New York Times bestseller Julia Scheeres discusses racial utopias, the mass “suicide” in Jonestown in 1978, and coming of age in an abusive Christian reform school.
Photo courtesy J.D. Beltran.
Julia Scheeres is the author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown. The book follows five members of cult leader Jim Jones’s “Peoples Temple” congregation, who went to Guyana searching for utopia, only to become immersed in a nightmare. Over nine hundred members of Jones’s congregation died in a mass suicide (which Scheeres argues is better described as a “mass murder”) in 1978. Until September 11th, 2001, this was the single greatest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster. Based on declassified FBI documents and interviews with survivors, many of whom had never publicly recounted their story, Scheeres’s book animates the hopes and dreams of the Jonestown residents, and ultimately their betrayal at the hands of a charismatic and dangerous man.
Like Jones and many of his original followers, Scheeres grew up in Indiana. The discrimination she and her adopted black brothers experienced there caused Scheeres to long for racial harmony. It was a dream shared by many of Jones’s followers, 70 percent of whom were African-American. They were drawn to Jones by his platform; he described the Peoples Temple as a place where “all races, creeds, and colors find a hearty welcome.”
Scheeres, like the residents of Jonestown, understood how it felt to be isolated from the outside world, abused and controlled from within. She and I both spent part of our adolescence at Escuela Caribe, an American-run evangelical Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Scheeres chronicled her experiences there in her 2005 New York Times bestseller Jesus Land. After a series of negative news reports, Escuela Caribe was finally shut down in 2011, only to reopen under new management and with a different name. The school employs many of the same staff. This is documented in part in the forthcoming exposé Kidnapped for Christ, in which Scheeres and I are interviewed.
I talked to Scheeres about the atrocities committed in Jonestown, the process of imagining herself in the shoes of its victims and survivors, and finding her own form of racial utopia in modern-day Berkeley, California.
—Deirdre Sugiuchi for Guernica
Guernica: You and your adopted brother, David, who is black, grew up in an evangelical Christian family in rural Indiana. Could you talk a bit about what that was like?
Julia Scheeres: Our town was the definition of “white bread.” Very conservative and very racist. We were the weird family. I was called a “nigger lover,” my brothers were physically attacked.
My dad was a doctor, my mother a nurse. They met at Calvin College, where Calvinists go to find spouses. They were all signed up to go to Africa as medical missionaries when my sister Laura was born with spinal bifida, putting an end to that plan. Laura spent a lot of time in hospitals as a child, and during one stay she became very close to an orphaned white boy. My parents tried to adopt him, but he was taken. The adoption agency persisted: there were a lot of other kids who needed homes, they said. Black kids. This was in late 60s, a time of great racial upheaval in America. Because my parents viewed everything in religious terms, they believed God was testing them to see whether they’d adopt a nonwhite baby. They decided to make a statement by adopting a black boy: their God wasn’t a racist and neither were they. Later, I learned that the first time my mother picked up David, she feared “the black would rub off on her hands.”
Guernica: Your parents later adopted another, older son, Jerome, who was also black.
Julia Scheeres: Yes. And when we moved from town to the country when David and I were fifteen, things got worse. Soon after we started class at our new public high school, David walked into metals class and was greeted by a bunch of rednecks pounding on their desks chanting “KKK!” One of them shouted: “Let’s see how black skin burns!” before pressing the rod he’d been welding against David’s arm. The teacher saw this happen, but did nothing. So David found our older brother Jerome, who was much larger than he was, and Jerome stormed into the room and made threats of retaliation.
Feeling completely defeated and isolated, David started cutting himself, and soon after my parents sent him to a “Christian therapeutic boarding school” in the Dominican Republic: Escuela Caribe. I attended it too. It was anything but therapeutic.
Some Jonestown residents faked agreeing with Jones’s suicide plan because they simply wanted to go to bed, and the blessed oblivion of sleep. They knew he’d keep them up all night until every last person raised their hand to vote in favor of “revolutionary suicide.”
