“Sex in the City? Make That, The Commune” by Laura Johnston Kohl
This is the 26th year after that tragedy. Many people have addressed countless topics, mounted infinite quests for insight, and yet everyone acknowledges that there are MANY unsolved mysteries. One that remains misunderstood - despite the amount of discussion about the topic - is the theme of sexuality in Peoples Temple.
I first visited Jim Jones in the Peoples Temple building in Redwood Valley, California in March 1970. I was 22. In the previous fifteen months, my life had been in a sinking hole, both self-destructive and dangerous. I had a brief marriage, which ended with my husband bedding my best friend. Then I became very involved with the local Black Panthers. I ended up in the hospital with STD. My wise sister persuaded me to come to San Francisco and live with her. I was not in good shape, and I continued to make lousy choices. I went to Redwood Valley on a whim to see this "healer."
When I walked into the Temple, I saw Jim Jones. He was not exactly handsome - "dashing" is the word that comes to mind - and charming, strong, caring and centered. For some unknown reason, my record of bad choices didn't include my being turned on by him. I suspect he appeared too clean-cut and principled to me. Or, maybe he represented a father-figure, since mine left the marriage with my mother when I was two.
But Jim oozed sexuality. When he smiled, when he talked and joked, when he watched, when he patted you on the back, he radiated it. With his black hair and penetrating eyes, he was very sexy.
I could tell that he was a sexual being. As time went on, Jim often spoke about members - both men and women - who were about to stray, and how he had helped keep them in the fold by making a personal sacrifice and having sex with them. He would often let on the identities of these people, but he always made it known that he hadn't enjoyed the sexual contact and that he had only altruistic reasons for doing it. Of course, if they were attractive, he would make the "sacrifice" sooner rather than later.
Although he participated in sex with these members, he really discouraged the members from getting into relationships. To accomplish this, he had single men and women move into the leadership roles, where they were then told that all allegiance was owed to Jim. Other intimate relationships - especially sexual ones - just got in the way of true commitment and dedication. He often spoke of how you had to be careful about talking negatively about Peoples Temple and, he added, close relationships sometimes encouraged these kinds of negative alliances.
Old-timers who were already married when they joined the church were not held to this standard. Many of the original Indiana members - Eva and Jim Pugh, Archie and Rosie Ijames, Jack and Rheaviana Beam, Patti and Walter Cartmell, Helen and Cleve Swinney, among others - were married, had kids, and held important financial and leadership positions.
But when Jim came to California, he started drawing a crowd of disenfranchised youth, many of whom were very attractive and dedicated. Although Jim talked about and (I thought) lived in an egalitarian society, an elite group of single men and women seemed to be forming. They were tireless workers who worshipped the concept of peace, justice and equality and/or who worshipped Jim as the leader. There were some who wanted to have a relationship with Jim because he was the leader, but they also wanted to share the power with him.
Beginning in the early to mid '70's, there was a subtle shift in Jim's conversations and perceptions of sex. He talked more and more often about his sexual prowess and his need to use his own body to redirect potential traitors. An organization chart of the Temple from that time would show Jim at the top, surrounded by his "confidential" - in several senses of the word - single female secretaries. Although some of the females around Jim were "married," once they worked closely with Jim, the reality was that they were single and only relating to Jim. Although Jim had several male assistants or secretaries - Mike Prokes and Johnny Brown - they were not sexual partners in his harem. I firmly believe this.
Jim did have sex with men, but he never admitted that he was bisexual. Instead, he was a power-seeker and used sex as his way to gain additional power over a person - in a very personal way. He didn't discriminate. He didn't want ANY young vibrant person infatuated or involved with anyone but him. His criticism of relationships reflected his own insecurities, his feelings of being threatened, his paranoia that he would be talked about in a negative way, his anxiety that he would lose hold of a person if an alliance formed that didn't include him.
Jim supported all the causes that had an underdog - and always took the side of the underdog. So, he housed the homeless, fed the hungry, secured release for some who were incarcerated, and fought injustice wherever he saw it. He also supported gay rights and causes. But that support didn't translate to the Temple itself. I sincerely believe that a very few rednecks in the Temple may have held on to their racism and to their homophobia, in spite of Jim and the community. However, the majority of members really wanted to be rid of that kind - any kind - of bigotry.
I think it's important to mention how we dealt with pedophilia. There was one pedophile in Peoples Temple that I knew about in the final days of Jonestown, a man who was married and had a child. He did molest several Peoples Temple children. He was beaten in a public or semi-public meeting. We could have turned him over to the authorities instead, but we had made the decision - as a group - to be self-governing, and that included a system of punishment and discipline. No one was sent to juvenile hall, jail, or prison. Rather, they were brought up in our public forum, the matter discussed, and the situation handled, just as it might be in a large family unit that has made a contract to watch out for and protect the entire family unit. There were consequences for unacceptable behavior, but they didn't include ostracism or exile. The pedophile died in Jonestown, as did his wife and child..
Many of Jim's relationships - and the underpinnings for those relationships - changed when we all got to Jonestown. He was older and sicker, and felt that he had a lot more control under the circumstances. Jonestown was 24 hours by boat from Georgetown, and the local airport with sporadic service to the capital was still far away. He seemed to have his group of partners, and that mostly satisfied both his sexual appetite and his thirst for control.
I do know of several sexual partners who were forced into having sex with Jim, and others who were invited or propositioned but not forced. It was his demonstration to himself - a reminder to himself - of his ability to flex his power. He took full advantage of his position with both willing and coerced members.
There were exceptions to Jim's antipathy towards relationships. In those rare instances when he thought a relationship would help him politically, Jim approved and exploited it. Paula Adams, for example, had a relationship with Lawrence "Bunny" Mann, Guyana's Ambassador to the US, a position that Jim wanted to court. But Paula was the only person that Jim would allow to have such a relationship while remaining in the top echelon of the Jonestown governing group.
I have heard stories that Jim provided Peoples Temple beauties to Guyana's government officials as sex toys, in Matthews Ridge. Those stories are wrong. Jim would never have let loose of his harem, and no one outside of his small circle of "secretaries" would be trusted to be involved at that level. There's another reason, though - anyone involved in what would have amounted to a prostitution ring would have taken a critical look at what they were doing - which Jim wouldn't want to have happen either. Even near the end, when Jim was fighting his own monsters, he had many reasons not to provide entertainment of that kind to Guyanese officials. Some of the reasons were righteous and some were selfish.
I have no intention of making light on the observations and experiences of others. I just had a different experience. I know and feel very fortunate that I was not yet another of Jim's mistresses or sexual partners. Much of my trauma over the ending of the commune in Guyana and the United States was over missing my friends. We were building a society to be proud of. There is no question in my mind that I escaped some of Jim's most devastating manipulations of Temple members.
In the broad sweep, Jim created and inspired us to work hard and create the best. In his small, personal paint gallery, he was a destroyer, not a creator.
(Former Temple member Laura Johnston Kohl was living in Georgetown on November 18, 1978. She now lives with her husband and son in the San Diego area. She is a frequent contributor to this report, including her articles at “Q 875 Made by Outsiders by Laura Johnston Kohl” and “David Shular: An Appreciation by Laura Kohl”. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)