The People’s Temple: A Review

pixelIt was April 15, and I was going out to a theater! I have always loved the theater and my son has even caught my love for it. I was with my husband and son. And, I was with some of the friends who are integral parts of who I am today. Where am I going with this?

In January of 2001, David Dower of the Z Space in San Francisco, and Leigh Fondakowski, the author and director of The Laramie Project, called a group of Peoples Temple survivors together. We met around several large tables at the Z Space studios in downtown San Francisco while David and Leigh presented their idea: Leigh would research Peoples Temple and create a theatrical experience, funded by David and the Z Space.

The group included former Temple members – Stephan, Jimmy, Lezle, Grace, Mike C., Yulanda, Bryan and Kris, and me – as well as others who had some intimate knowledge of our Peoples Temple – Rebecca and Fielding, Paul, Leigh’s fellow actor Margo, Tanya from the California Historical Society, and David and Denice.

We met and told bits of our story, and the idea blossomed. There were some questions: would the media – for once – get it right? Would we get paid for our stories? Did we even want to tell our stories? Was it safe to tell our stories – legally, in terms of jobs, in terms of loved ones, in memory of those we lost?

We had lunch, and shared animated, tearful, and interesting reflections of our time in PT. Many of the survivors had not been in touch for years, maybe even since November 1978. And when we did get together, we had never gotten much below the surface. But, we had known each other so very well during our time in PT that our old friendships emerged. We came from every point of view. Some of the group had exited before Jonestown existed. Some were part of Concerned Relatives and were fighting to get the US Government to intercede on their behalf in Jonestown. Some lived in San Francisco and had never moved to Guyana. Some had escaped on the day of the tragedy – by going on a picnic into the jungle – some left from Jonestown before the tragedy, and some of us were in Georgetown on the fateful day. What we had in common was our Temple experience, but we had as many views as a kaleidoscope. Yet, we were and are forever bound together as survivors of that tragedy. Any one of us needing help would have a supportive community behind them – across the miles and the differences! At some point or other, we all shared the dream that PT was.

It wasn’t always that way. When I came back from Guyana, I tried for about a year to keep up a family-feeling with other survivors. I found I couldn’t really make the jump from merely existing to living. When I was happy, someone would crash my psyche. When I was down, I would crash someone else’s mood. So, I went away to figure out my life. The result was that I lost track of precious friends. But I couldn’t really handle them at that time.

When Leigh came around, I had many things going for me in my life. I was married, had a wonderful adopted East Indian son, was a teacher, and had really decided to keep living. Time had helped ease my pain somewhat so that I could make a plan for myself.

Over the next 20 months, we were interviewed several times and had many conversations and emails to clarify something we had said, or wanted to say. Leigh tracked down anyone involved with PT to hear their perspective. There was no “right” point of view. She listened to everyone and integrated all the stories.

I have found each experience with a PT survivor or family member to be healing for me. I loved the Temple and would never have left it. Many who felt as I did and do, did not survive November 18. When Peoples Temple ceased to exist, I was devastated, and had a hole in my soul as large as the Grand Canyon. Each and every experience heals that wound a bit more. Is it easy? No. Am I happy with everything I ever did in PT, or everything done in PT – of course not. I would have done anything for it to have continued on, without Jim. But since he was sick – both physically and mentally – he wouldn’t permit anyone else to take over the helm. What I do know, with all my faculties, is that many of us in Guyana, and here in the US, loved the vision that Jim drew for us and that we all made happen. It was not a pipe dream – it was real.

When I saw Leigh’s play, I knew she had captured much of the spirit of PT. Peoples Temple was multidimensional – with righteous indignation at racism and classism, with music to heal our souls and motivate us, with education to teach us, with taking care of each other to humanize us, and with living, eating and breathing together to bind us together. PT was all of that and more. Through the play, Leigh had introduced outsiders to many of the treasures inside PT.

On April 15, survivors, family members, new friends, and many old friends joined to watch the pre-opening show. There aren’t many survivors from Peoples Temple – about 80 from Guyana, and more from the States – but not so many. The audience held such a rich group of former members, friends, survivors, family members, children of members and so many more! It was truly a reunion for us to sit in the audience with our old friends, and watch such a masterful reenactment of our time with PT. We cried, laughed, hugged, hid our tears, and explained things to our families – we communicated about our experiences. For me, it was so wonderful. These experiences are so hard to explain. Everything is bittersweet. You see one survivor, and think about another who died. You talk to one person and remember stories and events that included all those others you loved so dearly.

