You're Wrong About

The Jonestown Massacre

June 16, 2018 You're Wrong About
The Jonestown Massacre
You're Wrong About
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You're Wrong About
The Jonestown Massacre
Jun 16, 2018
You're Wrong About

Special guest Rachel Monroe tells Mike and Sarah what's really behind the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Digressions include David Koresh, East Germany and how flower children were the first millennials. Mike inadvertently reveals his prejudice against extroverts. 

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Show Notes Transcript

Special guest Rachel Monroe tells Mike and Sarah what's really behind the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Digressions include David Koresh, East Germany and how flower children were the first millennials. Mike inadvertently reveals his prejudice against extroverts. 

Continue reading →

Support us:
Subscribe on Patreon
Donate on Paypal
Buy cute merch

Where to find us:
Sarah's other show, Why Are Dads
Mike's other show, Maintenance Phase

Support the Show.

Jonestown Massacre

Sarah: Also, I'm on an abdominizer ball today, by the way. So if I'm, like, extra great, then we can know that that's why.

Welcome to You're Wrong About, a show where we tell America what it's wrong about.

Mike: I'm Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for The Huffington Post. 

Sarah: And I’m Sarah Marshall and I'm a writer for Buzzfeed and The New Republic, and also some other places. Today, we have a special guest and a special topic. And our guest today is Rachel Monroe. Michael, have you read any of Rachel's work?

Mike: I Googled Rachel this morning and I found that I have read a number of your articles, and that you have won a number of awards that I have been rejected for. 

Rachel: I don’t think I’ve won a single award.

Mike: Weren’t you one of the 40 Notable Women Writers Under 40? I didn’t get that.

Sarah: Yeah, aren’t you?

Rachel: Is that an award? I didn't get any money. I guess I hear “award” and think there’s a check maybe. 

Mike: Tell us about yourself, Rachel.

Rachel: Oh, me, Rachel. I am a writer. I live out here in Marfa, Texas. I write about many different things, but I write a lot about crime recently for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and many different places. And I'm working on a book about women and crime and the obsession with true crime.

Mike: And today we're talking about Jonestown, right? 

Rachel: Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah, and specifically the phrase, “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Mike: Yeah, I was thinking that's where we should start. What should we think about that phrase? 

Rachel: Well, I guess the first pedantic thing that one would say about it is that it wasn't Kool-Aid, right? That it was Flavor-Aid, and Kool-Aid wasn't even Kool-Aid.

Sarah: Why is it Rachel, that when there's something that we misremember in all these complicated dimensions, we start by getting the most visible facts right? Like, everyone has Nancy Kerrigan's getting hit by a lead pipe or a wrench. It was a police baton. All of the misconceptions with Jonestown, it's like we're signaling them by not bothering to remember what they even actually drank. Like, why do we do that?

Rachel: Maybe it's just the lasting power of the brand, right? They bought the cheap, generic stuff, but that word just doesn't linger in our heads in the same way. 

Sarah: That's true. Can we start by talking about what you see as the culturally accepted version of this? Like, when the average John Q. Driveway hears, “drinking the Kool-Aid,” what does he think?

Rachel: To put words in his mouth, I guess, it would be that you had a bunch of total crazy hippies. I think a lot of people think of Jonestown as being a hippie phenomenon just because it happened in the seventies. And that these crazy hippies went out and were enthrall to a madman who instructed them to kill themselves, and they all obeyed. 

Sarah: That's what I started off thinking, too. I think that there was just this automaton-like quality to the people there. 

Mike: Rachel, do you want to just walk us through it chronologically? What really happened? Like, how did the whole thing begin? 

Rachel: When do we start? 

Mike: You tell me. Like, the formation of the planet earth 3.5 billion years ago. 

Sarah: Well, okay. I know a little bit about Jonestown purely through Rachel, because when I visited you in Marfa last spring, you gave me The Road to Jonestown because you had just finished reading it.

Rachel: Oh, that’s where it is.

Sarah: And I remember that we talked about the fact that Jim Jones played a significant role in desegregating Indianapolis. So I feel like that makes sense as a place to start both chronologically and in terms of the complexity of the people’s church.

Rachel: Yeah. So, you have Jim Jones who grows up as a poor kid in rural Indiana and not from a churchy family, but becomes really interested in church as a child and would preach to his friends, like his little ten-year-old friends, which I think is interesting. You get the sense that he… have you seen that really creepy YouTube video of the baby preacher who's a child who is not old enough to say words – I don't know, two or three or something – and he's just in front of some huge church and he's babbling in that preacher cadence where you get kind of quiet and then you get really loud and passionate and he's doing kind of the hand gestures. It's really fascinating and really creepy. And when I think of Jim Jones as a young man, I think of him as the baby preacher mastering these cadences and these rhythms that people would respond to, just learning how to stir people up. He was really attuned to that.

Mike: So, he's like a prodigy. 

Rachel: Yeah.

Sarah: Like a little preacher Mozart.

Rachel: A little preacher prodigy, and he had a bunch of animals, and the little kids would come to his house and listen to him preach, and he would go to all the different churches and absorb their preaching styles. And then he becomes a street preacher. He grows up in a rural area and then goes to a more industrial, urban zone, becomes a street preacher, and is preaching in a lot of the working-class areas. Black churches are really interesting to him. He feels drawn to them. He likes the energy that he finds in those places, and that starts to be a home for him. He starts going to black churches and preaching to black people and when he starts his own church. It's really important to him that it's a mixed-race church, that the congregation is diverse. 

Mike: When is this? 

Rachel: This is like, fifties, sixties in Indiana and it's growing and, I mean, that's the crazy thing about Jim Jones is he is awful, right? Where it ends up is a really awful place. 

Sarah: I love how we have to, when we're talking about reconsidering someone's legacy as a pure monster, we're just like, obviously we're conceding that coercing about 800-900 people into suicide is bad. Like we're not saying it's not. However… 

Rachel: I never say ‘monster’. I don't. I hate calling people ‘monsters’. 

Sarah: Oh yeah. I hate that, too. Yeah, it's terrible. 

Rachel: Yeah. 

Mike: You guys both write about murderers more than I do, so I call people ‘monsters’ all the time. But maybe I should reconsider that. 

Sarah: Well, we’ll get into that inevitably, but isn't it interesting though to think about how he did seem to have this moral giftedness? 

