Journalist Julia Scheeres stumbled into writing her new book quite by accident. Following up her remarkable memoir, Jesus Land (2005), which described the confinement and terrors of growing up in a conservative Christian family in a small Indiana town, Scheeres was writing a satirical novel about a charismatic preacher who takes over a fictional Indiana town. As she was writing, she remembered that Jim Jones was from Indiana; she Googled him and discovered that the FBI had just released 50,000 pages of documents that were found in Jonestown after the massacre.
"Jonestown has always fascinated me," Scheeres told RBL from her home in Berkeley, Calif. "I can recall vividly seeing the bloated bodies on covers of Time and Newsweek in December 1978 and being baffled about how such an event could happen in a community that called itself Christian."
Scheeres stopped working on her novel and spent a year reading through the newly available documents in search of the true stories of the people who joined the Peoples Temple and followed Jim Jones to Guyana. She found many parallels between her own experiences, as she described them in Jesus Land, and the experiences of Jones' followers. That led to her new book--A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (Free Press, Oct.).
Even though they were raised in a Christian home, she and her adopted black brother never felt they belonged, either in their small town or in their church. At the beginning of his ministry, Jones attempted to break down racial barriers in the Peoples Temple, and Scheeres points out that she and David, her brother, would have been "thrilled and amazed by the Peoples Temple where blacks and whites worshipped side by side and the preacher taught social justice instead of damnation."
When her parents sent her and her brother to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic, they were isolated and felt trapped. "There was physical humiliation; they censored communication home, so there was a sense of being away from home without a voice." In the same way, Jim Jones isolated his congregation in Guyana, not allowing them to communicate with the outside world, punishing them if they questioned or rebelled against his leadership, and physically preventing them from escaping the community by stationing heavily armed guards around the compound.
"When I started the book, I saw Jim Jones as pure evil," Scheeres says, "but I had a more nuanced view of him after writing the book." Early in his ministry, Jones preached a message of hope and social change and attracted people who idealistically believed that they could alter the racial injustices of society. Did Jones believe that he was helping blacks by helping them to integrate into white society, or was he just preying on vulnerable people who desired a better world?
Through her interviews with some of the survivors of the massacre, Scheeres uncovers the never-before-told stories of these people and why they were attracted to Jones and the Peoples Temple, their idealistic hopes of building a community in Guyana where they could help the local people, and the desperate fears brought on by their enforced separation from friends and families. Then they began slowly to realize Jones' plans to force them to kill themselves. Yet, "to this day there's a perception that the members of the Peoples Temple were psychotic Kool-Aid drinkers and baby killers." She hopes to correct this view; these people, she says, were joining a Christian church they believed could bring about change in the world, not some strange alternative religious movement.
Scheeres vividly recreates the events that occurred at Jonestown over thirty years ago and helps readers reconsider what happened there. By bringing to life the men, women, and children who embraced Jones and then followed him to Guyana, she enables readers to feel their isolation and fear. "These people had no choice but to die; they weren't going to survive, for if they refused the Kool-Aid they were injected with cyanide. If they tried to escape, they faced guards with guns and crossbows. This was not a mass suicide; it was a mass murder, and Jim Jones killed these people."