I’ve said it. You’ve said it or heard it. “They drank the Kool-aid.” It’s a reference to the Jonestown Massacre in November, 1978. A settlement of The Peoples Church in Guyana, numbering more than 900, killed themselves or were killed at the direction of their leader, Reverend Jim Jones.
Drinking the Kool-aid became the oft-repeated cliche used when someone blindly follows someone else or their ideology. The only thing is, they didn’t drink Kool-aid. Not even a little.
I recently finished The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Published last year, it’s an exhaustive account of Jones, the church and how they all ended up in his warped vision of paradise. Jones began with good intentions. He fought racism and offered practical solutions to people living in poverty. But he morphed into a lying, conniving, destructive demigod who convinced vulnerable people to follow his every command. They moved into Guyanese jungle where life was hard and there wasn’t enough food (except for show, when dignitaries visited). Ultimately, they gave their lives for his so-called mission.
It all came to a head with the murders of visiting US Congressman Leo Ryan and journalists traveling with him. The congregation’s mass suicide followed, beginning with nearly 300 children. Those who resisted drinking a cyanide cocktail were held down and injected with the poison. And even though it’s become the cliche, cyanide wasn’t actually mixed into Kool-aid because the brand-name powdered drink was too expensive. Instead, they used FlavorAid. Kool-aid’s cheaper, knock-off cousin.
The book is excellent. Jones was a strange, friendless little boy, obsessed with death and religion. He began his career as an evangelist while still in elementary school. As his reputation grew, he attracted devoted followers and created a kingdom whose power corrupted him in every way. Family members and others who escaped Peoples Temple share first-hand accounts of what it was like inside the system. They did some good things for people who needed help. But no one will remember that, nor should they, really.
Perhaps the moral of the story is, don’t drink the FlavorAid by mindlessly repeating phrases such as, don’t drink the Kool-aid.