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Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown suicides

Posted by / November 20, 2018

Earlier this week was the fortieth anniversary of the Jonestown deaths. The Guardian covers the story well, so if you haven’t heard of this event it’s worth the read. There is also a fantastic PBS documentary, which can be seen below. The story of the event has been told and retold a thousand times, so I’m not going to rehearse it here. Instead, I want to deconstruct the first paragraph of that Guardian article, because that paragraph contains two serious problems.

“Four decades ago this Sunday, the Rev Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of an American cult in the Guyanese jungle, ordered his followers to murder a US congressman and several journalists, then commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch.”

The first issue is the word “cult.” When you think of the word cult, what comes to mind? Whatever description you came up with was probably negative. Cult conjures images of sinister leaders brainwashing their followers into committing horrible acts. It conjures images of weird people dressed in weird attire doing weird rituals––of satanists sacrificing babies and foreign gurus stealing away sons and daughters. And that’s the problem––the word cult immediately paints a picture for you. When you see the word “cult” in conjunction with Jonestown, you’re liable to misunderstand what actually happened in the jungle that day forty years ago.

The second problem is the word “ordered.” While it’s correct that Jim Jones did orchestrate the murder of Senator Leo Ryan and the group suicide, the term “ordered” fits into the popular narrative that Jim Jones brainwashed or forced his followers to commit suicide. The thing is, that narrative is wrong––while some were forced to commit suicide and some were even murdered, many committed suicide willingly. The FBI had been recording Jones for years, even in Guyana. You can hear the pre-suicide discussions here.  They are intense, so listener beware. But you will hear some followers arguing for group suicide. One woman argues against it, but she is quickly shouted down.

The fact is, the people of Jonestown had built themselves a paradise in the jungle. They had escaped the racism and greed of America, and they would rather die with each other (some specifically said that Jones didn’t even factor into their decision) than be taken back to the States. Saying that they were a cult, that they were brainwashed or (all) coerced disrespects the choice they made. We can disagree with that choice, but we should not take it away from them, even after death. If you want to read more, this book is perhaps the best source on Jonestown, and it was the inspiration for this piece.


More about religion.

Image credit: Wikimedia commons. Photograph by Nancy Wong.

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  • Very interesting blog post! I have never heard or read about this before!