The world got to see madness and magnetism collide once again in 1978 as an American preacher took his followers to the grave.
Isolated in a troubled South American colony and under pressure from the outside, Jim Jones and his followers engaged in "revolutionary suicide." Almost all killed themselves voluntarily with poisoned punch or were killed by others. Others were murdered too, including a US congressman who was seeking the truth behind the claims of critics.
These are the basic facts. Julia Scheeres, a bestselling memoirist ("Jesus Land") uncovers the stories of those who died and the few who lived in her new book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown.
It's a gripping page-turner thanks to Scheeres, who's thorough, never sensational, and always fair – maybe to a fault – to the members of the Peoples Temple.
Telling this story was a major challenge because there are so few Jonestown survivors to interview. Still, Scheeres managed to talk to several of them, and she uses FBI files and other written accounts to fill in the gaps. While it's a bit clinical at times, the book propels the reader forward through the rise of the Peoples Temple, a left-leaning church that rode a wave of non-skepticism by political allies and the media.
The members of the Peoples Temple mainly were blacks and whites, many of them poor, bound by a vision of a socialist utopia where everyone, regardless of race or age or gender, could live in harmony.
The vision fell apart at the hands of its leader. Scheeres exposes Jones as the ultimate charlatan, a man who ruled through violence, humiliation, and outlandish fakery under a glittering veneer of hope.
Scheeres is careful to avoid casting blame on the hundreds of followers and doesn't use the word "cult" because it "only discourages intellectual curiosity and empathy." As a survivor told her, nobody joins a cult.
She writes that the Peoples Temple members were "betrayed" and hardly the willing victims that the slang phrase "drink the Kool Aid" would suggest.
Her motives are generous, but Scheeres' choice leaves a gap in her story. While she does a fine job of chronicling what happened, the why remains elusive.
Why did so many giving, caring, optimistic people accept the growing depravity of the Jones regime? Why didn't more of these self-described revolutionaries revolt against their leader? Were they brainwashed, in massive denial, blinded by faith, or something else entirely?
Just as we keep trying to understand why the Germans embraced Hitler, we should continue exploring the lessons that Jonestown has to offer about how the most well-meaning of people can go awry.
Analyzing the decisions of Peoples Temple members, even if it reveals unflattering truths, isn't an insult to the hundreds who died. Instead, it's a way to honor them by better understanding how we work as humans and, perhaps, inch closer to the better world they sought with such passion.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.