Tuesday, November 21, 2006
New documentary explores Jonestown mass suicide
Twenty-eight years later, what's left to say about Jonestown? Nine hundred members of a religious cult followed their fanatical leader to Guyana and willingly committed suicide by drinking a Kool-Aid-like mixture laced with cyanide.

What more could there be to the story? Plenty, it turns out.

I watched an advance copy of the new documentary, "Jonestown," by filmmaker Stanley Nelson on Sunday, and found myself drawn deeply into a macabre tale that I had little prior knowledge of.

Nelson interviewed more than two dozen former members of Jim Jones' controversial Peoples Temple, including some who survived the Jonestown mass suicide -- which, by the way, looks more like mass murder now. And Nelson has unearthed dramatic video and sound recordings -- never seen or heard before that shed new light on the establishment, development and downfall of the Peoples Temple, right up until the moment Jim Jones passes out the cups.

The most chilling part of the film is the audio tape of Jones urging his followers to choose death over persecution. I heard, for the first time, the emotionally-pitched debate between Jones and parishioners who would rather live than die in the South American jungle. It was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now, only this time, the killing was real.

I also learned that Jim Jones didn't suddenly take a hard left onto the highway of darkness. He was deeply disturbed from childhood, and is even suspected of abusing animals, something many experts believe is a hallmark of an emerging psychopath.

What's most tragic though is that Jones' followers don't come off as a cult of religious deviants. They were -- for the most part -- earnest people, attracted to the Peoples Temple for the sense of community they couldn't find in their own lives. It gave them a feeling of belonging, though as the years wore on and Jones' insanity escalated, membership came at an ever-increasing, and in the end, ultimate price.

We'll take a look at this tragic story on tonight's program.

Movie Web site: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Posted By John Roberts, CNN Senior Correspondent: 5:05 PM ET
  28 Comments
Although the movie left me with a few questions that weren't completely satisfied, I have to say it was very powerful and I recommend people to go see it. As for the suicide and cult following, aren't all religions full of people in search of answers they can't get too easily from rational thought? Think of all the crazy death and violence caused or fueled by ridiculous belief in the unproven.
Posted By Anonymous Bob, San Francisco, CA. : 5:26 PM ET
That film looks so compelling and I think the younger generation, myself included, should be aware of such stories especially since there are prevalent links to similar occurrances today--both in related and unrelated scenarios.
Cult followings are so intriguing and bizarre and are probably incredibly calculated which, I believe, is one of the main reasons to see a film like "Jonestown." It's so sick that so many people died in such a manner. I am curious to see what else will be covered on the program and how the film will turn out.
Posted By Anonymous Aruna Rao, Minneapolis, MN : 5:50 PM ET
Hi John~
This story is mystifying. Jim Jones' prsonality is erie, dark, and intriquing. I know from my work with children and animals that children who abuse animals send a red flag that they have some extreme mental issues. Intervention is extremely vital. Wanting to inflict injury or death or enjoying another living being's suffering is not normal to say the least. It is still so difficult to believe that 900 people would drink kool~aid laced with cyanide. I find it amazing how many people can not think for themselves and are so weak that they are ready to follow anyone at any cost. It is so perplexing that anyone would want to be mind controled. We have seen this personality type before in David Koresh, Warren Jeffs,and even Hitler. I look forward to the report on tonight's 360~ SCARY STUFF!!!
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann, Nacogdoches TX : 6:02 PM ET
I can not wait to see the story about the documentary. It is quite interesting to learn that the parishoners of the Peoples Church were earnest people. I always thought of them as "out there."

What an interesting topic to explore, I will be watching tonight to learn more.
Posted By Anonymous Sylvie Grace, Atlanta, Georgia : 6:16 PM ET
Jim Jones is a metaphor for the United States and her desire to impose "democrazy" on the rest of the world. If you don't immediately understand what I mean, just take a moment to ponder it. The U.S. has enough poison of various kinds to kill the world several times over, but it's not called "madness," nor is her desire to impose her will on the world through intimidation and bribery.

How is it that the world's policeman can also be the number one exporter of weapons of violence to the nations? "Madness" is relative. Like beauty, evil is in the eyes of the beholder.
Posted By Anonymous Don, Myrtle Beach, SC : 7:06 PM ET
I am barely old enough to remember this story when it happened - I have vague memories of seeing bodies side by side,dead, and empty cups laying alongside the bodies. It's something I never really wondered about - at the age of six I had more important things in my little universe to wonder about - and even though the phrase "don't drink the Kool-Aid" has become a part of our pop culture, I still didn't give it much thought. But now that I'm such an "old lady," I am curious about what transpired all those years ago and what could cause so many to die this way - were they blind followers - or not? Thanks for bringing this story back to our attention!

