Over the last thirty years, many of my closest friends have encouraged me to write a book about my life, especially my experience in Peoples Temple. For the first twenty years after November 18, 1978, I was still recovering and rebuilding my life from scratch. After all, I had returned from Guyana after losing 918 friends and family, and I was about ready to join them. Besides being penniless, I was in debt to the U.S. government to repay my passage back from Guyana. In late 1978 and 1979, I gradually, day by day, started investing in my new life. I got a job, went to school at night, and aggressively pursued the therapy I knew I needed. I moved into Synanon, a residential drug treatment community. Drugs had never been a necessary part of my life, but the conversation and nurturing I got there kept me going and made me stronger. It was then that friends began telling me I should write a book.
I couldn’t do it. I knew that revisiting the trauma wasn’t something I was ready for yet.
Synanon folded around 1990, after I had lived there for ten years. By that time, my husband and I had adopted our wonderful son, and my life was back on track. I continued going to school at night and working during the day. I earned my credential and started teaching in public schools in 1994. For the next few years, raising my son and teaching took all of my concentration. No one I had met over the years, other than friends at Synanon, ever knew about my involvement with Peoples Temple.
On the twentieth anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown in 1998, I attended the Evergreen Cemetery ceremony for the first time. Since then, my renewed friendship with the other survivors has become a huge part of my life. We shared a common experience so tragic that it is amazing that we survived. We feel safe together and we can finally feel lucky. That process took a long time.
The book describes, not only the stories of my survival, but the experiences I shared with so many other people – most of whom are now dead – during my years in Peoples Temple. As I describe some of these with new and old friends, they are amazed. They only know one kernel of the whole. I am moved to tell them, “And, that’s not the half of it.” Finally, after all these years, I can take the time and energy to do it, and do it correctly. I am in the all-consuming, endless process of writing my book, my whole story. Not surprisingly, it’s entitled And That Ain’t the Half of It.
Since finishing that part of the book, I felt haunted that I hadn’t done enough to recollect about my many dear friends who died in Jonestown. I wanted to do more to put faces on them – to humanize them, and in doing so, to honor them. I am putting the finishing touches on Part II within the same book, entitled Seeing the Faces.
(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.)