The Silence That Need Not Be

by Laura Johnston Kohl

I am one of a near-extinct breed. I am one of the survivors from Peoples Temple.

The way I figure it, there were about 80 people who survived November 18, 1978, in and around Guyana. That would include those who flew out, who walked out, who hid, who were away on medical appointments, and who lived in Georgetown. There are also 100-or-so actual members who lived in California on that date. Even though the group of us that has formed now includes survivors, family members, close friends and researchers-turned-close-friends, the real number of “PT survivors” is about 180, at the most. From the first moment that I acknowledged that I was a survivor, and not a casualty, I became aware that I was in a tiny minority. I have felt a kinship with all other survivors. The purpose of me writing this piece is to encourage all of you PT survivors who are just finding out that many others of us are in loose communication. We gain strength and revive old friendships over the “Net and at infrequent gatherings.

Here is a little about my own journey back. I joined Peoples Temple in March 1970. I was part of Peoples Temple until the mass deaths in Jonestown. When I came back to the United States in December of 1978, I first tried only socializing with other Temple survivors. I got a job to pay my bills, but I was shut off from anyone who was not a Peoples Temple member.

No one on any job ever knew where I’d been or what had happened in my life. After belonging to the Temple, the hardest part of living for me was filling my time. I scheduled my life so that I never had free time. I worked days and started going to college at night, but I still had weekends to contend with. I didn’t want to spend time with myself, because I couldn’t cope with myself. The truth is, I hadn’t really decided if living was worth the pain I felt on a daily basis. When I hung out with other survivors, either I brought them into my depression, or they would bring me into theirs. We really couldn’t help each other out.

I started playing the “Synanon Game” in early 1980, on Friday nights. Fortunately for me, I found Synanon to be a patient and cheerful friend who would let me cry and talk through the tragedy in many settings, for many years. In 1989, Synanon left us since it was closed down by the IRS. My husband and I adopted our son, and began our new lives, on our own. Up until this point – 10 years after Jonestown – the only people who knew about my past were my Synanon friends and my family. Not one person I worked with had any idea. I was not willing to let anyone know the real me.

I went back to school and got my BA and my teaching credential. By 1997, I had re-created myself, and I had proved to myself that life was worth living, that I could move mountains, that I could like myself again in spite of everything, and that I could be a good parent to my wonderful son. I had had sporadic contact with Laurie Efrein in the past, as well as with Jim Randolph. The contact with both was very spotty – and with Laurie even a little tense at times – but those were my only Peoples Temple contacts for almost 20 years.

Around 1997, I lifted my head up out of the sand. I made my first contact with Rebecca Moore and the Alternatives Considerations website. Our emails were brief but friendly. Rebecca lived in the Midwest, 2000 miles away, and it seemed like a safe contact. Less than two years later, she moved to the West Coast – less than 30 miles away from my home in the San Diego area – and our relationship has developed into one of family.

In 1998, Jim Randolph wanted to get Laurie and myself to make up, and let me know about the lunch party after the memorial service for the 20th anniversary. He and Mike Cartmell were putting it on. I was torn. For the preceding 20 years, I was sure that everyone still held it against me that I had survived. I hadn’t brought any kids out of Jonestown, I hadn’t stopped Jim from being a madman, I hadn’t let someone else be saved in my stead. I somehow had survived and shouldn’t have. I was sure everyone would hold me personally responsible or would just hate me. I couldn’t remember who had survived and who hadn’t, and it didn’t help that my brain just shut off whenever I tried to remember those details. I went to a counselor to help me get ready for whatever the 20th anniversary would bring me. I could come back totally ostracized or not – I didn’t know how it would end.

The 20th anniversary was amazing in a lot of ways. First, it was the first time I had been to the Oakland Cemetery where so many of my friends were buried. That filled my heart with sorrow, just being there and missing my friends. I was overcome with those sad memories. But I also saw some folks who had had the courage and the strength to come in earlier years: the “regulars” like Stephan, Jimmy, Grace and others. It was then I learned that Jynona Norwood had hosted the anniversary ceremonies every year for the past 20 years, while I was grieving. I really appreciated that she had been there, doing what she was doing, for all that time. She still holds the annual observance, and organizes it for herself, her family and for those who join her in her faith. And she makes room for everyone who comes.

