Kool-Aid, cults and hypocrisy

“It’s a comforting feeling to think that it could never happen to you,” warned Deborah Layton when I interviewed her several years ago. She knows more than most about dangerous groups and dangerous leaders.

Layton had been a member of People’s Temple, the infamous builders of “Jonestown” in Guyana. For years she believed that Jim Jones was a good man doing good work.

Eventually, however, she realised that bad times were ahead. She escaped from Jonestown shortly before more than 900 people died there in 1978.

Jonestown has gone down in popular memory as that “cult” disaster, the case where a bunch of crazy people drank poisoned Kool-Aid because their preacher told them it would send them to heaven where Jesus was waiting.

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has even become entrenched as a pop culture, meaning blind loyalty to anything weird or untrue.

Layton explained to me that this view of Jonestown is inaccurate and offensive because the reality of what happened was very different. The people were not crazy, she explained, nor did they all wilfully drink poison in order to meet Jesus.

She says that guards were armed with guns and defying orders was not an option. She also explained that the term “cult” is misleading because it obscures how easy it is for people to become trapped in dangerous groups.

The Jonestown tragedy began as nothing more than Christians joining a respectable church in California.

“Nobody joined Peoples Temple thinking they were going to be taken to South America and killed,” explained Layton. She says Jim Jones was a respected preacher, a member of a human rights commission, and received positive coverage from the news media.

“Nobody joins a cult,” she said. “You join a religious group. You join a political organisation. You join a self-help group. Then things change gradually and at some point you stop and ask, ‘What am I in?’ It is OK to use the word ‘cult’ in the dictionary, but not when discussing various religions that are active now.”

As far back as I can remember I have consistently avoided use of the term “cult”.

Fortunately I recognised how it was used inconsistently, illogically and unfairly as a means to slander unpopular groups.

It just seemed wrong to me that big religions called little religions “cults”, for example. It seemed especially unjustified when one considers that most of them were once condemned as cults until they grew to some degree of popularity.

Eventually, however, I came to dislike the name for a reason other than basic logic and fairness. The cult label too often acts as an obstacle before the learning of lessons when things turn bad for groups.

Imagining a separate and distinct beast called “cults” suggests that we don’t need to be on guard against any and all groups that exercise excessive control over members, are home to religious fanaticism and irrational belief and are led by the power-mad.

It is risky to believe that one only has to steer clear of “evil little cults” and it’s okay to let your guard down around all other groups and organizations.

Rarely if ever does one hear the Jonestown event described as a religious organisation led by a respected professional preacher who orchestrated the mass murder of more than 900 victims. But that is what it was, if you look at the facts.

“Groups of people do not commit suicide,” said Layton. “Children do not take their own lives. In Jonestown, 200 babies and children died first. Mothers were holding on to their babies. They had no idea what else to do. If someone has a gun on you and your family, you try to think like they do and figure out how you can escape. Those people at Jonestown did not commit suicide. They were coerced. They were frightened by guards with guns pointing at them. [. . . You think,] ‘OK, I’ll run into the forest. But wait, what if I get shot in the back and my baby will be pulled from my arms screaming and crying? Do I stay here and hold my baby? Do I give my child these last few moments with me holding him?’ So many chaotic thoughts go through your head that by the time you figure it out it’s too late.”

Layton’s view from the inside left no doubts in her mind that most people are vulnerable to becoming trapped by dangerous people and groups. The process of seduction and capture is deceptive. “One of the ways we do a real disservice to our kids is that when something like Jonestown happens we tell them that they were just a bunch of nuts. This sets up our children to one day be in a situation that is a little bit weird and think, ‘Oh, it can’t happen to me.’ Their antennas won’t be up. But if we tell our kids that this kind of thing can happen to the best of us then they will be aware.”

Layton’s comments are an important warning for everyone. If ever you find yourself seduced by a person or an organization that has all the answers, perhaps they only seem so impressive because you have failed to ask enough questions.

I hope that readers can see the wisdom in always maintaining awareness and caution, not only toward fringe groups viewed as weird, but also to powerful and popular organisations as well.

Some of the most popular and respected organisations in the world have controlled members excessively, exploited people, stolen, and even killed.

When it comes to risky allegiances it is not the cult label that matters; it’s the danger.