Haunting account of the Peoples Temple, focusing on Jim Jones’ many victims.
Scheeres (Jesus Land: A Memoir, 2005) notes that her personal experience at a Christian reform school made her empathetic to the luckless individuals who died at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, since derided as cultists or worse: “My aim here is to help readers understand the reasons that people were drawn to Jim Jones and his church.” Accomplishing this goal with crisp prose and impressive research, she delivers a sort of ’70s social thriller with the weight of onrushing tragedy. Scheeres dove into 50,000 pages of FBI documents, released to little fanfare, including diaries of true believers and reams of bizarre correspondence between Jones and his inner circle, proving that he was considering ways to kill his followers for years prior to the mass-murder suicide. Jones’ early years remain confounding: He began preaching as a Pentecostal in Indiana in the 1950s, fighting for integration long before it was considered safe to do so. His apparent passion for social justice in these early years won him a devoted, largely African-American congregation. Upon moving to California in the late ’60s, Jones cultivated ties to the state’s power structure, which gave political cover to his increasingly wealthy and secretive church. “In the early days,” write Scheeres, “there was a real sense of camaraderie in Jonestown”—but this changed after Jones arrived there permanently in 1977. By then, Jones had rejected most elements of mainstream Christianity in favor of something much darker; he’d become obsessed with “revolutionary suicide,” a concept advanced by Huey Newton, which Jones deliberately misinterpreted. Scheeres shows great compassion and journalistic skill in reconstructing Jonestown’s last months and the lives of many Temple members (including a few survivors), showing the documents archived by the FBI “tell a nightmarish tale of…idealists who realized, too late, that they were trapped.”
Well-written, disturbing tale of faith and evil.