“Seeing the Faces” by Laura Johnston Kohl
(This article is adapted from an address which Temple survivor Laura Kohl gave to the Communal Studies Association in Estero, Florida in October 2008. Ms. Kohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I would like to tell you about four of my friends from my days in Peoples Temple: Alice, Tim, Janet, and Russell.
When I lived in San Francisco in 1970, and traveled up to Redwood Valley to hear the Reverend Jim Jones, I met Alice, who became a sister to me. Alice, an African-American beautician, and her husband Jimmy had one daughter, Ava. They lived in San Francisco, then moved their family up to Redwood Valley, and into Peoples Temple, in 1970. She wanted to bring up her wonderful daughter in an integrated, safe and politically active community. And, she took in other kids, including her young sister-in-law, as a matter of course.
Alice was serious-minded and a very hard worker. She also loved a good laugh. Our humor was similar, so we had many good belly laughs over one crazy thing or another.
In Redwood Valley, she bought a board-and-care facility to house young adults in an assisted living licensed home. I went there often both to visit and to cover the home when she needed to go out. We worked together in counseling, greeting new guests, and on the Planning Commission in Redwood Valley for nearly seven years. I was delighted when Alice and her daughter joined me in Guyana a few months after I got there, and lived in Jonestown. She was in charge of the supply store, where residents could get anything from toothbrushes to clothing. She worked hard at making improvements, stretching supplies, and making sure residents of Jonestown had what they needed.
Tim, a Vietnam veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress. He was a perfectionist and an energetic partner in our Peoples Temple office, where I also worked. He had lost his optimism while serving in Vietnam but moved into Peoples Temple because he saw that Jim Jones gave a voice to the underdog. Tim felt that Jim’s activism could actually stop some of the injustice he had seen in Vietnam and in the communities since returning to the United States. He was impressed that, under Jim’s leadership, Peoples Temple had a homeless feeding program, a full staff of attorneys, doctors and nurses, social workers, and counselors to help poor people in need. Tim, who was white, wanted to be part of an interracial, progressive and dynamic group because he knew that groups could get more done than one individual. We lived together in several of the different communes within the Temple, and shared responsibility in several areas over the years. He loved the message of the Temple so much that he brought his younger brother and sister into Peoples Temple in California, and to Guyana. As did his siblings, Tim went to Guyana in 1977. As did his siblings, Tim had an interracial marriage. The love of his life was a beautiful Hispanic woman, Gloria. And as did his siblings, Tim and his wife had a child born in Guyana.
Janet was another great friend of mine who lived in San Francisco, although she never moved up to Redwood Valley. A well-educated African-American woman in a biracial relationship, she was very active in the San Francisco Peoples Temple community in counseling, taking in children from dangerous homes, and assisting delinquent kids and adults. She kept her finger on the goings-on in the San Francisco area with members, helping many people out of tight spots. She worked closely with Jim Jones in his community outreach and with his position on the San Francisco Housing Authority. By the time I left for Guyana, she had opened her home to a suicidal young boy and several senior citizens who were part of Peoples Temple. She was tireless in taking care of others and she wanted a world where everyone was treated with dignity and where people of all colors joined up to eradicate racism and poverty. She had been a life-long activist and saw Jim as a person who could rally a great number of people to work towards the progressive ideals she shared of unity, integration, and socialism. She felt that one person could do so little, compared to what a group led by Jim could do. So she threw herself into Temple activities and took on heavy responsibilities. After I left for Guyana, I lost track of Janet.
And finally, my friend Russell. Russell had joined Peoples Temple in Philadelphia, during one of the trips that Jim took several times a year. Jim would have services in the mostly-black sections of town, and have huge gatherings in schools and large churches, with music, testimonies, a message, and healings. He would encourage people to join us on the trip, just to hop on the busses we were traveling in. Russell’s family had heard of Peoples Temple and supported his decision to get out of Philadelphia and go west. As a black, college-educated young person who had seen poverty and segregation destroy his city, he wanted to be part of a movement that would change that. Russell traveled with me several times to pass out pamphlets in cities where Jim would hold services. He also lived in my same commune in Redwood Valley. He was funny, observant, and unflappable. He went to Guyana and ran the Agricultural Department.
