Who Suffered The Most?

Every once in a while, those of us who survived the deaths in Jonestown get caught up in the question, “Who suffered the most?” It’s not a parlor game – it’s much too serious and close to our hearts – but neither is it completely rhetorical. When it does find expression, it usually occurs during an evening of long discussions among the survivors.

We start with the divisions among us. There were about 80 in Guyana – some in Jonestown itself, some at the Port Kaituma airstrip, some en route to Matthews Ridge, some scattered in boats or on assignment – but most were in Georgetown. Then there were current members in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the members who no longer went to services once Jim Jones left for Guyana but who still had relatives down there. A few saw the writing on the wall, and got out of Peoples Temple in either California or Guyana.… And so on. The ripples in the pond get smaller and smaller, the further they are from the center, but they’re still there.

Then there are other divisions: who was on staff in Georgetown and never spent much time in Jonestown? Who traveled back and forth? Who went to other countries taking care of Peoples Temple business? Who had access to Jim? Who really knew all that was going on with Jim and his secretaries and mistresses? For me, though, the main division is between those survivors who lost children and those who did not. I did not lose any child in Guyana, but I know it would have ripped out my heart and soul.

Most who survived in Guyana did so by happenstance. I was one of sixty who survived by being at the right place at the right time. I had just been sent to Georgetown by Jim to take over some duties there. If I had been in Jonestown, I know I would have died. I have no question about it. Even though I “survived,” I – like many others – went through many days and weeks that I would have preferred not to.

Beyond the divisions among the survivors, though, is the one thing that unites us. By definition, we all made it when more than 900 of us didn’t. in the aftermath, we were stunned and ostracized, turned into the “other.” For me, then, the answer to that awful question, “Who suffered the most?” is almost too clear. I believe I am like all the others when I say that I personally was traumatized and shocked absolutely as much as I could endure. None of the rest mattered. It just could not have gotten any worse. I learned that there were no gradations of pain, or anguish, or regret. I could be – and was – only at 100%. I couldn’t give more, or regret more, or grieve more. It took everything that we as individuals could do to not collapse and melt away. Anyone who survived was tested to the absolute end of endurance.

As does anyone who goes through such an experience, we all suffered from the completely-irrational – yet very real – emotion of “survivor’s guilt”: our own internal question of why we came through it, when so many of our friends and family members didn’t. In addition, however, many of the survivors from Guyana ended up suffering from “survivor’s blame,”  the same question, but asked by others: why did you survive, when my relative didn’t? Even harsher were the insinuations – if not outright statements – that we could have saved their relatives, if only we hadn’t been so selfish about saving ourselves. It’s as if we could have affected the events in Jonestown, could have stopped the deaths, could have known or anticipated or realized what was going on and done … something. For myself and others I have spoken to, I don’t find any peace or resolution in placing blame. I acknowledge my survivor’s guilt and accept that as something I will always live with. I can do no more.

A further mystery is how we moved on from that low valley. Some locked everything away for years, and for some, the door is still locked. Some participate in drug and alcohol rehabilitation as needed. Some regrouped after some recovery time and have gone on to live full and even joyous lives. Many of these, I’m happy to say, don’t even consider themselves as “survivors” anymore, but rather as “thrivers.” The way we survived and moved on seems to be an individual expression of who we were, how we got the help we needed, and what skills we have, whether they were developed in Peoples Temple or afterwards.

Finally, there is no “status quo.” There are stops and starts, and backwards steps that sometimes thwart the forward ones. There are hard days – November 18 every year, and others. But overall, there is progress. The path has been treacherous and bumpy. But for most survivors, there is no standing still, no going backwards. We go onward.

(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.)

(An extensive interview with Laura appeared in the March 5, 2017 edition of The Western Front, the news service of Western Washington University.)