“A Temple Member’s Odyssey” by Laura Johnston Kohl
Laura Johnston Kohl lives in Southern California. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who am I, and why did I participate in and become a member of Peoples Temple?
I was born on October 22, 1947, in Washington, D.C. I moved to Texas for a couple of years, until my parents divorced. Then I lived briefly with my mother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Just before I started Kindergarten, I moved to the Washington, D.C. area. I stayed there with my mom, two sisters and grandmother until I went away to college in Connecticut. I had some contact with my father, on birthdays and occasional visits. He was still living in Texas, but paid child support regularly and had a distant relationship with all of us. My family history is one of single female breadwinners raising the family.
My great-grandmother raised my grandmother by herself, after my great-grandfather died. My grandmother raised my mom, after her husband died soon after their marriage. After my parents divorced, my grandmother and my mother and my raised two sisters and me.
I attended college for three years, and was very involved in the antiwar movement. I dropped/flunked out of college after three years. Then, I married a fellow protestor and we had a blissful ten months until that fell apart. I then became involved with the local Black Panthers for about four months. Eventually, I decided to move to San Francisco with my sister. The Sunday after I arrived in San Francisco, I attended my first meeting with Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.
Those are the superficial details of my life before Peoples Temple. For me, these other parts of my upbringing were far more significant: My mother was a fighter. She fought injustice everywhere, and demonstrated against it, voiced her opposition to it and wrote about it. When we lived in Maryland, there were clear divisions along political and racial lines. We helped integrate our white neighborhood, helping black families move in and feel comfortable. Because of our political and social stances, we were unpopular with many of our neighbors, but we took it all in stride. My mother was a Senate speechwriter in Washington D.C., specializing in public works such as Hoover Dam, but was afraid of the blight Senator McCarthy had brought to her beloved city and country. Still, she never stopped working for equality and justice, even when she knew she might ride in elevators with him and his cronies. She felt she was vulnerable because of her own college activities in the mid-thirties and after.
Since religion was so much a part of Peoples Temple, you might ask, “What about church and belief in GOD?” My mother stated she was either agnostic or an atheist. I attended a few churches over the years. I always felt that I couldn’t depend on anyone else – a god, or a person. I had to be myself and do what I needed to do. There were times I strayed, but my innermost truth was that. So, I was never a believer and never a participant in any religion.
I actually stopped believing in ANY god when I was 14 years old, on an airplane. The plane hit an air pocket and dropped precipitously. I started praying. That was when it hit me. No one and no thing was watching a plane flying along, making sure it didn’t fall. So, I just swallowed it and kept on going with my life. But that was a significant point for me.
Another common activity going on at that time – the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – was drug use. I knew enough about politics, and particularly unpopular positions on political issues, to know that political activists were targeted by the authorities. I wasn’t interested in drugs, and used relatively few over these years, and none after I decided to join Peoples Temple.
While in high school, I participated in the local civil rights movement and interracial organizations. When I went to college, I jumped into the antiwar protests with both feet. I demonstrated at the Pentagon, was tear-gassed in New York, and kept on marching. I was also involved in groups with foreign exchange students and others. I always wanted a diverse group of friends! When I arrived in San Francisco – following my college years and my short marriage – I was in terrible shape, and really had to start rebuilding from ground zero. My sister had heard some lawyer friends talking about Jim Jones in Redwood Valley. For lack of anything better to do, we drove up to the service. All of that history got me to look hopefully at Peoples Temple and Jim. That was in early March 1970. That was seven years to the month before I went to Guyana.
What happened once I became involved with Jim and Peoples Temple? When I got to the service, I saw Jim, who was handsome with character. In other words, he was not a movie star kind of handsome. He just looked like he had such depth and wisdom. He was not a typical minister, whose voice put you to sleep, or whose message didn’t apply to the world we live in. He spoke about the issues that I was so involved with! He spoke about the Viet Nam war, Dennis Banks and the American Indian Movement, Angela Davis, the Chicago Seven – and even the Black Panthers. His political philosophy was identical to mine. I liked what he was saying.
