Jonestown: 35 Years Ago Today

In writing about Kennedy assassination nostalgia today, I mentioned my own “loss of innocence” moment at the hands of a national tragedy: the murders and mass suicides of Jonestown.

Every person eventually comes to understand the great evil at large in the world from some tragedy that consumes and convulses the nation’s media. Mine was Jonestown, and this issue of Time magazine:

I was 10, and read the issue repeatedly trying to understand how this was possible. At the time, we believed they were all suicides. Since then, it’s become clear that many of the deaths were simple murder.

My little mind couldn’t grasp it, though: How does a belief lead someone to take their own life in such a horrible and pointless way? Perhaps that was the root of my long quest to understand what people believe, why they believe it, and how they come to act on those beliefs. The quest led me through vast amounts of study. reading, and religious searching, through Jung, Eliade, comparative religion, philosophy of religion, shamanism, gnosticism, and eventually back to the one Truth: the Catholic Church.

So you see, we all have that moment when the darkness of the world rushes in and floods our minds and we have to come to grips with it or go mad. It’s a deeply personal thing, and I offer it here only by way of explanation. I don’t intend to write about it again, because I’d be doing exactly what I criticize Boomers for doing: making it all about me.

Jonestown wasn’t about us at all. It didn’t say anything new that the world had not seen before, except maybe in the form it took. We’d see it all again with the Heaven’s Gate suicides, and there are people out there now, young when Heaven’s Gate happened, who reacted to that tragedy the way I did to Jonestown.

Jonestown was about 918 souls, many of whom took their own lives at the orders of a religious leader.

It was November 18, 1978.

305 of them were children.

Here are their names and photographs. Study them. Remember them. Pray for them.

The horror of this day is about them, not about where we were when we heard or what it did to us. It’s about lives snuffed out–many of them black, many of them children, all of them poor–for no reason at all.

They were looking to build the promised land, and they found death in a barrel of Kool Aid.

God be with them all, and with the families who mourn them.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • JohnE_o

    Flavor-Aid, actually…

  • Cheryl Ruffing

    I remember Jonestown and I remember the Time magazine cover. I, too was ten years old. The horror of that tragedy stuck with me for many years. Reading a biography of Jim Jones (titled “Raven”) helped me to understand and deal with (at some level) something that never should have happened in the first place.

  • pitbullgirl1965

    Yes, the Boomers had JFK, Generation Y had 9/11, and Jonestown is Generation X where were you when it happened event.
    It horrifies me more then 9/11 to be honest. They weren’t brainwashed cult members who willingly died. The majority of them were murdered by injection or having it forced down their throats.
    They joined the Peoples Temple because it promised a community of racial harmony, gender and class equality.
    The victims are trivialized and mocked with the oh so witty phrase drinking the Kool Aid.

  • victor

    My GenX “JFK moment” was the Challenger disaster, for what it’s worth.I was only 3 at the time of the Jonestown massacre and looking back at it as a purely historical event, it’s really hard to image how horrible it must have seemed as “breaking news”. The Wikipedia page is hard enough to read.

  • B.J.D

    Jonestown was a completely avoidable tragedy as charlatans and psychopaths like Jim Jones are easily exposed for what they are if anyone is interested in doing so. Unfortunately for all the dead in Jonestown the politicians, celebrities and media who enabled Jones to promote themselves and their agenda have never been taken to task for their role in it.