I remember seeing the news about the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, when I was a student at William & Mary. I stood watching the television in the cafeteria, unable to believe that the story was real. My friends tried to convince me that it was real, that the story had been in the news and they’d been following it, but I was convinced they were pulling my leg. I thought it was a bad tv movie using real network news reporters as actors. When a reporter said a California congressman had been shot and killed, I was convinced it had to be fiction. Nothing like that could ever happen in real life.
But, no, it was real. Almost a thousand people had “killed themselves” by “drinking Kool-Aid.” As Scheeres’s book emphasizes, it wasn’t really Kool-Aid but an off-brand flavored drink to which had been added enough cyanide to kill everyone in the commune in Guyana, and many of the people who ingested the poison that night did not do so willingly. Many were in Guyana against their will and had been led to Guyana under false pretenses. None-the-less, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” has come into popular use to mean, according to Wikipedia, “a person or group’s unquestioning belief in an ideology, argument, or philosophy without critical examination.”
For the thirty-four years between the news reports of the tragedy at Jonestown in 1978 to the time I read Julia Scheeres’s book, I hadn’t really thought about the individuals who died that night. In “A Thousand Lives,” Scheeres concentrates on a few of those thousand, and shows how they ended up as part of Jim Jones’ sick cult. For the most part, individuals and families joined Jones’ Peoples Temple because they thought it was a community of racial and social equality, and that Jones was a powerful, positive healer who was in communication with God himself. By the time they found out that things were not as they’d been led to believe, they had been manipulated into giving Jones all their money and could not afford to escape. Some had been coerced into signing fake confessions to sexual crimes they did not commit; Jones threatened to make these “confessions” public to ensure the followers’ allegiance to the Temple.
The individual stories put faces to tragedy. Hyacinth Thrash and her sister, Zeporah, were black women who had grown up in segregated Alabama. Hy saw the Peoples Temple as a congregation of racial equality and saw Jones as a healer. The sisters followed Jones from Chicago to San Francisco and ultimately to Guyana as he moved his Temple as it grew. Stanley Clayton was a black seventeen-year-old foster child living near San Francisco when he heard Jones preach. He thought Jones was a savior that would help keep him off the streets. Edith Roller, an older white secretary, felt strongly that she needed to help the hungry and work toward peace and justice. She saw the Peoples Temple as a place that matched her ideals. Jim Bogue was a father who found the Peoples Temple after the accidental death of one of his sons pushed him to reevaluate his beliefs and his spiritual commitment to God. Tommy Bogue, Jim Bogue’s teenage son, was sent to Jonestown by his mother to be with his father. With his friend Brian, Tommy tried to escape the cult in the jungle. (Photos of Hyacinth, Stanley Edith and Tommy are at http://juliascheeres.com/index.shtml)
Scheeres also paints a picture of Jones himself, and attempts to explain how, with the help of a handful of others he appointed to positions of power, he was able to control the 900-some people who joined the Peoples Temple. It is still hard to believe that nearly a thousand people would join Jones’ community, and would stay once they realized it was not a socialist paradise, but Scheeres’s book helps make clear how cults are formed. Powerful people make promises to pull people in, and use threats, fear and poverty to keep them in line. The story of Jonestown is much more complex than a flock of sheep following a man without question.
Written as a novel, but with detailed references in the back, Scheeres’s story of Jonestown was hard for me to put down.
Check the WRL catalog for A Thousand Lives