In her introduction to A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, author Julia Scheeres tells of her desire to write about Jonestown in a way that did not fit within either the scholarly or the sensationalistic realm. She’s aiming for the middle ground. More specifically, her book is an attempt at an accurate and humanizing portrayal of Peoples Temple and Jonestown for lay people.
My assessment of her book is based primarily on the degree to which Scheeres achieves her goal. I am mindful, however, that the vast majority of jonestown report readers are survivors, scholars, and people whose personal interest in Jonestown has brought them to this site. As such, I don’t believe the people who will see this review – you – represent the intended audience of the book. Therefore, I feel a need to address what the book offers you as well, given that you are more likely to have a deeper knowledge of at least some of the earlier works about the Temple.
The condensed version of my review is this: people unfamiliar with the details of Jonestown but with an interest in the subject matter will likely find this book intriguing. Those with a great deal of knowledge on Jonestown will likely not find a lot of new information here, despite the title’s claim of being “the untold story.” Moreover, “new” information revealed in the book is actually quite problematic in terms of what is previously known about Jonestown, but the author does not address this issue. As a result, the work seems to fall short with regard to Scheeres’ accuracy goal.
Before I expand upon what I see as potential misinformation, however, I will first make some general comments about the book.
The scope of the book with regard to the thousand lives – and the author does perseverate on that phrase, using it throughout the book – is a disappointment. The publisher’s cover letter says that “[t]he book follows the experience of five members of the Temple’s diverse demographics.” These people are Edith Roller, Stanley Clayton, Hyacinth Thrash, Jim Bogue, and Jim’s son Tommy (now known as Thom) Bogue. Although a diverse sample, they are not representative of the greater population of Peoples Temple. Of the five, three people are/were Caucasian (the majority of the Temple population was African-American). Of the African-Americans featured, both have previously told their stories. Indeed, if you’ve read The Onliest One Alive, you do not need to read the two chapters about Hyacinth in A Thousand Lives – you will gain no additional insight into her life. I enjoyed reading more about Edith Roller and the Bogue family because this was largely new information for me. My complaint here is that I simply wanted more information about more people. Although there are other Temple members briefly discussed in the book, greater detail from a more representative cross-section of the Temple membership seems desirable. Five stories out of a thousand (914, actually, excluding Leo Ryan and the newsmen who died at Port Kaituma) is 0.5% of the Jonestown population. Four of those five stories come from survivors, yet the majority of those in Jonestown died. Those lives lost are the ones I wanted and expected to hear more about in this book. I recognize that obtaining biographical information about those who perished would take more research, and therefore time, compared to obtaining biographical information from survivors. However, there are a lot of untold stories among those who did die.
With regard to the writing of the book, Scheeres generally provides a non-sensationalized/non-academic version of Jonestown and Peoples Temple history distilled into 250 pages, in a straightforward, easy-to-read manner. There are some chapters in which the book is clearly “narrative nonfiction,” as the publisher’s cover letter describes the style. There are other chapters where this tone seems absent, although this never reads like an academic book. This may make the book a more appealing read to the lay person.
The major strength of this work is Scheeres’ use of primary sources, including Temple audiotapes (and transcripts thereof), Edith Roller’s journals, files from the California Historical Society archives, and FBI documents. She synthesizes information from both primary and secondary sources, drawing on prior books such as Reiterman’s Raven, Moore’s A Sympathetic History of Jonestown, Layton’s Seductive Poison, and Mills’ Six Years with God, among many others. She also conducted numerous interviews with former members to gather personal insights into Temple life. She also interviewed a few non Temple members, such as Marshall Kilduff, one of the authors of the New West article that prompted Jones’ departure for Guyana in July 1977, and quasi-Temple supporter Don Freed, an author who visited Jonestown in August of 1978. Information is usually cited via end notes so that the reader can check her sources. The publisher’s cover letter states that Julia spent an entire year simply reading written sources. In general, she seems to have made an effort at thorough research.
