BOOKS ISSUE: A Thousand Lives' harrowing, heartfelt Jonestown journey
"It's remote, dense jungle," she says. "Everything looks the same. It would be so easy to get lost. And as you're walking through, you can hear things slithering in the leaves. Jim Jones told [his followers] that if they tried to escape, they'd be killed by 'mercenaries' — really, his sons that were [hiding and] shooting on the camp — or they would be killed by the jungle animals."
Of course, when they left San Francisco, more or less willingly, Peoples Temple members — like Scheeres subject Hyacinth Thrash, an elderly African American woman who dreamed of a place where racism didn't exist — expected to find a "utopia," as they'd been promised.
"[Jones] was so suave and gentle in San Francisco, and would tell you what you wanted to hear, like the ultimate caring father figure. Then once he got down to Jonestown and had everyone trapped there, he just turned. You can hear him on those tapes just screaming, you know. 'You old bitch, you're gonna die!'," Scheeres shudders. "The rank-and-file had no idea that he had this ideation of 'revolutionary suicide' until it was too late. They couldn't escape. They were surrounded by guards holding crossbows, and behind them, a circle of guards with guns, and basically told, 'If you don't drink the poison, we're going to shoot you.'"
Though she has no direct personal connection to Jonestown, Scheeres' own background, detailed in her 2005 memoir Jesus Land, made her an unusually sympathetic outsider. "The interests aligned: race, religion, seclusion. When I was a teen, my brother and I were sent to this religious reform school in the Dominican Republic, where all of our communications with the outside world were censored, where all of these horrible things were happening that we couldn't let anybody know about," she says. "Obviously my situation wasn't as bad [as Jonestown]. The head of the school wasn't goading us toward revolutionary suicide. But the whole sense of powerlessness and feeling trapped and helpless — I could identify with that."
Decades later, Jonestown continues to fascinate; dozens of books have been written by survivors, relatives of survivors, conspiracy theorists, cult experts, and scholars of macabre history. A Thousand Lives — meticulously researched, and written with clear-eyed, sensitive perspective — is a valuable resource for readers seeking truth, not misinformation, about the tragedy.
"Most people under 40 probably don't remember Jonestown well, if at all. But most people have heard the phrase 'drinking the Kool-Aid.' I find that phrase very offensive, because they didn't drink the Kool-Aid. First of all, it wasn't Kool-Aid, it was Flavor Aid. Second of all, they were forced to drink the poison. 'Drinking the Kool-Aid' implies naïve, stupid, not thinking, kind of dumb, following the leader, and not questioning. And they were questioning. That's what my book argues throughout," the author says. "They argued with Jones: 'We didn't come down here to die. We came down here for a better life for ourselves and our kids.' So I think 'drinking the Kool-Aid' needs to be excised from the cultural lexicon."