Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana. The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. However, that belief is full of inaccuracies. Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana. Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink. In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain. I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review). When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.
Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts. Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen. Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals. The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in. The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones. The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes. They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies. Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction. Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas. And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.
There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable. Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god. When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in. Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members. He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of the People’s Temple. He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it. He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it. The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs. Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave. And many wanted to. Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide. Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison. Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid. It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.
Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction. Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment. A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over. Highly recommended.
5 out of 5 stars