The 35th anniversary of the deaths in Guyana is this November 18, 2013. We survivors have each found our own way to memorialize the event and the lives lost that day. For these last fifteen years, my own way has been to discuss it and reflect on it. I now speak openly about my involvement in Peoples Temple, sometimes with my fellow survivors, sometimes with chosen friends, sometimes before an audience of interested strangers. Since I made the decision to take my head out of the sand – where I had buried it for twenty years – and raise it up in the air, I have wanted open discernment and discussion. As a teacher, I live for “teachable moments”: sometimes I teach others in this light, and sometimes others teach me.
I am many things besides a Peoples Temple survivor. I am a parent, a wife for the past 31 years, a bilingual educator, an author, an Occupy member, an ACLU member, a Derechos Humanos Escondido member, a Board member of the Communal Studies Association, and a Quaker. Increasingly, I am a public speaker about Peoples Temple and everything that came out of that experience, ranging from the history of the movement that I was involved in, to the grief I have endured in its aftermath, from activism to religion, etc.
Earlier this summer, I attended a Quaker Retreat – the Pacific Yearly Meeting – in Mount Madonna Center near Watsonville, California. The all-consuming, six-day event represents the best of times of remembering my own loved ones, and presenting opportunities for new discussion. We take care of Quaker business in the “Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of Business.” Afterwards, the 300 of us in the larger Quaker community from California, Hawaii, Mexico, Bolivia, and Ecuador live, eat, converse, sleep, and worship together.
My own week was awesome and enlightening. I found it especially interesting that so many Quakers had connections with Peoples Temple. I met a man who had written an early article about Peoples Temple for the Bay Guardian and knew Mike Prokes, a woman who knew my friend Carolyn “Sue” Looman, another Friend who knew Barbara Baker – who, like Sue, died in Jonestown – a woman whose friend had lost her mother that day, another Friend who had been in AA with a fellow survivor, and even a Friend who had been in an Adoption Support Group with Jim and Marceline in Indiana in the 1950s and 1960s.
It has, in fact, been 35 years. Yet there are so many people, from so many parts of our society, who were deeply touched by the Temple, whose memories are of the people more than of the event, and who are willing to relate those memories if given half a chance to do so.
These are the people I seek out, the people we survivors should all seek out. Rather than being isolated because of the tragedy, yet again, in yet another setting, I felt the Temple experience shared with my F(f)riends that wonderful week. These are people who support the highest ideals of humanity, many of the same as those espoused by the members of Peoples Temple. My life continues to be enriched.
(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.)