Thirty-two years ago, in the Bay Area and in all parts of California, the last thing you would want was to be connected to Peoples Temple. Everyone had been bombarded with images of the bodies strewn on the ground in Jonestown, Guyana. Television news, newspapers, and magazines ran the same photos over and over. Then, ten days after Jonestown, the Bay Area was rocked again by the deaths of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
It was at that point that some of the survivors from Guyana began to filter back to the United States and that those Peoples Temple stalwarts who had remained in California had to leave the shelter formerly provided by the Temple. We all had to seek a new life with meaning somewhere else.
The problem was, we were all still in shock. No one could move beyond the horror of it. We were all asked – over and over – to explain how the deaths in Jonestown could have happened, what we had all done wrong, how we could have let so many people die. But there was no way to understand it, and we didn’t want to accept it. Beyond the trauma of the event itself, we recognized those bodies as our beloved brothers and sisters. The pictures weren’t just gruesome photos of unknown people. We knew who they were. And if “Jonestown” had happened on another day, we knew the photos could have been of us.
Our way of life over the previous eight to ten years had dissipated like a morning mist under a hot sun. We had to reinvent ourselves, find out how to keep going. Healing from such a tragic event was a long way off. We clustered around other survivors, like wagon trains circling for protection. We all took it one day at a time. Sooner or later, though, returning survivors and members were going to have to find ways to support themselves.
As members of a suddenly defunct organization – which felt like a defunct life – we all had different experiences in the aftermath. A friend and former member who lost many relatives – her mother and her four children, as well as her uncle – found out about it as she was grocery shopping in the Midwest. Her friends immediately came to hold her and take care of her. A former member of Peoples Temple spoke out publicly about the deaths, and his mother, father, and sister who perished. He was removed from his banking position. But a teacher in Ukiah got complete support from his peers, and stayed teaching in the school another year before he moved away. Some survivors who moved away were able to get by a little easier. One who moved to the Pacific Northwest had to explain what happened only when he told people about that part of his life. With his new neighbors more removed from the immediate story, though, his re-integration into another community was eased somewhat.
My journey took a somewhat different path. For the first year after I returned to San Francisco, I worked for Kelly Services in office jobs. I took classes at night to fill up my time and my mind. I never told anyone on my job about my connection to Peoples Temple. First of all, I didn’t know how to answer the most pressing question of all: “How could it happen?” Along with everyone else, I wanted the answer to that myself. Second, if I attempted to answer that or any related question, my mask of control would disintegrate. I cried over my typewriter, at home, every other conceivable place – but not in front of my co-workers. None of them knew. After a year of working and of living with other survivors, I felt that my life had not moved ahead one centimeter. I still couldn’t talk about it, and couldn’t cope with it. My commitment to staying alive was at a low point.
In 1980 I moved completely away from my circle of friends in the Temple. I went into Synanon, a drug rehabilitation community. I didn’t use drugs, but I was a communalist at heart. Through mutual friends, they had learned about my involvement with Peoples Temple, but they embraced me, and I felt protected. For about ten years, I did talk and cry about Peoples Temple in The Synanon Game – a circle therapy session where issues about living communally and bearing your share of responsibilities was tossed about. Outside of The Game, I was able to do my job and move forward.
In 1990, my husband, my son, and I left Synanon and moved into our own house in Visalia. I started on my path to become a teacher. By 1997, I had earned my clear, multiple subject credential, and I was teaching. Still, no one other than my friends from Synanon knew about my past. In 1998, when I went to the Jonestown twentieth anniversary ceremony in Oakland, I was able to re-connect with my Temple friends and I felt strong and working on being complete.
Around 2004, after about six years as a Quaker, I was finally able to share my story with the Quaker community I belonged to, and I did tell a few of my good friends who had no clue.
A fresh new wind blew into the lives of many of the survivors in about 2005. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, a documentary film by Stanley Nelson and Noland Walker, and The People’s Temple, a play by Leigh Fondakowski both allowed us to treat the lives of those who died with some dignity and appreciation. We could look into the how and why more easily. A number of us were interviewed in many venues, and there was a new understanding spreading around about Peoples Temple members. More scholars and students were trying to look more carefully at the events. All of the survivors felt this new era of openness.
I still had not ever disclosed anything about my life in Peoples Temple to anyone outside my tight group of old friends and the Quakers, but the documentaries and television programs which came out exposed me as a former member. The staff at my teaching job saw the films and interviews and asked me about everything. I found I was still protective. I didn’t always want to have to explain myself. I was selective and only discussed my deeper feelings and experiences with trusted friends. Years have made the pain less sharp, but it is still and always will be there.
I started a teaching job at a new school site in 2009. No one there knew about my past. Then earlier this year, my Assistant Principal saw Jim Jones Jr. and a clip of the Nelson documentary with part of my interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She asked me about it and then told everyone. Then, I published my autobiography. All secrecy is gone, and any reservations I had about telling my story have vanished. Finally, 32 years later, I have heard all kinds of questions, and answered them all to the best of my ability.
It has taken me a long time to come out of the Peoples Temple closet.
(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.)