Julia Scheeres’ new book A Thousand Lives tells the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown from its beginning in Indiana 1954 to its gruesome end in Guyana in 24 years later. Ms. Scheeres builds her story on primary source material from the RYMUR investigation, interviews with former members, previously-published books about Peoples Temple, and newspaper clippings from the period. A prominent figure in the book is Hyacinth Thrash, who is assigned the role of some sort of “seer,” not unlike Simon in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, who sees through the tyrannical leader, albeit with a different ending to herself personally than the one that becomes Simon.
With 34 other books about Peoples Temple on my bookshelf already, I have to ask of any new book on the Temple that comes onto the market: Which hole in the body of knowledge – from the instant paperbacks to the scholarly volumes – does this new book fill? Ms. Scheeres answers this question in the book’s introduction to the book where she says that it “endeavor[s] to tell the Jonestown story on a grander, more human, scale” and that her aim “is to help readers understand the reasons that people were drawn to Jim Jones and his church, and how many of them ended up dying in a mass-murder suicide.”As someone who has been interested in Peoples Temple for a number of years, both from a personal and a more academic perspective, I cannot disagree with these noble goals. Any book that aims to tip the scale from judging to understanding has my support. However, I am not sure that the book actually facilitates this understanding.
Julia Scheeres is a good writer, that is undeniable. She knows how to build a narrative, and she knows which tools to use to evoke an emotional response in the reader. While the quality of writing is definitely a strong point, it is also its downside in that the reader tends to forget that the narrative she presents is an approximation based on her interpretation of her sources, and not the definite truth about all of the events she describes. For instance, I wondered about the source of Sharon Amos’ last words – a murmured “Thank you, Father” – as she was bleeding to death on the bathroom floor in the Peoples Temple headquarters in Georgetown. I also wondered about the identification of Maria Katsaris as the woman who tells the residents to get in line for the poison, as I know that others have suggested that it is the voice of someone from the medical team, possibly Judy Ijames, which fits better into the picture than a secretary. Neither of these assertions is sourced. I am not saying that Ms. Scheeres is incorrect about these things, it would just have been nice to have reference for them.
At one point in the book, Julia Scheeres quotes Marshall Kilduff’s as saying, “It all seemed a little too wonderful.” This sentiment seems to sum up her own approach to the subject as she sets about to uncover the sordidness of Peoples Temple and Jonestown on all levels: Guards didn’t just wake people up by knocking on the walls of the cottages, they “pounded the walls with their fists”; the residents of Jonestown didn’t just sit on benches during the meetings at the pavilion, they sat on “hard benches”; and the screening procedures which met newcomers to the church in California is described not as going through security at an airport or entering a government building, but as “akin to entering a high-security prison.” In some places in the book, a strange moralism, unconnected to the events in Jonestown, peeps through. For instance, “His dad spanked him in the usual fashion, but this woman beat him with a hose.” Apparently it is okay to be spanked in a “usual fashion,” but using a hose seems to cross a line. We also learn that Laurence Mann, the Guyana official with whom Temple member Paula Adams was involved, was “on his third marriage at the time” while “Adams was wed to a Temple member in San Francisco,” as if a tale of infidelity and promiscuity like this would be unknown in the world outside the Temple.
The part of the book which I found most informative was the chapters about the end. I found it moving to read how little Maya Ijames asked innocently in a meeting what it meant “to plan your own death,” I was surprised to learn that Joyce Touchette had tried to get the George children out of Jonestown only to have them returned to her by their destitute mother, and I was crushed to read the details about how close Al Simon actually was to getting out of Jonestown with his three children, Crystal, Summer and Al Jr.
All in all, the book lands somewhere between Tim Reiterman’s Raven and Charles Krause’s Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account. It is informative and draws on a wealth of sources. Yet it is tinged with an outrage which certainly is fitting for the subject but which gets in the way of allowing the reader to think for oneself and come to the understanding the book aims to bring about. Instead, we are left with a cardboard-like image of Jim Jones and his closest associates. I don’t think such one-dimensional representations can be categorized as the “untold story” of Jonestown, as the cover of the book boasts.
Don’t get me wrong. It is not a bad book, and I am sure Ms. Scheeres has all the right intentions for writing the book this way. I am just not sure which new piece it adds to the puzzle that is Peoples Temple and Jonestown.
(Rikke Wettendorff is the administrator of the Peoples Temple Discussion Forum and the co-editor of the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)