But even though his congregation was totally integrated and really friendly, I was put off. They were too clean cut for my recent activities and life. They were not my kind of people. I was in my miniskirt, and wore thick make-up. My recent life had been filled with lousy decisions. I wasn’t going to fit in there, and I wasn’t ready to give up the lifestyle I was living in San Francisco. So my sister and I left the service and went back home to San Francisco.
A week or so later, friends of my sister told her that a young psychic and palm-reader was going to go up to Redwood Valley to challenge Jim. We decided to go again. That day, the palm-reader – Liz Forman – and I joined the church. Hm… For a time, my sister and I would drive up together. Eventually, she decided she wasn’t interested, so she stopped coming.
Fairly soon after joining, I started dating the church’s biggest success story as a reformed drug addict. He was firmly committed to Jim, and was a real character. He was smart, dynamic, energetic and entertaining. He also had a lifelong character disorder. He was black, a former inmate, and a former Black Panther. We both lived in San Francisco, dated, and finally moved in together.
Then one Sunday, Jim called me out in service and told me that I should move up to Redwood Valley, that he would find a home for me there. I moved in with the family of Jack and Rheaviana Beam, with their family care home. Fairly soon after I moved up to Redwood Valley, my relationship with my boyfriend ended. He was interested in having a relationship with someone closer to him in San Francisco, and farther from Jim.
While I lived at the Beams’ home, I got a job as a waitress and then a job in the local welfare department. I held that latter job for seven years. After living at the Beams’ house for several years, I moved into the first commune in the Ukiah/Redwood Valley area. Most of us who lived in the commune worked on the files, correspondence, security or counseling. All of us also held full time jobs in the community, turned in our paychecks and got a monthly allowance. We also had a community store where we could get our toiletries and clothes and other miscellaneous supplies for free.
All of us had many responsibilities. In addition to my day job, my own responsibilities were: serving as head of security around Jim’s house and the church buildings, doing security shifts, driving a bus to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and even across the country on occasion, writing “Visitations” about what was going on with different church members, working on the tapes for Jim’s radio broadcast, working on a regular newsletter, driving the newsletter to the San Francisco post office to be mailed, attending meetings four times a week – Wednesday nights, Friday nights, Saturday and Sunday – counseling, serving on the Planning Commission, and sharing chores in the commune. We were all hard workers!
At this point, our contacts with our families outside of Peoples Temple were very superficial. Many of us kept up our phone calls and some visits, but we never discussed the things we were doing. We felt like revolutionaries, and somehow the secrecy was part of the allure. The camaraderie within the group and the fast pace made me feel like a comet moving through the universe.
What was my life like?
My life was busy from morning to whenever. Generally, once I was living in the commune – and there were several between 1972 and 1976 – I set my own work pace. I got up in the morning, went to work, came home, did a chore around the commune, went to my night job and worked until 1 or 2 in the morning every day. I loved living like that, would still chose to live that way on a day-to-day basis.
Then, in 1977, I got my own “room” in a Temple-owned building that housed the files, the public Laundromat, the printing facility, and a few families in Redwood Valley. I slept on a wooden door with a sleeping bag over it, in one of three little cubicles where folks slept, or where different projects went on. My lifestyle was very spartan.
At Christmas 1974, I went to Guyana – into Jonestown – with Jim and the other Planning Commission members. We were just there briefly, but we were impressed by what we saw. A few more people went over in 1976 – mostly based on what skills they had to help develop the area quickly.
In early 1977, Laurie Efrein was scheduled to go over. About that time, though, she got a job in the office of the local NAACP in San Francisco. Her job was more high profile than mine – I still worked in the Ukiah welfare department – so I went instead.
I spent about six months mostly in Georgetown. The Guyanese were so wonderful. They would invite us in for a drink of tea and scalding milk, or star fruit punch, or some delicious curry and chicken. I had a lot of jobs there! I did “procurement” – in other words, I collected donations – from companies and businesses in Georgetown. I made many friends in the community. I was having a wonderful time in Guyana. Jim was a hands-on manager – although some might describe the same characteristic as anal retentive or power-hungry – but it was not obvious on a daily basis in Georgetown. I also traveled all around the capital city and the neighboring districts. I would buy wonderful coconuts, new and mature, amazing pineapples and bananas from the ranches where they grew. I would go to the open air markets and buy fruit – mostly citrus and bananas – and some other vegetables. I also went to arbitoirs and bought all the food supplies – sides of beef and pork, rice, coffee – threw them into the back of my van, and keep on collecting things to send into Jonestown. Orders for things I needed to purchase would come in by radio and I’d go out and get them. I also bought parts for equipment and even negotiated for shoes at a discounted rate. I would get all of these staples to our boat. I also sent thank you notes for all contacts and donations, monitored the radio, took letters to members of government and collected the replies. I drove the van around town, most of the time.
