Sunday, December 14, 2014

Julia Scheeres, author of "A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown"

Christal Cooper 2,301 Words (including excerpt)

Julia Scheeres, author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

       “The more I understood what actually transpired in Jonestown, the more offended I became by the notion that Jones’ victims “drank the Kool-Aid.”  I felt a duty to defend them, to tell the true story of what happened in Jonestown.  The central argument of A Thousand Lives is that Jim Jones murdered his congregants – it was mass murder, not mass suicide.”

       “I kept putting it (writing the ending) off, going for walks, going out for coffee.  I didn’t want the people I’d been writing about for so long to die.  If it were fiction, I would have changed that ending.”
Julia Scheeres
Author of Jesus Land:  A Memoir and
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown

In November of 1978, eleven-year-old Julia Scheeres never dreamed she would grow up to be a writer and write about the Jonestown Massacre in A Thousand Lives:  The Untold Story of  Jonestown, published in 2011 by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Even still, she carries the memory of an eleven-year- old girl remembering the terrible tragedy that occurred on November  18, 1978 .

“My parents subscribed to Time and Newsweek magazines, and I remember the covers of both - shots of the Jonestown bodies. I was living in West Lafayette, Indiana at the time. I couldn’t wrap my head around how a fellow Hoosier and former Methodist pastor could orchestrate something so evil.”

Scheeres grew up in a strict Calvinist household with an adopted African American brother named David. She’d later write about their relationship in her New York Times bestselling memoir Jesus Land, published by Counterpoint Press in 2005.    

By 2009, Scheeres decided to take a break from non-fiction and focus on writing a fictional satirical novel Revman, about a charismatic reverend and city manager who dominates a small Indiana town.

“The novel was going to be an antidote to writing my memoir, Jesus Land, a way to poke fun at the small-minded religiosity that surrounded me as a kid and caused me so much pain and hilarity.”

       Scheeres, who is originally from Indiana, remembered that terrible event in November 1978 and decided to Google Reverend Jim Jones and The People’s Temple for inspiration for Revman. It was then that she learned that the FBI had recently released over 50,000 new pieces of paper and almost one thousand audiotapes that FBI agents had collected from Jonestown in November of 1978, after the massacre.   Soon her interest was no longer in Revman but in this new material released by the FBI that had her total attention, and her total urgency:  she realized the story of A Thousand Lives was more urgent to tell than Revman.     

“I think narrative nonfiction is the most powerful writing on earth. Not only is it entirely true, it borrows all the facets of good storytelling from fiction - writing in scene, dialogue, texture, tension, etc.  I love narrative nonfiction - true storytelling.
       Her agent, publisher, and editors all agreed with her – A Thousand Lives was more urgent to write, and in today’s time, it is easier to sell nonfiction books than fiction books.

       What makes A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown different from all other books about this event is that the book focuses on the individuals Jim Jones violated and not on Jim Jones.  One could take it a step farther and say that A Thousand Lives gives these individuals their individuality back – they are not viewed as ignorant or brainwashed, but human beings who yearned and worked for a better world, only to be conned by the great con man and murderer of all time, Reverend Jim Jones.  

“Jim Jones appeared to be a vociferous supporter of equality. That’s how he attracted such a large following of African Americans and whites who believed in this dream of social justice.”
       There are forty beautiful dreamers of social justice memorialized, by having their picture grace the inside and back covers of A Thousand Lives.

“Those are people mentioned in the book. You can look at their faces as you’re reading it and see they weren’t monsters or baby-killers, they were everyday folks who may look like someone you know - a friend, family member, etc. I wanted the reader to feel a deep emotional connection to these people, to see their faces and know their names. For too many years, they’ve been demonized as cultists and “Kool-Aid” drinkers.”  
Of the forty individuals she mentions in her book, the one she identified with the most was Thom Bogue, whose story begins in the first paragraph of the book.

