I have done it! I have done something that would have been unimaginable to me thirty-two years ago, or twenty years ago, or even five years ago. I have written a journal chronicling my life, especially as it clutched at Peoples Temple. When I joined the Temple in 1970 at age 22, I was a philosophy major/college dropout who had decided it was time to commit my person to the principles I had really only talked about up until then. It was really a move away from the radical intellectualism that had been my grounding. Peoples Temple was vibrant and addictive, inclusive and pure, unpredictable and mysterious. It was everything I had talked about and looked for, and it was within my grasp. Each day had its own burst of new flavor. Yes, I was a zealot. Yes, I was enthralled. No, I didn’t see any warning signs that are now so apparent in retrospect. To the contrary, it seemed to get richer and more compelling for me with each passing year.
On November 18, 1978 it all came to an end. I could have been there in Jonestown. It makes no sense that I wasn’t. I never felt special, or even fortunate, to have survived. Not until about 1989, when my son was born. It took me those ten years to get over my sense of mis-timing.
I lived with my trauma held deep inside. The few friends I spoke with knew a lot of my pain, but many of my daily companions had no idea about who I really was, since I disclosed nothing from my inner-self. That was my method of survival for twenty years. I was able to express my grief during 10 years in Synanon, but it was like the Gulf Oil spill before containment: No operation could fix me, no vacation could take my mind off of it, my survival felt to me like the huge elephant in the middle of the room, a presence that never let up.
At the twentieth anniversary, I felt there were enough pieces of my life in order that I could take my first step towards reconnecting with my Peoples Temple family. By then, I was a wife of nearly twenty years, a parent, a teacher, a Quaker, and an activist.
Since that anniversary – November 18, 1998 – my life has been lifted out of the past. My guilt and sorrow gradually dissipated, and my joy overflowed at still having a small number of survivors in my life. That is when my healing really began.
We survivors have come a long way, on different trails. While we have in fact survived, we faced unimaginable obstacles when we returned, and some us of face them still. But I now have a handful of friends (really adopted family members) and I know them down to their innermost thoughts. We may not reflect on the past with the same conclusions, and we often agree to disagree. But we know each other, we are here for each other, and we love each other.
Finally, after much soul-searching, listening to fellow survivors, and speaking publicly in many forums, I felt I was ready to write about my experiences. It was time for me to dispel misconceptions about those of us who joined Peoples Temple, especially those who needlessly died. When you meet and/or listen to fellow survivors, you still see our passion for justice and righteousness. I try to introduce my Peoples Temple family – all of them – to the living.
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Now it is done, and I am screaming from the rooftops! I speak at retired teachers’ associations, for newspapers, for colleges and universities, for blog shows, and for video projects. I am speaking at book clubs, and bookstores, and libraries. Since I also teach sixth grade, and have a few other things going on, I can’t do it full-time – but I am delighted to take on the speaking engagements that I have.
A good friend recently asked me if I were “settled” now. Since “settled” is a Quaker word and he isn’t a Quaker, I asked him what he meant. He didn’t feel the need to explain. I guess he knew me well enough to know I’d ponder over it and figure it out. My belated response is “yes.” At some point, I just knew that my own progression towards healing wasn’t enough. I needed to do the book, to put faces and identities on those who died, and now that I am here, I need to make sure it gets wide distribution.
The ultimate acid test of my book has been the response of fellow survivors. I know that I haven’t read most of the books written about Peoples Temple. Part of that was because I wanted my book to be purely my own memories, thoughts, perceptions, and dawning reality. I knew what I had seen and felt, and I didn’t need someone else to tell me they were real, or to get angry when someone told me they weren’t. I also believe, as many survivors do, that second-hand isn’t good enough. If you weren’t there, or weren’t involved, you probably don’t really “get” it. You cannot understand our trauma by proxy. I am an avid reader, but this topic is too personal, too mine.
I have had several really awesome responses to my book. One wonderful friend and survivor called me and told me in tears that she finally read a book about herself. My truth and my path were hers. Another relative of those who perished in Jonestown said that her heart was lighter because now she knows that her family members were not in a concentration camp, that they were happy in Jonestown. Another mother loved reading about my adventures with her son, another casualty of Peoples Temple. Other friends from Synanon, from my Quaker family, and from my teaching life have read the book too. Everyone who has read it found out many new things about me. I love their feedback.
My life is very full now, with things of this world, like my husband of nearly thirty years, my wonderful son, my Quaker community, and my teaching experiences. But the things that left me feeling whole, are my accomplishment of writing my book, educating people about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and my deep relationships with the survivors. We have an ever-expanding fellowship with those who have joined us in remembering our family, and they are woven into our same cloth. They are not so much the researchers and scholars who think of us as “they” and “them,” but rather those who fall in love with us and our survival stories and who want to be one of us.
When I finally dotted the last “i” in my book – with an astounding amount of help from my many friends – I couldn’t find a publisher. I self-published through iUniverse, so the book is available through iUniverse.com or amazon.com. My work isn’t over – and won’t be as long as I’m alive – but I’m pacing myself to keep on it! There’s more to come.
(This edition of the jonestown report includes reviews by Eusi Kwayana, Niels Colesky, and Susan White Hicks. A commentary by Bill Perrine, who videographed Laura Johnston Kohl for a series of short films, is here. The iUniverse description of the book appears here.
(A local news article about Laura Johnston Kohl following publication of Jonestown Survivor appears here. An internet interview and conversation about the book appears here; go to the “BlogTalk Radio” box in the upper center and advance the streaming function to the segment’s beginning at 15:30.
(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.)