Review Written by Brook Wilensky-Lanford and Originally Published in SF Gate in October 2011
How do you tell a new story about Jim Jones and his followers, when everyone knows how it ends? We've seen the gruesome aerial photographs of the Jonestown massacre, hundreds of bodies laid out in rows in the Guyana jungle; we associate the scene with the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid." And yet Julia Scheeres' riveting "A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown" gives us reason to look again. The FBI recovered 50,000 pages of documents at Jonestown. Through them, and the stories of survivors, Scheeres sets out to humanize the nearly 1,000 lives - a third of them children - that ended on that horrible day, Nov. 18, 1978.
Not an easy task. Some survivors who made it back to San Francisco after the massacre were treated as "baby-killers," and denied food stamps. "It was far easier to condemn Jones's victims," writes Scheeres, "than to comprehend them." Scheeres, whose best-selling memoir "Jesus Land" detailed her time at a "religious rehabilitation camp" in the Dominican Republic with her adopted African American brother, has an intuitive understanding of life under an oppressive ideology and a reporter's eye for telling detail.
She introduces us to many unforgettable people: strong-willed Edith Roller, Jonestown diarist, who taught elderly residents to read, wore Peter Pan collars and missed her solitude. Stanley Clayton, a former felon tormented by Jones, who still returned to the love of his life. Teenage Tommy Bogue, who liked to watch "Creature Features" and kept trying to escape. Elderly Hyacinth Thrash, who never lost her Christian faith but stayed in Jonestown to be with her sister.
On the other side, she traces Jim Jones' history of using secrecy and compliance to keep people bound to him, a "jarring blend of affection and threat" that was in play from his beginnings as a Pentecostal minister in Indiana. He faked assassination attempts, made people sick so he could heal them, and coerced members to sign "confessions" of child abuse and other crimes to be deployed should they defect. And yet, by the time his Peoples Temple arrived in San Francisco, countercultural haven, "the veneer was spotless." Even Jones' wife, Marceline, Scheeres writes, did not know about the most basic fraud. Jones packed people into his church, won powerful friends and a seat on the city's housing commission.
(Chronicle City Hall reporter Marshall Kilduf was discouraged from publishing an expose of the Temple, which he eventually took to New West magazine. Still, Jones named the paper as part of the vast conspiracy against him. Chronicle reporter Ron Javers was at Jonestown in its final days, and survived the airstrip shootout that killed U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan and others.)
San Francisco Temple members thought Jonestown would be a communist utopia, but it became "a vacuum of reason where [Jones'] paranoia played out unfettered." Scheeres has a keen eye for Jones' political hypocrisy. "In San Francisco, Jones once told an aide that the way to control people was to 'keep them tired and poor.' In Jonestown, he kept them tired, poor, and hungry."
Night after night, Jones detailed complicated threats against the community and proposed mass death as the only solution. And yet, even in April 1978, after numerous (staged) attacks, fear drills and "suicide votes," residents still spoke up against Jones' disturbed fatalism: "A woman stood to speak: 'I feel that ... we owe our commitment to socialism to stay alive as long as possible.' " But Jones had already directed Jonestown's doctor, Laurence Eugene Schacht, to design a "last-stand plan." He enthusiastically obliged. "His one free day each week was Wednesday, when he stopped healing Jonestown residents and instead researched ways to kill them."
In taut, brief scenes, Scheeres brings us into the life of the settlement with heartbreaking immediacy. Stories of near-escapes and the interventions of concerned relatives, pieced together from hundreds of letters Jones did not allow to be sent or delivered, have us asking the immediate questions: Who's going to survive? And how? Her bone-chilling moment-by-moment account of the horrific final day will make you reconsider everything about those iconic aerial images. The mass poisoning began with the children: "Their deaths were anything but quiet. ... Aides were dragging small corpses into rows to make room for more Temple members."
What she does not do is give us the why, the context that we long for to explain such an inexplicable tragedy. She does not try to historicize Jim Jones, makes no grand claims that Jonestown represents the final death throes of the 1960s counterculture. In short, she has no comfort for us. One gets the feeling that for Scheeres to step too far outside the walls of the Jonestown compound would feel like a betrayal of those who lost their lives there. So she keeps the focus steady, small and zeroed in on those lives. You will not be able to look away.