(PS - Glad you made it back safely from Iraq!)
Posted By Anonymous Joan, Lansing, MI : 7:29 PM ET
Mass suicide or murder, cults, demented leaders...if we don't learn from history, who's to say it can't happen again? We live in a world where many are searching for any connection to others. It is terrifying, but people lonely enough and empty enough could fall for something so tragic again. This story needs to be revisited so we don't forget the lessons of this event and learn to prevent them from occurring once more. I remember how sad I felt as a child watching this with my parents and having them explain how deep mental illness can become to take that many lives. As an adult working in the mental health field, I look forward to watching the new perspectives on this story and seeing what else can be learned.
Posted By Anonymous TA Cheramie, Berwick, LA : 7:30 PM ET
As a small child, I remember watching a TV movie called "The Guyana Tragedy." It was my first introduction to the dangers of religious fanaticism. It doesn't surprise me that some people advocate abolishing all forms of religion altogether. When you think about the extremism that exists in the world today, I'm starting to think this is not a bad idea. Thanks for the blog, John. I look forward to the show tonight.
Posted By Anonymous Lilibeth, Edmonds, WA : 8:17 PM ET
John: This documentary will be eerie but interesting to see. Perhaps we will finally be able to understand how so many people could be influenced by such a weirdo. Kind of reminds me of Warren Jeffs. Looking forward to tonight's show.
Posted By Anonymous Jolene, St. Joseph, MI : 8:31 PM ET
We should all learn the lesson that Jonestown has taught us. The moral injustice of taking advantage of underprivelidged and impoverished peoples still happens wether it be in Utah or on the street corners where illegal migrant workers are hired. How far will we let ourselves sink into the abyss before we take heed to this type of abuse. I consider this not only abuse, but in severe cases like Jonestown...intentional murder.
Posted By Anonymous Joe White, Madison WI : 10:24 PM ET
Hi John - I just watched the piece on the Jonestown tragedy and it brought back some sad recollections. I remember quite vividly when news of the tragedy hit the airwaves back in '78, although I was only 8 years old at the time. I still recall the images of bodies piled up everywhere, children also in the mix. They were forever forged into my memory.

People everywhere are searching for acceptance and connection. This is largely the responsibility of the church - to reach out to those in need and share the love of Christ. Sadly, the church has not always done a great job in living up to its mandate from Christ to be salt and light (see Matthew 5:13-16). Unfortunately, there are extremists like Jim Jones (and Warren Jeffs, and David Koresh, etc.) who start so-called "churches" where people are initially accepted and find purpose and belonging. But only after they are "in" do the true colors show; members are forced to comply with the rules and are forbidden to leave the group.

The Christian church, as established in the book of Acts, actually had some similar characteristics as these cult groups (minus poisonous Kool-Aid and maniacal dictators) such as: community, the provision of needs for one another, serving each other in brotherly love. But the important distinction which is in stark contrast to these cults is that the Christian church is established by God, who gives us all the free will to choose. We can either accept Him or reject Him, the choice is ours. No one is forced to stay in the church against his or her will.