I joined Peoples Temple after being involved in progressive activities in high school and college on the East Coast. In high school, I had helped integrate segregated amusement parks and communities. In college, I had demonstrated against and actively opposed the war in Viet Nam. After college, I worked with the Black Panthers providing free hot breakfasts for children in very poor areas. All of that had been piecemeal though, and I didn’t feel that I could make much headway. I was doing a little here and there, but didn’t feel effective.
In 1970, I moved from Connecticut to San Francisco. I was divorced and searching for a safe way to use my energy to end bigotry. I wanted to give kids a fighting chance to live in an open society. Soon after I got to San Francisco, I visited the Reverend Jim Jones and his congregation in Redwood Valley, California. The congregation was vital, enthusiastic and racially diverse. The sermon I heard was more like a progressive speech at a political rally, pointing out injustices in American society and challenging us to confront those issues every day. I had long agreed with Martin Luther King’s sentiments that, “Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America,” so Jim’s call set perfect tone for me.
After a few months, I joined Peoples Temple. I loved the inclusivity I saw, the exuberance on the faces of young and old as Jim told them they should have their heaven on earth and not wait. I was inspired by the social message he shared at every meeting, in every setting. My heroes of the time were regular visitors to the Temple – Angela Davis, Charles Garry, Dennis Banks, Cesar Chavez, tortured survivors from Chile under the Pinochet regime, and progressive San Francisco politicians. Jim knew them all, quoted them, and communicated his progressive hopes to them. He was able to rally supporters to sway political opinion in San Francisco because of these close contacts. Not only was his a powerful voice of inspiration, he practiced what he preached. He had adopted children of many races. He didn’t accumulate wealth or riches. He didn’t siphon off from donations made by others. He was very frugal and appeared committed to raising his voice to stop mistreatment and inhumane treatment of those least able to fight back.
When he began talking about Guyana in 1974, he talked about it as a Promised Land, here on earth, right now. Many of the members had daily reminders about the prejudice all around us. There was always a new fire to put out. Our kids could get drugs at the corner, other members couldn’t buy a house, or be seen by some doctors, or get treated respectfully in the welfare office. Others saw their kids go to prison because they didn’t get good legal advice. We were exhausted by the fight here and wanted a chance in Guyana. We wanted to plant our own homegrown community. I never questioned Jim’s commitment or his vision for a multicultural and egalitarian community. I believed him when said he wanted to set up our paradise in Jonestown.
In 1975, fifteen Peoples Temple members went to live in Guyana. A few more joined them as the community needed their skills. Jim asked me to move to the capital city of Georgetown in March 1977. At that time, there were only 100 people from the Temple in Guyana, with 85 living in Jonestown working frantically to build housing and setting up the community. Fifteen of us were living permanently in Georgetown, shopping for food, supplies and machinery parts to be sent into Jonestown. We also handled public relations, picked people up at the airport, and filled out residency applications, everything you’d expect a liaison office to do. By November 1978, there were about 1,050 members living in Guyana, with 950 living in Jonestown, and the other 100 in Georgetown, on one of the two boats we had, or in Venezuela getting medical attention.
In early 1978, Jim’s health – both physical and mental – began to fail. Discussing Jim’s health in the greater community would have been taboo, but I thought his weight-loss and lack of focus was obvious when he came out in public. At the regular evening meetings, he generally sat in his chair on the stage at the front of the pavilion, unlike his services in the United States, when he thundered from the pulpit and strode up and down the aisles. When members tried to set up a triumvirate to succeed him in governing Jonestown, he flatly refused the offer. He had not only isolated the residents of Jonestown from the rest of the world, he had isolated himself from those who might have helped him resolve some of the issues he dealt with.
