If I ever use the phrase “Drink the Kool-Aid” again, please do me a favor and kick me in the teeth

TimeJonestown36 years ago today, a charismatic, and increasingly paranoid Jim Jones commanded the assembled members of the Peoples Temple, who had followed him from the United States to the jungles of Guyana, to take their own lives by ingesting a cyanide-infused knock-off of Kool-Aid called Flavor-Aid.

Despite the fact that Jones can be heard referring to their deaths as acts of “revolutionary suicide,” on audio recorded that night, the truth is, very few of the 909 Peoples Temple members who died that evening took their lives willingly. As we’d learn in the months following their deaths, they were forced to ingest the cyanide at gunpoint, and those that refused were either held down and forced to drink it or injected with the drug.

My friend Robert Helms, the editor of the zine Guinea Pig Zero, reminded me of this fact today, when he forwarded a link to an interview with Julia Scheeres, author of the book A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, about the use of the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” in contemporary culture as shorthand for mindlessly following leaders and trends. Here’s a clip.

…I was writing a satirical novel about a charismatic preacher who takes over a small Indiana town when I remembered Jim Jones was from Indiana and Googled him for inspiration. I then learned that the FBI had recently released its files on Jonestown. These included 50,000 pieces of paper that agents had collected from Jonestown after the massacre and almost a thousand audio tapes. Once I started browsing the materials, I couldn’t tear myself away. This story seemed more urgent to tell than a religious farce.

The more I understood what actually transpired in Jonestown, the more offended I became by the notion that Jones’ victims “drank the Kool-Aid.” I felt a duty to defend them, to tell the true story of what happened in Jonestown. The central argument of A Thousand Lives is that Jim Jones murdered his congregants — it was mass murder, not mass suicide. He fantasized about killing them for years before they moved to Guyana and lured them there by making them believe they could return to California whenever they wanted. Once he had them sequestered in the middle of the South American jungle, he refused to let anyone go. “If you want to go home, you can swim,” he told disgruntled residents. “We won’t pay your fucking way home.” I found many heartbreaking notes from residents begging Jones to let them go home, offering to send down paychecks for the rest of their lives, etc. The hardest to read were from parents who, once they realized Jones was intent on killing everyone, were at a loss for ways to insulate their children from Jones’ madness. A third of the 918 people who died in the Jonestown massacre were minors. They didn’t “drink the Kool-Aid;” they had it forced down their throats….

A 12-year-old girl named Julie Ann Runnels kept spitting the poison out, so two of Jones’ lieutenants forced her to swallow by it by pulling her hair and clamping their hands over her nose and mouth. She did not “Drink the Kool-Aid.” She was murdered—as were all the 303 children who died that night. We need to stop disrespecting Jones’ victims with this odious and wildly inaccurate phrase…

I’m not sure if it’s a phrase I’ve ever used here, but, if it is, I’m sorry. Scheeres is absolutely right. And I promise not to ever do it again.

[The image above is from Time Magazine. It shows one of the tubs full of cyanide-spiked Flavor-Aid surrounded by dead bodies. When I was a kid, I have a vivid recollection of finding this issue of Time Magazine in my parents’ bathroom and reading the article about the Jonestown massacre, which, until that point, I think had been kept from me. I remember the images of the dead bodies, and a comment about how it was even worse than it looked, as, in many areas, the bodies we stacked three deep. I remember the fact that over 300 of the dead were children. It made a huge impact on me as a kid. And, when I think of Jonestown, it’s always the first thing to come to my mind.]

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12 Comments

  1. wobblie
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I’ve always used the expression in regards to Lions fans. I will stop using it as well. I guess it is back to jumping on the band wagon.

  2. Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Interesting.

  3. Kim
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    The point is well made, and I don’t doubt that many ingested the Kool-Aid unwillingly. It’s worth pointing out, however, that there probably were those who “drank the Kool-Aid” willingly, which makes the current use of the phrase correct. It’s not respectful of those who did so unwillingly, but technically the phrase, as used, is correct.

  4. Jean Henry
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Black humor is a survival skill. Holocaust victims wrote jokes on the gas chamber walls. It’s easy to condemn what’s hard to understand. I have no problem with drink the koolaid. I’m not a big fan of the plague, but I’m ok with ring around the rosy too.

    Also as a metaphor, ‘don’t drink the koolaid’ works, whether willingly done of forced. One often does things and supports things because one thinks one must, not because one believes. For me the implication, is “you know better.”

  5. Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    The reality is that most humans are indifferent to the suffering of other humans and flippant in daily conversation.

    How many times have people on this site flippantly called for a worldwide pandemic to control the supposed problems of overpopulation? My guess is that their attitudes would be very different if they had to see their kids die. It is no problem to them that other people’s kids (particularly those of poor people) suffer and die.

    Humans like to think of themselves as compassionate, but in reality, they are wholly indifferent.

  6. EOS
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Compassionate? More than 57 million slaughtered in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade and still a significant number think it’s their right to choose to kill another individual.

    “My guess is that their attitudes would be very different if they had to see their kids die.” Exactly why there is such revulsion to the photos of aborted babies and why it’s so difficult to explain to children how you could endorse such evil.

  7. Lynne
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Peter, I think that is more an effect of our limited monkey brains than it is due to a lack of general compassion. Human beings simply cannot think of distant people as being people in the same way that we think of those closest to us as being people. By necessity, we simplify people beyond our immediate social group of around 200 people into stereotypes and groups. So you are absolutely right that if people had to witness children they’ve gotten to know dying of horrible diseases, they would be more compassionate towards them. Just like even the worst and least compassionate people can often muster up some feeling for the plights of those they know.

    You do it too. We all do. Maybe we decide that those “other people” aren’t as compassionate as we are. That “they” are heartless. Perhaps less human than we are or those we know personally.

    So yes, it is easy to lump the Jonestown people into a group and then define them all by characteristics of the group. That many individuals did not “drink the koolaid” willingly is a detail our brains may often have trouble comprehending. I think in this regard we are failing people with out public education system. Thinking of people outside of our immediate social circle requires a lot of abstract thought and in schools, we tend to focus on a more concrete style of thinking.

  8. EOS
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I don’t think you can get any closer than the womb…

    Monkey brains????

  9. Erika Nelson
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I read the book by Scheeres earlier this year and found it fascinating. There were a lot of “practice” sessions of drinking kool-aid that was harmless, in order to psychologically control the members. In reading about all of the techniques for control Jones used, I saw strong parallels with many other religions: confessing sins / auditing / seeking counsel from religious leaders put congregants in a position of vulnerability to blackmail, financial obligations and time consuming evangelical work serve to make it harder to admit interest in leaving, isolation from other sources of support through shaming / shunning or creation of physical compounds or communities, etc. Tom Monaghan came to mind.

  10. Lynne
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I am sorry. I was using “monkey brain” as a shorthand to this concept:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

  11. Erika Nelson
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Also, it has been decades since this happened. The phrase is in our lexicon. It is almost like a proverbial story – to be learned from, not just a “joke”

  12. Erika Nelson
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I would like to amend my comment, after googling the phrase. I saw that someone used the term “Kardashian Kool-Aid” in reference to a celebrity marriage. I disapprove of that sort of usage. I think it is still a serious enough reference to only really be used to encourage people not to join religious cults or similar.

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