Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter?

I like nonfiction books about really terrible things. I don’t know why, but I find it interesting to vicariously experience nightmarish suffering from a safe distance, through the pages of a well-researched book.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres is one of these. Subtitled The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, it tells the inside story of The People’s Temple Full Gospel Church, founded by a charismatic preacher named James Jones in the mid-1950s.

When I opened this book, I knew only what everyone knows (or thinks they know) about Jonestown: it was a religious cult whose members first moved to Guyana and then, in 1978, drank cyanide together. Nearly a thousand people died, over 200 of them children.

Scheeres uses 50,000 pages of letters, journals and other documents found in Jonestown and recently released by the F.B.I. in an attempt to understand the people who belonged to the People’s Temple. Why did they follow Jones? What did they hope to find in the jungles of South America? She succeeds in helping the reader get to know them: the angry young black man who wanted to fight injustice; the elderly woman who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, who believed Jones was a savior; the working-class man trapped by his wife’s devotion to Jones; the rebellious boy desperate to escape.

Originally, it seems the People’s Temple was a very attractive church, preaching kindness and empathy. Jones taught a gospel of racial and sexual equality, and reached out to both white and black parishioners at a time when most churches were deeply segregated. Christians who believed in social justice might well find the People’s Temple appealing.

But over the years, it evolved. Jones began to teach his followers that they were hated and feared, even going so far as to fake attacks and assassination attempts. He also began to systematically drug people, and to punish those who seemed inclined to question his authority. And that was just the beginning.

The story is chilling and heartbreaking, especially since it’s accompanied by smiling photographs of those who died. It doesn’t answer all the questions surrounding Jonestown - I don’t think any book could satisfactorily do that. It does explore the inexorably-escalating horror with compassion, and details the little-known stories of those who survived.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown is a work of great empathy for people caught in a terrifying trap. It is awful and fascinating.

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