I also would work on a ship that would come in after fishing out in the ocean. The owner would allow us to come in and get the last 500 pounds or so of the fish. We sat in the harbor, cleaned the fish on the boat, packaged them and froze them. Then we’d clean the ship and head home to sleep as dawn broke.
I met all new Temple arrivals into Georgetown and drove them into our house at Lamaha Gardens, in Guyana at the airport. I walked them through customs and residence applications, and did much of the paperwork. After six months, I developed a relationship with a Guyanese man who would help me pick up the many people flocking into Guyana. The trip to the airport was about an hour each way, and I had been making several trips a night to get everyone and everything that came in. Eventually I had a date with this man. As soon as the word got out, I was sent into Jonestown. I was confronted at a public meeting, slapped, and put on the work crew.
The crew was set up as punishment for those who didn’t follow the rules in Peoples Temple. We had to walk in lines, or run where we had to go, we worked longer hours than others, and ate together without talking. We also lived in a dorm. I stayed on that crew for about two weeks. Then, I was put in charge of the crew for a while. That happened several times.
After that, I ran a crew to pick the greens for our dinner. That was my favorite job in all of Peoples Temple. I loved going out in the fields and scouring them for greens, carrying them in burlap bags on our heads into the kitchen, where they were cleaned and prepped for cooking. I loved running for shelter when we felt a single drop of rain, knowing we’d barely get under cover! I loved sitting out a storm. It was so powerful and just awesome.
We also planted and harvested sweet potatoes, broadcast rice, did security at the piggery so that no wild animals or hungry neighbors would come get the animals, planted and harvested peanuts, made soap, carried lumber to build buildings, planted and harvested cassava and eddoes, and picked sweet cassava greens. My favorite and unmatched lunch then was fried plantain sandwich on homemade delicious bread, with cheese sprinkled over it. Being on the work crews was a great job. Like every other job in Peoples Temple, it wasn’t easy, it was often hot, and it was not always fun, but the sense of contributing to a wonderful community made me accept those parts and enjoy being in the jungle.
I was amazed at the ingenuity of the people building Jonestown. I loved that the ovens were also used as clothes dryers, and that refrigerators were dug into the earth with entrances that could accommodate fork lifts. I loved that the toilets were six holes side by side, in one long outhouse, and always thought it would be a riot to paint it from underneath, showing all sizes and colors of butts just sitting there. If some people were offended, I wasn’t. I did love the lack of pretense.
For about a year, I stayed in Jonestown doing this kind of work by day, and typing our resumes up for the visit to the Soviet Union at night. I also taught Spanish in the school run by Pat Grunnet and Marianne Casanova, did some counseling, attended Planning Commission meetings, translated some radio messages from Spanish-speaking people in neighboring countries, and participated as a singer in a talented group of singers and dancers who were going to go to perform in the Soviet Union.
At night, the folks who were still working at midnight would have a snack of some sort of delicious soup and bread. We were all slim; hard work does that. But, I could NEVER understand that some people thought we didn’t eat enough, or that we had drugs in our food. We all ate communally, all from the same pot. I know that Jim and a few others didn’t eat the community food for every meal. But I did. I was not drugged
In late October 1978, after I had spent about a year in Jonestown, Jim sent for me. He said that my replacement in Georgetown needed a break. He asked if I could be trusted to go back into Georgetown to do the work that needed to be done there. I said yes. I remember running to Alice Inghram in the Momma Store to get some clothing to wear and a suitcase and other things. I was excited because I had loved the work I did in Georgetown. I was really oblivious to the paranoid current running just under the surface – or even above the surface – and I just took it at face value. So I went back into Georgetown, intending to stay just a couple of weeks. When it was time for me to go back into Jonestown, though, Jim radioed and extended my stay. That was about November 12. When Congressman Ryan came to Lamaha Gardens and talked to those of us in the house, I told him that I loved it there. Then Linda (Sharon) Amos told Ryan that he was scheduled to go into Jonestown the next day. She added that he should leave us alone, and go and ask his questions out there. After he spoke to many of us, he did leave.
