A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, Julia Scheeres, Free Press, 320 pages

Surreal doesn’t convey the fictional quality of hundreds of happy children obliviously awaiting their deaths watching “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” or their Kool-Aid executioner just two years earlier enjoying a private audience with the soon-to-be president’s wife. Jonestown retains this dreamlike state decades after it has decayed into the jungle. Rebecca Moore, Julia Scheeres, and other writers seek in the 21st century to raise the 20th-century dead. Could we have misunderstood the people of the Peoples Temple the way they misunderstood the god of the Peoples Temple?

Jim Jones killed more African Americans than the Ku Klux Klan. Julia Scheeres, in her new book, A Thousand Lives, juxtaposes the preacher with Rosa Parks and the students who held a lunch-counter sit-in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s. Jim Jones called blacks his equals. He let them join his church. He even adopted an African-American boy. Then he imprisoned, enslaved, and ultimately murdered hundreds of African-Americans at his Guyanese concentration camp. He started off with the best of intentions, the text leads readers to think.

Scheeres gleans the wrong lessons from Jonestown. But her conclusions do not stem from false premises. A Thousand Lives doesn’t contain a thousand errors. Chiding Jones for exaggerating when the truth about racism proved bad enough, she ironically one-ups the Pentecostal Marxist by pointing to “examples from real life,” such as the police killings in the late ’60s of 28 Black Panthers—a story thoroughly debunked more than 40 years ago in an exhaustive Edward Jay Epstein New Yorker piece—as a supposed truth the minister might have invoked. On the next page she mistakenly cites 1975 rather than 1977 as the year of Temple supporter Harvey Milk’s election to the San Francisco board of supervisors. But the book’s factual claims are otherwise fairly solid.

Take, for instance, the author’s rebuff of the temptation to label a Bible stomper a Bible thumper. In the foggy aftermath of the 1978 rain forest annihilation, some Americans chalked up the bizarre South American suicides as Christian fundamentalism run amok. This narrative, to the extent that it persists, can’t survive a reading of A Thousand Lives.

Long before the migration southward, the Peoples Temple instructed that “the Bible murders,” the author explains. Jones appropriated the words of the Bible to undermine the Bible in his most widely read tract: “The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth LIFE.” The assault on Christianity intensified following the establishment of the secluded colony. The Peoples Temple ceased hosting Sunday services in Guyana. They replaced Christmas Day with Revolution Day. Upon the death of a senior citizen, a Jones lieutenant informed camp dwellers that the old man had “made the mistake of calling out to Jesus from his deathbed instead of Jim Jones.” Father Jim, who had stomped on the Bible in San Francisco, banned it within Jonestown, a prohibition lifted only when the community ran out of toilet paper.

The initial characterization of events proved untenable. Christians, fundamentalist or otherwise, generally don’t confuse the Book of Books for Quilted Northern. The meme that dismissed the dead as religious fanatics has been replaced with a meme that sees them as enlightened progressives. “You won’t find the word cult in this book,” the author boasts. “The word cult only discourages intellectual curiosity and empathy.” Though nearly everything she describes screams “cult,” she absolves the political cultists from a pejorative worthy of Moonies or schismatic Seventh Day Adventists but not sophisticated San Francisco socialists.

The book-length rehabilitation of the disgraced church centers on the secular faith, rather than any supernatural one, of its congregants. A Thousand Lives labels Peoples Temple a “national church” for the “counterculture.” As its name suggested, Peoples Temple offered a social gospel minus the gospel. It traced roots to Karl Marx, not Jesus Christ. Jones’s “churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles were planted smack dab in the middle of the ghetto,” she writes, “where they became a mecca for the urban poor, offering free health care, child care, career counseling, drug rehabilitation, legal aid, and food. What wasn’t to like?”

