By Rob Burgess
— Editor’s note: This November is the 35th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre (Nov. 18), the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22) and the 35th anniversary of the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Nov. 27.) This is the first in a series of three columns exploring each, in order.
I first encountered the Jonestown massacre five years ago as a reporter for the Ukiah Daily Journal in Ukiah, Calif. It was the 30th anniversary of the Nov. 18, 1978 tragedy, which took the lives of more than 900 members of the People’s Temple in Guyana. I interviewed one of the only survivors of that tragedy, Tracy Diaz (née Parks.)
Diaz starred in the then-new CNN documentary “Escape From Jonestown,” in which she traveled back to the airstrip where she saw her mother, Patricia Parks, Rep. Leo Ryan, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson and NBC reporter Don Harris gunned down as they attempted to flee.
In the book he co-wrote with co-worker John Jacobs, “Raven: The Untold Story of The Rev. Jim Jones and His People,” Tracy was described in 1978 by Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman as “a pink-faced preteen blond bewildered by it all. ... [Her mother, Patricia] lay near the gangway now, on her back, her skull blown open, her face a death mask,” wrote Reiterman, who was also injured by gunfire that day. “Tracy had witnessed her sudden death.”
The abrupt exodus of the Parks family — which also included Tracy’s sister, Brenda; brother, Dale; grandmother, Edith; and father, Gerald — was particularly crushing for the Rev. Jim Jones, as they had followed him from their former base in Indianapolis to Ukiah, Calif., in 1966, and later to South America.
Back in Jonestown, Jones ordered his followers to prepare a vat of grape-flavored drink mixed with cyanide. Newborns and the elderly were poisoned first. “That’s sick to have to make people watch,” Diaz told me. “And he knew once he used that ploy that they’d do it next. He thought a lot of this crap out.”
Diaz said the bloodbath — which turns 35 on Monday — rode the line between suicide and murder. “I think more of them decided to take their lives,” she said. “[But] I know a lot of people did not want to die.”
I never really liked the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” before I interviewed Diaz. After I wrote the story, though, I despised it. Sadly, others have had to learn the hard way.
“[South Bend] restaurant [Hacienda] erected billboards … including the statement, ‘We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid,’ over a glass containing a mixed drink, as well as the phrase, ‘To die for!’” read a Feb. 21, 2011 Associated Press story. “[Hacienda] … apologized [and said the] billboards would be taken down.”
Unsurprisingly, Diaz wasn’t fond of the turn of phrase. “Oh, I hate it,” she said. “... It’s not even funny to joke about stuff like that.” Besides being insensitive, it’s incorrect: It was Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid. Someone as greedy and sadistic as Jones would never serve his flock anything name brand.
The Flavor Aid vs. Kool-Aid divide is also an appropriate metaphor for Jones himself. Jones presented himself as a name-brand, progressive community leader, when in reality he was a devious user who drained anyone unfortunate enough to come under his influence of everything they loved.
He fooled so many people: San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, then-Assemblyman Willie Brown and first Lady Rosalynn Carter, to name just a few.
An unfortunate July 8, 1968 advertisement in the Ukiah Daily Journal signed by several prominent community members declared their support for Jones. “We deplore the unseemly words and actions of a small segment of this community and we want you and your people to know that you are not only welcome in this valley but highly respected,” it read, in part.
I’m now convinced every time someone uses the cliché “drink the Kool-Aid,” Jones is laughing from beyond the grave somewhere, his ruse intact.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.