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Book review: 'A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown'

Julia Scheeres charts the downfall of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple and the victims who were his followers.

October 23, 2011|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones the day before he died.
Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones the day before he died. (Greg Robinson, Associated…)

A Thousand Lives

The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

Julia Scheeres

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.

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