Just finished reading Seductive Poison by Deborah Layton, one of the few survivors of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978. She actually defected from the group, named the People’s Temple, some months before, and was instrumental in sending Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate matters in Jonestown, Guyana. His visit triggered the events that would ultimately lead to the mass suicide of almost a thousand people at the behest of charismatic and mentally bonkers leader Reverend Jim Jones. That much I knew before reading the book, and many more irrelevant particulars besides (like Jim Jones selling pet monkeys door-to-door early in his ministering), but I had never read a first-hand account of what went down inside Jones’ jungle compound. It actually makes me realize that I haven’t read that many consequential memoirs. While I am drawn to clunky history books in general, I don’t often learn about events from the people who actually experienced them.
Anyway, it was a pretty gripping book and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it, even if they consider themselves experts on Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre. Delving this deeply into the mindset of someone who actually a resident of Jonestown is a chilling and humbling experience. I’ve always lumped this tragedy in with other wacky cult activity, and assumed that the people involved were either very stupid or very, very stupid, and so were separated from their basic civil rights quite easily. If they weren’t being fleeced by some huckster, they’d be blowing their money on the lottery or hoarding shit from the Home Shopping Network or otherwise get tricked by any of society’s many legitimate and illegal confidence games. In a world populated mostly by Larrys and a few Moes, these are the Curlys. Fodder for P.T. Barnum in one era, for David Koresh in another.
I see how closed-minded that thinking was, and how I’ve never really given serious consideration to people that get involved with these groups. It’s not a matter of being naive or stupid, but of wanting structure and guidance. Folks ensnared within cults, within paranoid militias, within terrorist cells don’t make the transition overnight. They start by looking for answers, some kind of frame for an otherwise meaningless existence. Someone might attend a lecture where they are exhorted to face and overcome their greatest fears. They might pursue that line of thinking and attend more lectures and workshops. A year later, these people are Scientologists and they’ve cleared their bank accounts to discover that our mental anguish was caused by Darkseid and his diabolical Omega Sanction. Or something like that.
It should come as no surprise to my trillions and perhaps quadrillions of loyal readers that I was no shrinking violet in high school. Yes, the unabashed nerd over whose words you lovingly pore was flush with pals in my teen years, owing mainly to our shared drug abuse but also due partly to my winning personality. I was somewhat of a leader to various high school outcasts, a distinction I neither sought nor disabused, and because I was well-read and articulate several chums sought my counsel (my standard advice: let’s get more pot). When I left for college, I largely sloughed off these would-be friends, in part because I was tired of maintaining the aloof image that masked my lack of self-confidence, but also because I didn’t know what to do with these kids. We had a lot of ideas regarding how to expend our youthful energy and idealism, but none of them panned out because we were so stoned all the time. I wish I had started up a pothead doomsday cult with that gang of weirdos. Our mantra could have been: “We will all commit revolutionary suicide to protest bourgeois oppression…tomorrow.“