Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: A Thousand Lives: An Untold Story..... by Julia Scheeres

A Thousand Lives:An Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
Author:Julia Scheeres
Publisher Format: Simon and Schuster, Free Press, e-book galley, 320 pages
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Jim Jones leader of the People's Temple, and the organization's structure and activities
Setting: San Francisco, and Guyana
Genre: historical narrative
Source: e-galley from publisher via Net Galley

Publisher's marketing copy:
"They left America for the jungles of Guyana to start a better life. Yet what started as a Utopian dream soon devolved into a terrifying work camp run by a madman, ending in the mass murder-suicide of 914 members in November 1978.

In A Thousand Lives, the New York Times bestselling memoirist Julia Scheeres traces the fates of five individuals who followed Jim Jones to South America as they struggled to first build their paradise, and then survive it. Each went for different reasons-some were drawn to Jones for his progressive attitudes towards racial equality, others were dazzled by his claims to be a faith healer. But once in Guyana, Jones's drug addiction, mental decay, and sexual depredations quickly eroded the idealistic community.
It's been 33 years since this tragedy occured, in which 914 people died in a mass suicide/murder scheme in November 1986, and the story still is repugnant to me.  I can perhaps understand that individuals might choose to commit suicide for a variety of reasons, but I'm not able to comprehend participating in a mass suicide event that included killing hundreds of innocent children.   Julia Scheeres has done extensive research, including interviewing survivors, and its shows in the details she was able to uncover to give us so much of the story behind the headlines.  She begins with the young Jim Jones and traces his "call" to ministry, his education, and his founding of the People's Temple.

But she doesn't stop with Jones' story.  By telling us the story of several members of the church - young, old, black, white, married, widowed, divorced, single, recovering addicts, paroled criminals - we begin to understand why people felt wanted, needed, and hopeful that here was an opportunity the world was not offering anyplace else.  As she follows these members through the years from California to Guyana, we witness the increasing megalomania of Jones and the tension, the uncertainty and the terror of those who finally come to realize that there is no way out of the situation in which they have placed themselves. 

It's terrifying, shocking,and appalling, but it's mesmerizing, spell-binding, and absolutely compelling. It was so depressing to see that the promise of hope so many accepted was perverted by someone purporting to be God, and that people could believe such a person could in fact lead them to eternal happiness.  Watching Jones turn disatisfied people into sub-human creatures who could turn on their own spouses, and children, was not a pleasant reading experience, but it was a story that once started could not be put down.

I only wish the review copy I received had been better edited, but I'm sure the publisher cleaned up those glitches by the time it was released.  It's a powerful story, and one that deserves to be shown to the world, if for no other reason than to prevent it happening again.


  1. I'm sure it was a fascinating read, but not quite my cup of tea.

  2. It sounds really good. I saw a special on Frontline last year about Jonestown and it was mesmerizing.


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