The play presented a balanced presentation of the dream and the horrific ending – which are both vital parts to understanding what really happened – and made us take a deep breath. It showed the whole picture. It told why we joined and why we were ready for a dream of a Promised Land on this earth – Heaven on earth. Afterwards, I was deep in thought – remembering the good and the terrible, the hilarious and the traumatic. It was emotional and cleansing. I was so pleased that she could get so much of the essence! I was happy that I was around to see it!

After the play, I was interested in reading the feedback. Many of us sent reviews and articles around to each other. One of the most fascinating articles was an interview with Margo Hall. Margo had grown up in Detroit and knew two sisters in PT – Marthea and Shirley Hicks – and their two sons, Romaldo and Anthony. From the very beginning of the interviews and meetings with Leigh and the other actors and writers, I loved Margo. We had friends in common, whom we had both loved and admired. So, we had a special bond, I felt. I’ll come back to Margo in a moment.

A New Insight, sort of

When I went to the 20th anniversary ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, I listened to grieving relatives cry and speak about their loved ones in Guyana. I heard some who had lived in Jonestown, and then left, also talk about PT, and how horrible it had been, how they had remembered it. Most of those who spoke were black. I felt that I had to stand up and say something. Crying – which I did for years after surviving, and which I did almost always when I was interviewed or when I spoke about PT – I told the audience at the cemetery that I had lived in Jonestown, and in Georgetown, and that I had loved it. I said that I would never have left it, and that my home had been there on November 18 – not back here in the US. I said that I had a wonderful life in Jonestown, and that the overwhelming majority of others there had loved it too. I disagreed that the food was inadequate – in fact my job for part of the time was to buy great food in Georgetown and ship it into Jonestown. We were not self-sufficient at that time, and with 900+ people – we could not provide three meals a day from our own produce. I told everyone that we made huge mistakes – not just in letting Jim orchestrate the ending, but in not letting people leave when they wanted to. But, most of the people who did not survive were people who loved it there. Today, I think about 800 people loved seeing how the community was growing. I think at the most, there were fewer that 100 who were anxious to come back to the US.

One of the issues brought up often is how many whites were in leadership, in PC, and in positions close to Jim. The numbers tell a story by themselves. Yes, there were many more blacks than whites. Yes, there were many more senior citizens who were black, and yes, there were many more blacks who died. True, true, true. But, other numbers show that all of us went to Guyana from our own racial background and societal positions. but once there, we intermingled, intermarried and integrated. The Heaven we were creating in Jonestown was a mixed Heaven where we would all find a home. Racism was so far away from the way we lived our lives. How I wish there was someplace in the world where I could find that acceptance! Our children were all richly diverse, no color above another or treated differently from another. That was the plan all along. How could I not be white – I was born that way. But I could support a community that wanted to change the way the world was going. And we did – we made it happen in Jonestown – because we all loved life and we didn’t want to pass on prejudice, hatred, and class-consciousness to our new community. We fought it so efficiently that it was being erased out of the community. I saw the numbers of mixed-race children and saw the wonderful, loved children we had there. The future Jonestown would not discriminate – a new egalitarian community got stronger each day. Old prejudices learned in the US had no hold there.

So, at the 20th anniversary, I spoke about another point of view. A person who became a good friend later told me he was thunderstruck that I would speak, and that I would defend Jonestown, and that I had such a different, un-heard-of point of view. Leigh included one tiny part of my comments in the play. I said that I never would have left Jonestown.

There were a lot of interviews done about that time – interviews of survivors, and associates from different venues. After the play, I read what Margo said in a newspaper interview – that at the Jonestown Anniversary ceremony at the cemetery, after all the black mothers and family members had stood up grieving, a white woman had stood up and said that there was another point of view. Until that moment, until I read what Margo had said, I had never thought of myself, in that setting, from that point of view. It was like a rabbit being pulled from a hat, or some sleight of hand. Or, maybe it was like walking by a mirror everyday, and not looking in the mirror. And, then, finally, one day, looking in the mirror and acknowledging – Oh yes, I am white. I have only felt white outside of PT. In PT, I always thought of us all as being the same color. Whatever that color is – socialist, atheist, activist – we were painted of the same hue.

A part of me continues to search for that state of being. I don’t want to be “white” – not that I am, really, anyway. I don’t want to be a color. I want to be a me. And, I want to cherish the earth and the others on the earth, and help provide a safe haven for all people. I don’t like this perverse way of reducing a person to a color, like each of us is only one thing. How absurd. It is like being remembered by what color our shoes are. I loved PT for what it did to the color line – it smudged it, buried it, laughed at it and worked mighty hard at eradicating it – and it would have been successful if we had had a chance to let Jonestown live, like a new garden. We should have pulled out the weeds and sent them on their way. So much was lost, so very much!

(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.)