Rachel: Yeah. And it was sincere. It was sincere. And so yes, stipulated, bad man. But in the fifties and the sixties, I think even when people do know that he moved in these progressive circles, I think there's often a misconception that this was this canny manipulation kind of in that Charles Manson way. Like, Manson was not particularly interested in the counterculture, but he saw that you could use it. I think it was different for Jim Jones. Jim Jones really did sincerely feel moved and enraged by the racial prejudice in America. That was a real sincere belief and you read about the stuff that he was doing in Indiana and he would, you know, like, a congregate would come to him, a black congregant would say, “You know, I tried to go to this place for lunch and they wouldn't serve me because I'm black” and he would rally up a whole bunch of other people and go sit there until they agreed to serve black people or he had an incredible media. He was like a really good media manipulator. So he would write letters if he found that a business wasn't hiring black people. He would write letters to the local press. 

Mike: He’s like a literal social justice warrior. 

Rachel: He totally was. 

Sarah: Do you have a sense or any theories about where this came from? I mean, do you think that some people are just born able to tolerate less ethical cognitive dissonance than others? Where do you think this came from in Jim Jones? 

Rachel: It’s really hard because certainly other things, like gender wasn't a big preoccupation with him. It was really specifically race and sort of the plight of black people in America. You know, he grew up as kind of an outcast. His family was pretty messed up. He had a hard time, so I don't know if, you know, that's a lazy way to psychoanalyze him. Like, he identified with the outsider. He also had a huge persecution complex. Like, that was a part of his brain that was really activated and so I think in some ways made him want to be in that space. I don't know. But he and they did social services. They had a free restaurant where they would serve good meals to poor people or anybody who showed up. They started noticing that he had a ton of elderly, black women mostly in his congregation and he would see that they weren't getting healthcare so he opened – his wife was a nurse – these nursing homes that were either free or super reduced costs for people. They were providing, he saw very clearly the social services that weren't on offer and gave them to people. So I guess that's one big thing is that people were drawn to this church not because he cast some magic spell on them with his googly eyes, but because he identified a real need.

Sarah: So I’m going to come in and do the really bad, you know, TruTV voiceover argument so that you can now speak back to it, because this is how I imagined the true crime voice would talk about it, “Jim Jones pretended to care about racial justice, but it was all an ongoing ploy to slowly gain power and money so that he could take a bunch of people down to South America and kill them.” 

I lost the cadence at the end there, but that's what I imagine the argument would be because it always, in stories like this ends up being that if someone ends up committing an awful crime that it was always their long and convoluted plan to do so and that all of this was just, you know, he's hiding behind this mask of goodness. 

Rachel: I mean, it's not entirely untrue. When you read about these books, you also find him talking about things like, “If we all have to die for the cause…”  Like, he's talking about that stuff fairly early. So that's not an idea that spontaneously erupts in his head in 1978. I don't think that that was what he wanted. He just was such a control freak and such a perfectionist. I don’t know. You see, looking back, it's easy to see how the threads of what happened were there early on, but, you know, he wanted to have a lot of power. 

That's the other thing. So he drew people because he had this social justice warring that he was doing on the side of righteousness and good, but he also manipulated people. He would do those preacher things. Like, he would do these kinds of healings. He would heal you and he'd be like, “This disgusting thing was in you!” You know, “I took this tumor out of you,” and it was like, you know, a rotten chicken liver or something. He did fake psychic things. He would research people in advance and then say, “I feel, Sarah, that you are in Halifax,” and they’d be like, “oh my God, how did you know?” His willingness also to manipulate people's reality was really present early on and he staged so many fake suicides. 

Mike: What?

Rachel: He was really into fake suicides. Fake suicides, fake attacks all the time. I think this started in California. So they moved from Indiana. He gets upset with the… basically he's too progressive for Indiana. 

Mike: Indiana is not woke enough for the murdering, faking preacher. 

Rachel: But it's kind of true. Like, the segregation really gets him down and also, he's obsessed with nuclear war. So he reads an article in Esquire that's like, “Places that are the safest from nuclear fallout” and ends up in California, Northern California. This persecution part of him is super activated. He'll kind of manifest it and this ranges from being like, “There are so many bomb threats. We're getting all these bomb threats, death threats!” to actually faking being shot. He does this, like, constantly. 

Mike: What?

Sarah: Like, “Ahh, Jim Jones pretending to be shot again.”

Rachel: And by this point, they've got all this– It's a very Angelina Jolie set up he and his wife have where they have adopted orphans from Korea and some adopted black children and then their own children and then some adopted white children. So they have this big, diverse family and he'll get his sons to do this fake shooting thing where he'll, you know, be outside of his church and then all of a sudden shots ring out and he’s like, “I told you! I told you I was under terrible threat! They're all after me,” and then, you know, he'll run behind a tree or something and then spontaneously heal himself and then put his bloody shirt on display at the church.

Sarah: Do you think Jim Jones just woke up sometimes and was like, “I just need a fake getting shot today. Like, I just need it.” 

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. But it comes out of that whole church thing that he was doing where he was like, “Well, you know, whatever it takes to get the people in the mindset, right?”

Mike: It's theater, I guess. It's like you create this spectacle.

Rachel: Total theater. And then he did one also where he had this group, as these people always do, this inside group – I think they're called the planning commission – and at one point he was like, “At this meeting, let's all drink this wine”. And they'll drink the wine and then he's like, “Just wanted to tell you guys all that wine was poisoned. We're all going to die now.” And then a few people start “dying” and then the people are not sure what’s real or not because the people who are dying kind of seem like they're faking it. You know when people fake die and it's just really bad acting? And he says, “Actually, nevermind. You've drank this poison. You're going to die. If you try to leave this room to get medical help, you will be shot.” A woman actually does try to leave, and one of the security guards shoots her, but there's a blank in the gun. It's just these crazy, theatrical things that he would stage and then he says, “Actually, that was all just a loyalty test” and does this stuff over and over again. So the sense of what's real and what's not real gets really fuzzy, I think, for people. 

Sarah: And you just stop taking it seriously I bet when things like that happen. 

Rachel: And I don't think that all of these people were dupes and thought this stuff was really happening. I think they understood, at least some of them who have later come out and said, you know, “Yeah. We knew some of this was fake or was staged, but it was the theater of church, the theater of community binding them all together. It was almost like a metaphor that he was enacting.” So they're in California for a while. They become really popular and entrenched with democratic state politics. 

Mike: Oh good. 

Rachel: He has tea with Rosalynn Carter and Walter Mondale. Like, he's hanging out with top, top people. 

Sarah: Wow. 

Rachel: And he becomes a really powerful political figure. Hanging out with Black Panthers and stuff. Black Panthers are kind of like, “We think we like this guy because he's a revolutionary socialist.” The kind of bad news is the more popular he gets, the more press starts to pay attention to him, and that freaks him out. And then also, the thing that people don't know about Jim Jones is people always assume that the megalomaniac cult leader is coercing female followers into sexual relationships, which Jim Jones totally did. Jim Jones was also fucking his male followers. 

