Peoples Temple Survivors’ Oral History Project Collects Interviews

The Peoples Temple Survivors’ Oral History Project has gotten underway. Within the last few years, several survivors and friends began the discussion about an Oral History Project that would create an archive of interviews with survivors. I was personally motivated after I learned that a Jonestown survivor had asked for a way to tell his own story, before a tragic accident took his life two years ago. It made me realize that our stories are unique, extremely important and completely ephemeral.

In the Spring of 2013, I met with a group of survivors, and with Dr. Gary Maynard, a contributor to this website and a professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. That meeting motivated Gary to obtain a $3,000 grant to work on a Peoples Temple Oral History grant from his school. We continued to discuss the whole plan, the questions, the release of information, and other details.

We have completed five interviews, the first five of what I hope will be scores in the coming years.

This has been a remarkable experience for me. I feel that these moments when people share their hopes, and their reflections of their own survival, are treasures. I can’t imagine being privy to such intimate thoughts and emotions if it were not for my friendships with my fellow survivors. The moments are tender, and yet strong. We are the survivors, somehow, and our survival was no easy path.

I am determined to interview people from all parts of the Peoples Temple survivor community, and am always surprised just how broad that is. So far I have listened to people who are gay and straight, black and white, younger and older, highly educated and less so. I have spoken to people who are products of California and those who migrated to California as youth. Each new encounter fuels my motivation in wanting to honor all the parts that made up the Peoples Temple family that was taken away from us.

I have to search for people and convince them that I just want their point of view and reflection. When I ask questions for information or to seek clarification, I try to do it in a neutral way so that it does not reflect my own view. I have made these recordings both with other interviewers and by myself. The mechanics really depend on the comfort of the individual. In the interviews, we have laughed, cried, and become silent in our reflections.

While we do not yet have a plan in place to make all of the interviews and transcripts accessible, we recognize the importance in ensuring they are widely available. That means that we will have the tapes copied and available at various historical societies, university archives, and the Jonestown Institute website. If some of those interviewed prefer us to hold the interviews for a period of time before their release, we will gladly do that as well.

There is no more meaningful way to get an understanding of what went wrong, and what was right, with Peoples Temple than by listening in the individual parts that made it up. It is a very meaningful project, and I am delighted to be a part of it.

(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.)