“I was lucky that I was able to convince Thom Bogue to speak with me and that he only lived an hour north of me. He had an amazing recollection of events, and as a kid in Jonestown, a unique perspective.  When I was a teen, I was sent to a reform school and we bonded over our experiences. Some of the same punishments were used in Jonestown and at my school - such as shaving kids’ heads when they tried to run away, forbidding them from speaking or making them do manual labor for hours on end.” 

Scheeres wrote most of her book at the San Francisco Writers Grotto, a collective in San Francisco.   She wrote on her computer, listened to classical in the morning, jazz music in the afternoon, and drank Peet’s Coffee, Major Dickason’s Blend. 

“It took about three years.  I moved and was pregnant (twice, lost one) while writing it. Life got in the way. And when I was about to submit the book, the FBI released un-redacted versions of its files, meaning I could read the names of the members of Jones’ inner circle who encouraged him to kill everyone and who was sending down guns in false-bottomed crates, etc.” 

The two questions individuals tend to ask about Jim Jones are:  Was he mentally ill or plain evil? (and)  Were his motives ever pure?  

“He was a drug addict, a megalomaniac and a chronic liar. I don’t know that he ever had “pure” motives in his ministry, or just stumbled on a message that would attract a large following. I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer to that question.” 

       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 Encyclopedia Britannica until he could spout Guyanese trivia to anyone who showed the slightest interest in what the lanky, busy-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 form San Francisco to Georgetown had 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, held a tight hand on the boys as he herded them toward the 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 older 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 eyes 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 mosquitos 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 sand 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 tow group 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.    

One Thousand Lives:  The Untold Story of   
 Chapter 1:  “An Adventure”
         Pages 1 – 4
        Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo Description and Copyright Information

Photo 1
Julia Scheeres
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 2
Jacket cover of A Thousand Lives

Photo 3
Web logo of Julia Scheeres website

Photo 4
Web logo of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster

Photo 5
Julia Scheeres and brother  David on Thanksgiving Day 1977
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 6
December 4, 1978 issue of Time Magazine

Photo 7
December 4, 1978 issue of Newsweek Magazine

Photo 8
Jacket cover of Jesus Land

Photo 9
Web logo for Counterpoint Press

Photo 10
Jacket cover of Jesus Land

Photo 11
Julia Scheeres
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 12
Julia Scheeres interviewing Valita George, who lost all three of her siblings in Jonestwon.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 13
The Jonestown Nursery
Copyright granted by
Image used for educational and non-profit purposes

Photo 14
Jim Jones with some children of The People’s Temple taken in Jonestown.  This specific image was used in a People’s Temple brochure.
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Image used for educational and non-profit purposes.

Photo 15
The forty faces of individuals who were murdered by Jim Jones in Jonestown and displayed within the front and backcovers of A Thousand Lives
Each individual photograph given a copyright grant by
Image used for educational and non-profit purposes.

Photo 16
Tommy Bogue.
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Photo 17
That gate to the Escuela Caribe, the “therapeutic Christian boarding school” in the Dominican republic that Julia Scheeres and brother David attended. 
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 18
Siblings David and Julia Scheeres in their teens.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 19
Julia Scheeres writing at the San Francisco Writers Grotto
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 20
Julia Scheeres doing research at the Guyana Chronicle in Guyana.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres.

Photo 21
Jim Jones on the day of the mass murder.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 22
Jacket cover of A Thousand Lives

Photo 23
Julia Scheeres view as she takes the 12 hour boat ride to Jonestown.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 24
Map of Guyana from the Encyclopedia Britannica
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 25
Tommy Bogue.
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Image used for educational and non-profit purposes.

Photo 26
Jim Bogue in Jonestown
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Photo 27
CHS150 People’s Temple members working in water brigade to irrigate crops, Jonestown, Guyana circa 1974-1978
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Photo 28
CHS084 Peoples Temple members on board the Cudjoe (Peoples Temple boat), Guyana 1977 October
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Image used for educational and non-profit purposes

Photo 29
Members of the People Temples’ on board the tractor in Jonestown.
CHS125 Peoples Temple members on tractor, Jonestown, Guyana circa 1974-1978
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Image used for educational and non-profit purposes

Photo 30
The entrance to Jonestown

Public Domain

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