Peoples Temple Oral History Project Gets Underway

This year, 2013, has been a difficult year for survivors. Over the past 18 months or so, at least five Peoples Temple survivors – Wayne Pietila, Brenda Parks, Walter “Smitty” Jones, June Crym, and Larry Swinney – have passed away.

Even as the rest of us move along as survivors, we realize that we are now 35 years past the tragedy of November 18, 1978, that part of being a survivor is having lived so much longer than so many of our friends and families. But more basically, we are also 35 years older – the youngest of us are now in their fifties, the older ones are in their eighties and nineties – and there will be a lot more 2013’s ahead for this diminishing community.

A number of us have realized the importance of capturing the remaining voices before they are silenced forever, to document aspects of Peoples Temple not found in the media. With each death, we lose a collection of memories, the stories that are unique to the person, not only their content but in the storyteller’s own way of telling them.

Early this year, I started talking to other survivors about an Oral History Project, and since then, seven of us– Johnny Cobb, Jordan Vilchez, Teresa Cobb, Vera Washington, Leslie Wagner-Wilson, Versie Perkins, and I – have all made a commitment to collect the stories by interviewing the storytellers. Our groups includes five Jonestown survivors and two former members who lost loved ones in Jonestown, but we also want to connect with others who have a piece of the Temple’s history. In addition, Dr. Gary Maynard, who teaches in the Sociology Department at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York has agreed to help in the planning and logistical work we need to do.

Our plan is to conduct interviews with as many individuals as we can. We start with each person’s early life, their life in Peoples Temple, and their survival after the deaths on November 18. 1978. We are focusing first on those most fragile due to age or health, but it is really an open-ended pursuit.

I contacted twelve people to begin with, and am delighted to report that most are interested in the project and want to be interviewed. Others I didn’t personally invite have come forward as well.

I have already started. In the course of interviewing the first survivor, I learned that our interview subjects will have questions too, and I need to be able to answer them. Who might be listening to the interviews, he wanted to know. Who might be reading the transcripts?

The answer is that all of the people we interview have a choice about who has access to their interview, although we will remind people who the various audiences will be over the coming years. The most immediate audience will be family members and friends of those who were part of Peoples Temple. As time goes on, I expect that researchers will use the recordings as primary sources. Scholars and students will use the information to get a better understanding of the role of Peoples Temple in history, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I also think that all those in our society who work with trauma victims might study the survivors to see how we were able to do it. One hundred years from now, these voices will be crucial to anyone who wants to understand the people of Peoples Temple.

At one point, my first subject asked me to turn off the recorder. He had tender memories that he was tentative about sharing. He spoke with a great feeling and depth. Later, we reflected on his thoughts and memories of several events which impacted him greatly. We both found turning off the recorder to be a bad idea. It will be difficult to go back and fill in the details a second time. It would be much easier to delete a part of a tape – or to retain it, but to limit access to it for the immediate future – rather than to try to reconstruct the conversation later in the session.

My next interview was very different from the first. One of the most significant similarities in the stories of these two survivors – and of my story as well – was that at some point before we joined Peoples Temple, we really felt that we were in a world where we were misfits. The predictable and even politically-correct jobs, education, and life plan that was the norm did not fit us. One survivor felt he was born into the wrong family, and another dropped out of a Masters’ program at Berkeley because it was not meaningful to him.

What is most important is that the survivors I have spoken to seem to be more than willing to share their experiences. These Oral History Project recordings will be a significant addition to a Peoples Temple Archive. People will be able to hear us tell about our individual histories, in our own voices, with our own expressions. Many people who have never opened up about their experience in Peoples Temple or reflected upon all aspects of survival, are anxious to have this opportunity. I feel that this expanded resource will be powerful and significant. I am excited to move forward on the Oral History Project.

(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.)