For me, in Georgetown, the next few days were the same. I bought things and picked up new arrivals at the airport, including Mark Lane and Charles Garry. I dropped people off at the local airport to fly out to Jonestown, and went to political events.
On the evening of November 18, Sharon got a message from Jonestown. She sent me to get the basketball team to come back to the house because she had to speak to them – primarily Stephan, as I recall her saying. I went out to the court where they practiced and relayed the message.
When we all returned to the house, the police were there. They said that they had word that people in Jonestown had committed suicide, and they were checking on us to find out more about it. Other than Sharon, I believe, no one knew. Most of us then left the house to go to a political talent show a few blocks away. We were gone a few hours. When we returned, the police were back. They asked our names and talked to us. I remember helping them take down everyone’s name, not really knowing where they were going with that. Then, as all 50 or so of us were sitting on the floor, leaning on the wall around the huge living room, some soldiers brought out four body bags, containing Sharon and her three children. We were speechless.
At that point, the Guyanese military took over the house. They walked around, keeping an eye on us, protecting us from ourselves and from anything unforeseen. They were young kids who became friends, for the most part. Really, they were out of their league, as we were all. We had no direct information then. We heard there were 300 bodies, then 500.
I tried to come up with a list of all the Jonestown residents. I had files on health insurance and residency applications which would be useful when it came to helping the survivors. The Guyanese army came in to stop me from making the list. I went to other Peoples Temple folks upstairs, and we talked about it with the military. Then it was okayed. As incomplete as it was, I think that was the first list out.
We saw some of the Concerned Relatives come close to the house, but the army wouldn’t let them in – or us out – until they could figure out what happened. Eventually, a Peoples Temple member was arrested, and things loosened up for us in the house.
We stayed there several weeks. We were able to get calls from our families, who were desperate to hear from us. Early in December, the women were allowed to leave. I had a boyfriend then and didn’t feel like I had much to go back to in the US, so I stayed there. When it was time for the men – and a few other women, including me – to leave, it became complicated because the authorities wanted to be sure there were enough air marshals for the number of men.
Finally, we flew into JFK airport outside of New York City. We were taken off the plane in pairs, escorted to RV’s that had been set up on the runway, and interrogated by the FBI. The agents tried “good cop-bad cop” and other tactics. They told me that others had told them that I knew everything that happened. They asked me about a list of other members, a list, as I found out later, which the FBI made of people who allegedly followed the congressional party to the Port Kaituma airstrip and participated in the shootings. I asked to see a lawyer at some point. Then, I just sort of went to sleep.
After about 14 hours, they took us to a motel. They brought us McDonald hamburgers, which I thought was cruel, after the food we had been eating in Jonestown. I felt it drop to the bottom of my stomach. The also gave us grand jury subpoenas for the San Francisco grand jury, for that next Monday.
I had a public defender assigned, who was great. When my sister went with me to the initial interview, he asked who she was, and if she was in Peoples Temple. He didn’t want any interference. Since she wasn’t part of Peoples Temple, she was okay in his book – and great in mine! I took the Fifth in the grand jury proceedings. I had – and still have – no intention of making life any harder on those of us who survived.
When I came back to San Francisco, I moved into the Temple building on Geary with my friends for about three months. I was penniless, had no passport and had lost so much of what had made up my life. The one thing that energized me was knowing that I didn’t want to be in debt to the government and that I did want my passport back. So, I went to work. I would often sit at my typewriter and cry, but I never told anyone on my job about anything going on with me. It was none of their business.
These were very tough times for all of us. Every day, the newspaper headline had another crushing piece of news. A note was found. A tape was found. The body count was wrong. Then Mike Prokes killed himself. Each blow knocked the wind out of us. My grandfather died at that time, but I couldn’t face going back to his funeral. No more death. Larry Layton was in jail. Everything – everything – was front page news. The final pictures of Jonestown were cemented on every TV screen and newspaper for months on end, it seemed. It was just horrible.