Mike: Wait, what?

Rachel: Much less known. Much less known. Yeah. Fucked them all. Yeah. And with the men, it was a much more dominance thing. He was obviously always the top and he needed all of the women to say, like, “Jim Jones, I'm so overwhelmingly, sexually attracted to you” and he needed all the men to say, “Actually, I never realized, but I am a homosexual.” 

Sarah: So, he’s just able to enact all of his sexual fantasies. 

Rachel: Yeah. All these men aren't really real men, which was a weird thing that he had.

Sarah: Wow. 

Rachel: But anyway, he had gotten arrested for lewd conduct, I believe. Like, soliciting someone, a man, in a public bathroom. And he was real freaked out that that news was going to come out as these reporters start circling around looking at the finances, looking at the stuff. 

Sarah: And what's the level of interest in him at this point? Is anyone trying to get him on, like, cult-busting or anything like that at this point? 

Rachel: Cult-busting, in some ways, exists after Jonestown because of Jonestown. 

Sarah: Interesting. Okay. So we'll get to that, I guess. 

Mike: I didn't know that he was famous before the massacre. I thought it was only after the massacre that we even heard of this guy. So, what was he doing in San Francisco? It was San Francisco, right? 

Rachel: San Francisco and L.A. You know, they had a fleet of buses, they would travel around. So, he was doing political activism, and also really, super grassroots, like, a lot of housing stuff. Again, you have to believe that his heart was really in it because if what he was trying to get was glory, he wouldn't have picked these really small-scale issues. 

So it was just like, oh, a lot of these elderly people of color are being kicked out of this public housing because they want to redevelop it and he would stage huge protests against that. Like, it was really the local things that mattered to the people that he was preaching to. And there was communal housing and again, he had this media empire. He had a direct mail list with I think 50,000 people. 

Sarah: Wow. 

Rachel: Some of that is soliciting donations. So, they have a ton of money coming in, but it's also rallying people to these causes. 

Mike: How big is the church at this point? 

Rachel: I think a few thousand. Maybe 3,000 or something.

Sarah: And is it a Christian Church? What are his actual religious beliefs as such? Or what is he preaching and then, I guess, what are his beliefs?

Rachel: Yeah. Exactly. Because I think, you know, who knows what's in the dark heart of Jim Jones? Who am I to say, but it was extensively this Christian Church. I think one of the theories that you read is that his political beliefs were much more sincere than his religious beliefs and that he used the religious beliefs as a way to get people to take political action. He would say, you know, “Jesus was the first communist” and he had no qualms obviously about manipulating in a religious way because it was for this higher good. So it was extensively this Pentecostal, kind of holy roller, miracles and falling down kind of preaching, laying hands. 

Sarah: Just super dominant. Talking and talking and talking.  

Rachel: Oh my God, yeah. Talking forever. Like, endless church services of him just going on and on, you know, baby preacher all grown up. 

Sarah: And David Koresh used to have like, twelve bible study sessions and didn't Jim Jones, he would preach for like, would he preach for twelve hours or upwards of? 

Rachel: I'm not sure how many hours, but certainly hours and hours. I have a good David Koresh twist coming up soon that you will like. 

Mike: And is he pretty well liked, or is the establishment, the politicians, the kind of normies in San Francisco at that time like, “We don't trust this guy”? 

Rachel: What you hear in terms of people who don't like him tend to be people whose family members have vanished into this church. That's where the opposition comes from. I mean, San Francisco is a pretty progressive city at this time, so the stuff that he's saying is in keeping… He donated a ton of money to the American Indian movement, bailed people out of jail after the Wounded Knee Uprising. You know, it's like he’s really in there with all these activists, but then at the same time you have these people who are like, “I never see my daughter anymore.” There was that classic cult thing of isolating people from the rest of the world and so those family members are where a lot of the rumblings first start. 

Mike: And do they show up in press accounts? Are there GQ investigations or whatever where they interview these people? 

Rachel: It starts out with local San Francisco newspapers. I think The Examiner, and then there's a magazine that no longer exists called New West, and so you have some journalists looking into it. But again, you know, he is this beloved progressive figure doing all this good work with a huge media campaign. So anytime he gets the sense that somebody is going to write a negative article about him, it's very Scientology in that way. He gets all his people to just barrage the newspaper with phone calls and letters to say, “How dare you do this?” or, you know, posing as a reader being like, “I hate this coverage” or just that kind of trying to shut something down. 

Mike: And this was also, you said kind of before we had antennas up for cults, this was before the phenomenon of cults was known. It was like, “Oh, this guy seems nice.”

Rachel: Right. Also, in terms of his political legitimacy, he also would lend his media empire or hundreds of willing people who would call and write letters and stuff and knock on doors, he would lend them to candidates who were running. So he helped get, I believe, it was the mayor of San Francisco. He helped get the more progressive guy elected and that guy was sort of in his pocket a little bit.  

Sarah: So he did have a lot of power at the local level. Like, he was really, yeah. He could be a gatekeeper even. 

Rachel: Yeah. And he had a radio broadcast and was connected with these communities that maybe, you know, particularly white politicians maybe didn't feel that they have access to. 

Sarah: It speaks well of Jimmy Jones, and really badly of America, that we can make the argument that he wasn't just heartlessly trying to amass power as fast as possible. Like, he did want power, but it was complicated by other desires, I think. Because it's just a self-evident truth in America that no one has ever made a career on helping elderly women of color. Like, you couldn’t pick a worse demographic to help if you wanted to make a career as a Senator. Everyone would, I mean today I think people would see as being this horrible, lover of welfare, moms. You know? That's the demographic that gets most ignored by politicians trying to curry favor. 

Rachel: I guess the cynical explanation is there's maybe a cynical edge to his affection for particularly that population is that the more people that you have on social security with a fixed income or a pension or something coming in, you get them to the church. In a way it wasn't just this evil thing of “We want to steal these old women's social security checks.” It was a communalism kind of thing. Right? So he's like, “You turn over your check to us, you live in this communal housing, and we will provide for your food and your healthcare and stuff with this money that you give us.” They were creating these ad hoc systems of care that were failing otherwise, but it didn't mean giving up your money and your control. 

