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