Despite the use of many primary and secondary sources, accuracy has suffered somewhat. The chapter entitled “End,” holds some particularly questionable “untold” information in describing how the final events unfolded in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. Some of the information is conjecture. For instance, Scheeres assumes that Edith Roller would have sat with her good friend Eddie Washington, and that they might have stood in line together to drink from the vat, perhaps holding hands to comfort one another as they waited to die. As far as I can tell, this is speculation based upon what is known about Edith, not upon any objective record. But details such as these are actually the least of my worries.
Of greater concern is the description of the deaths, which contains “new” details. The most shocking revelation comes after Jones records his final statement. The infamous death tape concludes with Jones intoning, “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhuman world,” a statement which Scheeres describes as “his last lie for posterity” (p. 232). But then, according to the author, Jones shut off the tape recorder, stepped down from his throne, and started grabbing “stragglers” to drag them towards the vat of poisoned punch.
To my knowledge, this is the first time this information has been reported anywhere, and it is surprising – not only because it is “new,” but also because it’s difficult to imagine Jones having the wherewithal to physically struggle with anyone, given how slurred his speech is on the audiotape. Moreover, it paints a different picture of Jones in the final hour. He’s no longer the man simply giving instructions and urging people to hasten their deaths; he becomes a hands-on executioner. There’s a serious problem here, though: the reader has no idea of the source of this “fact” because there is no end note for this statement. It is sandwiched between speculation about Edith Roller’s personal experience at the time of her death (based on Scheeres’ speculation) and Stanley Clayton’s experience of avoiding death (based on his eyewitness account). One might assume that the statement about Jones dragging people towards the poison also comes from Clayton’s account, but the reader has no way of knowing that, and should never be put in the position of assuming anything in what is purportedly a fact-based narrative.
Another red flag is raised with this statement: “Many just sat on benches with vacant eyes, shell-shocked, as nurses walked among them, plunging needles into their arms” (pg. 232). Although previous eyewitness statements (and there are only a few of them) have mentioned forced injections of a few resistant individuals, this is the first time injections have been described as being done in what the reader could infer to be an organized, orderly fashion rather than in the context of a physical struggle between killers and resistors. Again, the “new” detail paints an entirely different scene.
These details are discrepant and potentially inaccurate, compared to Clayton’s prior eyewitness statements. He has given his account before on more than one occasion. Notably, he was interviewed by a news crew at a hotel in Georgetown, Guyana in 1978, within a few days of the deaths. An early version of his account also appears in Ethan Feinsod’s 1981 Awake in a Nightmare (although that book is written primarily from Odell Rhodes’ eyewitness account, Clayton’s story is included also). Clayton was also interviewed in Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple just a few years ago. In those versions of his story, there is little mention of anyone being forcibly injected, and there is no mention of Jones trying to drag people towards the vat (if Clayton was, by any chance, Scheeres’ uncited source for this information).
These are new details, then, which may have emerged within the last five years, but what should be of concern is that corroborating sources do not exist. Let me be clear: in no way am I accusing Stanley Clayton or Julia Scheeres of deception or intentional distortion of the truth. Rather, I am suggesting that these new “facts” are merely memory distortions that exist because of the long period of time between the original event and the time of the interview. While a book review is not the forum for a cognitive psychology lesson, it is important to note that research indicates that memory is quite malleable. Events of our lives are not stored as faithfully as sounds and images on audio/video recordings; each time we recall a memory, we actually reconstruct it. Over time, we get exposed to a lot of other information about events, and these other details can become entangled with what we’ve already encoded, leading to memory contamination. Imagination can also play a role in changing memory. The longer the passage of time, and the more time spent discussing and thinking about the events, the greater the chance for memory distortion. Moreover, the confidence a person has in his/her memory is not correlated with the accuracy of the memory; a person could be completely confident that they are correct yet amazingly wrong.
