As a Peoples Temple survivor, I have struggled with every aspect of rebuilding my life over the past thirty-three years. Each of the past three decades had its own characteristics. From 1979 until about 1989, I sought nothing more than survival and recovery, living in the residential community of Synanon. That was my “me” decade, and fortunately, Synanon welcomed and embraced me. I had almost nothing to do with any People Temple survivors. It took nearly all of that decade for me to absolutely affirm life. Much of that came when I got married and my son was born, but I was still very fragile.
The next decade – from 1990 to 1998 – was the period that I returned to work. Determined to rebuild my crumbling foundation, I finished my BA in philosophy/psychology, earned my teaching credential, became a Quaker, and started my teaching career. Not only did I have very little contact with any of my fellow survivors, but I never told anyone I met about my involvement. That included some very good friends. I just sobbed whenever I opened up to talk, and there were few places where that was appropriate. So I just paved it over. I was someone else during that decade. I was the heavy equipment operator moving big blocks into some workable structure for my life. I couldn’t collect myself after I tapped into my past, so I didn’t go there.
In 1998, I was ready for a new task – that of acknowledging who I was. I allowed myself to grieve for what I’d lost. I gave myself permission to say some positive things about Peoples Temple. I reconnected with my wonderful friends from Peoples Temple at the 20th anniversary on November 18, 1998. The next ten years allowed me to be happy again. I could see the whole onion that was Peoples Temple, and I began to break it down and investigate it. The other survivors and I each brought our puzzle pieces to the table and started to put the jigsaw puzzle together. We forgave each other for not seeing what was right in front of us while we were Peoples Temple zealots. We each had only fragments of the reality. Much was hidden from us, and Jim and his secretaries manipulated his “need to know” philosophy masterfully. Even as we recognize this, though, the survivors don’t agree about everything. We experienced some events differently, individually. But we know and love each other more deeply than anyone we have found outside of our group. We experienced such anguish over these years that it bound us together.
During the decade from 1998 until 2007, I launched myself on a mission to delve into all parts of the Temple and to understand everything. I felt an urgency to clear up the image of those who lost their lives. I didn’t want the only visual image of Jonestown and Peoples Temple to be of the bodies strewn around the pavilion. I was fixated on clearing the air and getting the truth on the record. I was interviewed often and was never satisfied that I had said everything I wanted to say, or that I had said it the “right” way to make my point. No matter how hard I tried, though, I usually felt inept and powerless.
At that point – at the end of that decade – I decided it was time to write my book. I started in 2007 to think things through. I started writing in 2008, and published my book Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look in March 2010. It has been a wonderful experience for me. It has opened many doors for further interviews and at the same time, it has relieved me of the urgency I was living with. If I speak and people still have curiosity, they can read my book or look on my website. I don’t “have” to say everything I want people to know, because the information is readily available. The most significant aspect of my writing my book is that my good friends from the Temple tell me that I wrote for them too. I wrote an affirmation and acknowledgement that brought them some peace.
One good friend told me I seemed “settled” now that the book is out. That is true. Publishing the book has taken a huge weight off of my shoulders. It also gives me a structure to follow when I do my frequent speaking engagements. And it has helped me so much with my own healing to have everything out in the open. I love the questions my book generates because, as a teacher, I do love “teachable moments” when they happen.
Just in the past six months, I have shared my book in universities, libraries, author venues, rotary clubs, Quaker Meetings, scholarly conventions, book stores and the media. I feel that this decade is going to let me spread the word the way I want to do it, passionately but not fanatically. I am excited that my book is selling well, that my Kindle edition has been at #14 in the psychology division. I still push to go to at least two book events a month, and still do the job I love – teach my sixth graders.
There is more richness and less desperation in my life. I am so happy that Claire, Kathy, and the Sines’ family were all touched by my book. Other good friends tell me they know me better also after reading my book. I feel strengthened and refocused. It is a fulfilling time for me.
(News coverage of Laura Johnston Kohl’s book includes:
(“Jonestown survivor remembers the death of hundreds of fellow cult members,” The Montgomery (Maryland) Gazette, 4 May 2011 [Editor’s note: This newspaper is now defunct].
(“Laura Johnston Kohl, Jonestown survivor, shares her story,” on WJLA TV, 27 April 2011, includes video coverage.
(“Jonestown survivor talks about new book” in The North County Times, 6 October 2010.)
(She was also interviewed about her book live on the Author-First Show, on ArtistFirst World Radio Network, on August 2nd.
(Laura Johnston Kohl was chosen to be one of the 2011 Executive Women of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women.)