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A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown is a book that will stay with me for a long time. I was 14 when the Jonestown massacre/suicide happened; the age of many of the victims. I remember hearing about it, and of course “drinking the Kool-Aid” is part of the culture now. But to read the story of how Jim Jones convinced hundreds of people to follow his commands, even including ending their owns lives, was unbelievable. As I read, I kept thinking, “Wow, truth really is stranger than fiction,” or thinking that this reminded me of a weird “Twilight Zone” episode.
Jim Jones grew up in my home state of Indiana, and began his own church there. But “church” to Jim Jones was a little different from what you might expect. After a few years, one day he announced from the pulpit that he was God. Now, before you condemn him as a nut and wonder why anyone would go to his church, much of his appeal to others was that he was a huge proponent of socialism. He welcomed all into his church — blacks and whites together, during the racially rocky 1960s. Many blacks, especially, felt accepted by him. He moved his church to California and became increasingly socialist, asking then demanding that his followers live communally in apartments.
Eventually, even this wasn’t enough. He used church members’ money to buy land in Guyana (go ahead and look; I wasn’t sure exactly where it was, either) where he then asked/commanded members to move and live in what he described as a socialist paradise. However, members went there with one-way tickets, expecting Eden but finding Hell instead.
They were forced to work hard, were given little to eat, were put in an “isolation box” where they were deprived of food, light, and interaction for days on end for minor infractions, and were subjected to meetings in “the pavilion” where Jones droned on and on — not about God or Jesus, but about the glories of socialism and eventually, about how “others” were out to get them, and how it would be more dignified and noble to kill themselves rather than to allow themselves to be killed by outsiders.
I thought of Hitler over and over reading this — it really was too amazing to imagine how seemingly normal people went along with Jones (admittedly they did so partially out of fear; guards armed with tranquilizers and/or guns abounded in Jonestown) — one of his female assistants volunteered to help kill the settlement’s children when the time came. “It might be advisable to blindfold the people before going to the death place in that the blood and body remaining on the ground might increase their agitation.”
Jonestown’s doctor spent 6 days each week working. His off day was Wednesday, “When he stopped healing Jonestown residents and instead researched ways to kill them.” He was the one who came up with the “recipe” for the cyanide-laced drink mix that they ended up either drinking (adults) or having squirted into their mouths via syringe (babies and toddlers).
Relatives of many of those living in Jonestown became concerned and tried to get government assistance in getting their loved ones returned to America. But they got little help, since the officials contacted “couldn’t understand how a single man could wield that kind of power over so many people.”
Up to the end, Jones was delusional, saying: “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
It’s easy to assume that most of Jones’ followers were intellectual lightweights, but that’s not always the case. Take Edith Roller, a college-educated college employee who loved poetry and solitude (and who struggled with Jonestowns’ communal living conditions). She joined Jones’ followers because of her love for socialism. She kept a detailed diary of her time at Jonestown, which survives and provided much info for this book.
This book had some awkward writing issues, but the subject matter was so compelling that those were easy to overlook. Riveting!