Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Book Review: A Thousand Lives

"Don't drink the Kool-Aid!" Now I know where that expression comes from...

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres was my office book club pick this month, and I was admittedly a little apprehensive about reading something so depressing. I knew bits and pieces about the Jonestown mass suicide in South America in 1978, but this particular book tells the personal stories of five individuals who went to Jonestown and ultimately died there.

Jonestown was the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, a community in northwestern Guyana formed by Jim Jones. On November 18, 1978, more than 900 Temple members died from apparent cyanide poisoning in an event termed by Jones as "revolutionary suicide" in support of socialism and their right to practice it. This included more than 200 murdered children. The mass murder in Jonestown was the largest such event in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of 09/11/01.

Jones formed the Peoples Temple during the mid-1950s and it became increasingly popular in the years to follow. But although Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message ominous, his followers found it increasingly difficult to pull away from the church, and by the time Jones relocated the Peoples Temple to the remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. Government decided to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment, it was too late.

Sheeres tells the story of Jonestown as it has never been told before piecing together an unprecedented and compelling history of the doomed camp, focusing on the people who lived there. She gathered information from recently released FBI files to tell the personal stories of five Peoples Temple members, which made the book seem incredibly personal and for me, quite upsetting. I find it so hard to understand why so many people blindly followed an absolute lunatic, and it makes bile rise in my throat to imagine these adults administering poison to their children just because Jones told them to. Sheeres outlines these accounts in incredible detail and takes time to examine why Jones exhibited such a strong pull over his followers.

The people who built Jonestown wanted to forge a better life for themselves and their children, and they sought to create a truly egalitarian society. But instead they found themselves trapped in South America, cut off from the outside world as their leader goaded them toward death and deprived them of food, sleep, and hope. Yet even as Jones resorted to lies and psychological warfare, residents fought for their community, struggling to maintain their gardens, their school, their families, and their grip on reality. That is the story I admire Sheeres for trying to tell. I thought A Thousand Lives was vividly written and, for me, impossible to forget.

I would also really like to get my hands on Sheeres' debut memoir, Jesus Land, which documents her own experiences at an oppressive reform school in the Dominican Republic.

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