The Joiners of Peoples Temple

Laura Kohl (center)
Laura Kohl (center)

When I speak with new friends and acquaintances, they find out more about me than they had anticipated! When I choose to, I open up a bit and tell them about being a Peoples Temple, and Guyana, survivor. Since I appear to be somewhat “normal,” the second or third question is usually, “Why in the world did you ever join and become a part of Peoples Temple?”

There aren’t that many survivors, and many still don’t make any public comments or tell their new acquaintances about their past. I truly believe that – since I survived – I am a composite of all of the experiences that have enriched and affected my life. I am who I am because of what I experienced. Unquestionably, I could add, “Since I survived,” to each and every remark I make. Each person was drawn to participate to whatever level, for a unique reason. Not all white people joined – nor did all black, Native American, Asian, Amerindian or Mexican people join -for the identical reasons that others of the same racial background did. (Of course, we both say!) But I do have a lot of thoughts about why some of my dear white friends and I did become a part of Peoples Temple. So I will answer that oft-heard question.

I truly think there were people in Peoples Temple for every reason conceivable. Some whites – from Helen Swinney and Eva Pugh on to newer folks – were not concerned about the healings. They wanted a religion that matched with what they saw in their Bible – a united world (I think). Some whites were infatuated with Jim and/or his power. Some whites had a political agenda. They were socialists (or socialist wannabees) and wanted a multifaceted community with support for socialist idealism and equality. Some followed their family members. Some saw Jim’s family structure as a family structure they wanted, but were too dysfunctional or just couldn’t swing it in our fucked up culture. Some had nowhere else to go, like Sue Noxon or Pauline Groot. Some saw it as a winning ticket to a place of power in the world, people perhaps like Mike Prokes or even Tim Carter types. And some didn’t want to live in a white world surrounded by white bread. My primary reason was to achieve a political and social agenda, creating a multiracial, politically powerful and socially egalitarian community.

I don’t know all the reasons that black members would join, but I know some. There were some who wanted a better world and were willing to give everything to work towards that. Some were there to give their families a fighting chance, to get their relatives off the mean streets of the ghetto. Some had just gotten fed up with the day-to-day racism all around. Some wanted the healings. Some followed family members. Some thought Jim was God or close enough, and better than the God they had prayed to and donated to for many years. Some hoped he would lead them to the Promised Land.

Of course, there were blacks who would fit in the “white” categories I listed, whites who would fit in the “black” categories I listed. And where did the Native Americans and Asians fit? As you can see, though, there was a multitude of reasons.

There was also a difference between joining PT and staying in PT till the end. Mainly all the folks who stayed with Peoples Temple were people who wanted some connections to their lives, with real people and issues and support. Most of us were not interested in the fast track to wealth; we didn’t accumulate Porsches and stuff.

I think that what happened in Jonestown – with the young people intermarrying and the children being so fabulous – was in spite of most of the reasons I gave, and was because, in that setting, the dream of a better world seemed reachable. That does not minimize Jim’s infidelity to us all and the cause, or the insanity he was permitted to have and still lead with. It was certainly in spite of Jim and his ego at that point.

Jim searched for particular qualities to pick people for his inner circle. He had a wide spectrum of people to pick from. Many of us (me, too, probably) could have been in their same spots. He manipulated that totally. But he set up a workable community. All of his deceit and insanity couldn’t undo that. That is what the people of Jonestown who didn’t defect wanted to keep alive, along with themselves. That he wouldn’t allow that, and that none stopped him – that was the tragedy of Jonestown. We were all manipulated, and all of the people of all colors died in Jonestown.

You know, even after making the list the way I did it in two paragraphs, I recognize there were so many that didn’t fit their respective category. That was the greatness of Peoples Temple. Stereotypes and prototypes didn’t hold true for us when we were together as one family. Even now, when I am with my Peoples Temple family, I don’t identify as or feel “white.” Together we transcended that for a short time in our lives! I miss that terribly. I’ve never felt the same way since I came back from Guyana.

I believe that one of my best friends, Alice, totally believed in a better world. We talked a lot about it. At the end, she did (I’ve heard) have more insight into Jim’s insanity than I did. But she desperately wanted a better life for her daughter, Ava, and all of our children. I think that she stayed true to herself, as she saw it. And, that is why Jim didn’t call on her to do things when Leona was there. Leona always seemed to have her own agenda. I don’t know if Leona ever saw a higher purpose in Jim and Peoples Temple. But if not, her purpose wasn’t any more enlightened. Alice and Leona were very, very different, though both were black.

So, it seems to me, after these shallow words, I am saying that it was all of that and so much more! I am saying that at first, we were predictable and linear in our efforts to make a better world. What happened then was the fusion of all of our spirits, our hopes and our hard work – into a New World – a Heaven on Earth. We didn’t know it was possible, and it seeped into our souls and hearts. What we created was more than we could have dreamed about. We grew into a greatness well beyond what we could have done individually. The process of living, loving, working, envisioning and creating this new space for us and for our families took root in all aspects of our beings. Did everyone feel it and see it? No. Was everyone even interested in pursuing that dream? No. But many of us, including most of those who died in Jonestown, did live it and breathe it. The synergy of the whole experience was greater than the sum of our individual souls. We created a great, thriving world. We lost visionaries. We lost, not black, white, Mexican, or Asian, but people. We lost the folks who were putting their sweat and blood into making a new, colorful, proud world. We had forgotten what brought us together – we only thought about where we were going.

That is the message that is so very difficult to explain! You really had to be there!

(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.)