Jonestown Survivor: A Recommendation

The latest book on Jonestown comes from years of reflection and effort to recall and bear witness to the ideals of the people of Peoples Temple. The author is Laura Johnston Kohl, my friend since 2005. Her testimony adds to the experience of movements that lose their way in the authoritarian mode of their leaders and even founders.

Kohl is a survivor by a fluke. Properly, in the course of things, and if Jim Jones did not have a minor plot in mind, she would have been among the members of the commune on November 18. Once in an interview I asked her, why did such people as she and others whom I had met, people who wanted life and not revolutionary exit by a suicide path into the hereafter, could not tell their leader what was what and keep the commune alive.

She had replied, “You see, Jim was doing all the right things.”

Yet, I felt that she would have been a formidable force for reason if she had been in Jonestown and not in Georgetown on that fateful day. Jim Jones was indeed saying the right things for the official Left. He also planned to do them all and invested much energy in social change. His peculiarity is that – once a community figure with a large intervention to feed the hungry in Redwood Valley, and elsewhere in California – he turned the temple community into a mini world, transferred it across the seas to Guyana, and controlled information coming in and going out.

There is a marked difference between writers who go after Jonestown in fulfillment of investigative journalism, and those who turn up gems and also enlighten the public, and Kohl, a loyal Templeite, who wants to remind the world that the 900 who perished were in search of the abundant life and were in the main convinced that they had found it, or were about to find it, in Guyana.

She clarifies a number of myths. The chief one was that was Jonestown was self- sufficient in food, an item subject to Jones’ craftily controlled communication. Even the ambassador of the USSR in Georgetown who visited Jonestown and was deceived into rejoicing that Jim Jones had got the church to build communism. If he had read Stalin’s last work, he would have seen the argument that this could not be done even in the USSR without abundance. But the Ambassador had seen abundance of resources that could be faked.

Kohl should know about self-sufficiency, because she was the chief procurer of food and other goods from Guyanese farmers and markets to be shipped to Jonestown to fill the production gap. In fact, she was positive that Jonestown was a far way off from self sufficiency.

Kohl introduces herself fully to her readers, tracing the many of her joys and the setbacks of her young life and above all her effortless sense and activity against prejudice and the society’s views of inter-racial friendships. The writer’s first political activism was with the Black Panther Party. That is the door through which she entered Peoples Temple. She wrote Sex in the City? Make That, the Commune when she was in a cleansing mood, intent on showing that a member could be loyal to the social progressive programme of Peoples Temple and yet opened-eyed to the cortical failings of Jim Jones, its project.

This concern does not dominate her memoir, except that she is candid about her own innocent escapades. She does not lift the veil on the relationships between Peoples Temple and the host government of those days, in whose footsteps the present government walks. While in Georgetown, one of her duties was to meet Temple people arriving from the USA and escort them through Customs and immigration, before seeing them off in the interior to Jonestown. The trouble is she was faultlessly uninformed and uninstructed in what the political contract between the government of Guyana and Jim Jones was. She does not realize that the arriving persons were highly privileged as a result of that pact. This is one bit of evidence for a Jonestown researcher like this reviewer of how truly empowered the Jonestown membership were. Even a sterling performer and essential worker like Laura Kohl did not need to know they were drilled into make pro-government responses to certain visitors but did not know that they were privileged.

Using her experience on the ground in Jonestown, she gives a description – and not a tedious one – of life in the place. She speaks of work, of running from sudden bursts of rain, of friends, and of solidarity. She enjoyed the contrast of Jonestown with American cities that people had come from, of location of residences, and the spirit of the place. Jim Jones did not occupy much of her attention while she lived there.

This Jonestown book is not a thriller. It fingers no one for sexual adventures, though innocent. It avoids conspiracy theories, having very plausible explanations to reveal. It evades all speculation about Jones as a CIA agent and of Jonestown as a mind control experimental project. It mentions one high government official who married into Peoples Temple.

But the author’s inner life and her experience of her times are social documents worth seeing. They have glimpses of the choices open to young people, especially white, in race and activity in the last quarter of the 20th century. Buying the book is an outlay worth its price.

Kohl insists that Peoples Temple should not be judged solely by the events of its last active days, or by the tragic phobias of its secretly-crazy founder/leader. In fact, she speaks of a survivors’ movement, loose, pluralist and voluntary.

(Eusi Kwayana is a Guyanese national who was a key figure in his country’s struggle for independence from Great Britain during the 1950s and 1960s. His article about his own writing about Guyana appears here.)