"Julia Scheeres's book sheds startling new light on this murky, mini-chapter of contemporary history....the narrative is [a] compelling...psychological mystery." --The Wall Street Journal
"Chilling and heart-wrenching, this is a brilliant testament to Jones's victims, so many of whom were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time." --Publisher's Weekly, starred review
"Jonestown has become a grim metaphor for blind obedience—for fanaticism without regard to consequences. In the aptly titled A Thousand Lives, Julia Scheeres captures the humanity within this terrible story, vividly depicting individuals trapped in a vortex of hope and fear, faith and loss of faith, not to mention the changes sweeping America in the 1960s and '70s. She makes their journeys to that unfathomable tragedy all too real; what was truly incredible, she shows, was the escape from death by a tiny handful of survivors. Drawing on a mountain of sources compiled and recently released by the FBI, she changes forever the way we think about this dark chapter of our history." —T.J. Stiles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
"Scheeres shows great compassion and journalistic skill in reconstructing Jonestown’s last months and the lives of many Temple members (including a few survivors)...[A Thousand Lives is a] well-written, disturbing tale of faith and evil." --Kirkus
"For those who can picture only the gory end of Jonestown, Julia Scheeres offers a heartbreaking and often inspiring glimpse of what might have been. Her masterfully told and exhaustively researched A Thousand Lives should stand not only as the definitive word on Jones’ horrific machinations, but on the utopian dreams of a bygone generation. A worthy follow-up to her superb memoir, Jesus Land." --Tom Barbash, author of On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal
"How do you tell a new story about Jim Jones and his followers, when everyone knows how it ends? ...Julia Scheeres’ riveting A Thousand Lives gives us reason to look again. " --Miami Herald
“The definitive book on Jonestown and the Danse Macabre of suicide and murder orchestrated by mad Jim Jones. Julia Scheeres takes us by the hand and leads us gently, inexorably, into the darkness.” –Tim Cahill, author of Lost in My Own Backyard
"Julia Scheeres' A Thousand Lives... tells the tragic tale of Jonestown -- in its way, a peculiarly American apocalypse." --L.A. Times
"The first solid history of the Temple...less a warning about the dangers of religosity than a clear headed chronology." --San Francisco magazine
“This the best book in a good long time on the dangers of fanatical faith, the power of group belief and lure of deep certainties. These demons that haunt the human mind can only be countered by facing them with courage and honesty – this is precisely what Scheeres has done.” --Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us
“I thought I knew the story of Jonestown, but in reading A Thousand Lives discovered that much of what I'd read and heard was pure myth. Through meticulous research, beautiful writing and great compassion, Scheeres presents an engrossing account of how Jim Jones' followers--eager parishioners who yearned for a more purposeful life and were willing to work for it--found themselves trapped in a nightmare of unfathomable proportions. This book serves as testimony to the seductiveness of religious fervor, and how in the wrong hands it can be used to nefarious ends. It is also a poignant and unforgettable tribute to those who lost their lives and to those few who survived.” -- Allison Hoover Bartlett, author of the bestselling The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
"Her account is notably levelheaded in a field where sensationalism, conspiracy theories and bizarre reasoning run free." --Salon
"A gripping account of how decent people can be taken in by a charismatic and crazed tyrant." --New York Times Book Review
"Almost unbearably chilling... but tempered with enormous sympathy." --Boston Globe
"A work of deep empathy for so many lives lost in the name of different shades of hope." --L.A. Times
A New York Times Editor's Choice
"It is important to get a story like this out there and remind the public about it once in a while, so that history like this does not repeat itself." --Gather.com
"The revelations of [A Thousand Lives] shine through our everyday relationships to war, our politics, our beliefs and our own actions. This is a strikingly relevant book ." --San Francisco Sunday Chronicle Book Review
"Gripping." --The Globe and Mail
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2011
A Boston Globe Best Book of 2011
From the Inside Flap
Had I walked by 1859 Geary Boulevard in San Francisco when Peoples Temple was in full swing, I certainly would have been drawn to the doorway.
I grew up in a strict Christian family with an adopted black brother; race and religion were the dominant themes of my childhood. In our small Indiana town, David and I often felt self-conscious walking down the street together. Strangers scowled at us, and sometimes called us names. I wrote about the challenges of our relationship in my memoir, Jesus Land.
Suffice it to say, David and I would have been thrilled and amazed by Peoples Temple, a church where blacks and whites worshipped side by side, the preacher taught social justice instead of damnation, and the gospel choir transported the congregation to a loftier realm. We longed for such a place.
Unfortunately, the laudable aspects of Peoples Temple have been forgotten in the horrifying wake of Jonestown.
I stumbled onto writing this book by accident. I was writing a satirical novel about a charismatic preacher who takes over a fictional Indiana town, when I remembered Jim Jones was from Indiana, and Googled him. I learned that the FBI had released fifty thousand pages of documents, including diaries, meeting notes, and crop reports, as well as one thousand audiotapes that agents found in Jonestown after the massacre, and that no one had used this material to write a comprehensive history of the doomed community. Once I started digging through the files, I couldn't tear myself away.
It was easy to set my novel aside. I believe that true stories are more powerful, in a meaningful, existential way, than made-up ones. Learning about other peoples' lives somehow puts one's own life in sharper relief.
Aside from race and religion, there were other elements of the Peoples Temple story that resonated with me. When David and I were teenagers, our parents sent us to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic that had some uncanny parallels with Jonestown. I could empathize with the residents' sense of isolation and desperation.
You won't find the word cult in this book, unless I'm directly citing a source that uses the word. My aim here is to help readers understand the reasons that people were drawn to Jim Jones and his church, and how so many of them ended up dying in a mass-murder suicide on November 18, 1978. The word cult only discourages intellectual curiosity and empathy. As one survivor told me, nobody joins a cult.
To date, the Jonestown canon has veered between sensational media accounts and narrow academic studies. In this book, I endeavor to tell the Jonestown story on a grander, more human, scale.
Berkeley, California, March 24, 2011