My Communal Studies Experience

In 2008, I was introduced to the Communal Studies Association, a scholarly group of researchers who study historical and current communal – mostly religious – American communities. A good friend and fellow Synanon resident helped me over my writer’s block and into a new world of writing and journaling about my life. She helped frame my first abstract proposal to be a speaker at a Communal Studies Association Conference.

That year, I presented my paper Seeing the Faces at the Koreshan Historical Park in Estero, Florida. I wrote about Alice Inghram, Russell Moton, Janet Shular and Tim Carter, and followed their involvement in People Temple until November 18, 1978.

In 2009, I created a “Photo journey of Peoples Temple” power-point presentation for the gathering at the Aurora Colony in Aurora, Oregon.

In 2010, I wrote on the theme of The Architecture of the Community in terms of Peoples Temple, and presented at the Historic site of the Harmonist and Owenites in New Harmony, Indiana. For my presentation, I was joined by Janet Shular who added a wonderfully exciting second voice.

This year’s theme was “Community on the Margins.” By focusing on the margins, the conference theme refers to existence beyond the norms. A common definition of margin is an area, state, or condition excluded from or existing outside the mainstream. People Temple certainly did operate on the edge and beyond the norms in our society. We met in Shaker Village, in South Union, Kentucky in September.

I have learned a lot from the different presenters and from the members at the Communal Studies Association Conferences. They are curious about both my Peoples Temple and Synanon experiences of living in community. Since most of them have enthusiastically studied communities but never lived in one, they are genuinely interested in hearing the details. They are wonderfully inclusive and they philosophically understand the draw of living communally. I even found out that one – Al Tschetter, a Peoples Temple member who died in Jonestown – was a descendent of a famous Hutterite.

Writing my papers with the assigned themes really focuses my thinking, and widens my understanding of the dynamics of Peoples Temple. Often in my speaking tour, I am asked what people should watch out for in prospective communities. This is the response that works best for me.  First, is there a transition plan to hand over leadership at a certain time in the future; and second, once everyone has become part of a new family/community, are they prevented from maintaining a relationship with their former friends and family?

I have gained a deeper understanding of the manipulation and secrecy that were so much a part of Peoples Temple, as well as other communities over the years. It has been fascinating to learn in a scholarly setting about the commonalities between the different communities. My life is richer because of my inclusion in this wise and interesting group.

(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.)