LIT "As one survivor told me," author Julia Scheeres writes in her introduction to A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (Free Press, 320 pp., $26), "nobody joins a cult."
I remembered this refrain, possibly spoken by the same survivor, from Stanley Nelson's 2006 Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Recent works like Nelson's film and Scheeres' book suggest perceptions about Jonestown are shifting away from sensationalism. The broad strokes are well-known: a charismatic, maniacal preacher; a jungle settlement; over 900 people dead, including a Congressman; a vat of poisoned punch. But the story — explored in A Thousand Lives as a deeply disturbing human tragedy on a nearly unthinkable scale — neither starts nor ends there.
Scheeres, who keeps an office in the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, pored through recently-released FBI files while researching A Thousand Lives. "The FBI released its files on three CDs, without a real index. So a letter that started on CD one, page 20, could end on CD three, page 350," she remembers. "Organizing the material — 50,000 pages of documents — a lot of it was really boring shipping manifests. Crop reports. But then, oh, hey! Here's a memo from the camp doctor discussing with [Jim] Jones how they're gonna kill everyone." Building from this material, the book focuses on five Peoples Temple members and views the experience of Jonestown through their eyes.
"[I chose my subjects] based on whether they were still alive, and I was able to interview them at length, or whether they had left a lot of primary source documents behind," she says. "I also wanted to talk about the different demographics of the church, so you have old, young, black, white. A woman who has an MFA from San Francisco State, and a young black man with a GED from Oakland."
Though A Thousand Lives does offer some background on Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones, "I wanted to know what it was like to be a rank-and-file member of the church," Scheeres says. She uncovered powerful evidence that Jonestown was not a mass suicide, as the unfortunate phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" suggests. Instead, she says, "it was a mass murder."
As suggested by that sinister memo from the camp doctor, A Thousand Lives' most startling revelation is that Jones had been fixated on killing his followers long before the events of November 18, 1978. According to Scheeres, he considered loading his congregation onto buses and plunging them off the Golden Gate Bridge, or onto a plane "and having someone shoot the pilot." (Eerily, he even sent one of his followers to flight school in preparation.)
Soon, though, he was consumed by the idea of Jonestown: "a new society in the middle of the virgin jungle, a utopia that would be free of sexism, racism, elitism, and all other evil-isms," Scheeres writes. The promises of Jonestown echoed Jones' seemingly progressive message of equality, which is what attracted most Peoples Temple members to the church in the first place. It was also what had endeared Jones to San Francisco politicians, who were in awe of his ability to "mobilize thousands of people to vote," according to Scheeres.
But in reality, "he had no desire to see his followers flourish in South America. He was already fantasizing about their deaths. Would his people die for him if he asked them to?" Turns out they had no choice. While she was writing A Thousand Lives, Scheeres took a trip to Guyana and visited what's left of Jonestown.