In the book Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look, we walk through the life of Laura Johnston Kohl, where we are witness to what attracted this former Peoples Temple member to Jim Jones’ political message. To date, most survivors’ accounts of the Peoples Temple/Jonestown experience have leaned towards its religious aspects. This remembrance, however, explores the 1950’s and 1960’s upbringing of one Peoples Temple member in middle class Rockville, Maryland and environs. We are allowed to see how a politically-active mother influenced a young Laura Johnston. Her mother’s awareness heightened her senses and made her more sensitive to her surroundings, but more than that, planted the seeds of action, to change one’s situation.
We begin to understand how a young adult white woman eventually lends her talents to the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program for inner-city children. We learn how a restless spirit drives her to California and her meeting Jim Jones. More than just his ability to deliver stirring religious sermons, it is his political message that draws Laura. Not only does he preach, but he practices that message, complimenting his passionate eloquence with actual actions. It is that fervor that matches her impulse to do for others, even more so than the single-minded activism of the Black Panther Party. It becomes clear how Jim Jones’ message, recapturing the feelings that MLK and the two Kennedy brothers, struck such a powerful chord within so many people. Those people – like Laura Johnston – had ached to do more to change America and the world at large, and many saw Peoples Temple as the vehicle to do their own parts to achieve just such a goal.
In Peoples Temple and in Jonestown, Laura and others realized the fruits of their labor on a daily basis, keeping schedules that matched their collective ambitions. While it remains impossible to ignore the shattering demise of Jonestown and most of the Peoples Temple membership, we remain in awe and wistful of what “could have been.”
What is of such historical value is the firsthand account of a woman who found satisfaction and spiritual fulfillment in her Jonestown experience. We tend to associate “Jonestown” only with the horror of its ending, so Laura’s description of the daily lives within the community and the vision they shared challenges us with its bravery and compassion. Also different in this book – and with as much detail as it provides – is the triumph in her ultimate survival. In the way, the book’s title, Jonestown Survivor, is apt. It is just as important for the rest of us to see that, even after such earth-shattering events, one can begin life again, step by meager step, achieving great strides towards a fulfilled and happy existence.