Over the past year, I have been able to merge the two distinct communal groups that have been so significant in my life. I was in Peoples Temple from 1970 until 1979, with the last year spent under the shadow of everything that happened in Guyana, unable to move beyond that connection. From 1980-1990, I was in the Synanon Community recovering from my tragedy. Early on, two other Peoples Temple folks went to Synanon for a bit. But I was the only one who moved in. As that decade unfolded, I was able to re-integrate myself, getting married, adopting my son, and committing to life.
My Peoples Temple friends were astounded that I had joined another communal group. My good friend Claire, a fellow Peoples Temple survivor, reminded me this summer about how she screamed at me for my decision – now thirty-two years ago. My Synanon friends couldn’t understand every detail of my love of Peoples Temple but they nurtured me and gave me a wonderfully safe place to recover my loss.
Now, 33 years after the demise of the Peoples Temple dream and my wonderful friends, and 21 years after the closing down of Synanon, I am integrating my friendships from the two entities. My life was richer because of my friends – all of them – but most importantly those who died and whom I miss.
Here are a couple of things that make us – former cultists/family members – into a cohesive unit.
We didn’t just know each other back then. We knew each other so intimately that the time between doesn’t separate us. We know each others’ souls. We all feel like very old and special friends, because we are. Unlike someone you just get to know and then drift apart from, we knew all the dimensions of friendship.
In Peoples Temple, we ate, traveled, laughed, dreamed, planned, and grew up together. We lived in the same communes, worked on many, many projects together, and spent all of our time together. We took care of others together and felt dedicated and invigorated by our lifestyle. We bonded because we had a vision, and we worked to make it a reality. We saw each other tired, emotional, and happy, and saw right through to the heart – the inside. We were consumed by our cause, but we knew we were surrounded by those who loved us for who we were – the real person inside. It was not addressed so often, but we just knew. It was internalized. We were beyond having to say it.
In Synanon, we soaked and had Gracious Dining together, we listened to Chuck Dederich and we played the Synanon Game about our most private issues together, we weighed in and ate beef-a-la-greck (a food donation), we worked hard and played hard together, and we experienced a lifestyle that required you to first give up everything and then made you rich. I can tell you what I am doing day-to-day, but that isn’t the ME you know. The ME is my character, my hopes and dreams and my core. I don’t have to hide things from you, since you already know the good and bad. Our friendships and our love are genuine in spite of – because of – all of that.
It is so very hard to find friends like that who don’t get caught up in the petty stuff. I have many friends, really almost too many to be a real “friend” to. There are no friends who come close to my closest PT and Synanon friends. These sisters and brothers – really not just friends – are the ones I’d drop everything to help. These are the same ones I know would help me if I really needed their help. It is money in the bank, a lifetime guarantee. It is like the ocean lapping at our ankles during low tide, comforting us. It’s a pillow that I can put my head on and rest easily.
Over the last year, I have had several experiences where my Synanon friends and my Peoples Temple friends merged. In November, my dear fellow survivor Jordan held a Book Talk for me at her home in Richmond. Mike, my friend and former co-worker in Synanon’s data processing, came to the talk and joined the four other Peoples Temple survivors and other friends. It was just amazing and wonderful. In July, my Peoples Temple friends Rebecca, Claire, and Jordan met up with my Synanon friends Nicole and her new husband Greg. I just felt so whole in the process.
One of my survival techniques has always been to compartmentalize my life. I could only take on so much, so I broke certain experiences into chunks – much like learning to read by “chunking” roots of words and then putting them all together to get the meaning of a word, a little at a time so it isn’t overwhelming. I’ve done that. Somehow, when my two really distinct groups meet, it is just awesome. I feel like I’m watching a marriage of two parts of my soul.
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)