Book review: ‘A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown’
A Thousand Lives
The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
Free Press: 320 pp., $26
Before Julia Scheeres came along, Thom Bogue had not talked publicly about Jonestown. But when he realized that, like him, she had also been a troubled teen sent to a tropical religious camp — which she chronicled in the bestselling memoir “Jesus Land” — he decided to share his experiences. At 15, Tommy was sent from California to Guyana, where he lived for two years under the increasingly bizarre control of the Rev. Jim Jones. When Jones organized the assassination of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan and then compelled his flock to “revolutionary suicide” on Nov. 18, 1978, Tommy and his father were among the few who survived. A sister was not.
On that day, 913 people died. If their final act cannot be explained, Scheeres seeks to understand how they came to be in that place in “A Thousand Lives.” She weaves the intimate stories of a handful of diverse members of the Peoples Temple into the greater narrative of the doomed community. This is a work of deep empathy for so many lives lost in the name of different shades of hope.
Teenage Tommy Bogue wanted a new start, but his discipline problems continued in Jonestown, where his offenses included growing watermelons he didn’t want to share with the group. His father, Jim, a quiet jack-of-all-trades, hoped to mend his broken marriage by helping to build Jonestown; he was one of the earliest emigres, arriving in 1974.
Nearly two decades earlier, Hyacinth Thrash first heard Jones in Indiana; she and her sister Zipporah Edwards became equally devoted to his dedication to racial equality and to his faith healing. Later, when Jones preached progressive socialism, sixtysomething Edith Roller came on board. Educated, prickly and moved to activism in the late ‘60s, she kept a sanctioned journal of her experiences that included selling her beloved San Francisco apartment and writing of the political classes she planned to teach in Jonestown, not realizing how rudimentary the settlement was. Finally, there was Stanley Clayton, a troubled young African American man from West Oakland who found his first family in the church and was one of just two eyewitness survivors of what Scheeres calls the “mass murder-suicide.”
Using published reports and recently released FBI files, she shows that in the prior 14 months, the people of Jonestown were regularly abused, manipulated, deprived and deceived. In the name of the greater good, they handed over their assets before being flown to Guyana, often departing on short notice, and were divested of their passports after arrival. They were 32 miles from the nearest settlement, surrounded by thick jungle. A culture of fear was engendered. Jones read “the news” over camp loudspeakers, making up lies about violence at home and predators in the jungle. He convened the camp for overnight community meetings he called “White Nights” — sometimes discussions, sometimes calling for confessions and physical punishment, sometimes pretending to dispense poison-filled drinks.
“I didn’t feel I had achieved all I could do and I knew others had not,” Roller wrote after one White Night suicide rehearsal. Scheeres continues, “Her diary and hundreds of other personal notes were part of the 50,000 pieces of paper the FBI collected in Jonestown after the killings,” documentary evidence that Scheeres took a year to read in full. “They tell a tale of individuals who came to Guyana expecting Eden but found hell instead ... not of a brainwashed people who killed themselves and their children ‘at the snap of a finger’ but of idealists who realized, too late, that they were trapped in a nightmare.”
Jones had once been admirable: As a 16-year-old street preacher in Indiana in 1948, he’d spoken up for racial equality. His churches were always filled with at least as many African American parishioners as whites, and his own family was multiracial. In some ways, the 1965 move of his church to California was motivated by a desire to be in a more progressive community; in others, by a strange paranoia. He chose Ukiah because it was said to be one of the nine places where humans could survive a nuclear attack.
Sisters Hyacinth and Zipporah followed along. Like other older people drawn to the Peoples Temple, they were promised that the community would take care of them, but they did their part, canning and taking in boarders for a fee. The rural church community in Ukiah became the center of their lives, although Jones never got around to healing Hyacinth’s bad hip. Jones claimed to be a faith healer, but he augmented his talents with outright fraud. Some of the “sick” were church secretaries, others recurring players. Some unsuspecting participants were drugged so they would appear to collapse or rise at Jones’ command.
His career sped forward on two tracks: leftist politics and religious chicanery. To grow his ministry, he hit the road, busing around the country and picking up new believers with his gifted oratory and trickery in the pulpit. Moving to a larger base in San Francisco, his people were instrumental in electing progressive San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, so much so that Jones was made head of the San Francisco Housing Authority. And when complaints about his ministry emerged, his political allies turned an unlistening ear.
It was Jones’ colorful behavior at Housing Authority meetings that first brought negative media attention his way. Reporters found unusual practices in his church: He separated wives and husbands, children and parents, in the name of the greater good, and executed punitive beatings before the congregation. They didn’t know that Jones controlled parishioners who’d left or wanted to leave with blackmail: Many had signed their names to blank pages or penned false incriminating admissions when asked to prove their loyalty. A critical piece by Marshall Kilduff eventually ran in the magazine New West in 1977. When he caught wind of its contents, Jones fled to Guyana.
The community had been slowly getting up and running before his arrival, but the influx that followed Jones was too much for its resources. People were housed in cramped dormitories, forced to labor for long hot hours with little reward, even though the temple had about $10 million in assets. Meanwhile, Jones descended into paranoia, spending hours on the shortwave radio ranting about the temple’s former fierce defender, Tim Stoen.
Although temple members were trained to see Jones as a parent — they called him Father and his wife Marceline Mother — he regularly slept with other women in the church as well as some of the young men. Tim Stoen’s wife, Grace, was one of his lovers, and when she had a baby, Jones claimed it was his own, wresting control from her. As the reconciled Stoens tried to retrieve their son through the courts in the U.S. and Guyana, Scheeres explains, conditions at Jonestown deteriorated.
Scheeres’ concerns aren’t with Jones but with how his actions affected the people around him. Jim Bogue planned his escape. Hyacinth worried about her sister’s blithe acceptance of Jones’ preaching. Stanley Clayton wondered if he could trust his wife, whom he still loved. The camp doctor, who had never completed his training, ordered sedatives and cyanide and planned to test his poison on the camp’s few pigs.
Scheeres convincingly portrays the members of this community as victims, not fools. It’s hard to imagine how people might be so browbeaten, afraid and misled that they would bring about their own deaths — but Scheeres has made that terrifying story believable and human.
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