Guernica: Were there similarities between Escuela Caribe and Jonestown?
Julia Scheeres: As you know, there was no dissent allowed at Escuela Caribe. We weren’t allowed to say anything negative about the staff or program. If you complained, you were going to get in trouble. We got in trouble for looking sad, frustrated, or scared, and were told we had “attitude problems.” We were supposed to smile all the time—much like Jones wanted his people to do in Jonestown, to fool the outside world into believing they were happy there.
Students at Escuela Caribe faked conforming to the program because they were so desperate to leave. Some Jonestown residents faked agreeing with Jones’s suicide plan because they simply wanted to go to bed, and the blessed oblivion of sleep. They knew he’d keep them up all night until every last person raised their hand to vote in favor of “revolutionary suicide.”
I spent so much time at Escuela Caribe denying my true emotions and avoiding conflict that I became unsure of what my feelings really were. This is something that affects me to this day. I feel extremely uncomfortable during arguments, to the point of shutting down and not saying anything, like a turtle retracting into its shell. I can’t stand conflict.
Guernica: Your brother David died soon after the two of you graduated from Escuela Caribe. How were you affected by losing him?
Julia Scheeres: I was devastated. Shortly after he died, I transferred to another college, where I told everyone about my hilarious brother. I kept up this fiction for over a year, then blurted out the truth during a bout of drinking Peach Schnapps. I didn’t fit into the Christian college my parents sent me to. I felt tarnished by tragedy, between my brother’s death and Escuela Caribe, and everyone else seemed so carefree and happy and praising God. I couldn’t stand happy people for a long time, and was plagued by chronic migraines and stomach aches. I’d say between age thirteen and twenty-three was the most miserable time of my life. I wrote Jesus Land because I wanted there to be a record of David’s life. I was surprised that so many people read it, and felt moved by it.
Guernica: In the introduction to A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, you say that you think that if you’d come across Peoples Temple in your youth you and David would have been drawn to it. Why?
Julia Scheeres: Because as kids, David and I longed for acceptance. We were desperate to belong. We would have been thrilled to see the pews of Jones’s church in San Francisco, with blacks and whites sitting side by side. And Jones’s sermons on social justice and equality would have had much greater appeal to us than the soporific morality tales we were accustomed to hearing. Jones promised real racial equality. He promised to create a truly equal community in the jungle in Guyana.
Before starting this book, I was working on a satirical novel about a charismatic preacher who takes over a small Indiana town. Then I remembered Jim Jones was from Indiana and Googled him. I learned that the FBI had recently released all the documents that agents collected from Jonestown after the massacre—over 50,000 pieces of paper and almost 1,000 audio tapes. I started reading the files and couldn’t tear myself away; I find “true” stories inherently more powerful than fiction.
My parents subscribed to both Time and Newsweek and in 1978, I remember the covers of both that December were of the bodies in the jungle. The fact that many of the people who drank the cyanide—as well as Jones himself—were originally from Indiana, that stayed with me. I wanted to know why they did such a baffling, horrendous thing, why they would kill their children. Reading through journals and memos collected by the FBI revealed a story that was much more complex, and ultimately made more sense, than the sensational early media coverage of the massacre.
Guernica: What was the story? How did Jones use his message of racial equality to draw followers?
Julia Scheeres: Jones started out as a civil rights crusader in Indianapolis. As a young preacher in the mid-50s, he used members of his congregation to integrate lunch counters and all-white churches in rich neighborhoods; they’d just march in and sit down at the pews and see what happened. Often they were received with racist insults, and once with a bomb threat. But the fact that you had this charismatic, white man, aggressively promoting racial equality, was a huge draw for African Americans, many of whom felt the Civil Rights Movement had stalled by the late 60s. Jones adopted several nonwhite children and went so far as to claim he was of mixed black and Native American heritage—which was a lie.
