A Review of Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives

Writing a book about a tragedy that has been the focus of forty previous volumes, and dealt with in many more, requires a measure of both courage and hubris. Is there anything that hasn’t been said in at least forty different ways? Can there be anything that has not yet been illumined?

Julia Scheeres’ narrative nonfiction A Thousand Lives is the most recent installment in a body of literature about what has been called the “catastrophic millennialism” of Jim Jones.[1] And while the subtitle of Scheeres’ book claims that it is the “untold story” of Jonestown because it uses FBI files she herself got access to three years ago, the story of Peoples Temple has been told over and over again, by academics and journalists and artists and survivors. The retellings, including Scheeres’, are testament to the magnitude of the tragedy and the multiplicity of lenses through which one can view Jonestown: what it stood for, what balance of good and evil it contained, and how what began as a Christian movement committed to social justice and equality could end in bloated bodies. No matter how many more books appear, observers will likely never agree on what Jonestown meant, nor who is authorized to interpret its legacy.

Reading A Thousand Lives, or any book about Jonestown, inevitably feels a little bit like rubbernecking. But what ultimately makes A Thousand Lives so unsettling is not just the deaths of over nine hundred people, including three hundred children, or the bizarre behaviors of its leader. What makes the book so powerful is Scheeres’ reminder that the Peoples Temple could have comprised you, me, her, or anyone concerned about racism, gender inequality, and poverty, anyone eager to belong to a community devoted to works of justice and compassion.

Scheeres’ biggest misstep may be her dismissal of previous accounts of Jonestown as either “sensational media accounts” or “narrow academic studies.”[2] The Jonestown canon is wide and deep, and while it does feature some lurid tabloidism and fusty scholarship, it also includes several noteworthy books that are, like Scheeres’, humanizing, accessible accounts of the tragedy. Making one’s way through well-traveled territory should not require pooh-poohing those whose tracks one follows.

So is there anything new in A Thousand Lives? Yes, although perhaps less than one might think. The 50,000 recently released FBI files include reams of financial statements and correspondence that, while adding to the body of primary source documentation about Jonestown, alters what was already known only a little. In a review in The Jonestown Report, an annual publication of Jonestown-related research, psychologist Katherine Hill suggests that “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.”[3]

And while Scheeres’ book has garnered favorable reviews in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and a starred review in Publishers Weekly, those close to Jonestown have had a more ambivalent reaction. In another The Jonestown Report review, one survivor writes that A Thousand Lives “seems heavy on abuse and discipline, and light on the personal, social and psychological rewards of the communal, politically engaged life.” It was these rewards, claims Kathy Tropp Barbour, that “at least while Peoples Temple was still stateside, made so few of us members seriously entertain the idea of leaving.”[4]

Still, while A Thousand Lives is not singular in scope or approach, and while it risks erasing, for a popular audience, the influence of other worthy treatments of Jonestown, it does deserve attention for its portrait of Jonestown members who, Scheeres claims, should be remembered as “noble idealists.”[5] Her examination of the slow slide of utopian ideals into dystopian nightmare, and of the powerful curry of apocalyptic ideology and charismatic authority that led hundreds to consent to “revolutionary suicide,” is compelling. And more than some Jonestown accounts, A Thousand Lives manages to make visible the longings of at least some Jonestown residents, implicitly encouraging readers to identify with them. An example of this is the scene in which survivor Hyacinth Thrash, an elderly Jonestown resident who slept through the poisoning, learns of the tragedy on the morning of November 19, the day after the murder-suicides. Thrash notices that her roommates, who had gone to a hastily-called meeting at the pavilion the day before, have not returned. As we watch Thrash hobble out the door of her cottage, in that last moment before discovering that her loved ones are all dead, we, too, are confused by the “deep stillness” that greets her. We, too, find ourselves blinking in the blinding Guyanese sun, wondering what on earth could have gone wrong.

(Copyright © 2012 by The Christian Century. This excerpt of “The lure of Jonestown” by Valerie Weaver-Zercher is reprinted with permission from the May 30, 2012 issue of The Christian Century. (Ms. Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.)

[1] Catherine Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently. (Seven Bridges Press, 2000), 37.

[2] Julia Scheeres, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (Free Press, 2011), xii.

[3] Katherine Hill, “Rewriting Jonestown”, the jonestown report, October 2011, vol. 13.

[4] Kathy Tropp Barbour, “In Search of the Grander Scale,”; the jonestown report, October 2011, vol. 13.

[5] Scheeres, 250.