After the Temple building was confiscated, I moved to a commune on Sutter with 11 other folks. Then I moved to Potrero Hill with two others. They were safe havens. That went on for about a year. Then we all began to drift apart. We just divided into smaller groups. Instead of living in a 12-person commune, we branched off into smaller groups and got housing.
I was working every day but was going crazy at night. I hadn’t really decided if going on with my life was what I wanted to do. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I started going to Golden Gate University and San Francisco State, to learn about computers. That took up Monday through Thursday. From Friday through Monday morning, I was crazed. My friends and I took turns being up or down. If I got really depressed, I’d bring them down. If I were happy, they’d bring me down. It was a vicious cycle.
After living in San Francisco for a year, and attempting to piece a life together with former Peoples Temple friends, I realized that I needed a break. I needed some people around me who had some surplus energy and who could listen to me, and help me out of the abyss. I just couldn’t do that with people who were as traumatized as I had been. And, I couldn’t ask for what I needed. I was still in shock. Some of the Peoples Temple members who had stayed in the US had met some people at Synanon, which had a house close to where I was living in Potrero Hill. Some of the terrific people in Synanon had the resources to help me – some doctors, and others with great feeling and common sense.
After a few months, I started playing the “Synanon Game.” That was a circle setting, where Synanon people ironed out differences, called former drug addicts and character disorders back into the realm of reality, and took care of the business of running a residential rehabilitation program. The Synanon game held it together because everyone was included in the circle and people had a forum to resolve conflicts and establish new relationships. One particular part of the Synanon Game was “Betty’s Game.” Betty Dederich, who was black, had been married to Synanon founder Chuck Dederich, who was white, until she died of cancer in the mid-1970’s. Her style of playing the Synanon game was to allow a person space to talk and work through internal conflicts – probing or befriending as needed. It was not an attack, but rather a conversation with a caring older sister. She had died before I got there, but her game lived on.
At the time that I started spending time there, about half the population were former drug addicts or inmates, and the other half – including me – were people who used few or no drugs but who just liked living in a communal setting. After a year of working and attending night school, I moved into Synanon.
I pretty much cried through my first three years of the Synanon game. Two things allowed me to find a home in Synanon. First, it was totally integrated and inclusive. Second, Chuck Dederich had gone back to drinking after Betty died. He was not an intimidating or charismatic person – since he was barely functioning at that time – and the Synanon residents did not look to him to solve all problems or issues.
I had a brief relationship when I first joined Synanon, and then married my current husband of 21 years. After we were married for about seven years, we adopted our terrific son! He is 14 now!
After I moved into Synanon, I continued writing to a friend who was in prison in Guyana. I also had some contact with Larry. Most lawyers felt that Larry’s case was a tough one, and that if I got involved, it might open a can of worms that we couldn’t anticipate in advance. I didn’t get involved in his legal situation, but I did visit him in the San Francisco jail.
I lived in Synanon from early 1980 until it folded due to a tax lien put on it by the IRS, around 1990. From the time that I moved into Synanon – after Larry was released, then re-tried and sentenced to a facility some distance away – the only people from Peoples Temple who I had contact with were Jim Randolph and Laurie Efrein. Laurie and I spoke by phone, wrote letters and visited a few times in New York. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on many things – and still don’t – but we had been in the “soup” together, and had and have that bond.
In 1998, I started hearing about a Peoples Temple reunion for the twentieth anniversary. A few people had put together a spot to have lunch after the ceremony. I knew and really liked the people putting it on, so I decided to go. Before I would take a chance at reconnecting, though, I started going to counseling. I was really terrified that everyone was still in the same traumatized state as I had last seen them or imagined them, and/or that everyone would hate me.
The get-together was totally different than anything I could have ever dreamed of. I just loved seeing everyone, and they were happy to see me. People had moved on: they had had children, they looked happy, and they didn’t stop in their tracks on November 18.
That is NOT to say that we don’t all carry the trauma around with us. Each time a Waco, or other enormous tragedy happens, we re-live it. When we talk about it in a secure setting, we become emotional. We are careful what we talk about and to whom. But we didn’t just dry up and die. We fought back and won.
