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Retiring a Catchphrase

A year or two ago, I started using the common catchphrase drank the Kool-Aid (link is temporarily down) when talking about something I'd totally bought into, like a particular product or band. Rather than getting drawn into an argument over why I liked a TV show's plotline that someone else thought dumb, for example, I'd just wave my hands: "What can I say? I drank the Kool-Aid for that show a long time ago."

Obviously, that's a reference to the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978 -- 25 years ago -- when over 900 cultists drank poisoned Fla-Vor-Aid willingly, were forced to drink, or were shot at the will of their spiritual leader, the "Reverend" Jim Jones.

On the drive home from work Monday, I heard an NPR interview with a survivor of the cult, Laura Kohl. It was the most difficult 10 minutes or so of radio that I've ever listened to as Kohl, prompted by an impassive Melissa Block, recalled the joy of their communal living, sobbed over the dead and her lost innocence, and wondered about her own culpability.

I remembered seeing the December 4 Newsweek cover story about the massacre. I was eight years old. The magazine was at my grandmother Mabel's house. I vaguely remembered some of the article's text. I remembered registering that the people in the cover image were not sleeping, but I still had enough of my innocence about me that I couldn't deeply, truly visualize what that photograph represented. If I had seen that another two or three years from then, I would have had nightmares.

25 years later, the horror of that old story -- one I hadn't really thought of in years, despite adding that catchphrase to my vernacular -- came home.

If we work hard at it -- really, really hard -- or maybe it doesn't take that much work at all -- we can lose our humanity. We can be reduced to automata. We can do unspeakable things, to ourselves and others.

I can't use that phrase again. It means too much.

Update: For more information about Jonestown, visit San Diego State University's online resource center. It includes a survivor's personal reaction to the catchphrase.


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Powerful entry, Chip. I'll be thinking about what you've written all day. Thanks for sharing it.

They had the adoped son, James Jones, Jr. on NBC this morning. A pretty stand-up guy who says he missed the spirit of the commune and was saddened by how it ended. What I also learned is that three NBC field crew were killed by the commune shortly before. That made it lose a lot more innocence for me as well.