A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

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by Julia Scheeres
     
 

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In 1954, a past or 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. As Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers leaned on each

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Overview

In 1954, a past or 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. As Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers leaned on each other to recapture the sense of equality that had drawn them to his church. But even as the congregation thrived, Jones made it increasingly difficult for members to leave. By the time Jones moved his congregation to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. government began to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late.

A Thousand Lives is the story of Jonestown as it has never been told. New York Times bestselling author Julia Scheeres drew from tens of thousands of recently declassified FBI documents and audiotapes, as well as rare videos and interviews, to piece together an unprecedented and compelling history of the doomed camp, focusing on the people who lived there.

The people who built Jonestown wanted to forge a better life for themselves and their children. 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. Vividly written and impossible to forget, A Thousand Lives is a story of blind loyalty and daring escapes, of corrupted ideals and senseless, haunting loss.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Riveting...You will not be able to look away. " —The San Francisco Chronicle

"Julia Scheeres's book sheds startling new light on this murky, mini-chapter of contemporary history....the narrative is [a] compelling...psychological mystery." —The Wall Street Journal

"Chilling and heart-wrenching, this is a brilliant testament to Jones's victims, so many of whom were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time." —Publisher's Weekly, starred review

"Jonestown has become a grim metaphor for blind obedience—for fanaticism without regard to consequences. In the aptly titled A Thousand Lives, Julia Scheeres captures the humanity within this terrible story, vividly depicting individuals trapped in a vortex of hope and fear, faith and loss of faith, not to mention the changes sweeping America in the 1960s and '70s. She makes their journeys to that unfathomable tragedy all too real; what was truly incredible, she shows, was the escape from death by a tiny handful of survivors. Drawing on a mountain of sources compiled and recently released by the FBI, she changes forever the way we think about this dark chapter of our history." T.J. Stiles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

"Scheeres shows great compassion and journalistic skill in reconstructing Jonestown’s last months and the lives of many Temple members (including a few survivors)...[A Thousand Lives is a] well-written, disturbing tale of faith and evil." —Kirkus

"For those who can picture only the gory end of Jonestown, Julia Scheeres offers a heartbreaking and often inspiring glimpse of what might have been. Her masterfully told and exhaustively researched A Thousand Lives should stand not only as the definitive word on Jones’ horrific machinations, but on the utopian dreams of a bygone generation. A worthy follow-up to her superb memoir, Jesus Land." —Tom Barbash, author of On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal

"How do you tell a new story about Jim Jones and his followers, when everyone knows how it ends? ...Julia Scheeres’ riveting A Thousand Lives gives us reason to look again. " —Miami Herald

“The definitive book on Jonestown and the Danse Macabre of suicide and murder orchestrated by mad Jim Jones. Julia Scheeres takes us by the hand and leads us gently, inexorably, into the darkness.” –Tim Cahill, author of Lost in My Own Backyard

"Julia Scheeres' A Thousand Lives... tells the tragic tale of Jonestown — in its way, a peculiarly American apocalypse." —L.A. Times

"The first solid history of the Temple...less a warning about the dangers of religosity than a clear headed chronology." —San Francisco magazine

Alan Riding
Over the past three decades, the massacre has been explored in numerous books and even several television documentaries. Yet the story does bear retelling, not least for those too young to recall the shock that swept the world at the time, but also because Scheeres adds insights harvested from some 50,000 pages of letters, journals and other documents found in Jonestown and recently released by the F.B.I. The result is a gripping account of how decent people can be taken in by a charismatic and crazed tyrant.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