Mike: If I didn’t know how this all ended, I would probably really like him right now. Right? Even with the weird media manipulation and even with the weird faking being shot, his hearts in the right place. He's doing good. If you're going to have a problematic demagogue, like, I'd rather have a problematic demagogue that's actually trying to make things better for marginalized people. We just had a big mega church in Seattle where it was the same thing. This guy who's controlling the media and amassing all these followers and stuff, but he didn't do shit. He was trying to make things better for rich, white people in Seattle. Like, “Won’t someone finally listen to the rich, white people homeowners in Seattle? Like, finally we have a platform.” Like, if you have to have one of these assholes, at least he's looking in the right direction. 

Rachel: Right. And I think that's the really complicated thing about Jim Jones. In some ways I think of him as just being a total politician in that he's motivated completely by ego, but it's this blend of ego and cause, you know? And I think that politicians are like that too, and that politicians are all also terrible people. 

Sarah: Right. And terrible in a way that's more insidious, but also ultimately kills way more people.

Rachel: Right. And if you are so convinced of your own righteousness, then whatever means it takes is okay and convinced of your own righteousness. You know? It's all very much people following him. There's nothing about this that there's a power sharing or listening to other people. 

Sarah: It's totalitarian.

Rachel: It's super totalitarian and he was just fortunate, I guess, in that American society was fucked up enough that it gave him plenty of real things to rail against.

Mike: So, he's not sitting up an org chart necessarily. Not a corporate governance example. 

Rachel: No. And he's super manipulative and they would do things – like the people in his inner circle, of course. Not the people who have outside jobs, or if they have outside jobs they're turning over all their money to the people's temple. He would make people sign, like write out and sign confessions, I think. Starting out with adultery, but then ultimately that they had sexually abused their children and sign them. And the idea was like, “If you ever betray us, we're going to release this.”

Mike: He's getting leverage.

Rachel: Totally getting leverage over everybody. It's totalitarian in that way, too. Everybody's informing on everybody else. Who's not loyal enough? You get points for selling, ratting people out.

Mike: I used to live in Germany, and I did a lot of reading on how East Germany worked. The whole strategy wasn't even necessarily to get people to do anything for you. It was just getting enough leverage on them that they could. It was just like getting people spying on the neighbors. Who's cheating on their wives? Who's gay? Who's using drugs? And then you just get these files on everybody and it's like you don't even need to make them do anything. It's just “Now we know if we ever need you. We know that you're schtupping the kid who's soccer you coach.” 

Sarah: And it implies a view of society where you just need to be constantly ready to flip on anyone at any time, because you never know when the men are going to come. 

Rachel: And sometimes you would have them sign just blank pieces of paper. The confession to be written in later.

Sarah: Oh, that’s not good.

Rachel: But again, yeah. It's this atmosphere of paranoia and persecution from all sides. 

Sarah: And was he feeding his congregants this idea of like, they want to destroy me and ruin your life?

Rachel: Yeah. The government. And again, it's the seventies. He's not wrong that the government is doing creepy things. 

Sarah: There are corroborating factors here.

Rachel: His paranoia is very much validated by things that are going on in the world so he starts reaching out to the Soviet Union, like, “Will you guys take us?”

Mike: Oh good.

Rachel: Yeah. That obviously does not go over well, but yeah, his paranoia does not come out of nowhere.

Mike: My main takeaway so far is that I don't think extroverts should be allowed to run things. 

Sarah: But introverts… I don't want to run anything.

Rachel: Yeah, what introvert would ever? How are you going to suck introverts into running things?

Mike: Yeah. Because I just finished listening to this seven-part podcast about Bikram Choudhry, the guy that founded hot yoga, Bikram Yoga, who was exactly the same. He ended up raping, allegedly, a bunch of the people that were into it. He ran these yoga training things that were total cults, and he would do the same thing where he would give these three-hour long speeches. Mao would give famously, like, eight to twelve-hour speeches. They just love to hear themselves talk. They are incapable of listening or taking in new information. They're incapable of just thinking as another person. The ability of empathy seems like the first thing to go, right? That everything is about you. And then somehow, they're able to get people to hitch their trailer to them. 

Rachel: Wait, and that's your perception of extroverts? 

Mike: Every extrovert is like that, yes.

Sarah: Every extrovert is a cult leader. 

Mike: Obviously, introversion and extroversion is obviously a huge spectrum and there's different kinds of extroverts and introverts, but it just seems like it's taken everything I think of about extroverts but exaggerated it by a thousand times. That, to me, is like the ultra, ultra, ultra extrovert. 

Like, one of the things that this hot yoga dude always said was that he can't be alone. So he has, like, women with them all the time giving him foot rubs and stuff and Hitler was like that too. He can't be alone.

Sarah: Yeah. Don’t trust someone who can't be alone to be in a policy-making position, I would say. 

Mike: You know, you hear this from politicians all the time and it's very benign as a thing like, “Oh, I like to have people around,” but then it does become this compulsive thing where you just have to have somebody who you're bouncing yourself off of all the time and you're not even listening to them or asking them questions or gaining information from them. You're talking at them and yet you still need it, which is, as an introvert, totally baffling to me. 

Rachel: Yeah. They don't reflect what you need them to do. Then it's like you are being wounded. 

Sarah: I find that very scary. You know, I figured it out. I figured out the best situation for everyone and I'm going to rope everyone into my emotional reality, my sort of, you know, what works for me, what makes sense to me. It just has to work for everyone.  

Rachel: And because anybody who's like, “I don't want to live this way,” or even “I did this for a while. I don't want to live this way anymore” is deeply threatening to his ego because once all of these other people become part of your ego structure, like, they're not even real people. They're a part of you and if they defect, it is deeply betraying to your soul.

Sarah: Right. That makes me think of reading that I've done about the psychology of people who are physically abusive to their partners and how domestic violence, like, from the way that people describe their need to be physically abusive is this idea of the victim of your abuse holding this power over you and the terror of them leaving you and the terror of them not going along with your version of reality and being totally loyal to you and you have to just make sure that they're on your side through sheer physical force and it feels like the most terrorizing behavior is rooted in that terror.

Mike: And it’s like desperation. It's that you're desperate not to lose them and you'll do anything including harming them. 

Sarah: You’re like, “I just have to terrorize you into validating my beliefs and staying with me and if I can't do that, then I'll die. Like, what will happen to me?”

Mike: Wow.

Rachel: Right. And “You are less real than me. Like, you are fundamental because you're actually just a part of me,” and that's why it's like, “This hurts me just as much as it hurts you.” 

Mike: With Jim Jones, I also imagine, he must've at some level been cognizant too that if people were defecting, they would start to talk.

Rachel: Yes. 

Mike: Right? About all the crazy stuff that was going on behind the scenes, where it's like the more extreme the inside of the organization gets, the more you have to keep those people in because once they go out and start talking to the newspapers, the whole thing is going to start to fall apart. So he must've gotten more and more strongly like, “You have to stay here.” 