Presumably, the part when a guy from Indiana declared himself God. That guy-God arranging and rearranging marriages, isolating temple members from family members, demanding total financial submission, performing phony faith healings, rehearsing dry runs of suicide, concocting paranoid tales of U.S. government persecution, and physically abusing church-goers in front of other church-goers should have sparked epiphanies. Instead, these acts further solidified Jones’s hold over his flock. They weeded out individuals and calcified the herd’s subservience. Scheeres acknowledges this. But she blames all on the raven-haired, drugged-out deity. Who can fault followers for following?

The ideological sympathies that suckered Jones’s flock exerted a powerful sway over Bay Area politicians who aided and abetted the death cult. So in with the in-crowd was Jones that San Francisco’s mayor appointed him chairman of the city’s housing authority, an ideal perch for one who made a living freeloading on the government checks of freeloaders. “Jones’s powerful friends helped him mitigate the damage,” Scheeres explains of an expose on Jones in the alternative press.

His old friend California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally wrote the Guyanese prime minister to reassure him that Jones was an upstanding citizen, and the men he helped elect—Mayor [George] Moscone, City Supervisor Harvey Milk, and District Attorney Joseph Freitas—rallied behind him as well, refusing to heed calls to investigate the Temple. Moscone told reporters that there was no proof of criminal activity, only allegations of wrongdoing.

A specific place and time, a 1970s Bay Area still high on the fumes of the 1960s, gave rise to Peoples Temple. It also helped the North American socialists that their South American hosts were socialists, too.

The residents of Jonestown weren’t the only ones to drink the Kool-Aid. Jonestown remains a cautionary tale about the power of ideologically-inspired delusions. “Had I walked by 1859 Geary Boulevard in San Francisco when Peoples Temple was in full swing,” the author frankly admits, “I certainly would have been drawn to the doorway.” She sets out to provide readers an understanding of why people might have joined the Peoples Temple by telling their stories. She succeeds in providing that understanding not so much through the stories themselves but through the fawning manner in which she tells them.

“Ultimately, the laudable aspects of Peoples Temple have been forgotten in the horrifying wake of Jonestown,” the author laments. If a credible, award-winning author writing 33 years after the fact could get seduced in dry archives, then one gleans how the poor, the elderly, the strays, and the strung out fell for the charismatic minister in real time.

The author conflates her politics with morality. That she sees some of her own principles at work in her subjects impairs judgment. She can’t come to grips with how people whose beliefs were so good could be so evil. So hardwired is that conceit that she asks her readers to reassess parents who murdered their children but can’t ask herself to reassess the philosophy that brought them to that point. Julia Scheeres is as much a captive of ideology as the people that she writes about. Political self-deception flatters the ego but obscures reality.

Such delusions cost more than 900 people their lives in South America. It merely costs the author a more complete understanding of her subjects. She marvels at the paradox of noble ideas unleashing ignoble deeds. But in the aftermath of the Lenin/Stalin/Hitler/Mao-century, socialism manifesting as horror show isn’t ironic. It’s clichéd.

Socialism is the submission of the individual to the wishes of the collective. This is what happened in Guyana on November 18, 1978. People who fervently believed in telling other people how to live their lives were told by other people to stop living theirs. Contra Scheeres, their coda was the culmination of their beliefs rather than a betrayal of them. Bequeathing their accumulated wealth to one of the 20th-century’s other great graveyard of socialists, the Soviet Union, further affirms this.

A Thousand Lives judges the Peoples Temple by its words rather than its deeds. It interprets the congregants’ belief in a dream not as an indictment of their sanity but as proof of their goodness.“If anything, the people who moved to Jonestown should be remembered as noble idealists,” Scheeres concludes. “They wanted to create a better, more equitable, society. They wanted their kids to be free of violence and racism. They rejected sex and gender roles. They believed in a dream.”

We are all the same in the grave. Or, as Jonestown’s namesake put it in coded short-wave transmissions from the rainforest commune, “When Mrs. White [death] drops by, she makes us all equal.”

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America