While researching a novel set in a cult environment, Scheeres (Jesus Land) discovered the 50,000 pages of documents released by the FBI about the mass-murder suicide at Jonestown. She decided to change her project, and the result is this detailed, haunting account of the zealous young preacher from Indiana who convinced 1,000 people to move to a farm in Guyana and sacrifice their lives according to his vision. As Scheeres writes, Jim Jones "painted himself as modern Moses who would save his people...by leading them to the promised land of Jonestown." The book maintains some novelistic features, particularly excellent character development, as seen in the vividly described, though still elusive Jones. Jonestown residents like Tommy Bogue, a rebellious teenager frequently a victim of Jones' ire, and Edith Roller, passionate socialist and Jonestown chronicler, are among the good people caught up in Jones's twisted vision. Scheeres quotes heavily from the 45-minute recording Jones made while instructing his people to drink poison, and the final pages follow up with some of the survivors. Chilling and heart-wrenching, this is a brilliant testament to Jones's victims, so many of whom were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
Scheeres (Jesus Land: A Memoir) revisits the massacre at Jonestown on its 33rd anniversary. In November 1978, nearly 1000 bodies were found in an open field in a compound in Guyana, victims of a religious fanatic-turned-mass murderer who had forced them to drink poisoned Flavor Aid. They were members of the Peoples Temple, a supposedly peaceful, self-sufficient community run by Jim Jones, a former activist for integration and the temple's charismatic founder. As conditions in Guyana worsened, cult members' families in California asked Sen. Leo Ryan to visit the community; he arrived just before the massacre and was murdered by Jones's henchmen. Scheeres interviewed some of the few survivors not in the group that eventful morning. Her book is made up of their stories: how they were taken in by Jones only to be betrayed. VERDICT An evenhanded journalistic account of what happened, this should appeal to anyone who remembers Jonestown or is curious about it. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/25/11.]—Frances Sandiford, formerly with Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY
Kirkus Reviews
Haunting account of the Peoples Temple, focusing on Jim Jones' many victims. Scheeres (Jesus Land: A Memoir, 2005) notes that her personal experience at a Christian reform school made her empathetic to the luckless individuals who died at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, since derided as cultists or worse: "My aim here is to help readers understand the reasons that people were drawn to Jim Jones and his church." Accomplishing this goal with crisp prose and impressive research, she delivers a sort of '70s social thriller with the weight of onrushing tragedy. Scheeres dove into 50,000 pages of FBI documents, released to little fanfare, including diaries of true believers and reams of bizarre correspondence between Jones and his inner circle, proving that he was considering ways to kill his followers for years prior to the mass-murder suicide. Jones' early years remain confounding: He began preaching as a Pentecostal in Indiana in the 1950s, fighting for integration long before it was considered safe to do so. His apparent passion for social justice in these early years won him a devoted, largely African-American congregation. Upon moving to California in the late '60s, Jones cultivated ties to the state's power structure, which gave political cover to his increasingly wealthy and secretive church. "In the early days," write Scheeres, "there was a real sense of camaraderie in Jonestown"--but this changed after Jones arrived there permanently in 1977. By then, Jones had rejected most elements of mainstream Christianity in favor of something much darker; he'd become obsessed with "revolutionary suicide," a concept advanced by Huey Newton, which Jones deliberately misinterpreted. Scheeres shows great compassion and journalistic skill in reconstructing Jonestown's last months and the lives of many Temple members (including a few survivors), showing the documents archived by the FBI "tell a nightmarish tale of…idealists who realized, too late, that they were trapped." Well-written, disturbing tale of faith and evil.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416596400
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
11/13/2012
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
376,715
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

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.

I grew up in a conservative Christian family with an adopted black brother; race and religion were the dominant themes of my childhood. In our small Indiana town, David and I often felt self-conscious walking down the street together. Strangers scowled at us, and sometimes called us names. I wrote about the challenges of our relationship in my memoir, Jesus Land.

Suffice it to say, David and I would have been thrilled and amazed by Peoples Temple, a church where blacks and whites worshipped side by side, the preacher taught social justice instead of damnation, and the gospel choir transported the congregation to a loftier realm. We longed for such a place.

Unfortunately, the laudable aspects of Peoples Temple have been forgotten in the horrifying wake of Jonestown.

I stumbled onto writing this book by accident. I was writing a satirical novel about a charismatic preacher who takes over a fictional Indiana town, when I remembered Jim Jones was from Indiana, and Googled him. I learned that the FBI had released fifty thousand pages of documents, including diaries, meeting notes, and crop reports, as well as one thousand audiotapes that agents found in Jonestown after the massacre, and that no one had used this material to write a comprehensive history of the doomed community. Once I started digging through the files, I couldn’t tear myself away.

It was easy to set my novel aside. I believe that true stories are more powerful, in a meaningful, existential way, than made-up ones. Learning about other people’s lives somehow puts one’s own life in sharper relief.

Aside from race and religion, there were other elements of the Peoples Temple story that resonated with me. When David and I were teenagers, our parents sent us to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic that had some uncanny parallels with Jonestown. I could empathize with the residents’ sense of isolation and desperation.

You won’t find the word cult in this book, unless I’m directly citing a source that uses the word. My aim here is to help readers understand the reasons that people were drawn to Jim Jones and his church, and how so many of them ended up dying in a mass-murder suicide on November 18, 1978. The word cult only discourages intellectual curiosity and empathy. As one survivor told me, nobody joins a cult.

To date, the Jonestown canon has veered between sensational media accounts and narrow academic studies. In this book, I endeavor to tell the Jonestown story on a grander, more human, scale.

Julia ScheeresBerkeley, California, March 24, 2011

© 2011 Julia Scheeres

CHAPTER 1 AN ADVENTURE

The journey up the coastline was choppy, the shrimp trawler too far out to get a good look at the muddy shore. While other passengers rested fitfully in sleeping bags spread out on the deck or in the berths below, fifteen-year-old Tommy Bogue gripped the slick railing, bracing himself against the waves. He’d already puked twice, but was determined not to miss a beat of this adventure. The constellations soared overhead, clearer than he’d ever seen them. He wiped salt spray from his eyes with an impatient hand and squinted at the horizon. He was still boy enough to imagine a pirate galleon looming toward them, the Jolly Roger flapping in the Caribbean breeze.

This was his first sea journey. His first trip outside the United States. He squinted at South America as it blurred by, vague and mysterious, imagining the creatures that roamed there. A few years earlier, he’d devoured DC Comics’ Bomba, The Jungle Boy series, and now imagined himself the hero of his own drama.

