Gripping and Insightful

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

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

This is about Jonestown, Jim Jones, and how he took almost a thousand lives. We remember it as a mass suicide, and the phrase "drinking the kool aid," has come to mean someone who mindlessly swallows lies and obeys because that's how the poison was administered. I think this is one of saddest stories I've read in a long time--and considering my recent reading has included tales of genocide and war--that's saying a lot. I think part of what I found so sad--the slaughtered children aside, hundreds of them--is this is a tale of people who willingly followed. These people didn't come to Jonestown in cattle cars they were shoved into at gunpoint--they came by plane and boats having handed over their lives to the People's Temple and Jim Jones in pursuit of an ideal.

Julia Scheeres tells the tale with a great deal of empathy. She grew up in a religious and interracial family, with an adopted black brother. She speaks in her introduction of how appealing she would have found the integrated People's Temple with its socially progressive ideals in its heyday--a place where she and her brother would have been welcome to worship side by side. She said in that introduction that she would not use the word "cult" unless quoting others--that she felt it blocked empathy and understanding. She focused in particular on five members who stood for and were typical of the whole--an elderly black woman Hyacinth Thrash; an elderly white woman, Edith Roller; a young black man, Stanley Clayton; Tommy Bogue, a white teen, and his father Jim. By focusing on them Scheeres makes clear what initially drew members in, the nightmare the settlement became even before the slaughter--and a personal dimension that makes these people to care about not dismiss as mindless zombies. When she focuses on the five, the narrative becomes novelistic, tells a story. But it also pulls back for a longer view that tells the story of Jim Jones and his inner circle. Scheeres was able to make use of a fairly recently released archive of records and documents the FBI recovered from Jonestown.

Certainly the book gave me aspects of the story that if not before "untold" at least were by me unappreciated. For one, Jones had long morphed out and away from Christianity--his devotion by the time the settlement was established was to communism--he called the mass slaughter "revolutionary suicide," a phrase he took (and distorted) from Black Panther Huey Newton. Jonestown itself comes across as a mixture of Soviet Gulag and Southern Slave Plantation. For another, this was more mass murder than mass suicide--and was meticulously planned and prepared for months--not something done out of panic after Congressman Ryan's assassination. So yes, I think this book well worth reading, both as a gripping account of a tragedy and an insightful portrait of a planned dream of utopia turning to ashes--even if the lessons I'd draw from it might be different than Scheeres--although to her credit I think she leaves such conclusions up to the reader.