They set out for their Promised Land with expectancy and joy.
Almost 1,000 United States citizens relocated to Jonestown, an undeveloped plot of land next to an inhospitable rain forest. The entire community was built from scratch. The structures were primitive; many were just canvas tents with open sides. And, “although living conditions were crowded, the people were reasonably comfortable, particularly when you consider that this was truly a pioneering effort. A sawmill had been built for lumber production, and some 70,000 board measurements of lumber was on its way from Georgetown for use in the construction of over 100 new houses.” (Mark Lane, page 230, The Strongest Poison.)
Life in the Promised Land was not too promising, however. Besides the Greeting Committee who took away all of your personal belongings (including your Passport), there was the Clearing Committee. They were the ones who had to approve any communication with the outside world. But the one committee nobody wanted to be a part of was The Learning Crew. That group was made up of those who disobeyed orders, complained, or didn’t work fast enough. While on The Learning Crew you were not allowed to speak . . . you ate separately from everyone else . . . you slept in a “punishment” dorm . . . and you did your work double-time. According to a member named Shanda, an overseer of the Learning Crew, “It has to be this way till we are all equal in our understanding of Leninism.” (Page 158, Seductive Poison.)
Deborah Layton began to chafe under the pressure. She was from a family of wealthy intellectuals, and she now found herself in a third-world country, living in a primitive structure, not allowed to shower in the morning, eating (at most) two meals a day, and forbidden to have contact with the outside world. She began to feel homesick; she missed her cigarettes, and she HATED the all-day and all-weekend meetings. She writes, “….being a humanitarian was a full-time job, and I was not used to such altruism.”
“But I felt even more guilt on the fleeting occasions when I wished I hadn’t joined. Father kept my treasonous thoughts in check by warning us that leaving the church would bring bad karma. He reminded us in his sermons that those who had chosen to join were here because we were on the verge of crossing over to the next plane. Without his help, we would not make it. Those who left or betrayed the “Cause” in any way would be reincarnated as the lowest life form on earth and it would take us another hundred thousand years to get to this point again. I didn’t want to start over as an amoeba.”
“I began by writing myself up and reporting on my negative thoughts. I felt it kept me in check. Nuns and priests went to confession, I told on myself. I was in control when I reported on my treasonous thoughts, playing the snitch in order to better myself. Over time, I became the perfect vessel for my leader’s dogma.”
“The process of controlling new members began immediately and intensely and I’m not sure I’ll ever know what prevented us from seeing through his deceit, his lies and his manipulation. Only a few days after joining, I learned that “All men are homosexuals, except for Jim.” I was stunned, but when the information was not disputed by anyone, I obediently believed it.”
(Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison, Pages 53-54.)
As Deborah’s status in the People’s Temple grew, and she was gathered closer to Jim Jones’s inner circle, she was sent on secret missions of high importance; she traveled to Panama City, London, Zurich and Paris. Upon returning from one of these extended trips, Jim said to Deborah, “…You have spent a great deal of time with Teresa over the last few months. …I have heard comments on your roaming allegiances. … The longer one is away from my aura, the easier it becomes to weaken. ….Even the most principled disciples have been lured away from the truth. Remember, Trotsky, in the end, betrayed Lenin.” (Page 59, Seductive Poison.)
Lured away from the truth? He alone taught the truth? No, that responsibility belongs to Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the truth.” Jesus also said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”
The followers of Jim Jones walked in darkness. They followed a man, a social activist, a charlatan, a pretender.
On November 18, 1978, almost 1,000 of his followers ended their lives. Whether or not they willingly drank the Kool Aid (which was actually the generic product, Flavor-Aid), or whether Jim Jones’ personal army held guns to their heads and forced them to drink is a fact hidden in the forests of Guyana.
Deborah Layton was truly one amongst a thousand. She was one of the few who was able to escape; the poor and underprivileged had no such hope. Do read her book and learn the details of this important story in American history. And, as always, be careful who you listen to, and to whom you give your trust.