The Unending Tragedy of Jonestown

Thirty years later the sadness lingers, and we're still unable to grasp what happened.

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I am the person I am because of something that happened 30 years ago today in Guyana, a tiny equatorial country thousands of miles away from my home.

In the years since, every time Nov. 18 arrives, I am visited by an existential unease that falls across my shoulders. It isn't helped by all the "anniversary" stories and specials that inevitably appear. I always cringe at the word "anniversary"—with its connotation of happy celebrations—when it's used to describe the holocaust that took place at Jonestown.

At the same time, I totally understand the impulse to recount the horrific details of it all. This is where the grown up, professional journalist that I am now goes to battle with the teenager I was back then. Spurred by the terrible images of the bloated, fly-ridden bodies of those 900-plus Americans, the majority of them black, that lay on that killing ground, I decided to become a journalist.

Most of those who perished in Jonestown had lived in my hometown, San Francisco. They died following a man who said he would lead them to salvation.

It took nearly a week before the full story reached San Francisco, and when it did, it hit with terrible force: More than 900 members of Peoples Temple had died in Guyana, including as many as 200 children. They had been given grape-flavored drinks laced with poison. Some had willingly consumed the potion; others had resisted and were shot. It was described as a "mass suicide," in those early reports, and that is the image that has stuck.

When I was a high school sophomore in San Francisco, it was the press that helped me get my mind around what had happened in Guyana; the words and prayers of the minister at the Methodist church my family attended helped us get through the evil of it, too. But a significant part of me—the scared, questioning part that recognized that the dead were brought down by someone's version of "religion"—required the cold, unemotional language of journalism.

In the decade after Jonestown, I resolved to work in the business that had allowed me, my peers, and my family to process what had happened.

This year, the tantalizing full-circle quality of the years involved—1978 to 2008—has ratcheted up journalists' instinct to recount, re-create and relive this sad event. I get it, though with each passing year, I'm not sure how useful it is to keep dredging up the lurid, heartbreaking details of it all.

I felt this acutely last Thursday night when, reluctantly, I watched portions of CNN's two-hour special, "Escape from Jonestown," reported by Soledad O'Brien. Coverage that fails to provide full context of the social and political era that created Jonestown makes me worry that viewers and readers in 2008, drawn by morbid fascination, will miss the true spark of that disaster: the fact that Jim Jones, the psychopathic leader of The Peoples Temple, managed to thoroughly exploit the disappointment, fears, and vulnerabilities of thousands of low-income Americans at a time of epic political and social upheaval in the nation.

Now, three decades later, any responsible reporting about Jonestown would ask to what degree our present landscape holds potential for a similar event, the widespread exploitation of vulnerable Americans. In a Jonestown "anniversary" report that aired on MSNBC a few days before CNN's, one survivor did speculate that such a thing "could happen again, to anyone." But the observation was an aside, tossed off in the final moments of the two-hour report. How could it happen again? What was it about Jim Jones, a raven-haired, pill popping latter-day Elmer Gantry, that convinced nearly 1,000 Americans to join his sect, turn over their homes, life savings, children and spouses, and follow him into the steamy South American jungle two years after the U.S. bicentennial? Or did their unquestioning devotion to Jones and his crazy scheme say more about the state of America at that time?

Journalists aren't typically in the business of mounting drawn-out, comprehensive projections based on past events. (There are some exceptions, of course, including the remarkable series published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune a couple years before Hurricane Katrina that predicted exactly what would happen to the Crescent City should a massive storm hit.) As a journalist, I get the appeal of the Jonestown story as one that is too shocking to pass up—the veritable Technicolor, 20-car pile up of shocking details that draws the eyes back to it again and again.

Yet and still.

I know that the dread I always experience at this time of year arrives because of my own proximity to the disaster. It took many years for me to recognize that I had been traumatized by what happened at Jonestown, and by the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who, in an unrelated horror, were shot dead at City Hall two weeks after Jonestown, in late November 1978. Then, in February 1979, another big event rocked me and my family members to our core: the suicide of my oldest brother, Carl, who leaped from the roof of a church in Oakland, Calif. In total, the entire era is an odd mixture of blurred memories and razor-sharp images, all suffused with despair, their contours forged in grief.

My back gets up at the phrase, so-and-so "drank the Kool-Aid," tossed around so casually these days, purportedly to describe someone who unquestioningly toes the company line. Those who use it in this way do not seem to know that most of those who died in Jonestown were forced, at gunpoint, to drink the concoction, or were injected with it.

I re-read, every few years, the comprehensive history of the Jonestown massacre and the events leading up to it. The Raven: The Untold Story of the Reverend Jim Jones and his People, was published by Dutton in 1982. It was written by Tim Reiterman, the former San Francisco Examiner reporter who was in Guyana and nearly died from gunshot wounds on Nov. 18, 1978. Ten years later, in 1988, Tim Reiterman hired me to work as the San Francisco State University correspondent at The San Francisco Examiner, and, in our first meeting, I saw a sadness in his eyes that was deep and profound. A year later, at a ground-breaking ceremony on a new building at SF State, a woman named Jackie Speier attended; she, too, had nearly died in Jonestown, and to her I managed to say that I admired her strength and resilience. She was interviewed in CNN's "Escape from Jonestown," and if you know to look for it, you will see the same deep sadness in her eyes, too.

But to really understand it all, I recommend you find a copy of The Raven, and read it. It is enlightened journalism about a very dark time.

Amy Alexander is the Alfred A. Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

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