Friday, January 13, 2012

A Thousand Lives, a new nonfiction account of the Jonestown Massacre by Julia Scheeres

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres. New York: Free Press. 2011

909 people lost their lives in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, the majority of whom were children. Brought to the remote jungle compound in Guyana by Peoples Temple pastor, Rev. Jim Jones, many of the followers were people genuinely committed to building a socialist utopian society. Others were mesmerized by the fiery and charismatic leader himself, believing that Jones was God in the flesh. What they found in Peoples Temple and later in Jonestown was a nightmare that continues to haunt to this day.

Countless works both in print and film have sought to uncover exactly what led to this monstrous tragedy, from Tim Reiterman’s account of the Peoples Temple and his own experience as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in which he witnessed the assault and slaying of members of an American delegation, including the U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, who came to investigate the compound (Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People) to high-profile Jonestown defector Debbie Layton’s memoir Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. Few accounts however attempted to the tell the story from the perspective of the rank-and-file members (in 1995, one of the few survivors of the Jonestown massacre, Hyacinth Thrash, published The Onliest One Alive, Surviving Jonestown, a memoir of her experiences in the religious sect; and Stanley Nelson’s PBS produced documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple likewise examines the history from the perspective of other survivors and defectors). Julia Scheeres’ latest book A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, offers another look at what life was actually like in Jonestown leading up to the massacre.

Scheeres comes to this latest account with some personal background. In her memoir, Jesus Land, she wrote about growing up in a Christian conservative family. Therefore she offers a unique perspective of people who are drawn to evangelical groups. While Scheeres covers a lot of familiar ground, her research looks beyond the stereotypes of brainwashed followers willing to drink the “Kool-Aid,” but of people genuinely committed to creating a more equitable society. The sensitivity she brings to the subject is apparent. As she writes, “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 indeed you do not come across such reductive reasonings. Scheeres is careful to present her subjects with a sympathetic honesty that attempts to explain why so many people were willing to abandon reason.

I should state that, as with Scheeres, I attempted to write my own fictional account of the people of Jonestown, but realized that this story is too real, too vivid, too large for the imagination to wrap itself around. The voices that ring clearly throughout Scheeres’ work deserve to be heard unabridged. Here, Temple followers such as Thrash and her sister Zipporah, Edith Roller, Stanley Clayton, and Jim and Tommy Bogue, provide a more personal look at the lives of the ordinary people whose faith in Jones proved deadly (of the people whom Scheeres covers only Hyacinth Thrash, Stanley Clayton, and Jim and Tommy Bogue survived the massacre). Relying on previously published works as well as recently released FBI documents (along with transcripts of audiotapes and Edith Roller’s journals), she presents a far-reaching and more frightening portrait of life in Jonestown than before presented. Abuse was rampant. Family members were forced to turn on each other for fear of being punished, which included being set upon by other members, as was the case when young Tommy and his friend Brian attempted to escape Jonestown through the surrounding jungle. Recorded on audiotape, Jones and other members berate the two teens and even spat upon and physically assaulted them:

The recording shows Jones’s disturbing ability to switch from a gentle rebuke to an enraged bellow in the space between two words as he whips the crowd into an angry frenzy. A woman shrieked that the boys were “shameful bastards,” and “goddamn white fascist bigots.” More insults followed, and violence was expected, encouraged. “Vile filth,” Jones called them, before spitting several times. Tommy’s mother, Edith, rushed forward to slap her son’s face repeatedly until Jones told her “enough.”

Later, his mother suggested that “she cut the boys’ heads off, then commit suicide...”  Other dissenters were punished by being placed in a box, forced to perform menial duties while chained in irons, humiliated in front of other members (one couple who broke the rules against conjugal relations were forced to have sex in front of the group while an elderly woman was forced to parade naked for another infraction) or outright drugged. Madness reigned in Jonestown and very few people, including those who were not completely caught up in its throes, were able to reason themselves out of the trap they had fallen into.

Reading these accounts, one wonders why so many people tolerated such abuse and didn’t attempt to overthrow Jones. Yet the constant fear Jones installed in the atmosphere made it next to impossible. His drug-induced paranoia created a distrustful and paranoiac environment where everyone, from the U.S. and Guyanese governments, defectors, Concerned Relatives (defectors and families of members who sought to rescue loved ones still trapped in Jonestown) were all enemies ready to attack the Temple and torture children. Jones initiated what he referred to as “white nights,” all-night rallies in which he broke down his followers’ reluctance to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Jones, whose plan to commit mass suicide began long before any members arrived in Jonestown, would often test their loyalties and prepare them for the eventual act by forcing them to drink a supposedly poisoned concoction. The constant abuse and fear, the armed guards, the paranoia, and distrust created a dispiriting and ugly atmosphere in which many were left disoriented, confused, fearful, and demoralized. Isolated from the rest of the world (letters were routinely censored or withheld from members and world news was twisted to reveal a vast conspiracy against Jonestown), many of the victims were forced to rely on Jones’s increasingly twisted vision of the world.

Despite the constant manipulation, Jones’s followers were much more committed to the ideals that the Peoples Temple espoused rather than the ugly reality it became. How each of the followers arrived at the conclusion that Jones was not who he appeared to be is as varied as the individuals themselves. For Hyacinth Thrush, whose faith helped carry her through the ordeal, it was Jones’s blasphemous rejection of the Bible she held dear. For Jim Bogue, it was Jones’s lies, manipulations and interference in his marriage. For Jim’s son, Tommy, it was the constant abuse and punishment he suffered for even the slightest infractions. Likewise for Stanley Clayton, whose own infractions became the source of violent retribution. Edith Roller, who was committed to the progressive ideals which led her to Peoples Temple, was nonetheless disquieted by the contradictions she saw in Jones’s actions. Jones himself emerges not only as a megalomaniac who tortured and exploited the people he claimed to love, but a foulmouthed manipulator who boasted of his sexual prowess during sermons.  

I’ve read countless versions of this story and I am still shocked at the level of abuse people suffered at the hands of Jones and his most loyal followers. Thirty-three years have passed since that terrible event, and still it calls out to the present, a terrible warning of what happens when otherwise good people are manipulated. Above all else, as Scheeres states at the end of the book, these were “noble idealists” who “wanted to create a better, more equitable, society.” A Thousand Lives does a great service in keeping their stories and their memories alive as an object lesson. In a world that has grown increasingly unstable, we would do well to remember the lessons Jonestown teaches.

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