Rachel: Exactly. Exactly. And the secrets, it's a system that's bound by secrecy and fear, and it just can't abide, there's no looseness there. It's a very brittle structure. When one person leaves, then it becomes a possibility and sort of the unthinkable now becomes thinkable and now are other people going to leave and whatever perfection that he had in his mind… it betrays his idea of “No, this is great. We're having a wonderful time. Everybody's super happy. It's perfect.”

Sarah: So they all have to live in a compound, or…? 

Rachel: Not everybody. So not all 3,000 people or whatever, congregants, but the people who are closer lived in these kind of dorm life situations. And even people who weren’t there, there was a lot of pressure to, you know, you don't have Christmas and Thanksgiving with your family, you have it with the church. Just distancing you from other family members who are not members. 

Sarah: So you have to show you have no God above Jim Jones. 

Rachel: The interesting thing that he's able to do is build this congregation that is majority black, or I think it ends up being something like 45% black women, but also a lot of guilty hippies who are mostly white and activating them by being sort of like, “Oh, any kind of resistance is a sign of… “

Sarah: They’re bougie. 

Rachel: Yeah, their bourgeoise programming. 

Sarah: That's how you get a guilty lefty to do anything. You're like, “Oh, rather bougie of you to not do this.”

Rachel: Right. 

Mike: I guess there’s also probably something, I always think about this with Scientology, that at the lower levels, like when you're first getting into it, it's actually pretty great. It's all this stress relief stuff and you're making friends and it's like you're doing your day job, but then once a week you go hang out with these cool new people who are helping you get your life together and then it's only as you get in deeper that you're like, “Oh, this is maybe not totally in line with my values,” but by that point, you've already invested so much time so you have all these sunk costs and you've made all these friends and adopted this as your identity. So, by the time you realize how problematic it is, it's like it's much harder and more hurtful to leave and so I'm imagining for the congregants that weren't living in the dorms and weren't in the leadership and weren't signing blank page confessions, it was probably great. Like, they're doing social justice stuff. They're meeting all these cool new people. They feel like they're part of a national movement. It was probably awesome and then it was only once they got inside that they were like, “Oh shit, this is not great.”

Rachel: Yeah. Especially for elderly people with health issues, you know? They're being taken care of. They give up their social security check, but maybe they're getting more back. I don't know. I guess that's arguable. You know, they haven't worked for a few years. Like, many of them have dropped out of school. Right? So that makes it harder and harder to go back to any sort of other world and yeah, it's like less and less fun as it goes on. 

Mike: It’s funny to think about if this happened now that instead of making them sign confessions, he would make them give the company five-star reviews on Glassdoor. 

Rachel: Oh my God. He would be like, yeah, such a Yelp terrorist. 

Mike: “Love it here.” So, yeah, how did they get to Guyana? 

Rachel: As he is feeling more and more persecuted as these media stories are coming out, there were a couple of high profile defections of people from the inner circle. There's this custody battle that ends up being really dramatic. There was a couple that came into the church. He impregnated the wife, so she had his baby extensively. 

Mike: That's not great. 

Rachel: Yeah. You know, it happens. Then the parents left the church, but essentially the child was more or less kidnapped. He became really fixated on this kid as guys often are, like, “My son, my son, my offspring.” If you're talking about literally “This is a part of me,” like, “My ego structure,” very literalized. The press stuff is getting heated. He's worried about the IRS coming. These defections happened. He's got this court case for the lewd conduct thing, and he really doesn't want to become public.

Sarah: Does he feel like his congregants would…  that that would be a blow to their ability to have faith in him or see him as this larger-than-life figure? 

Rachel: Yeah. I mean, he obviously has some extremely complex things about men having sex with men. So, yeah. If it's something that he's in control of then that's one thing, but also that was always a secret, I think, the sex that he was having with his male followers. So anyway, they decide that they are going to– it’s this sort of plan B, like a plan to sort of flee, a contingency plan. Also, a part of him is like, “Maybe the U.S. government is going to come besiege us.” 

Sarah: Right! Because they were known for besieging people with less reason. 

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. 

Mike: That makes it much easier to market. Instead of “My empire is crumbling around me,” you're like, “Oh, the government is after us. We have to go somewhere safe.” 

Rachel: Right. 

Sarah:  Oh, that's the classic. 

Rachel: Yeah, “We're too radical for them and they're going to shut us down.” But anyway, so they decide that they're going to build this socialist utopia in Guyana, which is a former British colony with a socialist government and majority black leadership. So they all moved to Guyana, and that's when things start to go a little nuts. 

So they have this land that they got Guyana to give them. And also again, it's like the beginning of Jonestown before Jim Jones shows up seems kind of fun. You have a few hundred people there, like young people clearing the land, starting a farm. Like, they're all living together and working on this huge, noble project. They're trying to prove that a racially integrated, socialist community thriving is possible and that's that feels great.

Sarah: I would be so fucking joyfully self-righteous if I were down there at the start of Jonestown, you know, clearing the land, making a new Utopia.  

Rachel: Yeah. There's fruit and you're doing all this labor all day and there are endorphins from that and you're just hanging out with a bunch of other attractive, young, socialist, dedicated people building a better future. It’s so romantic.

Mike: I can imagine just all of the insufferable blog posts. Like, “Oh, you got a lot of emails today? Oh, that's interesting. I was growing papayas and sleeping in the shade of a Palm tree.”

Sarah: The Instagrams from the start of Jonestown would have been… 

Mike: It would just be like your extremely irritating friend on Facebook who's just like, “#blessed”. 

Sarah: “#Jonestown”.

Rachel: Yeah. I actually can't believe this hasn't happened yet.  

Sarah: It will. We’re getting there. Yeah. And is this 1978 at the start, or does it…? 

Rachel: I think ‘76, ‘77. You know, it's like a slow progression. But then when things start heating up in California for Jim Jones, he moves out there. They start importing people really quickly, and at the beginning it was like all the young, strapping people who could do the labor. But then they started bringing more and more of the old ladies and things get so strained and so intense and it just seems so awful, and Jim Jones is either just popping a ton of amphetamines and then not sleeping and you have this P.A. system that blasts over the whole community, and he's hopped up on amphetamines just preaching probably for twelve hours, who knows? Like, all night, you know, you're working in the fields and Jim Jones is just ranting in your ear.

Sarah: So it's a little bit like North Korea, where the dear leader is constantly talking to you and in your life. 

