Book Talk: *A Thousand Lives*, by Julia Scheeres

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
Julia Scheeres
Free Press (2011), Hardcover, 320 pages (ISBN 1416596399 / 9781416596394)
Nonfiction/history, 320 pages
Source: ARC from publisher (published October 2011)
Reason for reading: personal

Opening lines (from the Introduction): “Had I walked by 1859 Geary Boulevard in San Francisco when Peoples Temple was in full swing, I certainly would have been drawn to the doorway…I would have been thrilled and amazed by Peoples Temple, a place where blacks and whites worshipped side by side, the preacher taught social justice instead of damnation, and the gospel choir transported the congregation to a loftier realm…Unfortunately, the laudable aspects of Peoples Temple have been forgotten in the horrifying wake of Jonestown.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: In 1954, a pastor named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. After Jones moved his church to Northern California in 1965, he became a major player in Northern California politics; he provided vital support in electing friendly political candidates to office, and they in turn offered him a protective shield that kept stories of abuse and fraud out of the papers. Even as Jones’ behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers found it increasingly difficult to pull away from the church. By the time Jones relocated the Peoples Temple a final time to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. Government decided to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late. 

The people who built Jonestown wanted to forge a better life for themselves and their children. They sought to create a truly egalitarian society. In South America, however, they found themselves trapped in Jonestown and cut off from the outside world as their leader goaded them toward committing “revolutionary suicide” and deprived them of food, sleep, and hope. Yet even as Jones resorted to lies and psychological warfare, Jonestown residents fought for their community, struggling to maintain their gardens, their school, their families, and their grip on reality.

Comments: I was a freshman at a Catholic high school in November 1978, when the news broke about the 900 deaths from poisoned Kool-Aid at Jonestown, Guyana; I think that was part of the reason why, at some point in each year’s required religion class, we had a discussion about the dangers of cults. I’m not sure there’s as much awareness of, or interest in, the topic these days; I’m not sure that a cult could actually operate the way Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple did any more. (It’s a lot harder to isolate a large group of people and hold their attention, for one thing.) But the story of Peoples Temple still warrants attention, and in A Thousand Lives, Julia Scheeres tells it with a degree of thoroughness and detail that it’s rarely been given before. Although most of the principals of Peoples Temple died with it and many of its own records were destroyed before they could be seized, she was granted unusual access to remaining documents and government files, and was able to conduct in-depth interviews with some survivors of the massacre.

Yes, Jonestown did have survivors, and not all of the Peoples Temple’s members were actually in Jonestown when Jones and his followers took (or, in some cases, were force-fed or injected with) cyanide-laced fruit punch. The fact that some followers–including over two hundred children–did not die by their own hand makes the term “massacre” more generally applicable to what happened than “mass suicide,” although “tragedy” certainly fits as well.

Scheeres digs into the background of Peoples Temple, revealing that the group was formed almost twenty years before its founder spearheaded its relocation to Central America. In its early years, first in the Midwest and then in Northern California, Jim Jones attracted followers though his charismatic preaching and won their personal loyalty with his church’s idealistic devotion to social justice and equality. But as the groundwork was laid for the move to Guyana, the driving force behind the group became more more political; Jones had become a true believer in socialism, and he and other Temple leaders kept members in line through fear and threats of government persecution. In its later years, Peoples Temple was a cult of personality and politics that had little to do with religion; as good socialists, members were expected to reject God and put their faith in Jim Jones. By the time that some of them understood just how misplaced that faith was, they’d given up all their personal possessions to follow a man with an increasingly paranoid and dangerous worldview, and were stranded thousands of miles from their original homes and worried families.

A Thousand Lives isn’t so much the story of Jim Jones himself; as the title implies, Scheeres filters that story through the perspectives of several Peoples Temple members–a pair of elderly African-American sisters, a former schoolteacher, a troubled young man from the Oakland ghetto, and a blue-collar father and his teenage son. These people are portrayed with great compassion, and vividly convey the complexity and confusion that riddled Jonestown. They may have been bit players in the overall narrative of Peoples Temple, but their stories are important, and they add depth and dimension to a history we may have thought we knew. Its ending may be well-known, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of this tragic tale; A Thousand Lives is a fascinating, and shattering, read.

Rating: 3.75/5

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