A Thousand Lives A Painful and Disturbing Read

Edith Roller’s diary and many other personal notes were part of fifty thousand pieces of paper collected in Jonestown after the killings. They all tell a nightmarish tale of individuals who came to Guyana expecting Eden but found hell instead. Gathered from the settlement’s mud by FBI agents looking for clues to explain the largest mass murder-suicide in modern times, the slips of paper tell the real story of Jonestown: 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 (152).

In A Thousand Lives, memoirist Julia Scheeres focuses her attention on five Peoples Temple members who made it to Jonestown, four of whom make it back out. Scheeres, whose previous book Jesus Land chronicled her enforced Caribbean sojourn at a so-called Christian “rehabilitation camp,” has a thesis about the deaths at Jonestown: “It is clear that he [Jones] was already planning to kill his followers long before he cloistered them in Guyana” (47).

As other writers before her have done, Scheeres indicts Jones for the deaths of nearly a thousand Temple members. But more explicitly – and in greater detail than anyone else – she goes on to hold his top aides responsible as well. First in line of culpability after Jones himself is Doctor Larry Schacht, whose notes on how to kill large numbers of people are liberally quoted.

“Cyanide is one of the most rapidly-acting poisons,” Schacht writes in a note to Jones after being pressured to speed up the plans. “I had some misgivings about its effectiveness, but from further research I have gained more confidence in it, at least theoretically…. I also want to order antidotes just in case we may need to reverse the poisoning process on people… [C]yanide may take up to three hours to kill but usually it is within minutes” (173).

But mass murder could not have been accomplished by Jones alone nor by Schacht. Nurses and other medical aides are guilty of assisting in the distribution of the poison. Guards are guilty of physically restraining the resisting Temple members until they succumb to the needles injected or poison otherwise forced by these aides.

Scheeres relies on Edith Roller’s journals for many details of her re-creations of daily life in Jonestown. She also listened to some of the hundreds of recordings made by Jones and others in Guyana, and made her way through thousands of documents recently released by the FBI.

Scholar, teacher, chronicler Edith Roller writes presciently: “Was this movement to come to naught, to a pile of dead bodies and an abandoned agricultural experiment in the small country of Guyana? Is this what [Jones] will be remembered for” (152)?

Reading A Thousand Lives is painful and disturbing. I had to stop several times and recoup before I could continue. My own experience spending five years researching and writing a novel about four Peoples Temple members and associates, Paradise Undone (as yet unpublished), had inured me to some of the most awful facts, yet reliving this “narrative non-fiction” of the last days of Jonestown proved difficult. This is due both to Scheeres’ skills as a writer and for the assumptions she makes in re-imagining the thoughts and actions of those no longer here to tell us how that horror unfolded.

Along with her documented research, Scheeres interviewed numerous survivors – the list too long to repeat here, but at my count at least 17 Temple members – and a dozen others associated with Jonestown, including writers Marshall Kilduff, Katy Butler and Don Freed.

As seen through the eyes of Stanley Clayton, one of her interviewees and principal protagonists, this chilling scene is offered to the reader:

Returning to the pavilion, he watched a foster girl named Julie Ann Runnels, twelve, refuse to drink the poison. She kept spitting it out. Finally, her court-appointed guardian, Paulette Jackson, and nurse Annie Moore grabbed her hair and pulled her head back. They poured the punch into her mouth and then covered her mouth and nose, forcing her to swallow it (231).

As a fiction writer with a journalist’s training, I questioned the verisimilitude of the scene as presented: why? We see it through the prism of Clayton’s memory, yet his purview disappears as we enter the moment, and what happens is offered as truth. Was this in fact and deed the murder of a child perpetrated by a guardian and a nurse?

General readers will come to their own conclusions. The readers of the jonestown report may reach different ones, with their extensive knowledge and/or experience of decades of Peoples Temple life and subsequent research and publications.

A Thousand Lives takes its title from a quote by Jim Jones, “I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me” (Sept. 6, 1975). The work contains extensive endnotes, so readers can check Scheeres’ sources throughout. These resources may put to rest some readers’ doubts and incite others to question the writer’s version of what happened. One can see whom she interviewed – for example Jim Jones, Jr. – and whom she did not, including Jim’s brother Stephan Jones. The reader is not privy to the reasons behind these inclusions and omissions. Undoubtedly, eyewitnesses bring a certain kind of authenticity to the story, yet it is also empirically proven that eyewitness accounts provide the least accurate data compared with other evidence.

Along with Roller and Clayton, the protagonists include Hyacinth Thrush, who wrote her own memoir of Jonestown with Marian K. Towne, The Onliest One Alive: Surviving Jonestown, Guyana (1995), and father and son Jim and Thom Bogue. Other survivors are quoted from their writings in the jonestown report, among many publications cited by Scheeres.

Clearly, Scheeres has immersed herself in the materials and produced a compelling version of events. Our hearts break anew upon uncovering fresh details or learning a certain slant on information we thought we already understood.

In answer to Jones’s prompt, “What would I do if this was a final White Night,” Roller writes the following:

I would like to teach, and write. Write about the people I have known in our country, and our cause and in the Philippines, Greece and India, all of them of great worth and charm. Some short stories, even poetry… Want to do more to give children the love they need. Want to plant rows of vegetables. I would like to raise a kitten (231).

(Annie Dawid is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She may be reached at annie@anniedawid.com. Her website is http://www.anniedawid.com/.)