Rachel: And he actually had intentionally adopted the North Korean model, which is like work from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM, six or seven days a week, with a one-hour break for lunch. Like that, I think he was writing to North Korea, too. He was trying to use, like, Soviets and trying to find these alliances.  

Sarah: It’s like, Jim, look at your choices right now. Like, you can see there's something not great about where things are going. 

Mike: One of the things that I didn't know growing up, I read this history of communism a couple of years ago and they said that one of the things that sort of we forget now is that there was a very long period of time where it wasn't clear that communism wasn't working that well. Like, for a long time, for a lot of Americans it was actually seen as a race. Like, does capitalism do it better or does communism do it better because information wasn't coming out of the Soviet Union and North Korea that this wasn't working and that all the numbers were faked, and that the farms are really miserable, and that people weren't working. And the living standards were really low. So, it was only really in the early mid-eighties that the consensus formed that, “Oh, it really isn't working there.” And I think there was this weird period where there were actually people in the states that wouldn't necessarily identify as communists, but were kind of like, “Well, it works pretty well and it is worth looking into this because it seems to be working in Russia. The information that we have is that they're growing lots of crops and people are happy and they're living on these farms that do seem Utopian.” 

Rachel: Yeah. Both communism and capitalism have strong reasons to spread the brand and smother descent, but then the thing with Jim Jones is, you know, part of it is that you look at what he built and like, “Oh God, if only you could sort of subtract Jones from this equation, there's this nice, integrated, super progressive, activist congregation, and you would have this cool, agricultural commune in Guyana. That would be great. That all seems fine. You can't really subtract Jim Jones from it because it all formed around him. Like, he was so central to it. 

Sarah: Cause his ego catalyzes, like, the raw force behind all of this. 

Rachel: Totally. Yeah, exactly. 

Mike: There's so much here about organizational cultures too that maybe if he had done it – I mean maybe if he wasn't a crazy person basically – maybe if he had done it in a way where he really was building an organization or he was building structures with succession where it wasn't 100% built on his personality, if he was installing some form of rule of law and checks and balances in his own structure, maybe it would have lasted longer or maybe it would have been a better force in people's lives, because the thing with those personality led cults is that once the personality of the person starts to erode, the whole community erodes because they haven't put any structures in place to support anything other than them. So, it sounds like once he starts to lose it, and once he's taking methamphetamines all day, then the whole system breaks down because he's the bottleneck for making all of the decisions, I suppose. 

Rachel: And I don't think that that's not just an accidental oversight on his part. I think to me, this is what belies his standing as this warrior for justice or whatever, is that he didn't do that because he actually, fundamentally wasn't trying to build kind of these lasting coalitions or something. The fundamental, important thing to him was serving his ego. 

Mike: He was starting with himself and building everything around it, not starting with the justice and building everything around that. 

Rachel: Right. And again, to me, that's a politician thing. Like, you see that in so many people, whether they're politics are good or bad.

Mike: So is Guyana, is the compound expanding really quickly? Is that kind of what puts more strain on it? 

Rachel: Yeah. So, through ‘77 into ‘78, you have people just coming into the point where, you know, 50 people a week or something, 100 people a week, a couple hundred people a week, and then by the mid ‘77, you have a thousand people living there. 

Mike: That’s a lot of people, dude.

Sarah: Are they eating enough? 

Rachel: It's actually kind of bad. It probably could have worked as a small-scale, social co-op, agricultural co-op thing if they had had time to grow it slowly. But they have terrible soil. You have a ton of old people there who can't really work in the fields. Definitely not enough food. Things get more desperate. 

Mike: Probably a lot of, like, accountants and stuff that don't know how to plow sweet potatoes, too. Like, there's probably not a whole lot of expertise there either.

Rachel: Right. Oh, no. Especially in this place that none of them have any background in just trying to figure this thing out and people are just hungry. 

Sarah: Jim Jones forgot how hard colonialism can be at times. 

Rachel: Exactly. You know, to his credit he is living in a communal situation. He's not doing the Rajneesh, “Here’s my parade of Rolls Royce’s” kind of thing. Like, money actually, he didn't seem to be all that super materialistic of a dude. He was quite vain and egotistical, but he didn't need stuff. It wasn't like he was living in a much better quality of life. Like, he had a slightly better quality of life. Like, he had a refrigerator with Coca-Cola in it, which most people didn't have, but it wasn't like he had a palace. You know, there were a ton of people living in his house. 

Sarah: And did he always wear sunglasses? Was that his look? 

Rachel: Yeah. I feel like that started early on, and the super jet black hair. Very Roy Orbison kind of aesthetic. 

Sarah: Yeah.

Rachel: Which I don't know if he thought it made him look cool or mysterious. I could see the advantage of you’re a cult leader not wanting people to see your eyes.

Mike: So how did we get to the ultimate denouncement of this that we're so familiar with?  

Sarah: And I would add to that question, like, what, in your opinion, made Jim Jones’s psychological situation unsustainable? Because it also seems like he wanted all this power over people and he was given it and it seems to have, you know, made him go a little mad. That's my guests in the dark, 

Rachel: It’s terrible that I always want to blame the amphetamines.

Mike: When in doubt. 

Sarah: It’s like lighting a match and dropping it on dry tinder. 

Rachel: There’s always darkness in these culty spaces, but not only darkness and then the amphetamines seem to just turn the volume way up on the dark parts and the violence. 

Sarah: Because of just the mania and sleep deprivation or? 

Rachel: Oh, he’s also doing stuff like making adults fight each other, you know?

Mike: No way.

Rachel: Yeah. Like, these sort of public boxing matches, public humiliation of people. You know, like making people be naked in front of everybody. They have a box. They'll lock people in this sensory deprivation box. 

Sarah: Was he doing any of these things in California or does he feel the need to tighten the binds on people?

Rachel: Some of it had happened before, like humiliation in front of a group, but it's all just getting more and more unhinged, and I think when you have people, you're not on the streets of a major U.S. city, like, seeing normal people walk around, your idea of what is it acceptable can maybe be pushed farther.

Mike: Yeah. 

Rachel: You're not like going home and watching TV and being reminded of that version of reality. You’re just subsumed in this thing. You’re just like, “Yeah, I guess having adult men box each other to the point of extreme injury, like that's reasonable. 

Mike: Also, I guess these people are kind of trapped there, too. They need to buy plane tickets. They need to deal with a language and a culture they don't understand to get out of there. 

Rachel: Totally. They’re deep in the jungle, given up all their money, often they've given up their passports. They know that the Guyanese government is friendly with Jim Jones, and then they don't have a ton of information. He's increasingly saying, “We're under siege,” so his staged attacks thing gets way more intense. If you have an adult man on methamphetamines with a lot of guns, because he's got a lot of guns too, playing war games. 