As I read the narrative in “End,” I wonder if contaminated memories are to blame for the discrepancies in eyewitness accounts. For instance, the detail about nurses circulating through the pavilion giving injections fits with the statement of Guyana’s chief pathologist Leslie Mootoo that he saw injection marks on some of the bodies. Mootoo’s interpretation was that these people were murders rather than suicides because of the injection marks. It is possible that a large number of people were given lethal injections, and that Clayton merely didn’t report this in his 1978, 1981, and 2007 accounts, although it’s difficult to understand why that particular detail would be omitted. It is also quite possible (and seemingly more likely, in my mind) that over the course of 30 years, Clayton’s memory of the events has simply become distorted. Indeed, there are other details in Clayton’s account which have changed over time, but I have confined my discussion to the information I see as the most potentially toxic to the overall Jonestown story.
The ultimate downfall of Scheeres’ book is that these discrepant details are not addressed by the author, but they should be. Moreover, I do not even know if she’s aware that these discrepancies exist. Although I think Scheeres generally strives for accuracy in her non-academic approach to this material, her book would benefit if she took a cue from the academics: admit the shortcomings of the information given.
There are also potential distortions in other eyewitness accounts in the book; the change of memory over time is a naturally-occurring phenomenon and is not be isolated to a small subset of individuals. The only reason I can make note of it in Clayton’s case is that he has previously given his account. For other information in the book derived entirely from interviews, there may not be an earlier version to which comparisons can be made. Ironically, a statement from A Thousand Lives hints at the possibility of memory distortion: regarding Thom and Jim Bogue discussing their days at Jonestown, the author writes “Father and son fill in each other’s memories…” (pg. 249). This is one way in which memory distortions occur. Whereas Jonestown scholars may readily notice discrepancies in eyewitness accounts that are separated by 30+ years, the intended audience (lay people) likely will not; readers rely on authors to assess sources and present the most accurate information possible. There is a lapse here in assessment of sources.
There’s also a lapse in recognizing alternative interpretations of information. Scheeres decisively writes that Jones killed himself: “It would be interesting to know Jones’s last, drug-addled thoughts before he placed the barrel of his .38 Smith & Wesson revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger” (pg 234). Without a doubt, Jones died of a gunshot wound to the head; however, the actual shooter remains unknown. He might have shot himself, but the position of the gun a number of feet from the body raises the issue of homicide. Of course, it’s possible that the gun was moved by someone after Jones pulled the trigger; it’s also possible that someone else (an aide, a security guard) shot Jones. The official autopsy report could not come to any firm conclusion, finding that the manner of death was “undetermined,” and suggesting that it was “consistent with suicide … [but] the possibility of homicide cannot be entirely ruled out.” We will likely never know for certain, and we need to acknowledge that when we write about the event.
I do not believe that there are a large number of questionable statements in A Thousand Lives, but the ones highlighted in this review are quite troubling because they are ones that people are likely to remember. The average reader is committing to this book because they want to know how these seemingly incomprehensible deaths transpired. They will remember the mental images painted by Scheeres’ narrative of Jones dragging stragglers and nurses giving lethal injections, and they may accept them as fact. Once these notions are formed, they will be hard to negate. Unfortunately, once inaccuracies have crept into a “nonfiction” work, the book slides further from the academic end and closer to the sensationalistic end of the writing continuum. Scheeres was aiming for the middle ground, but she didn’t hit a bullseye. If an academic had written the book, she would have sought constructive criticism from a peer or a former Temple member whom she did not interview or another Jonestown scholar. That kind of review would have addressed the negatives that I describe here (and others which I don’t). Of course, soliciting feedback delays getting a book into press, but that’s the price one pays to improve the accuracy and value of one’s written work.
Despite my diatribe about the weaknesses of this book, I do feel that there are some strengths, as noted earlier in this review. In general, I find this book to be a mixed bag: some of it is well done (use of many primary and secondary source documents), some of it is okay (summarizes important Temple history, but we’ve read much of it before), and some of it needed more work (as indicated in the bulk of this review).
According to the publisher’s letter that accompanied the review copy, “This will be the lasting book on Jonestown.” With that in mind, I have the following advice to anyone picking up this book, the same advice I am giving the book’s author in this review: consider your sources.
(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She transcribes Peoples Temple audiotapes for the Jonestown Institute and is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)