In the last months, Jim’s speech became increasingly slurred, and he didn’t travel around the community as he had. He would often be in a rage, and harangue over the public address system. More and more, the people of Jonestown weaned themselves from their devotion from Jim, putting their full energy instead into developing the community.
In late October 1978, Jim called me to his cottage and asked me to return to Georgetown to work. In that conversation, Jim seemed focused and friendly. But in family meetings, he was more paranoid than ever, and took any whisper of people not being happy, or not wanting to stay in Jonestown, as a personal betrayal. People were confronted in front of the whole congregation if there was any rumor about discontent.
I can only guess what Jim wanted in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, based on my experience in the previous eight years. I had been living in the Georgetown house for the previous three weeks, after living in Jonestown for nine months. I have pieced together this last day by numerous conversations with the other survivors primarily, and by researchers I trust.
Congressman Leo Ryan had just left with about 20 defectors – those who had been living in Jonestown and who wanted to leave. Jim remained in the pavilion, in the center of Jonestown, where we held our evening meetings. He talked and coerced people into dying rather than going back to the United States where – as we had been told daily – racism was rampant and getting worse. He reminded everyone how they had brought their families here to Jonestown to make heaven on earth, but that now the government would not allow them to make that decision for themselves. He knew that the vast majority of people listening to him that afternoon had their hearts in the community there and had nothing to go back to. They had given everything away when they left the United States. And, he knew what most of us did not – that there were many details about his life that had been hidden from us, and that would be made public. He didn’t want anyone else to get any credit due him – and he had to show the world how powerful he was. He didn’t want to hear his efforts disparaged by the defectors who were leaving with Congressman Ryan.
Jim Jones did not want Jonestown to live without him. With every possible mind-numbing strategy he could come up with, he talked the majority of people into killing their children, and into committing suicide. He had made the choice not to take his own life alone – rather to take everyone with him. That day, 909 people died in Jonestown (only two of them shot, but some others injected with poison), five people died at the airstrip in Port Kaituma (Congressman Ryan, three members of the media and one defector), and four people died in the Georgetown house, where a mother killed herself and her three children.
Alice and her daughter died in Jonestown. Tim and his brother survived, but their wives and children, and their sister and her family all perished in Jonestown. More than a year before, Janet had seen what was happening in the Temple in San Francisco, and snuck away in the night, taking her husband, adopted daughter, and a senior citizen with her two great grandsons. She cared for them and eventually adopted the boys. She has cared for them all through thick and thin all these years. Russell, his wife, and his interracial baby, died in Jonestown. I only survived because Jim had sent me into Georgetown so some other workers there could come out for a break with their family members in Jonestown. That timing was the only thing that saved me.
When Tim and I returned from Guyana in late 1978, we were totally devastated. Our dreams had crumbled and we struggled trying to decide if it was worth it to keep on living. One close friend and fellow survivor did kill himself after returning. Some others turned to drugs and alcohol. Others just locked away their grief. Even now, some cannot talk about the Temple. It took me twenty years to get my life on track, have a family, get my teaching credential, and then, finally open up to get some answers about what happened. The first ten years, I spent in Synanon. The next decade, I re-built my life brick by brick. I first went to an anniversary ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery, where 408 of the Temple family are buried, in November 1998. It was the 20th anniversary of the deaths in Guyana.
What are the three of us who survived doing now? Tim has set up the November 18th Living Memorial Food Fund, a homeless feeding program in San Francisco, and is an advocate of veterans’ rights. Janet is a counselor and has traveled around the world to China, South Africa, and other nations as an emissary for peace and justice. I have adopted a son, teach fifth grade in California public schools, and help organize Peoples Temple reunions and ceremonies. I am on the Speakers’ Bureau on the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown” website. Each of us, as well as many other survivors, speaks publicly to try to put faces on the body bags, and try to humanize the statistics of how many wonderful people lost their lives. Also, I have finished my book, and will soon have it published.