The Jonestown Massacre is More Than a Punchline About "Drinking the Kool-aid"

Kitanya Harrison
9 min readFeb 24
Photograph of Jim Jones

Trying to Understand the Ritual Human Sacrifice at Pathways Ministries in Albion, Jamaica (Part 4)

Trigger warnings: murder, suicide, sexual assault

I started this series on cults in an attempt to understand how the pastor of Pathways Ministries in Albion, Jamaica convinced two of his members to murder others. From the start, I knew I would do a deep dive into the Jonestown Massacre. The murders and suicides of over 900 members of the Peoples Temple was a flashpoint in the popular culture recognition and discussion of cults, and I had the same set of question about Jonestown as I did about Pathways: How on earth had things gotten to that point? What were the red flags? Why didn’t anyone stop it? Could anyone have stopped it? As I began my initial research on Jonestown, the same book kept being recommended: Tim Reiterman’s biography of Jim Jones, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. The book is very long (nearly 600 pages) and intensively researched. The level of detail is staggering and revealing. Anyone who wants a close look at who starts a cult, how they create and build one, and how the leader gains such a high degree of control should read this book.

Reiterman’s story begins in Jones’s early childhood, and the evidence that something wasn’t quite right showed up early in strange behavior that included locking his peers up in a barn and shooting at a friend. His penchant for control and violence was masked by his victims choosing (perhaps wisely) to remain silent. Jones’s parents weren’t religious, but he began attending a Pentecostal church with a neighbor and was soon one of those precocious child preachers some exalt ("a child shall lead them") and others find creepy. Jones grew into a bright, intelligent and well-spoken child and adolescent, but he was odd – simultaneously too mature and not enough. He had better luck developing relationships with adults than his peers. At 17, Jones married a nurse in her mid-twenties named Marceline, whom he soon came to dominate, control and physically abuse. Marceline’s parents were wary of Jones and raised their concerns about the marriage. Their doubts were ignored. This was and remained something of a…

Kitanya Harrison

*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: | Rep: Deirdre Mullane