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 conservative 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 people’s 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
© 2011 Julia Scheeres
The journey up the coastline was choppy, the shrimp trawler too far out to get a good look at the muddy shore. While other passengers rested fitfully in sleeping bags spread out on the deck or in the berths below, fifteen-year-old Tommy Bogue gripped the slick railing, bracing himself against the waves. He’d already puked twice, but was determined not to miss a beat of this adventure. The constellations soared overhead, clearer than he’d ever seen them. He wiped salt spray from his eyes with an impatient hand and squinted at the horizon. He was still boy enough to imagine a pirate galleon looming toward them, the Jolly Roger flapping in the Caribbean breeze.
This was his first sea journey. His first trip outside the United States. He squinted at South America as it blurred by, vague and mysterious, imagining the creatures that roamed there. A few years earlier, he’d devoured DC Comics’ Bomba, The Jungle Boy series, and now imagined himself the hero of his own drama.
The very name of his destination was exotic: Guyana. None of his school friends had ever heard of it, nor had he before his church established an agricultural mission there. After his pastor made the announcement, Tommy read and reread the Guyana entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica until he could spout Guyanese trivia to anyone who showed the slightest interest in what the lanky, bushy-haired teen had to say. Aboard the Cudjoe, he ticked off this book knowledge to himself. Jaguars. Howler monkeys. One of the world’s largest snakes, the green anaconda, growing up to twenty feet long and reaching 350 pounds. The country was home to several of the world’s largest beasts: the giant anteater, the giant sea otter, the giant armadillo, the fifteen-foot black caiman. He knew a few things about the strangeness surrounding him, and those few things comforted him.
The plane ride from San Francisco to Georgetown had been another first for Tommy. He sat next to another teenager from his church, Vincent Lopez, and the two boys took turns gaping out the small convex window as they soared over the Sierra Nevada, the Great Plains, the farm belt—the entire breadth of America. The cement mass of New York City astounded him; skyscrapers bristled toward every horizon. At JFK International Airport, Pastor Jones, who was going down to visit the mission himself, kept a tight hand on the boys as he herded them toward their connecting flight.
Everything about Tommy Bogue was average—his height, his build, his grades—except for his penchant for trouble. His parents couldn’t control him. Neither could the church elders. He hated the long meetings the congregation was required to attend, and was always sneaking off to smoke weed or wander the tough streets of the Fillmore District. Ditching church became a game, one he was severely punished for, but which proved irresistible.
They’d only told him two days ago that he was being sent to the mission field. His head was still spinning with the quickness of it all. The counselors told him he should feel honored to be chosen, but he was wise to them. He overheard people talking about manual labor, separation from negative peers, isolation, culture shock: All these things were supposed to be good for him. He knew he was being sent away, but at least he’d get out of the never-ending meetings, and more important, he’d see his father, for the first time in two years.
His dad left for Guyana in 1974, one of the pioneers. He’d called home a few times over the mission’s ham radio, and in brief, static-filled reports, he sounded proud of what the settlers had accomplished: clearing the bush by hand, planting crops, building cottages. Tommy was eager to see it himself.
Finally, as the sun blazed hot and high overhead, the Cudjoe shifted into low gear and swung toward land. The other church members crowded Tommy as the boat nosed up a muddy river, the wake lifting the skirts of the mangroves as it passed. In the high canopy, color flashed: parrots, orchids, bromeliads.
The travelers slipped back in time, passing thatched huts stilted on the river banks and Amerindians, who eyed them warily from dug-out canoes. This was their territory. Late in the afternoon, the passengers arrived at a village named Port Kaituma and excitement rippled through them. The deck hands tied the Cudjoe to a pole in the water and Tommy helped unload cargo up the steep embankment. Pastor Jones, who’d spent most of the trip secluded in the deck house, welcomed them to the village as if he owned it. There wasn’t much to it beyond a few stalls selling produce and secondhand clothes. As he spoke, Tommy listened attentively along with the others; Guyana was a fresh start for him, and he planned to stay out of trouble. Jones told the small group that the locals were grateful for the church’s assistance—the mission’s farm would put food on their tables.
After a short delay, a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer motored up and the newcomers climbed aboard with their gear. The tractor slipped and lurched down the pitted road to the mission, and the passengers grabbed the high sides and joked as if they were on a hayride. All were in good spirits.
At some point, Tommy noticed the squalor: the collapsing shanties, the naked brown kids with weird sores and swollen bellies, the dead dogs rotting where they fell. The trenches of scummy water. The stench. The mosquitoes whining in his ears. The landscape didn’t jibe with the slide shows Pastor Jones had shown at church, which made Guyana look like a lush resort.
Tommy didn’t point out these aberrations, but turned to listen to Pastor Jones, who raised his voice above the tractor’s thrumming diesel engine. He was boasting, again, about how everything thrived at the mission. About the ice cream tree, whose fruit tasted like vanilla ice cream. About the protective aura surrounding the Church’s property: There was no sickness there, no malaria or typhoid, no snakes or jungle cats ventured onto it. Not one mishap whatsoever. The adults nodded and smiled as they listened. Tommy turned toward the jungle again. The bush was so dense he couldn’t see but a yard in before it fell away into darkness.
The tractor veered down a narrow road and passed through a tight stand of trees. The canopy rose two hundred feet above them. The light dimmed as they drove through this tree tunnel, as if they’d entered a candle-lit hallway and someone was blowing out the candles one by one. The air was so still it bordered on stagnant. Tommy glanced behind them at the receding brightness, then ahead, to where his father waited.
They drove into a large clearing. Here were a few rustic buildings, and beyond them, rows and rows of plants. A dozen or so settlers stood along the entry road, and the two groups shouted joyfully to each other. Tommy didn’t immediately see his dad. He was disappointed, but unsurprised; his old man was probably nose to the grindstone, as always. He lifted his duffle bag onto his shoulder and jumped onto the red earth, happy to have arrived, at long last, in Jonestown.
© 2011 Julia Scheeres
The Untold Story of Jonestown
A Thousand Lives
The Untold Story of Jonestown
A Thousand Lives is the story of Jonestown as it has never been told. New York Times bestselling author Julia Scheeres drew from tens of thousands of recently declassified FBI documents and audiotapes, as well as rare videos and interviews, to piece together an unprecedented and compelling history of the doomed camp, focusing on the people who lived there.
The people who built Jonestown wanted to forge a better life for themselves and their children. In South America, however, they found themselves trapped in Jonestown and cut off from the outside world as their leader goaded them toward committing “revolutionary suicide” and deprived them of food, sleep, and hope. Vividly written and impossible to forget, A Thousand Lives is a story of blind loyalty and daring escapes, of corrupted ideals and senseless, haunting loss.