Since Mike and Jim had set up a luncheon afterwards at a nearby restaurant, I went to that. I really wasn’t sure yet if I’d be welcomed. There, we all fell into each others’ arms, so grateful that we had survived, so happy that our fondest memories could come bubbling up. I couldn’t have imagined being in a roomful of friends from my past. I was ecstatic! I saw so many familiar faces I had stopped thinking about, since I didn’t remember if they were alive or dead. We all had sad tales and many interruptions in our lives just to conquer the trauma. But we had survived those 20 years and we had each other again.

I was in heaven for that little while. From that very point on, my life has been so much fuller – and my old friendships have given me so much peace and love. That luncheon was where I hooked back up with my dearest friend, Janet Shular. I had left California for Guyana in March 1977, and she had fled the Temple at around the same time. We had lost track of each other. The delight in seeing Janet carried me on a high for weeks! We have corresponded and spoken on the phone a lot over the past years and see each other at every opportunity! I saw lots of other friends, too. No one considered me as a cockroach, even if that’s how I had perceived myself at times. Everyone was just delighted, as I was.

It wasn’t quite perfect, of course, not then. We didn’t quite have our old synergy, since there were so few of us. Nor can I pretend that every survivor, at every moment, is delighted to see every other survivor. Still, that anniversary represented a real turning point in my life, if for no other reason than I understood, I didn’t have to be totally alone in surviving the tragedy.

I didn’t go to the 21st anniversary and ceremony at Oakland Cemetery. I was working, and figured that since I had gone once, it was out of my blood – or something equally crazy. I regretted the decision as soon as I realized the memorial had begun a few minutes before, and I wasn’t there. I knew I would never miss another ceremony.

Each year, more people come to Oakland for the first time, and the gatherings afterwards are better and better. Many people also wander onto the Alternatives Considerations website, find the contact information for an old friend, and then come join us. Some contact us, and then decide not to come, not knowing what they are missing, not knowing that we are there, that we are a loose-knit support group, and that we would love to see them.

Last year, Bobbie Stroud contacted some of us. I had totally lost track of him – didn’t know whether he had survived or not. As it happened, he died very soon after he contacted us. I was very sad that we hadn’t had a chance to give him some support through his tough times. I know that each person decides when or if to come out of the PT closet. The loss of PT created a hole in my heart. So I am strengthened and deepened by acknowledging what I loved and hated about PT. I am a changed person – but also still the same in what I want in this world! I am still not satisfied with the world as it is. I still work to make it better – I’m a teacher!

What I hope is that, if you are a Peoples Temple survivor – in any sense of the word – that you’ll come for a day of re-acquaintance. We are not judgmental. We will be happy to see you. We already know you, so we don’t need an introduction. We do not want to be separated by history; we’ll share our stories with you, and listen as you tell yours. And just remember: a single visit doesn’t commit you to being a cultist. It just makes you feel richer because you have found these old friends again. There is a lot going on that involves us – as you can see if you’re reading this edition of the jonestown report – and we would like to involve you.

I do this now because each year, more survivors come to events hosted and attended by other survivors, yet they continue to hold their own counsel, the richness of their own lives still locked within. I’m writing to urge you to take a chance. It is only hard for an instant. A growing number of us want to pay our respects to what we lost, as we continue to find ways to make the world better day-by-day. Each month, I hear from relatives of loved ones from PT. About that often, a survivor makes contact with one or another of us. It is great, it is enriching, and for some, it is just in time! Come ahead, make contact, someway, somehow that you are comfortable.

Whoever you were in the Temple family, the fact is, you still have some family – with disparate memories – still around. Come home. We’ve missed you.

(Laura Johnston Kohl is a teacher who lives with her husband and son in San Diego. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She may be reached at ljohnstonkohl@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on May 20th, 2014.
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