Christianity is based on a relationship with Christ, not bondage to a set of rules (religion, in other words). I just hope that people don't look at this tragedy and then close the door on God based on the extreme actions of some misguided folks.
Posted By Anonymous Kim, Greensboro, NC : 11:30 PM ET
Back in 1978/9 I was tutoring a neighborhood friend math. One day he started talking about his Mom wanting for him to join a church. His Mom loved the church and the minister. But my friend did not trust him at all. He told me that this dude would cure people but it was all staged. "How?" i asked. He said one time he got caught up back stage and saw another guy walking around who got into a wheel-chair and then during a ceremony 'miraculously' became cured.
As weeks of tutoring passed, there were similar stories of so-called healings. It was not until quite some months later that we discovered it was Jim Jones and the Peoples' Temple! (We called it Jim Jones and the Temple of Doom).
Posted By Anonymous Joel R Fischer / Portsmouth VA : 10:58 AM ET
Thank you for writing about this film. Because I knew one of those who died in Jonestown, I plan to see it. She was an older girl, my best friend's sister, when I was a kid. She was always intelligent and kind, and her death was a shock. To understand something like Jonestown at all, I think we have to understand and see these followers as individuals, look past our notions of what "cultists" are. I pray this film will help that way, and I pray that it may help in healing those who survive.
Posted By Anonymous L.S. Williams, Bloomington, IN : 11:30 AM ET
Regarding some responses to the Guyana tragedy, it amazes me when I read that some people advocate "abolishing religion". You can't abolish religion without abolishing belief. Too bad we can't abolish ignorance.
Posted By Anonymous Darrell, Caledonia, IL : 11:32 AM ET
For many years people have called it suicide when it was in fact mostly murder. My father in law-the, late Guyanese forensic pathologist Dr. Leslie Mootoo was one of the first on the scene at Jonestown. He performed numerous autopises including those on Congressman Ryan and Jones himself. His records and testimony clearly indicates cases of murder. For example, many vicitms had needle marks from injected cyanide between their shoulder blades. Others died of bullet wounds. Also the number of dead children. A three year old child does not conscientously commit suicide.
Posted By Anonymous Ron Kozich, New York, New York : 11:54 AM ET
I,ve seen a picture of a sign a woman was holding, written on that sign was "I believe in Jim Jones". Now, that just tells me everything. Taking your life is evil there is no good or trust there. Believe in God and all things shall evolve in your life willingly. God Bless Everyone.
Posted By Anonymous Michelle Gabriela, California : 12:27 PM ET
I was very young when the Jonestown tragedy ocurred. At the time I was living in Dover, Delaware and I can still recall disturbing images of hundreds of metal caskets piled high at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary. I've never fully understood how something like this could have happened. What motivated these poor people to take their own lives? Perhaps this new documentary will help answer these questions.
Posted By Anonymous Jim, Alexandria, Virginia : 12:40 PM ET
I am so glad that folks like DON and LILLIBETH are looking out for me, why yes, lets ban religion!!! Since I cant think for myself and neither can all of the other poor slobs who are religious and not as smart as LILLIBETH, and DON, you anti american little sheep....which means you are a liberal.....dont worry...us wolves will always be there to take care of you despite your ignorant world view...
Posted By Anonymous John, US Navt, Rota Spain : 2:13 PM ET
I find it interesting that there are people who think that the Peoples Temple is a cult yet their Christian (or other denomination) church is not. They are all based on the same principles - fear and brain washing to control the congregation. My boss is a Christian and told me that if I do not believe, I will go to hell therefore I should believe (nice fear tactic). In other words, if a serial killer believes in God, according to her, that person will go to heaven but I as a non-believer would go to hell. It's amazing what people will believe and will do all in the name of God
Posted By Anonymous Missy, Los Angeles, CA : 2:34 PM ET
When people are lonely or incomplete they will turn to the closest source of comfort. That's the way it is with all people. That's why kids join gangs. That's why people will do anything to be accepted. Religion isn't the problem. It's where that religion comes from. Only true, honest faith in God can bring you the comfort and love you desire. God doesn't tell people to kill themselves. God tells people to love and accept all others. Everything has its evil duplicate. What can be used for good can be used just as easily for bad. Belonging is good. Religion is good. God is good. Yet if you belong to the wrong group you'll do wrong things, like the Nazis. Religion can be corrupted to only benefit the leader or a certain group of people, like holy war. God can be turned into an evil being who likes to see us suffer or into a being who requires us to follow blindly. Faith isn't blind. Faith should let you see more clearly. Jim Jones required blind faith in him, not God. That's the way socialism and communism work. They seem so good on the surface but it isn't until you actually become involved that you see the evil in them. People who truly follow God and live His laws are not crazy. Not all people who join cults do so becuase they are crazy. They are lonely and found their belonging in the wrong place. They are looking for something to fill their lives but they aren't sure what. They find it in the wrong place. I feel for the people who went to Jim Jones looking for something higher and were instead given the worst this world has to give. Jim Jones is evil. God is not. God bless these people and their families.
Posted By Anonymous Melissa, Portland, OR : 5:49 PM ET
hey John,
I'm glad you guys covered the story last night. It brought back many memories for my mother, who's from Rose Hall, Guyana. She said that it is seen as another stain on the country, who has had it fair share of issues despite it's beauty. It's all very sad because a large number of those people, his desciples, went to Guyana out of the goodness of their hearts, however misguided, and were trying their best to be productive and contribute to bettering the area. Family friends recall a ghoulish feeling in the air, unable to comprehend how this could take place in the blink of an eye. My mother gets angry when people automatically associate her home with this attrocity, as do I. It's a beautiful country and its people aren't happy about being connected to such a sad day in history. Guyana could use more people who want to get involed in building up its infrastructure and communities. Since this sad, sad event the turnout hasn't been all that stellar. This film may bring some attention to the country and hopefully offer some answers to the the dozens of questions that surround the infamous story.
Posted By Anonymous Sarah Anne, Toronto, ON, Canada : 7:03 PM ET
So, according to a previous post, being open-minded and questioning absurd and dangerous beliefs makes one "anti American" and, ha ha, a "sheep"? There's a lot of unintended irony in these postings. Thanks to the 360 blog crew for allowing our opinions. Happy Thanksgiving!
Posted By Anonymous Bob, San Francisco, CA : 8:51 PM ET
I can't help but think to myself that these types of cult gathering and suicides are still happening all around the world. They just aren't happening in the sense that Jonestown happened. If you think about it, similar causes are going on with fundamentalist Islamic groups. Suicides for a cause. The majority of terrorist recruits are also lost young souls who can't seem to find a comfortable life, so they turn to radical religious extremism. Isn't Osama bin Laden brain washing these youths to commit suicide the same way Jim Jones persuaded his followers to take their own lives - thinking that they would be spared from persecution or some other imposing force?
Posted By Anonymous Emily N, San Diego, CA : 1:08 AM ET
I studied Jonestown when I was in college, and what I had discovered made it all the more disturbing. You are right, it is more like mass-murder than suicide. Many of the kids showed signs of struggle where they fought against it. Those who didn't take the kool-aid either escaped into the jungle, or were gunned down where they stood.

