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 JonestownA Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A note of disclosure: Julia and I worked together at for a few years back in the early aughts. While our desks were just a few slots from each other, we weren’t particularly close in those days. In fact, our friendship really didn’t develop until years later through social networks. Since then, we’ve had many discussion about life and writing. While I have no particular insight into this book, we do have a personal and professional connection.

I say that to contextualize my review of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, Scheeres follow up to her bestselling memoir, Jesus Land, which traced her life from childhood in Indiana where she was raised in a fundamental Christian home through her schooling at Escuela Caribe, a brutal reform school in the Dominican Republic.

A Thousand Lives tells the story of the people of Jonestown, site of one of the largest religion mass murders in modern history. In many ways, this book appears to want to answer this question: Why would these people follow this man into the jungle?

Using thousands of recently released files as well as interviews with a handful of the survivors, Scheeres meticulously recreated the lives of those people who found themselves trapped in the jungle of Guyana in South America. Many came to the People’s Temple because the Rev. Jim Jones made them feel at home. These were people who had been turned away by society, or fallen through the cracks, or simply felt alone. As the People’s Temple grew in number, many felt a sense of community that had been missing in their lives.

But the story doesn’t end in San Francisco, where the Temple was founded. More deeply, Scheeres seems to have chosen this story because it continues her exploration of the dangers of fundamentalism and religion, particularly the ways in which it’s used to control and harm people.

Because of that, this is a literary narrative addition to the work on the New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. However, Scheeres book isn’t an author-led assault on religion. Instead, she allows the stories of the souls who joined and ran People’s Temple make her case.

Because the story is so well trod, I found myself struggling through the early parts of the book, much as you might want to fast forward through the early parts of Titanic until the iceberg appears. While the narrative obviously picks up steam in its last third as Jones prepares to murder his followers, the book’s heart is in the first two-thirds where we get to know people who we (mostly rightly) assume are doomed. I had to force myself to slow down as I read because I knew what was coming. I’m glad I did because the story really shines as you delve into the history of the main characters.

I suspect many people will find the subject a difficult real. However, A Thousand Lives is well worth the discomfort. It’s a harrowing story about what happens when society abdicates its responsibility to religious leaders, and it’s told with a deft — and human — touch.

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