Jonestown Survivor: A Progress Report

Laura Johnston, center
Laura Johnston, center

For the last two years, I have been working on my autobiography. Since I returned from Guyana in December 1978, my friends have encouraged me to write. I couldn’t even begin until I had a somewhat “normal” life. I knew it would take a lot of my psychic energy to tell my story, particularly of my time in Peoples Temple. Over the last thirty years, I have continued to search for a niche for myself and have actually found several really exciting opportunities. In July 2009, I contracted with iUniverse to self-publish. I have finalized my editing and have submitted the manuscript. Now, I will get more feedback from the editorial staff at the publishers, and do a final check for everything. The book will be published by the end of the year.

I have included all of the things that make me who I am today. I grew up in a progressive, anti-religious household in the 1960s, and was devastated by the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. In college, I protested against the war in Viet Nam, married and divorced, participated with the Black Panthers in their Free Breakfast program, and went to Woodstock. Then I moved to California, walking into Peoples Temple four days after I arrived. I lived in the Peoples Temple community for the next ten years, both in Redwood Valley and Guyana, and then back here in San Francisco after the events in Jonestown. I was in Georgetown on November 18.

It took me a year back in the States before I realized I might actually survive, and to realize that if I were ever going to thrive again, I would have to leave the small band of former Temple members I was living with, people who were still just as shattered as I.

In 1980, I moved on into a new residential community (aka cult) and lived there ten years, and married Ron and adopted my son Raul. After I got my personal life together, I decided to finish up my education and get my teaching credential which took several more years.  I earned my teaching credential in 1997. Since then, I’ve continued to be a teacher and an activist, and I’ve become a Quaker.  But the most important involvement in my life, other than my husband and son, is my work and contact with other Temple survivors and researchers to come to some resolution and better understanding about the events in Jonestown, and to publicly acknowledge the idealism and character of those who perished there.

The point of the title and the theme of the book is that I am not unique. I could have been you or your sister or your neighbor or your teacher. In fact, I am someone’s sister, someone’s neighbor, and someone’s teacher. My challenging life experiences were because I was searching. Some people plan their lives and follow that plan, or try to. That was never something that made sense to me; it would have been too limiting. When I did try it early on, it didn’t work for me.  I wanted to see and experience the wide world and make a decision based on all the input I had gathered. I didn’t want to be limited by what I had experienced in a sheltered life.  I had to investigate the corners and shadows.

My character and idiosyncrasies developed early in my life. The book begins with my early family and upbringing, then winds through the mountain passes and deep caverns to bring me where I am now. It addresses my evolving understanding about Jonestown, and reflects the diversity and richness of my life.

My book editors have been from all walks of my life. Many people have helped me! There is another insight that I gained about my writing in general. Often my editing friends would ask me to elaborate on certain events. I found that I had glossed over them because they were too painful for me to want to delve into. Others asked me to address things they had heard over the years from the media. Some outrageous things have been alleged about the Temple. In the end, I focused on me – and tried to give clarity to the events I watched and participated in.

I first wrote the book so that I could empty my head. I wasn’t sure if the next step would be publishing. Publishers didn’t seem sure either, so I took a break. Now, I feel that I want to elaborate, I want to dig, I want to answer questions, and I want to publish. I have moved ahead. It took a village to finish my book, and I am surrounded by a wonderful, eclectic group of villagers.

(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.)