The very name of his destination was exotic: Guyana. None of his school friends had ever heard of it, nor had he before his church established an agricultural mission there. After his pastor made the announcement, Tommy read and reread the Guyana entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica until he could spout Guyanese trivia to anyone who showed the slightest interest in what the lanky, bushy-haired teen had to say. Aboard the Cudjoe, he ticked off this book knowledge to himself. Jaguars. Howler monkeys. One of the world’s largest snakes, the green anaconda, growing up to twenty feet long and reaching 350 pounds. The country was home to several of the world’s largest beasts: the giant anteater, the giant sea otter, the giant armadillo, the fifteen-foot black caiman. He knew a few things about the strangeness surrounding him, and those few things comforted him.

The plane ride from San Francisco to Georgetown had been another first for Tommy. He sat next to another teenager from his church, Vincent Lopez, and the two boys took turns gaping out the small convex window as they soared over the Sierra Nevada, the Great Plains, the farm belt—the entire breadth of America. The cement mass of New York City astounded him; skyscrapers bristled toward every horizon. At JFK International Airport, Pastor Jones, who was going down to visit the mission himself, kept a tight hand on the boys as he herded them toward their connecting flight.

Everything about Tommy Bogue was average—his height, his build, his grades—except for his penchant for trouble. His parents couldn’t control him. Neither could the church elders. He hated the long meetings the congregation was required to attend, and was always sneaking off to smoke weed or wander the tough streets of the Fillmore District. Ditching church became a game, one he was severely punished for, but which proved irresistible.

They’d only told him two days ago that he was being sent to the mission field. His head was still spinning with the quickness of it all. The counselors told him he should feel honored to be chosen, but he was wise to them. He overheard people talking about manual labor, separation from negative peers, isolation, culture shock: All these things were supposed to be good for him. He knew he was being sent away, but at least he’d get out of the never-ending meetings, and more important, he’d see his father, for the first time in two years.

His dad left for Guyana in 1974, one of the pioneers. He’d called home a few times over the mission’s ham radio, and in brief, static-filled reports, he sounded proud of what the settlers had accomplished: clearing the bush by hand, planting crops, building cottages. Tommy was eager to see it himself.

Finally, as the sun blazed hot and high overhead, the Cudjoe shifted into low gear and swung toward land. The other church members crowded Tommy as the boat nosed up a muddy river, the wake lifting the skirts of the mangroves as it passed. In the high canopy, color flashed: parrots, orchids, bromeliads.

The travelers slipped back in time, passing thatched huts stilted on the river banks and Amerindians, who eyed them warily from dug-out canoes. This was their territory. Late in the afternoon, the passengers arrived at a village named Port Kaituma and excitement rippled through them. The deck hands tied the Cudjoe to a pole in the water and Tommy helped unload cargo up the steep embankment. Pastor Jones, who’d spent most of the trip secluded in the deck house, welcomed them to the village as if he owned it. There wasn’t much to it beyond a few stalls selling produce and secondhand clothes. As he spoke, Tommy listened attentively along with the others; Guyana was a fresh start for him, and he planned to stay out of trouble. Jones told the small group that the locals were grateful for the church’s assistance—the mission’s farm would put food on their tables.

After a short delay, a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer motored up and the newcomers climbed aboard with their gear. The tractor slipped and lurched down the pitted road to the mission, and the passengers grabbed the high sides and joked as if they were on a hayride. All were in good spirits.

At some point, Tommy noticed the squalor: the collapsing shanties, the naked brown kids with weird sores and swollen bellies, the dead dogs rotting where they fell. The trenches of scummy water. The stench. The mosquitoes whining in his ears. The landscape didn’t jibe with the slide shows Pastor Jones had shown at church, which made Guyana look like a lush resort.

Tommy didn’t point out these aberrations, but turned to listen to Pastor Jones, who raised his voice above the tractor’s thrumming diesel engine. He was boasting, again, about how everything thrived at the mission. About the ice cream tree, whose fruit tasted like vanilla ice cream. About the protective aura surrounding the Church’s property: There was no sickness there, no malaria or typhoid, no snakes or jungle cats ventured onto it. Not one mishap whatsoever. The adults nodded and smiled as they listened. Tommy turned toward the jungle again. The bush was so dense he couldn’t see but a yard in before it fell away into darkness.

The tractor veered down a narrow road and passed through a tight stand of trees. The canopy rose two hundred feet above them. The light dimmed as they drove through this tree tunnel, as if they’d entered a candle-lit hallway and someone was blowing out the candles one by one. The air was so still it bordered on stagnant. Tommy glanced behind them at the receding brightness, then ahead, to where his father waited.

They drove into a large clearing. Here were a few rustic buildings, and beyond them, rows and rows of plants. A dozen or so settlers stood along the entry road, and the two groups shouted joyfully to each other. Tommy didn’t immediately see his dad. He was disappointed, but unsurprised; his old man was probably nose to the grindstone, as always. He lifted his duffle bag onto his shoulder and jumped onto the red earth, happy to have arrived, at long last, in Jonestown.

© 2011 Julia Scheeres

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