Saturday, September 17, 2011
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
Posted by Kurt
Like many people born in 1980 or later, I grew up with a vague notion of Jonestown as a weird town in a jungle where a bunch of people in a cult drank poison Kool-Aid and died. I use the term “drink the Kool-Aid” when I refer to someone completely buying in to an idea or a cause. But until I read this book, I never really knew what Jonestown was all about.
Scheeres provides a service in this book, both as a skillful historian and as a compassionate human being. She synthesizes hours of audio recordings and written documents into a gut-wrenching tragedy that will linger with the reader. The true strength of her work is the constant tension between the hope of the individual characters and the inevitable doom that presses down on every page. Scheeres truly loves the victims of the massacre, and she is clearly determined to present them in sympathetic ways, sharing stories of simple people who came to Peoples Temple because it offered real racial integration, miraculous healings, and loving community. They believed in a socialism that affirmed the value of every human being, and they were willing to sign away all of their possessions for the cause.
As the group developed, though, things got darker, and Scheeres brings in an impressive level of detail in her examples. She writes about demonstrably fake “healings” and sham “assassination attempts” that Jones fabricated to make his followers feel persecuted by outsiders. There are heart-dropping scenes when church members are forced to sign blank pieces of paper, knowing that if they desert their communities, then the church leaders will type confessions (to murder, child molestation, or any other crimes) and deliver them to authorities. Jones also twists the spiritual bases of his organization when he literally stomps on Bibles onstage and declares himself God.
By the time the community moves to a compound in Guyana, Scheeres has found a comfortable rhythm, increasing the tension like a horror movie as the inevitable massacre swirls in a tightening band around the village. Jones reads about “revolutionary suicide” and completely misinterprets the term, missing the idea of “making progress for a revolutionary cause, even though it results in your death” and creating a moronic “kill yourself and leave a mean note” kind of definition. He insists that his community is being hunted by outsiders because of their commitment to socialism, while he predictably lounges in an air-conditioned drug-induced haze as his people sweat and starve. His obsession with death strangles his people, as their objections are worn down by hunger, fear, isolation, sleeplessness, and dehumanizing punishments for disloyalty.
Around this point in the narrative, the reader will surely have noticed that most of Scheeres’ tale is based on facts from official documents and recordings. Scheeres only presents a few point-of-view characters to share their observations of daily life. While this focus seems troubling at first, the reader will come to realize that the main characters are so few because everyone else is going to die a horrible death in the jungle. It is a terrifying experience, and the narrative thunders toward its macabre conclusion with an intense power.
This book is a complex treasure, a road to hell paved with unapologetically noble intentions, and Scheeres has accomplished a great feat with it. She never loses her grasp of the humanity of her characters in the pursuit of her plot to its inevitable bloody conclusion. She will break your heart in the end, but only because she has worked so hard to win your heart in the first place.