Julia Scheeres was only eleven in 1978 when 918 people in Jonestown committed mass suicide. She learned of the episode when she spotted her family’s copies of Time and Newsweek, both of which featured cover photos of bloated bodies rotting in the jungle. Scheeres’ parents quickly realized the images were not appropriate for young children and spirited away the magazines.
It was not until 30 years later, when Scheeres was working on a novel about a charismatic preacher in Indiana, that she thought again of Jim Jones, the Pentecostal leader of the People’s Temple and the man who created Jonestown in Guyana and induced so many of his followers to kill themselves. Jones was from Indiana and Scheeres googled him to see if there was some aspect of his life that might inform her fiction.
She found herself at the Jonestown Institute website and started to poke around. Soon Scheeres was reading FBI documents about Jonestown, as well as letters and diaries from those who lived and died there. Scheeres, who had herself spent time in a strict, religious reform school (which her bestselling memoir, Jesus Land chronicles) was fascinated by the stories. They resonated with her.
“I started reading these documents,” said Scheeres, 44, who lives in Berkeley with her husband, the historian and professor Tim Rose, and their two small daughters. “I was interested in the grander scale story: how does a person end up in Jonestown?
While there have been numerous books of the 1978 Jonestown tragedy, most of them focus on Jones or were personal stories written by former Temple members. Scheeres wanted to examine the ordinary people in the church and explore how they found themselves trapped in South America and forced to drink cyanide-laced punch.
Scheeres will be talking about A Thousand Lives tonight, Wednesday Oct. 26, at Books Inc on Fourth Street in Berkeley at 7 pm.
Scheeres, who has a journalism degree from USC, spent a year reading through 50,000 pages of documents, letters, and diaries collected by the FBI in Guyana and only released in 2009. She also interviewed numerous survivors. What she found, and what runs contrary to the myth about Jonestown, is that the 918 people did not die willingly. Instead, Scheeres contends, many of the victims were coerced.
Jim Jones attracted people to his church at first because he preached a message of equality and inclusion. His early church in Indiana in the 1950s, during an era of widespread segregation, was integrated. As the church grew and evolved, locating first in rural northern California and then San Francisco, it expanded its social service programs. It fed the poor, helped drug addicts get clean, supported members to further their education, and provided medical care. People joined that church, Scheeres contends, not the one it evolved into. For that reason, she does not use the word “cult” anywhere in the book.
“I did that out of respect,” she said. “I think cult is a loaded word and I decided not to use it. People didn’t join a cult. They joined a church, a movement.”
When Jones grew paranoid and convinced the world was out to get him, he set up Jonestown in Guyana. Many of the temple members who went there thought they were only going to stay a few months and then return to the Bay Area. Or they thought they were sending their children down there for something like a semester abroad program. But once they arrived, Jones’s confiscated their passports. He eventually stopped feeding them sufficiently and subjected them to long meetings that went into the night. He also started talking about mass suicide. Any signs of dissent were quickly put down.
“I want readers to take away the realization how trapped these people were in Jonestown,” said Scheeres.
While 33 years have passed since the tragedy, the scars still linger. One of the main characters in the book, for example, is Stanley Clayton, who joined the temple in 1971. Here is Scheeres description of that day:
“As churchgoers streamed into the Temple one Sunday morning in 1971, a teenager named Stanley Clayton joined them, eager to hear the preacher that had set the black community abuzz. Dressed in a Sears wide-lapel three-piece suit and accompanied by his foster mother, the 17-year-old arrived on a Temple bus that regularly transported worshippers from the East Bay to San Francisco. As he wove through the crowd looking for a seat, he was surprised to see so many people in jeans and t-shirts; where he came from folks “suited down” for church.”
Clayton survived the massacre but he never quite recovered. He is now living in a homeless shelter in Berkeley. He still regards his days in People’s Temple and the friendships he made there as the best part of his life.
“I am hoping my book shows how any of us could go down to Jonestown,” said Scheeres.
Scheeres’ website has a section called “The Vault,” which has photographs, videos, and audio clips of People’s Temple and Jonestown. The FBI collected more than 1,000 cassette tapes made by Jones and a number related to the characters in the book are included here.