There's this one time called like the Six Day Siege where he just play acts/hallucinates/invents, this siege from without. He's like, “The government! The government is attacking us! Everybody at the perimeter!”

Mike: You're kidding. 

Rachel: No! It’s like a little kid. Like, there's something so childish about it. 

Sarah: And how it feels like this felt real to him in some way and he was able to transfer his fantasies and his delusions to large groups of people and to make them real in that way. 

Rachel: Totally. Right. And he kind of believed in it. I think it wouldn't have worked if he didn’t. 

Mike: So how do we get to drinking the Flavor Aid? 

Rachel: So basically, we have a growing chorus of concerned parents back in California being like, “Look, my kid is in Guyana. I have no idea what's going on. There are these news reports coming out from a handful of these defectors talking about these things that seem pretty extremely controlling and abusive,” and just talking about yeah, sometimes Jim Jones has been talking more and more about revolutionary suicide and “We got to do what we got to do.” 

And so there's a Congressman from California, Leo Ryan, who gets a delegation. He's like, “We're just going to go down there and check it out. We just want to check it out. If anybody wants to leave, they can leave with us.” He goes down with a group of press people. Jim Jones is super freaked out about this. They do a ton of media training beforehand where it's just like, “What do you say? What are you saying when they ask you if you like it here?” They come, this delegation of like eight people, and they're like, “You know, it seems weird here. It seems intense, but ultimately it seems okay. Most people seem like they're here of their own free will.”

Mike: It's just like the collective farms that they used to set up for Western journalists in the Soviet Union. It's the same thing. They'd do these theatrical farms and then journalists would come back and be like, “You know what, it's a little weird, but it seems to be working. I don't see why we can't think about it here.” 

Rachel: Yeah. And so then you have a handful of people say that they want to defect. I think it ends up being like a dozen people, and there's some sense of creepiness. Like, I think there's a moment where they're like, “Does anybody want to leave?” And nobody raises their hand. And they're like, “See, nobody wants to leave.” But then a couple passes a secret note and is like, “Hey, we want to leave.” So there's a sense that not everybody is able to speak freely.

But then, yeah, ultimately after this two-day visit he gets a dozen people say that they want to leave, and the Congressman is like, “Ultimately, I feel positively about this. A dozen people out of a thousand is really not that much. Like, 1% of your people want to leave. That's not a big deal. This seems fine to me. I basically had a good time here.” And yet he and the dozen people go back to this remote, rural airstrip and this sort of assassination happens. Like, the Congressman is killed, a few of the press people. 

Mike: Wait, what? I had no idea about this. Someone shoots the delegation?

Rachel: One of the people who said that they wanted to defect turned out to be a double agent or something. So he gets on the plane with these dozen survivors and starts shooting people. 

Mike: No fucking way.

Rachel: Meanwhile, this truck of guys from back at the farm are barreling down on the airstrip also shooting, and so you have, I can't remember how many people died, but four or five people died. Like an NBC cameraman, journalists, and the Congressman. And then there are these two little planes. The two little planes take off with whoever managed to get on and then you have a half dozen people there, some of whom have been shot and are alive, and they're like, “Fuck, we’re stuck out here in the jungle with these people trying to shoot us and the planes just took off.” This is a huge deal. I think Jim Jones, he knows at that point this is not something that you come back from. He knew what he was doing and he knew, if this, then that. 

Mike: Right.

Sarah: Well, it’s also really interesting that, you know, it seems as if he'd dodge a bullet if he'd been able to not send a death squad. That was functionally just so unnecessary unless you have deep paranoia. 

Rachel: Right! He succeeded! He succeeded. The Congressman came and the Congressman was like, “I think this is fine.” That's a huge victory. Like, Jim Jones has won.

Mike: Is that what triggers the Flavor Aid? Then he realizes what he's done? 

Rachel: It's a classic murder-suicide move. But rather than just being in one romantic relationship, it's written upon, you know, a thousand people. “I would rather destroy myself than let you go.” So, yeah. So meanwhile, as he sends these guys, his death squads, off to kill the Congressman, he's ordering the Flavor Aid to be mixed with the cyanide, I think it is. And he's like, “All right, everybody, line up. It's time.” And I think there is that sense, because they had rehearsed this, they had done basically a version of this a few months before and then the poison had been fake. It's unclear. I think at first people, again, couldn't tell, “Is this real? Is this really happening?” But it became really clear really quickly, because people died within minutes of drinking this stuff. 

Sarah: And because of how distributing that much of anything goes, I would guess that not everyone got it simultaneously.  

Mike: Yeah. I was just going to ask about the logistics of this. Is there like a, I'm imagining a lemonade stand table and a queue of people. 

Rachel: I think that's right. And the creepy thing is that he did these audio recordings of all of his speeches and there's an audio recording of this. Like, you can listen to them. And if you really want to know about the logistics, you can hear it. It’s all recorded. You can hear people screaming and you can hear people saying, “Wait, do we really have to do this? Can't we go to Russia?” And him being like, “No, no, no.” He's a great manipulator. He started with the mothers and the children, and I think 300, like a third of the people who died were children. And so once you've given the poison to these children, it's hard to maybe feel like you want to save yourself after that. Then he also had the perimeter ringed with his security team who were these guys with guns. A couple of people did manage to flee, but really just a couple. 

Mike: Wow. 

Sarah: And then once you get out, you're in the jungle. 

Rachel: Right, exactly. Exactly. You're in the jungle. You know, what do you even do? You're in the jungle. You're completely alone. Everything you've built your life around has been destroyed, and he was able to frame the suicide as this revolutionary act, as a political act. Again, it wasn't like, “We're all committing suicide.” This is, “We're committing revolutionary suicide. We're fighting a battle. This is a victory of a kind.” There's also very much, “If we don't kill ourselves, they're going to come kill us tomorrow.” So that framing of it, I guess, I mean, I don't know. These people were super desperate.

Sarah: The classic triangle in interpersonal drama is victim, villain, savior and if you can create a narrative on these people that you've already, you know, have such psychological power over that, you know, “You were the victim. I am your savior. Someone else is the villain. I am saving you from this other force,” that seems like it would be so powerful.

Rachel: And these people have been in Guyana for a year or two years. They're not getting newspapers. They're not getting new broadcasts. Like, they have no idea. He's creating their whole reality, and this is at a time when the United States does feel like it's spinning out of control. So these stories that he's telling us of invasions and immediate threat and, you know, like, “We're surrounded.” Like, that doesn't seem as crazy as maybe it sounds from the outside. 

