In the Garden of Beasts and A Thousand Lives

I do most of my reading at night, right before I fall asleep. Which can be problematic when I’m reading something creepy, since I end up either laying in bed listening for suspicious noises or having nightmares where I’m chased by evil book characters. So it probably wasn’t very wise of me to read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson and then follow it up with A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres. This late-night unsettling reading, combined with the Nyquil I’m taking for a cold I picked up traveling last week, has led to some very bizarre dreams. But I would recommend both books to people reading during daylight hours, and they work surprisingly well together. They each examine why people choose to follow madmen who lead them to do terrible things, both to themselves and others–the difference is in the scale.

In the Garden of Beasts is about the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, and describes his family’s life in Berlin as Hitler rose to power. It focuses on 1933, the turning point when Hitler consolidated his power, and it’s basically an entire book of foreshadowing. Larson is describing elegant Berlin parties and the love interests of the ambassador’s daughter, but we all know how this story ends. I occasionally got a overwhelmed by the level of detail, and I wished I had an org chart to help keep all the minor diplomats and German politicians straight. However, Larson does a wonderful job of creating a sense of oppression and fear. I could feel myself getting more and more tense as I read, wishing I could jump into the pages and tell all these people to get out of Berlin before things got any worse.

A Thousand Lives tells a much smaller story. Scheeres uses FBI documents to describe the rise of Jim Jones, from his very early days as a minister in Indiana to his horrible end in Guyana. (I can’t bear to type out any details, if you don’t know the story you can check out the Wikipedia page.) She follows a number of individuals, detailing why the church originally appealed to them, how their views of the church evolved, and how they ended up in Guyana. I hadn’t realized how initially progressive Jones’s teaching on race and class issues was and that was fascinating, but it’s an ominous, disturbing book. Not all of the individuals profiled in the book died in Jonestown, but there aren’t any happy endings here.

I liked both books, but I think Larson did a better job of explaining how good, rationale people could get caught up in such a situation. I was struck by the number of people who thought from the very beginning that Hitler and his cronies were lunatics, but chose to stay in Germany because they assumed that at any minute sense would prevail and the Nazis would be thrown out of power. By the time they realized that madness was going to win the day, it was too late for them to get out and Hitler had too much power to defeat. Sheeres also describes how people had serious doubts about Jones and his church, and how many tried to escape or stand up to Jones. However, for me she doesn’t get to the heart of why people followed Jones when he was so obviously mad. Hitler had the power of the German state behind him to enforce his choices, but it seems like Jones’s followers could have walked away once he he started abusing children and talking about conspiracies. (At least, they could have while they were in the U.S.–Scheeres makes it clear that once Jones got his followers to Guyana, they were trapped and had virtually no way to escape.) Maybe it is personality trait: I can imagine myself deciding not to emigrate away from my home country, choosing instead to stick it out and hope things improved, but I find it very hard to imagine giving up my life and following a religious leader to a foreign country. As thoughtful as A Thousand Lives was, it still didn’t explain the attraction of Jim Jones, while Larson created a disturbing picture of a society that is too easy to imagine myself in.

I have got to find myself some more cheerful things to read, but if you’re interested in some 20th century history and ready to start building a time machine so you can go back and rescue people, I would recommend In the Garden of Beasts and A Thousand Lives.

One comment on “In the Garden of Beasts and A Thousand Lives

  1. Anna says:

    I’m always so impressed when people read nonfiction; it’s like you’re taking a class or something. Of course, your books sound like real downers, but I’m glad to hear about them and not read them myself.

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