The story of Peoples Temple still warrants attention, and in A Thousand Lives, Julia Scheeres tells it with a degree of thoroughness and detail that it’s rarely been given before. Although most of the principals of Peoples Temple died with it and many of its own records were destroyed before they could be seized, she was granted unusual access to remaining documents and government files, and was able to conduct in-depth interviews with some survivors of the massacre.
Yes, Jonestown did have survivors, and not all of the Peoples Temple’s members were actually in Jonestown when Jones and his followers took (or, in some cases, were force-fed or injected with) cyanide-laced fruit punch. The fact that some followers--including over two hundred children--did not die by their own hand makes the term “massacre” more generally applicable to what happened than “mass suicide,” although “tragedy” certainly fits as well.
Scheeres digs into the background of Peoples Temple, revealing that the group was formed almost twenty years before its founder spearheaded its relocation to Central America. In its early years, first in the Midwest and then in Northern California, Jim Jones attracted followers though his charismatic preaching and won their personal loyalty with his church’s idealistic devotion to social justice and equality. But as the groundwork was laid for the move to Guyana, the driving force behind the group became more more political; Jones had become a true believer in socialism, and he and other Temple leaders kept members in line through fear and threats of government persecution. In its later years, Peoples Temple was a cult of personality and politics that had little to do with religion; as good socialists, members were expected to reject God and put their faith in Jim Jones. By the time that some of them understood just how misplaced that faith was, they’d given up all their personal possessions to follow a man with an increasingly paranoid and dangerous worldview, and were stranded thousands of miles from their original homes and worried families.
A Thousand Lives isn’t so much the story of Jim Jones himself; as the title implies, Scheeres filters that story through the perspectives of several Peoples Temple members--a pair of elderly African-American sisters, a former schoolteacher, a troubled young man from the Oakland ghetto, and a blue-collar father and his teenage son. These people are portrayed with great compassion, and vividly convey the complexity and confusion that riddled Jonestown. They may have been bit players in the overall narrative of Peoples Temple, but their stories are important, and they add depth and dimension to a history we may have thought we knew. Its ending may be well-known, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of this tragic tale; A Thousand Lives is a fascinating, and shattering, read.