A Thousand Lives

Julia Scheeres came to write A Thousand Lives (Available from Simon & Schuster in October 2011, or pre-order now) the same way many authors come to write their best books – that is, by accident.

Julia had already written a remarkable memoir, Jesus Land, detailing her own journey through a religious rehabilitation camp in the Dominican Republic.

After Jesus Land made it out into the world, Julia felt compelled to write again, this time a work of fiction. She had it in mind to write a novel featuring a charismatic preacher based in Indiana. She planned to model her character on the Reverend Jim Jones.

As she began her research she discovered that the FBI had recently released 50,000 pages of documents that were found in Jonestown after the massacre. Delving in she read diaries, transcripts of audio tapes, and of Jim Jones addressing his congregation. A book began to form.

As Jonestown survivors heard that another book was being written, but this time by someone who had, herself, been through a similar experience, someone who would not write them off as crazies, kooks and gullible idiots, they began to come forward and agreed to be interviewed.

What started as a fictional novel quickly became one of the most detailed, human, factual accounts of the Jim Jones ministry – The Peoples Temple.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown starts at the beginning. We learn about Jones’ upbringing, his early aspirations toward being a preacher and we watch his ascent to power.

Through the eyes of not only the survivors of the Jonestown Massacre, but also those who partook of the kool-aid but who kept personal records prior to their deaths, we learn what drew people in to Jones’ ministry.

Jones had a mixed race congregation before such things were done. He opened the doors to his church as the government was just beginning to force desegregation on the south. He performed miracles, healings, and called his flock a family. He promised his congregation that any who followed him would not go homeless, hungry, jobless, or without health care. And he kept those promises.

As his congregation swelled and their unwavering belief in him and his powers grew he began to close ranks.

As his congregation reached two thousand members Jones began to close services to outsiders. He began to instill fear into his followers. Fear of the US government, fear of the media, fear of anyone who was not already part of his fold. Any setback to his plans was shown as proof of a conspiracy to shut down his vision – their vision.

Until, the only answer was to leave the country.

Guyana offered the Peoples Temple nearly 4,000 acres to homestead and farm. Jones began shipping off his followers. He already had a policy of separating families within the communal living structure of the church, but now he could send husbands and wives of doubters to Guyana to keep them in line.

As the camp was built more and more people arrived. But the rainforest is not as fertile as all that life would have us believe, and the garden Jones’ followers planted didn’t do well. Nor did the animals they brought down to raise and butcher.

Disease and hunger were constants in Jonestown. But once you were there, there was no escape. Jones held onto every member’s passport. And they had all signed over all their property and money to the church long ago. If they did manage to flee, they would do so penniless and ostracized from their friends and families who didn’t understand why they had followed Jones in the first place.

Julia Scheeres writes a compelling narrative of the Peoples Temple. She never once uses the term cult. Writing from the perspective of his followers – even those who saw his descent into madness and recognized it for what it was – she paints Jones and his Temple with a human touch previously unseen.

For the first time we see that the people who drank the Kool-Aid, by and large did so from a sense of overwhelming despair, fear and powerlessness. Not from a sense of joyous “revolutionary suicide” as Jones wished us to believe.

If I have any complaint about this book it is the organization. Julia’s chapters are thematic, rather than chronological. And for much of the book this works and even makes sense. However at times it was hard for my brain to backtrack in time and still follow the story forward.

All in all, this is a great read for anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into the, dare I say it, logic of a cult. Yes, there is a logic there; there is sense, and order. In the aftermath of a mass murder/suicide like that at Jonestown which took the lives of nearly a thousand people, over 300 of them children, it is easy for those of us on the outside to point fingers, blame madness, even blame the victims for their gullibility.

What Julia shows us in A Thousand Lives is that, as with most things, it isn’t so black and white. Jones began his career as a generous, magnanimous man. He had a vision for a better world and he brought his followers into it with him. As time, power, and chronic drug abuse, clouded his vision he began a descent into Hell. By then it was too late for many of his followers. They had bought into the dream, and now they were trapped in its nightmare.

 

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