“A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown” by Julia Scheeres
[Hey All! I’m back – kind of. Well, at least I have a few posts from pre-baby that I figured I’d put up, and I’ve started trying to work a little reading back into my days. Granted, now that I have a one month old, it’s not a lot of time, but it’s something.]
It was before my time, but in November of 1978 918 people died after drinking grape Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide while living in a colony in Guyana ruled over by a drug-addicted maniac named Jim Jones. The events of Jonestown still pop up in pop culture frequently (who hasn’t heard the term “drink the Kool-Aid”) but I’d never really known too much about them.
Into my mailbox recently came a review copy of a book that changed that. The book was “A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown,” and it’s a well-researched, thorough, and fascinating book about the horrors and traps of cult mentality and, in the end, the ups and downs of the human spirit.
Author Julia Scheeres didn’t set out to write a non-fiction book about Jonestown. Her original instinct was to write a novel about a charismatic preacher in a small town, but after some googling Jim Jones her focus changed and she realized the potential in telling this story start to finish. Pulled largely from the FBI’s files on Jonestown, Scheeres laces all these fragments of stories together into one cohesive and riveting work that may become one of the defining texts on these events from this day forward.
After founding the People’s Temple in Indiana in the Midwest, and seeing his “open to all” policy become wildly successful, charismatic leader Jim Jones took his church to California and then (finally) to Guyana while encouraging his members to live communally and slowly to eliminate outsiders from their lives. Soon, though, this man who claimed to be a Messiah was hooked on drugs, shagging his parishioners, paranoid, and ruling over this commune 4,000 miles away from the U.S. like a crazed tyrant.
Though the focus of the book is to tell the complete story of the build-up to the tragic events of November 1978, and not necessarily on individual stories, Scheeres wisely works a few people into the mix, giving us heroes to hope for. Mainly, there’s troublemaking teenager Tommy Bough, whose battle against the rules that caused so many so much misery is partly out of teenage rebellion and partly from a place of pure common sense. There’s also 76 year old Hyacinth Thrash, who became aware that Jonestown wasn’t the paradise she and her sister had been promised, but bit her tongue long enough to walk away from the events physically unharmed.
“A Thousand Lives” makes for riveting – yet horrifying – reading. However, the more we know about our past the more aware we can be when it tries to repeat itself, right? Jonestown was certainly an interesting chapter in history, and one that has a great many lessons to teach regarding the dangers of blindly following a leader.