Jonestown Day doesn’t read cute on a calendar. Sweetest Day or Grandfather’s Day or Jefferson Davis’ Birthday, all of these offensive benchmarks I’ve seen printed on mass produced calendars. For the last 14 years, Patriots’ Day has marked Sept. 11, as far as calendars in the U.S. of A. Before that day in 2001, there was for more than two decades another infamous high mark for death count, and simultaneous low mark for our grasp on reality: Nov. 18, 1978, the day of the massacre at the Jonestown compound in Guyana.
Thirty-seven years on, Jonestown as it’s commonly called stands as the second-largest loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act you’ll find (maybe) in the right-half of your history books. The deaths of more than 900 people from the People’s Temple, as well as reporters and an American legislator, continue to conjure occasional fascination or a news documentary. The people at Kool-Aid (Flavor-Aid?) and a few MK-Ultra Geocities pages have their own reasons to perpetually remember. However, there seems an aspect of Jonestown (and, to a lesser extent, any mass, organized separation from mainstream society under a higher cause) which force away our eyes and ears. To comprehend how few steps mania like Jonestown is from the choices we make every day puts us in the streets this moment, clawing each other’s eyes out for risk they do the same.
The insanity and barbarism of mainstream religious zealots are something we can understand. They fit easily into black-and-white constructs of fear and love, bad and good. Roles depend on which side you’re on, and either side can choose outrage and dismay reflective of religious participation. Military actions are more aligned with geography, unless you’re from the wrong geography, though guerrilla conflicts and terrorist acts certainly spin the physical “side” dynamic. Anger and nationality can be drummed up through reliable historical risks. Large groups of humans die otherwise from disasters, natural or man-made or illness, with the attribution of blame as stupidly after-the-fact as suing a dead sea captain or punching a virus (though I like that ugly visual of a caveman punching his face to get rid of his painful consumption).
The nature of the cult holds abstracted definition of groups, belief, human desires. Cults are some extension of religion as we’ve agreed to it, either personal or public. Rather than confront or conform outright, they build bunkers out West or start agricultural compounds in the muddy and poor soil of Guyana. So put out and put off by the set rules, these groups went after their own. A mass of people, together, follow another path on a different map. When you reject reality, you must be insane, right?
It feels, then, that how cults, bent on death or not, fuck with the general population stems from their version of reality, taking “regular people” along the way. Here we have, to me, the utterly fascinating notion of the cult. The deaths are a tragedy. The choices, brainwashing, compromise something else unimaginable. The split of otherwise normal people – it’s generally normal people, like the neighbor-turned-killer, with everyone else unsure where and when normality went astray – off to subservience under a God-on-Earth seems something of another time and the truly out there. There was a point, by all accounts, that the eponymous Jim Jones was just Jim Jones, pastor and sometime San Francisco housing authority board member. He was not yet the slurring death’s head. He was, to counter, a leader of men, women and children. Where and for whom others who wouldn’t, he’d “fight.”* (Of course, many people battle individual mental health issues of all flavors, with Jones himself having received all range of diagnoses since Nov. 18. The acts and path of Jonestown are not divorced from the people involved and their own struggles. Those struggles, all the same, marry to the group mania which I touch on here.)
How leaders like Jones gain and retain power hold their own often trigger the final call, as it was with Jonestown, David Koresh in Waco and others**. Dastardly deeds and people who would want to leave, given a clear mind and choice, or so was the argument of deprogrammers like the Cult Awareness Network. (Deprogrammers who went too far on their own, or so the Scientologists would say, having since sued and buried that well-intentioned entity.) These arguments of choice, also, beg for a discussion on what, exactly, is being chosen: your reality or mine?
There is no official calendar designation for the day more than 900 humans gave in, shot each other and killed their kids in the South American jungles. (Those closely tied to Jonestown have their own grassroots effort at a memorial beyond a gravesite in Oakland.) I don’t suspect words on a calendar would change the world much. I don’t even encourage anything more than a day of reflection: no trumpet salute or moment of silence or knocking on the door of the nearest gathering hall we suspect to be a cult (and turns out to be an AA meeting). The Nov. 18 from 37 years is shocking and bold yet ignored. Not an attempt to outrank or gross-out the other recognized human disasters of our modern era, I resurrect Jonestown for its challenges to our unspoken yet shared notions of human reality. The news, our friendships, humanity’s priorities … there is no clear indication we’ve done a fantastic job of making a decision on what the hell is rational. In the larger scheme of human history, Jonestown is on the lower end of mass acceptance of savagery. Then as now, reality is relied on not to lead us astray.
But let’s not pretend we all know sanity, sane all the time. Let’s recognize for a day that we really don’t. It seems an annual remembrance of an ultimate instance of the bizarre pain we can cause each other may give way to those universal notions of empathy. I can merely offer that we spend the day recognizing the love, humor and compassion that bring us together around the struggles of mania and reality before an uncertain unknown.
[*”Fight” a reference to recordings that survive Jonestown from their final days, either in CIA files or the bootleg and oddities section of Danbury, Ct. record stores. Inquire within.]
[**It is worth mentioning that “end times” prophets such as Ti and Do from Heaven’s Gate or the aptly named Elizabeth Clare Prophet from the Church Universal and Triumphant work from a different model of “Ascended Master Teachings”/New Age futurism. I only mention them here because, from the outset, they ascribe to a distance world or past, putting their wedge firmly into our concept of reality. That said, maybe it’s splitting hairs without any real, scholarly digging.]