Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at JonestownA Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

They left America for the jungles of Guyana to start a better life. Yet what started as a Utopian dream soon devolved into a terrifying work camp run by a madman, ending in the mass murder-suicide of 914 members in November 1978.

In Don’t Tell Them They’re Dying, the New York Times bestselling memoirist Julia Scheeres traces the fates of five individuals who followed Jim Jones to South America as they struggled to first build their paradise, and then survive it. Each went for different reasons—some were drawn to Jones for his progressive attitudes towards racial equality, others were dazzled by his claims to be a faith healer. But once in Guyana, Jones’s drug addiction, mental decay, and sexual depredations quickly eroded the idealistic community.
For this groundbreaking book, Scheeres examined more than 50,000 pages of newly released documents that the FBI collected from the camp after the massacre—including diaries, crop reports, and letters that were never sent home—as well as hundreds of audiotapes of Jones addressing his group.

Scheeres’s own experience at a religious boot camp in the Dominican Republic, detailed in her unforgettable debut memoir Jesus Land, gives her unique insight into this chilling tale. Haunting and vividly written, Don’t Tell Them They’re Dying is a story of blind loyalty and daring escapes, of corrupted ideals and senseless, searing loss.

My take: The Jonestown tragedy happened the week of my 13th birthday. At the time I remember the nation being stunned and the news stations reporting the details as they came available but the impact on an adolescent girl was less than cosmic. As I finished this book as a much older person I had a much different experience.

Combing threw tens of thousands of documents released to the public and also from tapes already public, the author pieced together Jim Jones' troubled childhood, his conversion to Evangelism, then his meteoric rise as a charismatic and powerful leader. It is riveting, horrifying, and deeply troubling to read the pages of this history.

A sociologist at heart, I remember taking a class during my undergraduate work on cults. A movie had been made of the Jonestown massacre and the death tape was played. As the cyanide laced punch was brought out, I had a presentation to make in another building. I was relieved. This time I stayed until the bitter end of the book and I am absolutely and utterly floored by my own reaction of horror and deep sadness. No review of this book can possibly do justice to the facts which the author objectively provides. Although some conjecture is provided as well regarding the very end.

What is most striking is that it appears that Jones was much more focused on the power he could wield rather than the message. He was narcissistic above all else. His paranoia appeared as he became more powerful and he blatantly controlled his followers through carefully constructed lies and media outlets. He was violently angry when something slipped his control. The mass suicide was the ultimate act of control rather than his stated goal of dying for the beliefs of the Temple. He controlled through fear.

Also troubling is the length of Jones' arm in the political arena. He and his followers were largely responsible for the success in election polls for many politicians in San Francisco at that time which reeks of corruption as he was paid back in kind with favors and appointments of his own. His power is further amplified in Guyana and the American embassy and consulate.

I realize this is a much more serious review than I usually give but I am still reeling and off-center. I am also sadly coming to terms with the lexicon, "Don't drink the Kool-Aide" which is in reference to Jonestown. I never want to hear that phrase again.

"Jonestown has become a grim metaphor for blind obedience—for fanaticism without regard to consequences. In the aptly titled A Thousand Lives, Julia Scheeres captures the humanity within this terrible story, vividly depicting individuals trapped in a vortex of hope and fear, faith and loss of faith, not to mention the changes sweeping America in the 1960s and '70s. She makes their journeys to that unfathomable tragedy all too real; what was truly incredible, she shows, was the escape from death by a tiny handful of survivors. Drawing on a mountain of sources compiled and recently released by the FBI, she changes forever the way we think about this dark chapter of our history." —T.J. Stiles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

“I thought I knew the story of Jonestown, but in reading A Thousand Lives discovered that much of what I'd read and heard was pure myth. Through meticulous research, beautiful writing and great compassion, Scheeres presents an engrossing account of how Jim Jones' followers--eager parishioners who yearned for a more purposeful life and were willing to work for it--found themselves trapped in a nightmare of unfathomable proportions. This book serves as testimony to the seductiveness of religious fervor, and how in the wrong hands it can be used to nefarious ends. It is also a poignant and unforgettable tribute to those who lost their lives and to those few who survived.” -- Allison Hoover Bartlett, author of the bestselling The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

"For those who can picture only the gory end of Jonestown, Julia Scheeres offers a heartbreaking and often inspiring glimpse of what might have been. Her masterfully told and exhaustively researched A Thousand Lives should stand not only as the definitive word on Jones’ horrific machinations, but on the utopian dreams of a bygone generation. A worthy follow-up to her superb memoir, Jesus Land." --Tom Barbash, author of On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal

Product Description

“I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me.”  —Jim Jones, September 6, 1975
  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’s 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.

A Thousand Lives follows the experiences of five Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown: a middle-class English teacher from Colorado, an elderly African American woman raised in Jim Crow Alabama, a troubled young black man from Oakland, and a working-class father and his teenage son. These people joined Jones’s church for vastly different reasons. Some, such as eighteen-year-old Stanley Clayton, appreciated Jones’s message of racial equality and empowering the dispossessed. Others, like Hyacinth Thrash and her sister Zipporah, were dazzled by his claims of being a faith healer—Hyacinth believed Jones had healed a cancerous tumor in her breast. Edith Roller, a well-educated white progressive, joined Peoples Temple because she wanted to help the less fortunate. Tommy Bogue, a teen, hated Jones’s church, but was forced to attend services—and move to Jonestown—because his parents were members.

A Thousand Lives is the story of Jonestown as it has never been told before. New York Times bestselling author Julia Scheeres drew from thousands of recently declassified FBI documents and audiotapes, as well as rare videos and interviews, to piece together an unprecedented and compelling history of the doomed camp, focusing on the people who lived there. Her own experiences at an oppressive reform school in the Dominican Republic, detailed in her unforgettable debut memoir Jesus Land, gave her unusual insight into this story.

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.

Vividly written and impossible to forget, A Thousand Lives is a story of blind loyalty and daring escapes, of corrupted ideals and senseless, haunting loss.

1 comment:

Kim said...

You know how some parents get a newspaper the day a baby is born, to save with all the other mementos?

Jonestown hit the news the day my daughter Erin was born. No paper for her.

I can't imagine blind obedience like that, not for any man - but I understand the yearning for that kind of spiritual guidance.