Monday, March 26, 2012

A Thousand Lives

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
by Julia Scheeres
Free Press, 2011. 307 pgs. Nonfiction

In November, 1978 over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in Jonestown, a settlement in Guyana established a few years earlier by their charismatic leader Jim Jones. The event was reported as a mass suicide, and since then most coverage of it has characterized Jones’ followers as brain-washed religious fanatics. However, Scheeres’ book reviews hundreds of recently declassified documents to humanize the victims of this tragedy and to try and shed some light on what happened that terrible day and why so many people wanted to follow Jones.

This book was both really hard to read and incredibly fascinating—kind of like a car accident that you can’t help but look at as you pass by. In the beginning, Jones’ church was a haven of integration and social justice for many people, particularly those who were poor and black. I could see why so many would want to join his church and follow him, and why leaving was impossible once they got to South America and realized that Jones was descending into madness. I also had not realized how many of the people who died that day were either children or the elderly, and I agree with the author that simply dismissing Jonestown as a cult-suicide rather than a mass murder is unfair to the victims and fails to capture the real complexity of what happened there. If you’re not squeamish and want something to really think about, read this book.


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