Sunday, October 9, 2011
A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
“I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me.” —Jim Jones, September 6, 1975
In 1954, a pastor named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. After Jones moved his church to Northern California in 1965, he became a major player in Northern California politics; he provided vital support in electing friendly political candidates to office, and they in turn offered him a protective shield that kept stories of abuse and fraud out of the papers. Even as Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers found it increasingly difficult to pull away from the church. By the time Jones relocated the Peoples Temple a final time to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. Government decided to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late.
A Thousand Lives follows the experiences of five Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown: a middle-class English teacher from Colorado, an elderly African American woman raised in Jim Crow Alabama, a troubled young black man from Oakland, and a working-class father and his teenage son. These people joined Jones’s church for vastly different reasons. Some, such as eighteen-year-old Stanley Clayton, appreciated Jones’s message of racial equality and empowering the dispossessed. Others, like Hyacinth Thrash and her sister Zipporah, were dazzled by his claims of being a faith healer—Hyacinth believed Jones had healed a cancerous tumor in her breast. Edith Roller, a well-educated white progressive, joined Peoples Temple because she wanted to help the less fortunate. Tommy Bogue, a teen, hated Jones’s church, but was forced to attend services—and move to Jonestown—because his parents were members.
The people who built Jonestown wanted to forge a better life for themselves and their children. They sought to create a truly egalitarian society. In South America, however, they found themselves trapped in Jonestown and cut off from the outside world as their leader goaded them toward committing “revolutionary suicide” and deprived them of food, sleep, and hope. Yet even as Jones resorted to lies and psychological warfare, Jonestown residents fought for their community, struggling to maintain their gardens, their school, their families, and their grip on reality.
Working from recently released documents and tapes seized in Guyana after the mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Scheeres has created a moving account of the People's Temple by focusing on several individuals who followed Jim Jones (some to their deaths). Scheeres treats this tragedy with acute sensitivity and a remarkable lack of judgmental rhetoric. She clearly spells out how Jim Jones initially drew people to his church and how his message shifted over the years from one of openness and integration to one of megalomania and paranoia. Scheeres also reveals a disturbing lack of action on the part of both the US and Guyanese governments whose dismissive attitude towards Jones' public threats of "revolutionary suicide" helped set the scene for his final solution.
As the narrative wound toward its tragic conclusion, Scheeres did a wonderful job of showing how Jones worked his followers, using drugs, violence, and starvation to keep them compliant and apathetic to his discussions of mass suicide. Scheeres' research makes it clear that Jones had a long range plan to kill all his followers and that he used drugs, threats, and both physical and psychological torture (beatings, sensory deprivation boxes, sleep deprivation, and a constant barrage of Jones' rantings broadcast day and night) to desensitize his followers to that danger. Ultimately, Scheeres did a wonderful job of placing the blame on Jones and on the upper levels of the People's Temple leadership, those who saw Jones unraveling and yet either did nothing or actively abetted his insanity. Using their own words (from interviews with survivors and from journals recovered from Guyana), Scheeres portrays the hundreds who dies in Jonestown as victims, horribly betrayed by a man who, through deception on every level, had gradually taken over every aspect of their lives.