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

Review

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

It was the largest loss of American civilian lives prior to September 11, 2001. Its prelude was ugly and sinister, its aftermath horrifying and humiliating, so that few people born later than 1975 even know about it. But for those who were of an age to hear about it at the time (November 1978), the Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide --- or mass murder, as it more properly has been called --- remains one of the most shocking events of the 20th century.

 
"Julia Scheeres has created the most complete account to date of the rise, reign, death and downfall of the man whom many considered to be a kind of god."
Using recently released documents from FBI files and achieving rapport with some of the survivors because of a similar experience of her own (see her debut memoir, JESUS LAND), Julia Scheeres has created the most complete account to date of the rise, reign, death and downfall of the man whom many considered to be a kind of god.
 
Jim Jones was an apparently ordinary boy who grew up in Indiana and had early aspirations to be a preacher in the Pentecostal mold. Starting on street corners, he exhorted the dispossessed to love their neighbors and urged racial equality in an era (the 1950s) when that was not a popular message. Poor African Americans readily accepted Jones’s ministry, many believing he had charismatic powers, but poor whites and some political radicals were also drawn to his agenda of true racial mixing and communal sharing. All were undoubtedly mesmerized by his theatrical antics, so that the more extreme he became (using four-letter words in his sermons; having congregation members, including children, brutally beaten in public for minor infractions; forcing church members to sign bogus confessions of illegal activities “for future reference”; and having sex with both male and female followers), the more they clung in faith to the man they called “Father.”
 
By the time Jones had amassed a large following, he no longer pretended to be a Christian. His preaching centered on quasi-socialism (as he continued to grow a personal fortune of millions) and paranoia (the threat of the American government’s zeal to destroy Jones’s gentle flock was a persistent theme). Gradually the charlatan, criminal, drug addict, sadist and madman Jones began to introduce to his church the fantasy of death as the only true revolutionary action --- the “great orgasm,” as he called it.
 
After the publication of a magazine article exposing some of the more blatant abuses of the church, Jones harried his flock out of the US to the jungles of Guyana, seducing them with staged photographs of an earthly paradise. Once they got there, some one thousand seniors, parents and children learned that this supposed Eden was hell on earth. These gullible “pioneers,” who had given Jones all of their possessions, were nearly starved, suffering every sort of disease common to hot, damp climates. They were forced to sleep in crowded dorms, share primitive toilet and bathing facilities, and often were kept awake all night by Jones yelling at them through a loudspeaker about their sins, about the evil American government hounding them, and about the desirability of death (often accompanied with exercises in which they were made to consume drinks that they were told were laced with poison).
 
The climax came after Jones dispatched guards to shoot Congressman Leo Ryan and his staff, who had come to Guyana to investigate the compound and to take back to the US anyone who wanted to go. Berating those still in the compound, convincing them that now there was “no hope” anyway, Jones inveigled more than 900 people to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. Only a handful of terrified but determined souls escaped into the jungle. Particularly poignant is Scheeres’s account of 80-something Hyacinth, who survived by hiding under her bed when Jones called for suicide that night, though she lost her dear sister Zipporah, who put on a bright red sweater and went out to die. But Scheeres makes it clear that the victims of Jonestown were not, as the current expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” erroneously implies, mere pawns. Many wanted to live, even though life in the “church” at Jonestown was wretched, depressing and frightening.
 
This is not a bedtime story, I must warn you. Read it in the light of day with all your loves and comforts around you. And remember how little love and comfort the followers of Jim Jones enjoyed, once he had his icy grip upon them.
 

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on October 13, 2011

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