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

Title: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
Author: Julia Scheeres
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Free Press
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher
First line: Had I walked by 1859 Geary Boulevard in San Francisco when Peoples Temple was in full swing, I certainly would have been drawn to the doorway.

On November 18, 1978, 918 people died in a settlement in Guyana known as Jonestown. The people were followers of cult leader Jim Jones, who they called Father. Because of the way they died, mass-suicide/murder by poisoned Kool-aid, the saying “drink the Kool-aid” has become synonymous with the idea of giving up your ability to think and reason for yourself, to direct your actions. But the story goes so far beyond that horrific night and the person of Jones himself, and that is the story that Julia Scheeres was interested in telling. Who were those 918 people? What in their histories and personalities made them attracted to Jones’ church in the first place, enough to be willing to turn over life savings, homes, and, ultimately, their very way of life, to follow him into the South American jungle?

I have not read Julia Scheere’s memoir, Jesus Land, but was immediately intrigued by the idea of a book about the people of Jonestown. I was amazed by how many misconceptions I had of the Jonestown massacre. As a person who prides herself on her ability to think and reason for herself, I admit to feeling a little bit of condescension toward the people who would follow a man like Jones. I also had little compassion for the people who died after giving the Kool-aid to their children.

However, Scheeres has taken these horrible events and unpacked the human element, telling the individual stories of the people who were drawn to Jones. Many of his followers were African-American, drawn to him for his message of racial equality and justice in a time when prejudice was still rampant in our country. Some were senior women, deceived by his claims of healing power. Others were drawn to his radical socialism, the idea of a utopian society where everyone lived in peace and harmony. Some of them were troubled youths who had been in trouble with the law, who found a sense of family at People’s Temple, often for the first time in their lives. She invoked in me huge compassion and pity for these people, for the way they were deceived and betrayed by someone who claimed to love them.

A Thousand Lives is not an easy reading experience. It exuded a sense of doom, because I already knew how things were going to end for these people whose stories I came to know. I do think it is an important book, especially since I have talked to several people since reading it whose knowledge or remembrance of the events are faulty, and who had no idea of how Jones controlled his followers with threats of violence and death.

On a side note, I read an ARC of A Thousand Lives, and it contained the most mistakes of an ARC I’ve ever read. There were missing words, words that didn’t make sense in context, misspellings, and poor punctuation. I hope they have a really good proofreader working on the final copy.

This entry was posted in non-fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

  1. bermudaonion (Kathy)
    Twitter: bermudaonion
    says:

    I remember the Jonestown Massacre but don’t know much beyond the basic details, so I look forward to reading this book.

  2. Vasilly
    Twitter: Vasilly
    says:

    I’ve seen ads for this book online but just reading the title turned me off a little bit to the story. I know a little bit about Jonestown because I watched a documentary of it before. After reading your amazing review of this, I’m definitely adding it to my tbr list. I hope the final copies are much better than the ARC was.

  3. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread
    says:

    I got this book at SIBA and I’m anxious to read it. I’ve always been intrigued with true crime books, because I like to understand how sociopaths operate. We’ll see how long it takes me to get to it!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Sandy – It was a very disturbing story – reminded me a bit of reading Columbine.

  4. Kailana says:

    I have heard about this event before and it always has horrified me a bit. It was a very tragic event and it is really something that continues to this day, but sometimes with different results. Ideas like cults have always freaked me out a bit because humans are often compared to sheep and that sort of optimizes the whole idea of that…

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kelly – yes – it is a really scary thing. I liked the way she showed how it wasn’t simply gullibility, though, that prompted these people to put their trust in him. It started with an ideology, and then was compounded by fear and threats and intimidation. So sad.

  5. Pingback: The Sunday Salon – October 2, 2011 (the “September reading wrap-up” edition) | BOOKS AND MOVIES

  6. Sherry Early says:

    I have read Jesus Land, and it was horrifying in its own way. Ms. Scheeres definitely had an ax to grind in that book, perhaps justifiably so, but it made wonder about her reliability as a narrator. I would like to read the Jonestown book, but I think I would have a certain amount of distrust in the back of my mind, taking into account the author and her prejudices. I don’t know. It would be interesting, and perhaps informative, to meet Ms. Scheeres someday.

    My thoughts on Jesus Land: http://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=1210

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Sherry – One thing that impressed me with this book is that she seemed to truly be seeking to understand the people. There were a few older women who had followed Jones to Guyana who had continued to hold on to their Christian faith, even having to hide their Bibles, because at that point he had thrown Christianity completely aside. (Long before that, actually.) The author spoke of those women and their faith and their prayers with complete respect. This book didn’t seem to be a condemnation of religion, but a condemnation of Jones himself, and the tactics he used to gain control over his people. I am very curious to read Jesus Land now!

  7. Amy
    Twitter: amymelniczenko
    says:

    I have this ARC sitting on my bedside table … thanks for the heads up on the mistakes!

    I read her Jesusland book so I’ll be interested to see how she does with something a bit less personal to her own life.

    Thanks for your review … now I think I may have to move this up in the list of books I need to get to soon!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Amy – I got an e-mail from the publisher assuring me that it had been copyedited very well for the final copy. :) Hope you get a chance to read it!

  8. Anna says:

    I’ve seen documentaries about Jonestown. So sad. This sounds really interesting.

  9. Florinda
    Twitter: florinda_3rs
    says:

    I just finished reading this–I got the ARC months ago, but didn’t get to it until a few months after the book was out (nothing unusual for me!)–and you’re not kidding about the errors. I’m really glad to know that it was all cleaned up for the final copy! It’s a riveting story, and deserves to be read without the distraction of grammar and punctuation mistakes.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Florinda – yes, it definitely does! Glad you were as engrossed as I was. :)

  10. I’m currently reading an ARC of this book and all the grammatical errors are killing me! Glad I saw someone else make mention of it. I know that’s part of reading ARCs, but they are usually much further along in the editing process it seems. Great book so far, though.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      A Bookshelf Monstrosity – It is a great book, well worth getting past the errors. :)