Friday, November 18, 2011

33 years later, it’s still inconceivable

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

On November 18, 1978, the day of the Jonestown massacre, I was nine years old.  I vaguely remember the news stories, but I’ve always wanted a more adult understanding of these inconceivable and tragic events.  I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction, but Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown seemed like exactly what I had been looking for.

The book takes its title from an eerie 1975 Jones quote, “I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me.”  And it delivers on what it promises in the title, starting with “hope.”  Scheeres describes Jones’s early life in Indiana, and the way he was drawn to the church from childhood.  By the time he was a teenager, he was preaching on street corners.  And he was preaching a fairly radical (for the times) message of inclusion, integration, and racial tolerance.  This was the philosophy on which he founded his first church in Indiana in 1954.  Reverend Jones’s attitudes about race were ahead of his time, and he quickly built up a devoted, multicultural flock.

Alas, it didn’t take long for “deception” to enter the picture.  Jones was a practitioner of faith healings.  While some may claim to have been genuinely helped by the man, his trickery in bringing about his so-called miracles is well established.  In addition to simple cons, Jones was a master manipulator.  He utilized all kind of tactics—from inducing paranoia to actually drugging people without their knowledge—all the while increasing his sway over his church-goers.  A few years after the Indiana church was established, he convinced a healthy percentage of them to pick up and relocate to rural Northern California to avoid a predicted nuclear explosion in Chicago.  The relocated People’s Temple thrived in Redwood Valley, California, before it eventually relocated yet again to San Francisco.

Scheeres reduces the epic tragedy to a human scale by introducing the reader to several individual church followers.  Dating all the way back to the Indiana church were sisters Hyacinth Thrash and Zipporah Edwards.  In Redwood Valley, grief led the entire Bogue family to the church.  In San Francisco, juvenile delinquent Stanley Clayton stayed on the straight and narrow because of the church community.  And Edith Roller, a well-educated, 61-year-old “opinionated loner” came to the church as an agent of social change.

Scheeres writes, “The world seemed to be imploding in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his message struck a nerve.  The headlines were saturated with death: Vietnam, nuclear war, murdered civil rights leaders, and student protestors.  Americans of every stripe were angry, insecure, afraid.  Gone was the Leave It to Beaver complacency.  The establishment fissured along with its enabler—mainstream religion—and people turned for solace to alternative sources of supposed wisdom, including gurus, spiritualism, astrology, and self-help.  The time was ripe for a self-appointed prophet like Jim Jones.”

Scheeres details the events that led inexorably to the Temple’s final move to Guyana and the shocking tragedy that occurred there.  She is assisted in this effort by new information in the form of thousands of pages of FBI documents that have recently been declassified.  The full perversity of what went on with Jones for years, and the crimes he perpetrated against his followers, is staggeringly difficult to believe: the sex, the drugs, the madness, and the abuse of power.  It’s a terrible, terrible story, and yet the book is a quick read—in part because the last 40-some pages of the book are made up of end-notes than can be easily skipped.

I think that Scheeres has done a reasonable job of relating the history in as impartial a manner as anyone could.  Following specific Temple members closely and watching their eventual fates unfold was an effective way to tell the story.  Where I felt let down was in trying to understand with any real depth the psychology of those involved.  I especially hungered for more information on what was going on inside Jones’s head, but that may be something we will never know. 

You couldn’t sell this story as fiction; it’s simply too unbelievable.  Looking back seems worthwhile, but in the end, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to have learned.

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