Monday, 12 March 2018

WACO: A Survivor's Story by David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I have recently watched the TV mini-series about Waco, after which I was in a state of appalled shock about the treatment of innocent people by the FBI and ATF.  The TV series showed both sides; I wondered if the book would, too.

Genre: non-fiction, memoir, crime.

In case you don't know, the siege in Waco, Texas occurred in 1993, when the US law enforcement decided that a religious community headed by one David Koresh should face prosecution for certain crimes, including child abuse.  The ATF turned up with armed guards, and after some exchanges of fire (I am not going to say who fired first because I wasn't there and this is a book review, not an article about the siege) there was stalemate between the two sides.  The siege ended six weeks later, when the ATF and FBI mowed the compound down with tanks and let CS gas (the sort that is banned in warfare) into the compound.  As usually happens with this gas, it caught fire.  76 people died, many of them children.  The FBI's version of the story was that Koresh had burned the place down with his friends and family inside it ~ a religious cult style suicide pact, echoing that of Jonestown in the late 1970s.  All the survivors deny this.

The book begins with the end of the siege, in all its horror, then goes back to David Thibodeau's own story, about how he met David Koresh and ended up living with the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel.   I liked that he is not all-believing about the visions and beliefs of Koresh; at no time did I feel he had been brainwashed by a cult leader, simply that he was a guy who'd always felt a bit of an outsider and was looking for some deeper meaning and somewhere to belong, like many who join these unorthodox religious communities.  He does not seem convinced that Koresh was, as per his own beliefs, the Lamb of the Fifth Seal mentioned in Revelations, but he valued his interpretation of the Scriptures and his teaching, generally.

Thibodeau is also quite open about his mixed feelings regarding Koresh's 'New Light' revelation; as actor Michael Shannon says, in the TV series, when breakaway religious leaders receive revelations from God, they always tend to involve having sex with lots of young women ~ in this case, some underage girls and the wives of the men in the community, while the men themselves were required to remain celibate.  Thibodeau himself comments that the females 'chosen' for the honour of bearing Koresh's children just happened to be the more physically attractive women of the community.  Okay, that's the scurrilous bit.  There were also accusations of child abuse from those outside.  During the siege, some of the children were let out.  Experts who cared for them said that they seemed happy, normal and properly looked after, and showed no signs of abuse whatsoever.  The only crime committed by the Branch Davidians appears to be Koresh's, of having sex with underage girls, but he's dead now, and has been for twenty-five years. 

Much of the book is taken up with the siege itself.  After a while the to-ings and fro-ings did feel a bit laboured, though I understand why Thibodeau felt it necessary to include every detail.  When I got to his 'afterwards', when he was a guest on many TV shows and faced criticism from people who wanted only to believe the worst, I was not surprised that he took the opportunity in this book of making sure that everyone knew exactly what happened.  It's a book that needed to be written, but to be honest I did find it a little boring in parts.  Perhaps I shouldn't have watched the TV series, which was spectacularly good, first.  I'm glad I read it, but I think it could have been chopped down in places to make it more compelling; as it was, I found myself skip-reading, whereas if it had been less dense I am sure I would have read all of it.

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