My greatest fear is that we could have another Jonestown. And it is very possible that it could happen in the United States.

I think Susan B. Anthony said it best. "I look askance upon those who claim to know the will of God, for all too often, their will matches God's." The point is that I think many preachers are confused. They confuse their desires and will for God's.

And sometimes, a lot of innocent people get killed as a result.
Posted By Anonymous Rodney. Buckhannon. WV : 10:59 AM ET
Amazing what people will believe and will do in the name of their god? Like kill themselves and hundreds of others by flying a large airplane into a building? One need only look to the Middle East and countries like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to see what happens when you do not separate church and state.

And there were other brainwashing cults in recent history here, too. Wasn't there a bunch of wackos that killed themselves awhile back because they thought they were going to go for a ride on a comet?
Posted By Anonymous Bill W, Coatesville, PA : 7:38 AM ET
This is a tragedy. No one should lose sight of this. To use the deaths of so many to further your own political point is an insult to their memories. Perceived attacks on the Christian faith, as John so wonderfully demonstrated, are what cause such extremism. Reactions are always violent. Jonestown is an example we must strive to stop before history repeats itself. If one is an extremiss for hoping to stop the mass suicide of hundreds of people, and a mindless anti-American sheep for wanting to save lives, then I'm glad to call myself anti-American.

I just wonder why so many self-named conservatives are on this website. If they obviously will never agree with the opinions on CNN, do they really need to be so rude as to sit their typing away insults? Trolls...
Posted By Anonymous Bekah, Coral Gables, Fl : 11:15 AM ET
I was just a 18 year old Airman Basic, not yet out of training, when news of the Guyana Tragedy hit. I was days away from an plumb assignment at Wright-Patterson A.F.B. when I was reassigned to Dover A.F.B. to assist in the recovery efforts.

Thankfully, the details of my involvement have largely faded over the years, but the smell (they lied rotting in the jungle for a week before being recovered) coming from the metal coffins as we stacked them (even though we wore two masks), the image of an arm falling to the floor as it was placed on a table for dental identification and the emotional fallout and devestating effect it had on many of the other airman who were involved leaves me thankful for the friendship and support of those I was lucky enough to have served with/under during this emotionally trying time. I am ashamed to admit that I have totally forgotten your names and that our effort and sacrifice in bringing these American's home are wholly ignored, but you know who you are and I hope that your kindness to me was rewarded in some way later in life. To those not as fortunate to have had a support system as stong as myself, I hope you have been able to reconcile your emotional injuries and found a way to lead a meaningful life. God bless you and God bless America.
Posted By Anonymous Mark M., Corpus Christi, Texas : 5:51 PM ET
What part did the corrupt politicians in Guyana played in aiding and facilitating Jim Jones in his madness and who may have benefitted from all this mayhem .
Posted By Anonymous Winston Barrow , Stamford , CT : 7:35 AM ET
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