Sarah: Well that reminds me of an individual kidnapping case that happened in the seventies. This woman named Colleen Stan was kidnapped by a couple when she was seventeen or eighteen, and then was first horribly abused by the husband of the couple, and then kept literally in a box underneath the bed a whole year. And then had what she called her year out and then had, I think, a couple more years in the box. And Cameron had told her this story that she had come to believe about how she had been sold to him and he owned her, and they were being surveilled by this company called “The agency”, and if she tried to go and tell her parents or she tried to escape, they would kill her and they would kill her family. And she believed it because she had been kept in a box. So when she escaped and this went to trial, it was a very hard sell for a jury because they were just like, “Why didn't you run? Why didn't you leave? Why didn't you leave during your year out? Like, why did you believe that?” You know? I think there's a sense of “I wouldn't believe that. My psyche is uncrackable.” But it's just like, how do you know? You've never been kept in a box. So, you've never farmed in Guyana for two years with sermons on for twelve hours a day, not getting enough protein. We don't know.

Mike: So, how many survivors were there?

Rachel: There were only a handful. You know, there were some people who were not at the compound. So, they were not in a jungle because they had a house in the capital city, and Jim Jones’s sons were on a basketball team and he sent an order over the radio saying “Okay, you guys. We're all gonna do this, right?” And they had some people back at home in San Francisco and basically nobody who was not there killed themselves. Although, actually there's one creepy story about a lady who was in the capital city in Guyana and she heard the radio. I forget what their code name was, but they had some code that sort of meant like, “All right, now's the time for us to all kill ourselves.” And everybody else who heard that was sort of like, “Well, actually I don't think I'm going to.” But this one lady who was a serious, true believer was like, “All right.” She took her three children with her into the bathroom, slit their throats, and then killed herself. 

Mike: No fucking way.

Rachel: And that is like, whoa. Because you could make a case that there's something about this closed world out there in the jungle, the sort of peer pressure, the lack of escape, the inability to imagine another way, but she was in the city. She could have just walked out the door, but no. She was a true believer. She did it. Then I think there was a deaf guy who didn't hear the call to come to the pavilion. There was a lady who hid under the bed.

Sarah: But it's like talking about the survivors of Hiroshima where it's like, “Well, it's someone who happened to be under a rock at that time.”

Rachel: Yeah. And 900 people died. 

Mike: Fuck.

Rachel: Yeah, nine hundred.

Mike: Yeah. These are mind boggling numbers. At a time when we rightly consider a mass shooting to be unreal if it's thirteen people. 

Sarah: Well, the statistic that I think really impressed on me how big Jonestown was, and also how big it was to people at the time, was that this was the largest American civilian death until September 11th. 

Mike: Oh, wow. 

Rachel: Yeah. 

Sarah: So there's three decades of “Nothing was ever as big as Jonestown.” What is the response then? What happens? 

Rachel: Well I think the super interesting legacy to me is this growing kind of cult awareness movement that comes out of this. Where people are… and this is, you know, there's a number of other intense cult actions that happen around this time. That you have these organizations that talk about, you know, “Our young people are being programmed.” It’s just like you guys are saying. There's not necessarily a huge awareness in the seventies of the way that trauma works or the way that manipulation works and so these cult awareness groups try to make that more known.

But then you also have the situation, Sarah, this is where David Koresh comes in for you, is that the cult awareness network is run by, I think she's the daughter of Leo Ryan, who's the Congressman who's killed at Jonestown. And during the Waco siege she, as president of the Cult Awareness Network, makes these like really strong statements like, “You need to go in there and you need to arrest this guy by any force necessary.” There becomes this, after Jonestown, the sense like we weren't paying close attention enough. We didn't do enough. Then you see at Waco, we go to the other end of not being tolerant of these fringe groups. 

Mike: I know there's a, because a buddy of mine is part of a cult survivors’ network, and there are support groups where people can come together and talk about it. And I think once he had started telling me about his experience, it just dawned on me that it is the kind of thing that if you've gone through it, no one who hasn't gone through it would get it at all. Because there is this kind of blaming of, “How could you be so stupid? How could you fall into this?” But if you grow up in a cult, which many people have, there's probably a lot of shame about telling people afterwards. 

Rachel: Totally. Right. Yeah. Just like Sarah was saying, it's easier and more pleasant for those of us who haven't, to think that that is a flaw in that person, rather than a flaw in human nature, that it could be any of us.

Mike: What is the press coverage like at the time? Has our cultural understanding of Jonestown changed over time? 

Rachel: Because more of the survivors were the more high-level people, and people who had defected were more high-level people, and the high-level people tended to be the white hippies, there was this sense of “Oh, the flower children have been led astray again.”

Mike: Oh God. It's so just like the discourse on millennials. It's always like finding a way to blame young people for these completely insane acts that are clearly just human, but it's like, “Oh, well, young people, if you're a hippie, this is where it gets you.” 

Sarah: Right? Like, “Some guy brainwashed you and told you to commit suicide. Maybe you shouldn't have listened to so much Neil Young.”

Mike: So Rachel, after researching this, what do we tend to get wrong about Jonestown? Other than the details, you know, what are the lessons that we should take from it, versus what we actually have?

Rachel: Well, I think there's too quick of a movement after these things to be like, any alternative movement, anything that's trying to be an alternative to the mainstream way of life, any sort of communal living, anybody with strange beliefs or ideas, anybody who descends from the mainstream is actually a murderous freak. That's just the saddest thing about the way that these things that start out as exciting, progressive things end up being fodder for reactionary forces. So, yeah, I think it's like take the lesson of Jim Jones. He identified some real problems in society, and then he thought that he was the solution, not the case. 

And maybe it's just that the more that we improve social services for all of us as a whole, the less room there will be for these charismatic maniacs to come in and be like, “I’ll save you.” You know, if we can create a more just world where fewer people are in desperate need of saving, then there's less room for manipulation by Jim Jones types 

Mike: Right. I guess that's what nobody ever brings up about these local heroes, these local community heroes that you hear about making breakfast for poor kids and these heartwarming stories, that that does confer them a sense of power over those people and that they then can cash in that power not always for good means and most people that make breakfast for poor kids obviously do not end up feeding them cyanide, but it does, when you have these little pockets of informal justice mechanisms, it creates a vulnerability.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. And they're based on individuals rather than sort of this diffuse network of care and mutual responsibility.

Mike: Right. That's accountable and transparent. 

Rachel: Yeah. It's less sexy and less charismatic, but it's less able to be exploited.

Mike: It's less culty. 

Rachel: Less culty.