Jonestown was supposed to be a great socialist experiment, a place where all the evil “isms” would be eradicated: racism, sexism, elitism. This appealed to blacks and white progressives alike. Fed up with racist “AmeriKKKa,” they were going to start their own society, on their own terms.
I think the folks who joined Jones’s church did so because they truly believed in his stated ideals of racial equality and social justice. That’s why he was able to convince one thousand of them to immigrate to the jungle of Guyana.
Guernica: How, after seeding that initial idea in their minds, did he end up trapping them—if that’s what happened—in the jungle?
Julia Scheeres: Here’s the key thing: Everyone who went to Jonestown thought they could leave at any time if they didn’t like it. But once they arrived, via a two-day river boat trip, Jones confiscated their money and passports. He told them that if they wanted to go back to the United States, they could swim back: he wasn’t paying their airfare. I believe his plan all along was to sequester them in an isolated spot and kill them. Most Peoples Temple members arrived in Jonestown in the summer of 1977, and he introduced the notion of “revolutionary suicide” soon after. They were shocked; they’d immigrated to Jonestown seeking a better life for themselves and their children only to discover their pastor was intent on killing them. One of the most heartbreaking things I discovered in my research was dozens of notes to Jones from residents begging him to let them return to California. One mother said her daughter was having nightmares after listening to debates on the best way to kill the one thousand residents of Jonestown, and that she didn’t know how to convince her daughter that “death was a good thing.” Many offered to send down their paychecks for the rest of their lives if he’d let them go. He couldn’t of course; they would have let the world know that he’d gone completely mad.
I think the folks who joined Jones’s church did so because they truly believed in his stated ideals of racial equality and social justice. That’s why he was able to convince one thousand of them to immigrate to the jungle of Guyana. Although history has stigmatized Jonestown residents as the people who “drank the Kool-aid,” I’d argue that they were noble idealists. Furthermore, they were murdered. They didn’t willingly drink poison—they were forced to do so at gunpoint. They sought the ideal, only to have their leader horribly betray them.
Guernica: In A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, Jim Jones is the only character whose head you do not attempt to enter, even though you say your first idea was for a novel based on someone like him.
Julia Scheeres: It was difficult for me to enter his head in the way I did with others. He didn’t, for example, leave behind a diary or letters. In Jonestown, he taped an account of his childhood, but it was full of self-mythology.
To be honest, I didn’t want to get inside Jones’s head. Every time I wrote about Jones I practically had to tie myself to my chair to force myself to do it; I hated him so much. He wanted to go down in history and he did. He’s had hundreds of books and articles written about him. I was much more interested in the stories of the rank-and-file members of Peoples Temple, what drew them to Jones, and what they did once they were trapped in Jonestown and realized Jones was intent on killing them.
Guernica: You reveal how Jones tapped into conspiracy theories to increase his draw with the black community, like the King Alfred plan: the idea that the federal government was planning to inter blacks in concentration camps if they got unruly. He told them Jonestown would be a refuge where they’d be safe.
Julia Scheeres: Yes. Similarly, Escuela Caribe preyed upon parents’ fears of secular culture to recruit students. Parents could send their kids to a place where they’d be sheltered from evil secular influences—sex, drugs, alcohol, and a questioning mentality. A place where children would be forced to become good little clones of their parents.
In my view, the problem with many conservative Christian parents is that they won’t allow their children to have a different worldview from their own, and they don’t forgive normal teenage experimentation, which they consider rebellion. What better way to control your kid than by sending her to a compound on an island in the middle of the Caribbean, confiscating her money and passport, where she will be forced to comply with the program if she wants to leave?
There were several parallels between Jonestown and Escuela Caribe. Both places used isolation to control a large group of people and censored their communication with the outside world so their loved ones wouldn’t know about the rampant physical abuse and misery of the residents. Punishments were also similar: runaways had their hair cut off, kids in trouble were prohibited from speaking to anyone and forced to do back-breaking work, control through sleep and food deprivation. But I think the worst fallout, in both cases, was the living in constant fear, witnessing other residents get assaulted and worrying that you’d be next. That’s where Post Traumatic Stress Disorder comes from.
