Review of A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres is a riveting and meticulously researched account of the Peoples Temple cult and the mass suicide and murder that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978. While the book's subject matter is dark, Scheeres manages to keep the narrative moving forward with her clear and engaging prose.
One of the book's strengths is Scheeres' ability to bring the members of Peoples Temple to life and to show how their desire to belong and create a better world allowed them to fall under the spell of Reverend Jim Jones. While it's easy to dismiss cult members as weak or gullible, Scheeres demonstrates how vulnerable people can find themselves drawn into a dangerous situation.
Another strength of the book is Scheeres' attention to detail. She provides a wealth of information about the cult's history, from its origins in Indiana in the 1950s to its move to San Francisco in the 1970s and ultimately to Jonestown. She also details some of the questionable actions Jones took, such as the staged healings and the mock suicides. These are telling examples of Jones' manipulative tactics and his willingness to deceive his followers.
The descriptions of life in Jonestown are captivating, from the grueling work required to build the community from scratch to the strict rules imposed on its inhabitants. Scheeres brings these details to life, showing the hardships but also the camaraderie that developed among the members.
When the book moves towards the final hours of Jonestown, the tension is palpable. Scheeres sets the stage for the violence that would occur, painting a picture of a community on the brink of collapse. The descriptions of suicide and murder are graphic and disturbing but never feel exploitative.
Scheeres also does an excellent job of balancing the account with compassion for the victims. It's easy to picture the lives snuffed out tragically, but Scheeres never strays into gratuitous shock or sensationalism. Throughout the book, Scheeres also peppers in the lives of a few Jonestown members, giving us a glimpse into their lives before Peoples Temple and what led them to join. Though it's difficult to identify with such an extreme situation, their stories help to humanize the members of Peoples Temple and make their tragic end all the more poignant.
While the book is focused on Peoples Temple, Scheeres takes care to place the story within the broader context of American and global history. She references events like the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War to provide a backdrop for the paranoia and disillusionment that drove so many to seek out a better way of life.
The quality of Scheeres' writing should not be overlooked either. She effectively takes a difficult historical subject and presents it in a manner that is both insightful and digestible. Her prose feels clear and engaging, and it's hard not to be swept along with the events of the book. Scheeres manages to balance both her admiration for people who tried to create a better world and pity for their suffering.
In conclusion, A Thousand Lives is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding more about cults and the psychology of control. Scheeres has clearly done her research and presents a well-written, nuanced account of the events that took place in Jonestown. While it's certainly not an easy read, it's an important one and a stark reminder of the human cost of blind obedience and manipulation.