Why Study Or Reflect On Peoples Temple?

As a survivor of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, I have frequent, cherished contact with many of the survivors, families and friends of those who died in Jonestown, and others who have become intrigued with understanding the whole story of Peoples Temple. I have been interviewed by many people, and have found that I can articulate some of the essence of the Temple. I am only one white female, and I lost no blood relative in Jonestown. However, it was my whole world. I had no plan to ever return to the United States. I was totally at home there, and optimistic that it would continue to flourish, and soon become self-sufficient. Though I didn’t lose my life in Jonestown, I didn’t feel that was a gift. For years after November 18, 1978, I wasn’t sure I could go on living. I cannot undo the fact that so many dedicated people died. Now, nearly 29 years later, I am very glad I survived. But I carry a sense of responsibility to clear up misconceptions and to develop more of an understanding about why so many wonderful people died.

In putting together a discussion about the Planning Commission, I contacted some other survivors and asked them to reflect on this ”leadership group” within the Temple. Two friends asked me why I would “dredge” it all back up. That is a good question! Their points of view were entirely different. One is an activist who is putting a lot of energy into ending the war, focusing on making the world better now. The other continues to be too traumatized by the whole experience to tap into it; it is too painful to revisit. Many, many times, I am asked questions or hear comments which make me dig deep into my inner-self to find an answer or come to an understanding. The “Why?” question got me thinking.

There are three main reasons that I feel that the understanding of PT (a broader question than just PC, but with the same answer) is essential. One is for me. When I think of my friends, I still have them in my thoughts and in my dreams. I have missed them so much over these years. A mother who had lost a son was once interviewed on television about the loss. When the interviewer asked her the worst part, the mother replied, “I don’t want people to forget him. He was such a wonderful person. I want people to remember him. The worst part is that people are too timid to mention him to me. I want to hear his name and hear people say it so I know they haven’t just forgotten him.” I feel that way. I want to remember my dear friends, the good parts of Peoples Temple, and even want to figure out my role in the whole thing. So, I am driven to get a better understanding for me.

Another reason to study PT and/or PC is for the other survivors and family members and friends of those who died – those who were intimately involved.  We gather or communicate at times during the years – a sanctuary for us. We can remember, refresh each other’s memories, look deeper into what we knew or didn’t, what we should have known and didn’t, and just hold on to each other. We went through such a horrific experience, and no one outside our community comes very close to understanding it. We feel bound together – whatever our positions then or our perspectives now. Each of us had to find a way to keep on living until we found our own ways to make peace with ourselves. Now, we don’t criticize each other for what happened in the past. We are happy to have a group dynamic left.

Along this same line, each of us came out of the “Peoples Temple” closet when we could, many of us years apart. I was uninvolved with the November 18 ceremony until the 20th anniversary and had very little contact with any of the other survivors. Some surfaced earlier than that, and still, some are slowly making contact after these past 29 years. Keeping the communication going is essential for people who have been isolated and suffering alone all these years. Every month or so, former members, family members, or friends of former members, contact me and other survivors. They often make a tentative approach and mostly find that they are not alone in their grief. Over the years, they have appreciated knowing more about life in Jonestown and about their loved ones.

I can’t fix what happened. But, talking about it, thinking about it, and acknowledging what happened, has freed me up immensely. That same process has helped others. Our gatherings in the summer in San Diego and around the anniversary in November let us talk to others who have been traumatized in the same way. Our bonds and our history are very important to us.

Finally, I do dig back into things for the “outside” world. The deaths in Jonestown were unfathomable. How can anyone understand them? How can those of us who were proud to be part of Peoples Temple for years explain what it was like and why the deaths happened? Those of us who somehow survived have to tell the story, and clear up the prejudice. We came from all parts of the society – every color, every socioeconomic level, every religion. We found something that glued us together and made us activists and humanitarians – and Socialists. Our loved ones were compassionate and dedicated humanitarians. They can’t be written off as “crazy” or “cultists” – or whatever else. They can’t be “written off,” period. It is too far from the truth.

Often, when people tell a story and get no response, they say, “Well, I guess you had to be there.” That is my point, exactly. I realize that study about the Temple is very complex. But I can’t know what I know, and let the world misinterpret what happened in Peoples Temple and Jonestown, without speaking out. I can’t let shallow media or superficial researchers put out unchallenged studies. Even though we can all visualize the horrific final picture of Jonestown, I can’t let that be the last word.

There is a callousness about references to the Temple and the deaths that I can’t let go by. Understanding how we got there, who we were, what our lives were like, how Jim changed over the years – and so much more – is essential for those wanting to understand. Catchy phrases like, “Drink the Kool-Aid,” are reckless and hurtful. I miss my friends and haven’t found any group or friends so determined to make a difference in the world as my Peoples Temple friends.

In addition to remembering my “roots” in PT, I remain an activist, a pacifist, and a world citizen. I don’t “just” reflect on the past. I live in the now, with my family, my exciting job, and my friends. We try to make a difference in the world. However, it is much harder to be a small group. Having 1,000 strong was awesome, and felt powerful. Having everyone concerned, committed, and enthused was remarkable. I miss that unity and that dedication. But, I have to do what I am driven to do today – to rock the boat and keep things getting better.

(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.)