Guernica: Were the parallels helpful when you tried to shape the Jonestown material into a book?
Scheeres: They probably helped me empathize with the people of Jonestown and their sense of powerlessness and desperation. Survivors told me that sleep was a great escape from the nightmare that was Jonestown. I also longed for bedtime each night at Escuela Caribe; sleep allowed me to forget where I was for a few hours.
Jones used highly-edited videos and photos of Jonestown, showing what a supposed Eden it was. People were interviewed smiling and working in the fields, telling other church members to hurry down and join them. These interviews were staged; the people were told exactly what to say. Truth is, Jonestown never even produced enough food to feed everyone, and people were going hungry.
Likewise, before I went to Escuela Caribe, my parents showed me the school’s brochures featuring smiling kids at the beach or on horseback. The propaganda was greatly appealing to a kid from rural Indiana who hated her high school anyway. I also got reassurances that I could return if I didn’t like it. But shortly after the gates closed behind me, I learned I’d been deceived; the beach was far away and I couldn’t return home until I’d completed the program.
Guernica: From the book it’s clear you met and bonded with some of the Jonestown survivors.
Julia Scheeres: Yes. One of the five people I feature in my book is Tommy Bogue, who was fifteen when he was sent to Jonestown. His dad was one of the pioneers who cleared the jungle to plant crops and construct residences. Tommy loved it at first; he worked side by side with his dad building cottages and played in the jungle with Amerindian kids who showed him how to survive in the bush—a skill that would come in handy later.
I reached out to him after seeing him in a television interview. And he at first refused to talk to me without getting paid. I had to explain to him that serious reporters don’t do “checkbook journalism.” Out of desperation, I sent him a copy of Jesus Land. He read it and he called me. “Okay, I’ll talk to you,” he said. “We have a lot in common.”
And that started our friendship. I was able to interview him dozens of times over the years that I wrote the book. He was a great source because he was full of detailed anecdotes and stories. We bonded over the fact that we were both teenagers trapped in horrible places.
Guernica: Another parallel is that you and Tommy both lost people you were close to. Tommy’s sister Marilee and friend Brian both died in Jonestown. Your brother David died soon after he graduated from Escuela Caribe.
Scheeres: Yes, that’s why I think it’s important to revisit the story of Jonestown. I hope readers come away with a greater compassion for Jones’s victims, a third of whom were minors. To get a feeling for what it was like to be in their situation.
I remember one of my writer friends asking me, “Jonestown? Everyone knows the ending. What’s new or surprising that you can say about it?” I told him that although people may know that almost one thousand people died in the massacre, they don’t know what happens to my five people. Some escaped, some did not.
He’d even make up news, telling residents that in Chicago, blacks were being castrated in the streets, or that the Supreme Court had ruled that nonwhites could no longer go to college.
What happened in Jonestown was so singular. This was the age before cellphones and the Internet. They were trapped in the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, Jones told residents that if they tried to escape Jonestown into the jungle, they’d be attacked by tigers or snakes or “armed mercenaries.” They had no way of knowing he was lying.
One of the people that I follow in the book, Harold Cordell, managed to sneak in a small transistor radio. He’d secretly listen to Voice of America or BBC broadcasts. The next day, he’d hear Jones completely distort the same news to turn the outside world into a sinister place. He’d even make up news, telling residents that in Chicago, blacks were being castrated in the streets, or that the Supreme Court had ruled that nonwhites could no longer go to college. Cordell realized Jones was trying to groom residents into adopting his own nihilist beliefs and lay the groundwork for his notion of “revolutionary suicide.”
Towards the end, people couldn’t take the stress of living in Jonestown. They’d run off into the jungle and be dragged back, or act as though they were going insane. Perhaps some really were. He controlled troublemakers with Thorazine, a major sedative that turns people into mindless zombies. Add to the emotional strain the fact that Jones was depriving people of food and sleep. And at night, he’d show films of Nazi experiments—the children were also forced to watch—that “proved” the world was a shitty place and that they should protest such injustices by committing collective suicide. He beat them down both physically and psychologically.
