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

August 20, 2012

Take one of the buses east from downtown Oakland, out along MacArthur Boulevard past my house, and stay on until the end of the line. There you’ll find Evergreen Cemetery. On the day after Independence Day, I drove out there with my daughter. I put her in my backpack carrier and traipsed around a bit until I found what I was looking for.

I’d just finished A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown. In May of 2011, amid a storm of controversy, Evergreen unveiled a memorial with plaques containing the names of the 918 victims of the Jonestown massacre, including 409 unclaimed victims whose remains rest in the cemetery. The memorial sits on a hill under a shaded tree, overlooking the Eastmont Mall and the bay to the south.

What’s most controversial about the memorial is that the plaque includes Jim Jones, the leader of the People’s Temple and the architect of the massive murder/suicide that took place in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. To the families and friends of the victims, including Jones is like including the names of the terrorists on the 9/11 memorial.

I knew very little about Jonestown beyond the “drink the Kool-Aid” phrase that has embedded itself in pop culture. What made me most interested in this book was the simple question: “How?” It’s what most people ask when they hear about Jonestown—how could so many people be “brainwashed” to such a degree that they’d voluntarily kill themselves? How could one man have that kind of power over so many?

Armed with thousands of recently released FBI documents, Julia Scheeres recreates the events in a handful of lives that intertwined at Jonestown. She avoids psychoanalysis and never mentions cult mentality. In fact, Scheeres states upfront that she has specifically avoided using the word “cult,” a word that carries so much baggage and tends to lead to prejudgment. Rather, she tells the factual, human narrative of Jonestown; if you want to psychoanalyze, you can do that based on the story as it happened.

James Warren Jones was born in Indiana in 1931. As a teenager with a gift for oration, he took to street preaching and quickly gained a following. In the mid 1950s, he opened the People’s Temple Christian Church Full Gospel in Indianapolis. What made Jones stand out, aside from his natural talent, was his message of social justice and equality. In an era of unapologetic systematic discrimination, Jones was a staunch integrationist. His church drew a mixed congregation of progressives and African Americans happy to finally be welcomed with open arms. Jones also adopted several mixed-raced children and referred to both his family and his church as his “rainbow family.” A decade later, however, he tested the loyalty of his flock by claiming foreknowledge of a nuclear holocaust and moving the congregation across the country to Ukiah, north of San Francisco. Many of his followers literally followed him.

In Ukiah, the People’s Temple flourished. It attracted the disenfranchised, the poor, lost souls, recovering addicts, former criminals and idealists searching for the ideal. Jones’ message became increasingly socialistic. He criticized the government, conventional religion and the values of the broader society. His congregation began to believe that they were solitary in their righteousness, an island of truth. He also began to speak of himself as savior, going so far as to staging miracles during his religious services. Simultaneously, Jones drummed up a paranoia that their time was limited and the government would eventually come for them. Although he wasn’t speaking of it openly yet, he was sewing the seeds for his most infamous act—his “revolutionary suicide.”

With his congregation under his spell, Jones began to build a settlement in the tropical jungles of Guyana, a small South American country. He promised it would be Utopia. The People’s Temple Agricultural Project, nicknamed Jonestown, was hard work for those who arrived first, but they came with optimistic hearts and built the settlement up for the full congregation. Those who arrived later found slightly better conditions, but far from ideal. It was hot, overcrowded, with shortages of food (not to mention other common comforts of American life). And they soon discovered that life in Jonestown came with a peculiar set of laws, including corporal punishment for anyone who disobeyed.

Jones treated his congregation to hours of sermonizing daily, which he did over the PA system from the air-conditioned comfort of his private cabin, often heavily medicated. Although Jonestown had a strict anti-drug policy for the congregants, Jones himself had a growing addiction. Jones determined who would marry whom. Although there was a strict law against sex outside of marriage, Jones had sexual relationships with both men and women. He spoke of these openly, rationalizing that he was performing the duties of a leader. In one case, he fathered a child with a married congregant.

Jones also stepped up his program of paranoia. One of his more duplicitous tactics was to instruct his men to go into the jungle and fire their guns, simulating an attack. He then ordered everyone else to flee the settlement. Several times, the settlers lay in the jungle for hours on end, believe their homes were under siege. He also held what he called “White Nights,” during which Temple members would act out his plan for revolutionary suicide, sometimes drinking what they had been told was poison as a test of their loyalty. Some of the settlers were in it for good, buying into Jones and his message, but very few still clung to their hopes that everything would turn around. Many were simple prisoners. This was no Utopia.

In November of 1978, after friends of Jonestown residents raised concerns back in the States, California Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown with a crew of reporters to investigate claims of Human Rights abuse. It didn’t take long for the façade of a happy, peaceful commune to fall away. Church members began asking Ryan to take them with him.  As Ryan made plans to help, he was attacked by a knife-wielding Temple member. The attack was thwarted, but it caused a quick departure by Ryan’s party. Then, as they boarded their plane at the landing strip, members of Jones’ security detail pulled up and opened fire on the group, killing Ryan and four others.

When word reached Jonestown, the members of the Temple were told that this was their final moment—no government would let this slide. They gathered in the pavilion where they listened to Jones one last time. The children were the first to be murdered. 303 children were killed, some by their parents, by way of injection. Members of the congregation who tried to flee or refused were forcibly injected or shot. One by one, members stumbled out of the pavilion and collapsed on the lawn in convulsions, some lying down to die in groups with friends or families. By the time it was over, 918 people, including Jim Jones, lay dead.

Jones’ final sermon was captured on a 45-minute tape, which he apparently edited on the fly. It’s an incredibly difficult listen. Jones sounds heavily medicated as he slurs his last rambling sermon. But what’s most disturbing is the distinct transition from the beginning of the tape, where crying children are audible in the background, to later when it’s just Jones and a small group of followers. It’s hard to understand how anyone can succumb to the call of such a madman. But, standing over the marble plaques at Evergreen Cemetery with my one-year-old daughter, it was unfathomable how any person could willingly take the life of their own child.

One could lay out a spectrum of evil at Jonestown. On one end would be Jim Jones. If Jones actually believed he were some kind of messiah, if he truly were insane, he would be slightly less despicable. But he was a fraud, a charlatan, a hypocrite. He willfully misled those who put their trust in him. And along with him, hopefully receiving their due punishment in hell if it exists, are the parents who killed their own children. Then the mindless followers, who simply did what they were told. Then the naïve, those who were possibly crazy themselves, those who were duped, trapped by their own hopes until it was too late. Finally, the least culpable and the true victims, the innocent children.

Was it evil? Was it madness? The spirit of the ’60s gone awry? A glitch in the human brain? Sheeres brings a wealth of new information to the Jonestown story. But more importantly, she traces the stories of a handful of individuals who lived (and some died) at Jonestown. These were people from different backgrounds, with different stories, all seeking their own version of a better life. For many of them, the Temple at first provided what it promised—a stable, supportive community that believed in equality and idealism. It’s difficult to draw an overarching conclusion from what happened in Guyana. And more than anything, this is what Sheeres brings to the story: It isn’t the story of one cult, one group of people who collectively went insane. It is the story of nearly a thousand individuals, one thousand lives, differing, varied, unique, who found an end in Jonestown.

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