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.