A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres

Thursday, October 27, 2011


A Thousand Lives
There were worse punishments: when Tommy failed a class, Jones sentenced him to fifty whacks with the board of education, and Brian got fifty whacks for refusing to attend services in Los Angeles. It was humiliating, as a macho-posturing teenager, to be spanked in front of the entire congregation, to have a whimper of pain escape your mouth as a microphone was held to it.


In 1954, a pastor named Jim Jones opened a new church in Indianapolis called the Peoples Temple. Being charismatic and fully aware of how to influence people, he began preaching his idealistic beliefs and managed to quickly gather a good number of followers. Over the next twenty years, as the church moved from Indiana to California, and ultimately to its deathbed, Guyana, Jones would amass a huge number of followers, many willing to follow him to the ends of the earth, in the hopes of making the world take heed to their socialistic beliefs.  Their temple did make history in 1978, but for its role in the largest mass murder/suicide of Americans, when close to a thousand people either killed themselves or others, in answer to Jones request to commit 'revolutionary suicide'.

I had never known something this horrific had even happened. I ordinarily wouldn't have read this book because of its heavy leanings into religion, but the tragedy behind this book kept popping in my radar. If there's one thing I struggle to understand, its how people can stop trusting their instinct or listening to their inner person, and do something so outrageous as kill themselves. And this isn't one or two people we are talking about - the statistics are incredibly hard to believe. Moreover, this tragedy wasn't the result of a war or a religious faction taking control - instead these people had free will and the freedom to do as they wished. But, as Julia Scheeres shows in this book, A Thousand Lives, it's one thing for me to tell my friends that I'm not interested in joining them for something. It's a totally different thing and an impossibly hard one to walk out of a huge violence-capable mob, with your freedom and dreams intact. And that's why riots are hard to control.

A Thousand Lives chalks the intertwined histories of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones and many of its members. It is written based on the diaries, letters, and several tons of paperwork left behind by the people of Jonestown, recently declassified by the FBA. Some of these documents contain evocative dreams, hopes and wishes, while others are devoid of feeling and very robotic. From very early on, Jim Jones and his temple made for fascinating news material. Stuff about Jones' healings and miracles attracted people. These staged miracles did find him a lot of believers who couldn't wait for him to pull a magic trick on them and ease their sufferings. Jones also seemed to pull in more African Americans with his call for equal rights for all, at a time when America was going through an intense segregation period. And he even had some interesting but disgustingly cheap tactics to discourage people from leaving his temple. From the moment Jones had the eureka moment of taking his power a step beyond, his followers were doomed. And this was many years before the actual tragedy.

Scheeres shows how Jones started off as a perfectly reasonable, though idealistic person. It would be hard to refute his claims, especially by someone looking for some identity, something to belong to. His intentions were initially noble, he genuinely wanted to provide his people a place where they can all be equals and find in others a companion rather than an adversary. And despite what horror he cultivates in the end, it was hard not to see in him what people like to see in some leaders. But power is a dangerous thing in highly influential minds. And paranoia soon starts becoming him.

At the outset, the reader (at least me) doesn't know who manages to survive the tragedy. Although there is no single protagonist, some victims/survivors take the reins of the story occasionally. Some are highly religious people and have always been so, others are looking to find something to help overcome a recent tragedy in their lives, yet others are barely religious, but Jones' teachings made perfect sense to them and hence they decided to join the group. While most of the principal 'characters' in this book sounded sane to me, it is the ones who are always in the background but playing important roles in Jonestown that didn't sound so sane. Almost all the information on them are third-hand, which makes it hard to know exactly what they were thinking or why they felt compelled to partake in Jones' paranoia. Religion and socialism are the two major characters of this book, apart from the architect Jones himself. The author paints a clear picture of how even sane people like you and me ended up committing the unbelievable act.

Ultimately, I'm glad I read this book. Full suspension of belief in some religious people has always boggled my mind. Having been fiercely independent for most of my life, I find it hard to fathom someone else making a decision for me and deciding what I will do each day. There's usually a word for the kind of behavior described in this book - cult. The author makes it clear at the start that she wouldn't be using that word in the book, because it isn't the right word here. The book does justify her perspective (of course she wrote the book), and although I do think it's not too hard to write a story to make it look both cult-like and non-cult-like, I am inclined to agree with her here. There was nothing cultish in the behaviors of the people here, except for maybe their final action, which I'm still struggling to understand on so many levels.


I receive this book for free for review from the publisher, Free Press.


15 comments:

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I well remember the Jonestown Massacre, so I'm looking forward to reading this book.  It amazes me that people would follow him the way they did - he must have been extremely charismatic or a master of brainwashing.

Ti said...

I haven't read this book but the subject is fascinating isn't it? I, too, am very independent and have a hard time believing how some people feel comfortable handing their lives over to a religious leader, but it does happen. Happened to my sister, actually! She's no longer a part of that, but in what amounted to just a few months...she went from being a normal kid to a complete whack job. Scary!

Nina Happyendings said...

I remember seeing a interview with a survivor at Oprah. I was shocked that this happened and I had no idea. It's so weird that people trusted this one person and when he said it's time they all believed him. :( This book sounds very interesting, but I'm not sure if I want to read it. It just makes me mad and sad at the same time. Great review.

zibilee said...

I have this book, and have been really looking forward to reading it. I am also curious as to why it is not really right to call the group a cult, and am really interested in exploring what life was like for the followers of Jones. It's frightening that they all went that far for him, and I am eager to see what I make of this one for myself. Great and very thoughtful review, Aths!

Helen Murdoch said...

Oh I think cult is a perfectly fine word to use for the Jim Jones group. And, it just makes me so sad that leaders like him prey on people who need something in their lives and he promised it. And how it all ended with the Congressman, etc flying in is crazy, too. Such an interesting topic!

Bibliophilebythesea said...

I liked what you had to say about this one, but not sure it would be for me.

Sheila (Book Journey) said...

Wow.  This is not the book I was thinking of when I stopped to read the review.. but it is the book I am thinking of now.

Athira / Aths said...

He was both! When you read about what he did, you feel like shaking the people who fell for it, but I loved how the author really put the reader in the feet of the people. It wasn't hard to be enamored by Jones.

Athira / Aths said...

It is scary! One thing I have low tolerance for is this attitude - 'someone is doing it or someone told me to do it, so I am doing it'. It's really sad handing over your brain to someone else.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you read it, Heather. Can't wait to read your thoughts. It is definitely a thought-provoking book!

Athira / Aths said...

The ending absolutely blew my mind too. I still can't believe all that happened. The Congressman episode, the shooting, drinking the poison. It was more shocking than a fiction book.

Athira / Aths said...

I like that comment, Sheila! I hope you will choose to read it.

Athira / Aths said...

I was pretty shocked too! It was just so absurd and strange! I hope you get to read it!

ChewDigest said...

I have been saving commenting on this for a time when I had more, um, time. I am always intrigued by how people can suspend their disbelief with religion, not just cultish groups, so this is on my wish list. Wouldn't had even known about it without you mentioning it, so thanks!

Your comments about her coming from a place of non-cultish-ness perks my interest. (yes, I just made that word up) I find it really hard to believe that someone could not consider The People's Temple as anything other than a cult. Being skeptical about that idea makes me want to read it even more.  

Athira / Aths said...

I found that strange too. Although when I read the book, it didn't sound at all cultish, but then that could be the way the book was written. Still, quite a few people wanted out, and many knew that they could not escape because they didn't have any money, IDs, or belongings. I would call it part-cultish, I guess.