One of the most tender things that happened to was also one of the strangest. When I came back from Guyana, my live had been full of memories of the people I interacted with on a daily basis. Since they were dead, there was nothing for my mind to focus on. So, one thing I did was just zip up my entire memory of faces and people. Shortly after I got back, I met a friend (not a Temple member) from the Ukiah welfare office in a tiny restaurant in San Francisco,. I knew she looked familiar but I could not place her at all. I had worked with her for seven years! So, when I got to the twentieth reunion luncheon, I saw all of these people whom I had just locked out of my memories. I really had been unable to remember if a specific person was alive or dead. What was worse, I didn’t want to ask anyone, in case they were dead. It was so confusing since so MANY people died, I couldn’t keep it straight. And I couldn’t stay focused on it long enough to figure it all out. The result was, I saw all of these old friends whom I had thought were lost forever!
I met back up with Janet, such a dear friend. She and I had had a great friendship over the years, and were connected by a very special child, Dana Lewis. Dana was the daughter of the first man I dated when I first came to Peoples Temple. But we had more than even that. We had shared fun times, great laughs, deep political convictions, and lots of experiences over the years. I reconnected with many others, too. I was delighted to see Grace, and everyone who attended. I felt such a release from all of the hatred I had anticipated.
One of the hardest things about losing so many friends and adopted family members in Guyana was that I had no one left. My address book was empty. My photo album was empty. When I met people who talked about a friend they had known for years, I had nothing to say. Every one was gone. And then, all of a sudden, I DID have old friends. We were tied together by the tightest of bonds. I was so delighted, I was high for weeks. I went back to my therapist and said that I didn’t need to see her anymore. I filled her in on everything. It was one of the high points of my last 25 years.
Since that time, besides getting my BA and teaching credential, teaching in California public schools and having other great jobs, I have an active communication network with many Peoples Temple survivors. It makes my day when I get a message (even an email address change). Even though I lived in Synanon for nearly nine years, Peoples Temple was my first love, and my Peoples Temple friends are like no others. We have forgiven each other for our differences, and for our past regrets. We just appreciate that we are alive, and in touch with each other.
About the same time as the twentieth reunion, I started communicating with Rebecca Moore and Fielding (Mac) McGehee, after I saw Rebecca’s website. They have really impressed me in SO many ways; I can’t even begin to list them. Suffice it to say, they are carrying a burden of trying to understand what happened to all of us. They are giving all those who really want to find out what happened over the years with Peoples Temple a wise and thorough research-based website. It is a rich resource for all of us – survivors, relatives and world citizens.
Rebecca is Annie and Carolyn’s sister, and Kimo’s aunt. When I first met Rebecca, it took my breath away, because she looked so much like Annie. It hurt in one way, and was wonderful in another, since it seemed that I hadn’t lost Annie. I knew Carolyn too, but Annie was much more in my life in both the US and Jonestown.
Where am I now? I am a teacher, a wife and mother, a Quaker. I am very happy with all of my Peoples Temple connections. That is an understatement. My contacts with my Peoples Temple friends and my memories that I can uncover now make me rich. I have unlimited treasures in these friends whom I almost lost. I don’t worry that people will find out, though I don’t tell them myself for the most part. It is not their business unless I decide to let them in on it. I am at peace with the person I am. I am very different in that way. Before the tragedy, I was much more pliable and naïve. I am not naïve. I feel powerful. I like who I have become, and feel lucky to have survived.
Some tell me I am blessed. I actually don’t want that to be the case, since there were so many who were lost, and who should have been so blessed, if there were any justice in this blessing thing.
I appreciate this opportunity to let you know some basic things.
Jonestown wasn’t all-horrible. People weren’t stripped
of their dignity. Many, many people were in heaven while living in
Jonestown. I do not excuse Jim for what he did at the end. I do not
forget what he did at the beginning. He was not all bad, nor all good.
He was crazed at the end. Jonestown wasn’t an experiment with
a mad scientist, gone bad. No one should minimize that Jonestown became
the community that should be shouted about from the rooftops. Almost
all families were rainbow families. We loved our differences, and
these same differences drew us together and we made the most beautiful
children in the world. Our differences made us strong and excited
and healthy and creative. Our ending was so wasteful. I am forever
sorry that it ended, and ended that way.