Thirty years ago today 909 people, including some 300 children, died at Jonestown in Guyana after drinking cyanide laced fruit punch. The Jonestown Massacre may have since been reduced to the cliché “drinking the Kool-Aid,” yet remains a terribly shocking and tragic event.
How could so many people blindly follow Jim Jones into taking their own lives?
That was a question I spent the summer of 1993 trying to answer. While a graduate student, I was hired by a famous playwright to research the Jonestown massacre for what is still the most ill-conceived project I’ve ever heard of -- Jonestown! The Musical.
I kid you not. The playwright was working on the libretto and composer for the project was a famous blues singer. The project was backed by a well-known Broadway producer . Everyone involved was concerned that the musical not be perceived as ther mere commercial exploitation of a horrifying series of events (Imagine, “9/11! The Musical!”), but as a way of honoring the victims memories.
So, for three months, I was paid $10 an hour to sit in my sweltering one room Manhattan apartment and read photocopies of the hundreds of handwritten “testimonies” (i.e. suicide notes) of Jim Jones' victims, some written by teenagers, others by mothers on behalf of their children, many men. Almost all the notes followed a script, presumably issued by Jones, and my job was to highlight anything personalized – a mention of a specific loved one, for example.
Sadly, there wasn’t much there. After, reading reams of transcripts of Jones’ speeches and listening to audiotapes of cult members, I came to understand he was a persuasive figure with a strong personality, one that preyed upon only the most vulnerable. By that point, they lost their own voices.
Spending the summer with the doomed Greek chorus of the Jonestown dead in my head still haunts me.
By now, their testimonies have started to fade from my memory. This "anniversary" is a sorrowful, seemingly arbitrary date.
Please, let them rest in peace.
For those interested in the subject, I would recommend journalist Tim Cahill's piece "Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death," which he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine.