On April 29, 2006, I saw the movie, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was the second time for me. I had attended an earlier screening of the film in Oakland two months earlier before a smaller audience survivors and those close to the subject. I had come away from that experience knowing that it was wonderful and that I loved it, but I had forgotten much of the content. I think I was so apprehensive about how November 18, 1978 would be portrayed, I just held my breath until that was over. That meant that I had missed a lot! I knew the movie was powerful and profound, but I felt frozen.
The second time, I watched it with my sixteen-year-old son, sister and brother-in-law. I also had a whole new perspective. I knew how that day was to be treated – survived it again, if you will – so I could focus this time on the faces I love so much and miss so very much. I saw the craziness of Jim escalate. It was like watching or reading a play where you know who the murderer is, long in advance, so you can watch his movements with that special knowledge. But I also saw the Peoples Temple I was first drawn to and stayed with, heart and soul, for eight years – and then lost in one horrific day.
The movie was shot almost from the perspective of a new member – leaving a dark and somber Indianapolis for the bright valleys and majestic mountains of California. You even go through a dark tunnel and then come into the bright sunlight. Not everything was spelled out, but the flow was continuous. The movie acknowledged, in its way, that you could research lots more detail if you wanted to, but that wasn’t the direction it chose. Instead, it showed Peoples Temple as a river with an inevitable (unstoppable, even) flow toward the big ocean. It captured the beauty of every aspect of its short life – interracial and loving family members in the Redwood Valley grape orchards, activism in San Francisco, excitement of travel, Jim’s charisma, the splendor of what Jonestown became, and was becoming. All the while, it revealed Jim moving toward his master plan.
I believe that, in the beginning, Jim was committed to the idea of a utopia for all races and to an activism that would make us a force in the world. We knew that we could – and would – change the world for the better. I also believe that as Jim manipulated us and isolated our community from outside influence, he isolated himself. He tried to keep the issues made public by the Bay Area media away from those of us in Guyana. He censored all information coming into Jonestown. He surrounded himself with people who idolized him or enabled him, or both. Many would have taken their places, had they moved on.
But Jim became very paranoid. As the film showed, Jim was bewildered, surprised and desperate that people would leave him. He didn’t want anyone else to get his glory, or the credit he felt he deserved. He couldn’t tolerate it. Since he took it as a personal rejection – which he had never handled well – he felt he was forced to fight back.
Even though a few people wanted to leave with Congressman Ryan, that should have never been a problem. There is no logical reason why 20 or 30 Jonestown residents couldn’t have left, leaving the community intact. People should have been able to leave all along, and in fact we should have kicked some out. I know that Jonestown wasn’t for everyone. Those of us who loved it – the vast majority of us in Jonestown – felt we would never leave it. Only Jim was threatened by the exodus of a handful of people. He felt that he was facing total betrayal.
As with every interview, theater production or other documentary, I got additional insight from the whole experience of this movie. I saw again what I loved, why I joined, and why Jonestown, in many ways, was heaven on earth. I also say what I should have been aware of all along.
In Peoples Temple, and in Guyana, not everyone was as content – no, ecstatic – about living and developing Jonestown as I was. Jim personalized and forbade any “negative” communication and rooted it out, in his paranoid state. I equate what happened with me in Jonestown with what is going on in the US today. We all know about the Bill of Rights, and know our freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution. However – as we have learned so well in recent years – there are those who would deny us those guaranteed freedoms, if we are in prison, if we are critical of certain policies, if we are minorities, if we are pacifists, or if we espouse many other forms of dissent. You don’t really know if you have “Freedom of Speech” unless you try saying something unpopular. I was happy in Jonestown. I thought everyone was. No one spoke to me about any discontent. I didn’t know about the censorship that was going on all around me. That is how I saw it.
As we now know, those in Jonestown who were unhappy had to be very careful in choosing whom they told. Many couldn’t speak to their own family members. They just waited for the opportunity to get out. Jim must have known something about them, since he spoke to everyone about everyone. Still, he didn’t think folks would leave with Ryan. Due to the combination of his drug abuse and his physical and mental illnesses, he was caught unaware. He hadn’t seen it coming.
When I returned from Guyana 28 years ago, I had been in love with the place. I felt that I was forced to leave my home when I left Guyana. Now, every so often, I find out an even more astounding fact about things that were going on in Peoples Temple. It is just unbelievable. I don’t fall out of love with PT, I just hate what went on that was of no use, I hate the abuse I realize was there, even if I didn’t see it at the time.
But the movie once again reminded me of the love and fellowship I felt around me at all times in the Temple, and made me miss it again. I have found nothing like it in my life since.
(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.)