A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

“A gripping account of how decent people can be taken in by a charismatic and crazed tyrant” (The New York Times Book Review).

In 1954, a past or named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. As Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers leaned on each other to recapture the sense of equality that had drawn them to his church. But even as the congregation thrived, Jones made it increasingly difficult for members to leave. By the time Jones moved his congregation to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. government began to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late.

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.


  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (November 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416596402
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416596400
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (151 customer reviews)
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  1. Like many people born in 1980 or later, I grew up with a vague notion of Jonestown as a weird town in a jungle where a bunch of people in a cult drank poison Kool-Aid and died. I use the term “drink the Kool-Aid” when I refer to someone completely buying in to an idea or a cause. But until I read this book, I never really knew what Jonestown was all about.

    Scheeres provides a service in this book, both as a skillful historian and as a compassionate human being. She synthesizes hours of audio recordings and written documents into a gut-wrenching tragedy that will linger with the reader. The true strength of her work is the constant tension between the hope of the individual characters and the inevitable doom that presses down on every page. Scheeres truly loves the victims of the massacre, and she is clearly determined to present them in sympathetic ways, sharing stories of simple people who came to Peoples Temple because it offered real racial integration, miraculous healings, and loving community. They believed in a socialism that affirmed the value of every human being, and they were willing to sign away all of their possessions for the cause.

    As the group developed, though, things got darker, and Scheeres brings in an impressive level of detail in her examples. She writes about demonstrably fake “healings” and sham “assassination attempts” that Jones fabricated to make his followers feel persecuted by outsiders. There are heart-dropping scenes when church members are forced to sign blank pieces of paper, knowing that if they desert their communities, then the church leaders will type confessions (to murder, child molestation, or any other crimes) and deliver them to authorities.Read more ›

  2. As a young survivor of this tragedy (17 years of age at the time), I found Julia Sheere’s ability to summarize and tell the events to be quite compelling. I myself who was there, learned a great deal more of the inside workings and manipulations which occurred.
    I am finally satisfied some body such as Julia took hold of the history of events and told them in such a manner to express we went to Jones Town – Because we had dreams of a better life! Not to die for some satanical, egomaniac!
    Thank you Julia!
    Thom Bogue

  3. This is one of those books that you don’t read for pleasure. To say that what happened at Jonestone was a tragedy is an understatement of incredible proportion. That goes without saying. Even though I once watched a documentary on television about Jonestown, I didn’t know much about it. (I was only 2 years old in 1978). As I watched that documentary, I remember thinking “Why didn’t they just leave?” This book helped me realize that the answer to that question is far more complex than it seems. The people at Jonestown left the United States in search of a dream. They wanted to live in a utopia of racial equality and harmony. By the time they realized just how dangerous and unstable Jim Jones really was, the settlement had become pretty much like a concentration camp. It can be easy to judge people who get involved with cults as stupid and naive. We tell ourselves that we would never get into a situation like that. But I think reality is that all humans need to believe in something. I think if the circumstances were right, anyone could be duped by a cult. That is why books like this are so important. I think it is so important to recognize the warning signs of a cult and to be proactive. Cult leaders like Jim Jones will often brainwash their followers, control them through brainwashing and some type of abuse, and isolate them from family and friends. I hope that people will read books like this and that something good will eventually come out of something so horrific and tragedy. I think it is also important to remember that that these were real people. They were someone’s friend, mother or father, son or daughter, grandparents, and friends. They had lives and names. Hindsight is always 20/20 and it’s easy to look back and see the clear warning signs.Read more ›

  4. Scheeres does a brilliant job outlining the events leading up to the Jonestown massacre. I can only imagine how daunting it was to sift through thousands of pages of document and hundreds of tapes and interviews, much of which was recently released by the FBI, to create this concise yet comprehensive depiction of Jim Jones’ ministry and the subsequent tragedy.

    Jones’ success in rehabilitating criminals and drug addicts and his acceptance of followers of all ages and races was initially inspiring. What began as a Christian mission of love and an opposition to discrimination turned into “Divine Socialism.” Those who were initially drawn to Jones’ faith healing and message of inclusion were pawns in his deceptive practices. As his thirst for power and his drug use and worsened, his paranoia increased, leading to his mistrust in the U.S. and thus his desire to emigrate to his colony in Guyana. He successfully convinced a majority of disciples to relocate to this socialist “paradise” only to find themselves in crowded compound with not enough to eat and their leader contemplating his final solution of “revolutionary suicide.” These poor gullible folks were led to believe that they were under siege and that their children would be tortured. Jim Jones’ deception and paranoid delusions led to the death of over 900 people including more than 300 children who were killed against their will. This is a sad piece of history but one that Scheeres conveys with essential background and appropriate gravity.

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