Recently, I opened an innocuous-looking piece of email that turned out to be hate mail. The sender must have seen one of my interviews in the documentaries that show up on PBS or one of the cable channels periodically. The people of Jonestown deserved what they got, he said. He added that when I cry about anything related to Peoples Temple, I’m just being stupid, ignorant, etc., and that I should just shut up.
Why would anyone write such a hateful and vicious diatribe, I wondered, and what should my response be, beyond my knee-jerk temptation to trash him in kind? I didn’t answer him specifically, since I’m not interested in further correspondence with him. But here in general is how I wanted to reply,
First, there is a sense – unfortunately, not unique to this writer – that if you ever succumb to the embrace of cults, you automatically become a “throwaway” person for the rest of your life. There is there no room for forgiveness, for charity. The door for us to return to mainstream society is forever locked by the society itself. Is this really the lesson we want to emerge from this tragedy?
I have been interviewed for countless documentaries, theater projects, books, articles, and research projects about Peoples Temple. I do try to broaden the understanding of Peoples Temple, Jonestown, and – the wider issue for me – practicing humanity. There is nothing I do that encourages cult-like behavior. If I cry – and I admit it, I do in almost every interview – it is because of my memories of the wonderful, optimistic people who had such dreams for their families. We – and I’m proud to include myself in their number – were willing to move beyond talking to doing. We wanted to build a model community based on equality and dignity for all. We were not experienced “cult followers” who jumped from one group to the next, but instead, we were learning as we grew up in this single community. We worked hard to create this Utopia. We were so determined, we rarely took a breath. We didn’t spend time discerning if there were dangers for us or others. We were busy. We were naïve and hopeful, so much so that it clouded our critical thinking. And yes, we blew it.
Whatever anyone believes about Jim Jones, we were not villains. My friends in Jonestown did not deserve to die. I miss them, not only for who they were, but for what they could do to help us in our efforts to clean up the world these days. They were visionaries and workers, not just “pie in the sky” folks. They were people who believed in their dreams enough to work on building them, on realizing them.
I have seen more than enough hate in my life. I have seen how resentment and cruelty affect us all. Replacing one cult with another one – a “Cult of Hate” – makes everything even worse.
Hate accomplishes nothing.
(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.)