I was born in 1983 and therefore, did not know much about the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1977 prior to reading A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres. Drawn in by my preference for true accounts, I was at once fascinated by the history of the Peoples’ Temple and horrified at the inevitable disaster; I could not stay away from this book.
Jim Jones was attracted to organized religion from a young age and found acceptance there that he lacked elsewhere in his life. He began preaching early on – on street corners to whomever would listen – and eventually opened his own church in Indiana. People flocked to Jones’ charisma, perceived healing powers and message of equility that rang true with many African Americans in the 1960’s.
Jones’ popularity grew as did church attendance, and he later moved most of his congregation to Redwood, California and then San Francisco. Jones’ still preached equality and acceptance, interweaving his own socialistic ideals. However, his charisma was increasingly buyoed by his drug use, making him more and more paranoid and critical of his followers perceived faults.
While in San Francisco, Jones began encouraging communal living and shared resources; many of his followers were required to sell of their belongings and surrender their earnings. Concocting conspiracy theories – and maybe believing them himself – Jones rented land in the South American country of Guyana and began the process of moving his congregation to the middle of the jungle. Some went willingly, others were not given a choice; Jones separated families, violated custody agreements and brought many children to the newly named Jonestown under the guise of taking them on short trips – few ever came back.
As more members of the Peoples’ Temple arrived in Jonestown, the conditions continued to worsen. There was never enough food, every moment was tracked by Jones or his cronies, and people were subjected to long days of hard labor as well as cruel punishments for any small slights. While some still believed in their leader, others simply stayed quiet; some tried – many unsuccessfully – to escape. Jones, always under the influence of one drug or another, ruled with terror, fabricating stories of American conspiracies against Jonestown.
While some members still dreamed of better days at Jonestown, Jones had only one goal in mind: to go down in history as a revolutionary who died along with thousands of his followers. On November 18, 1997, he carried his dream to fruition when Jonestown became the site of the murder-suicide of 909 people. Surrounded by armed guards, people drank Kool-Aid mixed with deadly cianide; some were forcibly injected. A third of those who died that day were children, many under the age of 10.
Julia Scheeres’ account of the Jonestown massacre is based on a mixture of tapes retrieved from Jonestown, members’ diaries, articles, etc. And yet, A Thousand Lives reads as one fluid piece and as well written fiction that is sadly the grimm reality of recent past. Prior to reading the book, I could not imagine how anyone could force nearly a 1000 people to commit suicide, unless they were willing participants. After learning about the individual members of the Peoples’ Temple and the control Jones exuded over his followers, I can understand how most of them so no other option.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Free Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.