You probably remember from Escuela Caribe that you become inured to feeling anything after a while. You become numb, you stop being shocked at seeing kids abused or humiliated. After being exposed to this ritual degradation, your fight or flight instinct subsides and you’re left with a sense of hopelessness.
Guernica: It starts from day one. All the rules.
Scheeres: Yes. You’re just overwhelmed. You are powerless and there is nowhere to go and no one is coming to rescue you.
After I left, I heard the State Department would send consular officers to do “welfare and whereabout” checks on students at Escuela Caribe, just as they did in Jonestown. As in Jones’s camp, students were too afraid to say anything negative about the school or staff. They were forewarned that they’d get in trouble if “they didn’t tell the truth.”
In California, Jones even staged a shooting of himself. It was right after church. People were milling about outside, they were about to start a potluck, when shots rang out. “Father’s been shot!”
Guernica: It seems that Jones used trauma—constant crisis and hysteria—to bond with his congregation, even before they left the U.S.
Scheeres: Indeed. In California, Jones even staged a shooting of himself. It was right after church. People were milling about outside, they were about to start a potluck, when shots rang out. “Father’s been shot!” Then he was rushed into the church, and then a little while later, he strode out holding this supposedly bloody shirt and telling people he’d healed himself.
So the lesson of this was two-fold. One, that he was a god—he could heal himself. He had these magic powers. A large segment of his congregation came from a Pentecostal tradition that believed in faith healing and already believed Jones had the power to cure others.
And two, the “shooting” made him seem important. Civil rights leaders were being gunned down—MLK, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X—and he longed to be considered as heroic and important as they were. He wanted his people to believe the establishment was trying to kill him because whites were threatened by his message of racial equality. He used the incident to close ranks and turn anyone who disagreed with him into a menace. He warned his congregation that a would-be assassin might try to infiltrate their church, so they had to prove their loyalty to him by never questioning his orders. Dissenters became traitors.
In Jonestown it got worse. People arriving thought it was going to be like a Florida resort, with a constant temperature of seventy-two with places to swim and fish. Then they get down there and it’s in the middle of the sweltering jungle with mosquitoes and temperatures in the nineties. They were punished for complaining about the heat.
I was pregnant with my youngest child at the time, writing about mass death while I’m growing this precious little life inside me. Here I am, worried about everything I eat and drink and whether I walk past a smoker, and meanwhile I’m writing about an event where almost three hundred children were slaughtered.
Guernica: In the book you talk about how learning about other people’s lives somehow puts one’s own life into sharper relief. Did writing this book change you, help you?
Scheeres: It was the hardest thing I have ever written as a journalist. It took me a year just to read through the FBI files and to figure out the book’s structure.
It was also tough because I was pregnant with my youngest child at the time, writing about mass death while I’m growing this precious little life inside me. Here I am, worried about everything I eat and drink and whether I walk past a smoker, and meanwhile I’m writing about an event where almost three hundred children were slaughtered. Most were never identified and are buried in a mass grave in Oakland. It was surreal. But it felt good to give Jones’s victims a voice, especially ordinary church members.
I choose now to live in Berkeley, California, which is a progressive refuge, despite the fact that I can’t afford to buy a house here. It’s important to me that my children grow up in a place where everything is questioned, examined and debated. My daughter’s first-grade class has kids from every background. She has friends who are black, Muslim, Latino, Asian—you name it. There is no sense of the “white way being the right way.” Parents also come in every variety—mixed race marriages, gay partners, divorced moms. We all love our children and want to do right by them, and that’s what matters most.
I only wish my brother David had survived to experience Berkeley as well. No one would flinch here if we were to walk down the street together, whereas in Indiana we were constantly met with hostility. I don’t believe in heaven, but this is about as close to heaven on earth as I imagine getting.