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Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
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The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

A-A Thousand LivesJulia Scheeres wrote a scathing indictment of fundamentalism in her memoir Jesus Land (2005).

The Topic: In 1978, Americans learned of a tiny religious community in Guyana led by a pastor named Jim Jones. The community, nicknamed Jonestown, quickly became infamous when the media reported the mass "revolutionary" suicide that occurred there. More than 900 men, women, and children killed themselves with cyanide; Jones himself committed suicide with a gun. The images that Americans witnessed, of bodies splayed about, haunted the nation. Now, with the release of over 50,000 FBI documents, many of them letters and journals found at the scene, Scheeres revisits the Jonestown Massacre. With these new sources, she re-creates life within the compound in an attempt to understand how so many regular people--English teachers, retirees, college graduates, and parents--could follow Jones to their deaths.
Free Press. 320 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781416596394

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Scheeres convincingly portrays the members of this community as victims, not fools. It's hard to imagine how people might be so browbeaten, afraid and misled that they would bring about their own deaths--but Scheeres has made that terrifying story believable and human." Carolyn Kellogg

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"One gets the feeling that for Scheeres to step too far outside the walls of the Jonestown compound would feel like a betrayal of those who lost their lives there. So she keeps the focus steady, small and zeroed in on those lives. You will not be able to look away." Brook Wilensky-Lanford

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he story does bear retelling, not least for those too young to recall the shock that swept the world at the time, but also because Scheeres adds insights harvested from some 50,000 pages of letters, journals and other documents found in Jonestown and recently released by the F.B.I. The result is a gripping account of how decent people can be taken in by a charismatic and crazed tyrant." Alan Riding

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"One never quite gets a sense of the sheer remoteness of Jonestown (it's unclear whether she went there). Her account of the role of Guyana's dictatorship might have also been expanded; the country's autocratic leader, Forbes Burnham, must share some blame for tolerating this monster in his midst. But these are minor points in relation to a book that will enlighten and horrify in equal measure. There are lessons for all of us." John Gimlette

Critical Summary

A book about the biggest group suicide in American history is bound to be a difficult subject to write about, but Scheeres evenhandedly--and, more important, successfully--masters the topic. Many critics noted that she avoids the word "cult" and instead focuses on the average people and their role in the tragedy. By concentrating on the followers of the movement rather than the singular leader, Jim Jones, she provides a fresh perspective on the massacre. Even though some reviewers felt that Scheeres should have been a little broader in her research--discussing, for instance, the political climate of Guyana or the United States' role in investigating Jonestown--this is a minor quibble in a book that sheds light on one of the recent decades' human tragedies.